John 1:1 (New International Version)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
How many Bibles do you have? I did a quick count in my office and came up with more than thirty-five. There may not be quite that many Bibles in your home, but I suppose the average Christian household has at least half a dozen. But just six hundred years ago, you might be fortunate if you ever once saw a single Bible in English, much less own one. Who got the ball rolling from no Bibles for the people to millions? One man instrumental in getting the Bible to the common folk was named John Wycliff.
Wycliff was born in 1329, in England. He was a man of rather humble origin, but of outstanding intellect. He attended Oxford University, and soon became a professor there. His brilliance was obvious to all, and evidenced in debate and discussion. He was beyond doubt the leading philosopher of Oxford University.
In the course of time, Wycliff was invited to serve as a chaplain in the king’s royal court, and he soon offended the church by supporting the government’s right to seize the property of clergymen who were patently corrupt. Wycliff thought that if God had given property to the church, He had given to them to be good stewards over it. And corrupt churchmen should be relieved of their stewardship! Obviously, the Pope didn’t like this attitude at all.
But Wycliff was an outspoken opponent of the papacy; he called the Pope "the Anti-Christ, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of robbers and pick-pockets." He didn’t think there was anything magical about the Pope. He thought that if the Pope was a worldly, unspiritual man (and many of them were in those days), and that he ought to be considered a heretic and deposed. As you might guess, the Roman Pontiff could give just as good as he got. Pope Gregory said that Wycliff was "vomiting out of the filthy dungeon of his heart the most wicked and damnable heresies," and that he tried to overthrow the church. Of course, the Pope condemned his views in 1377, but influential political friends protected him from the terrors of the Inquisition.
Just what was it that Wycliff opposed in the Roman Catholic Church? He was against many of their central doctrines. He opposed the teaching of transubstantiation. That is the claim that Jesus is physically, bodily, present in the bread and wine of communion; that Christians literally eat the body and blood of Jesus at the Lord’s table. Wycliff believed that Jesus was spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper, not physically present.
Wycliff condemned the worship of saints, and said that every man has access to God, and doesn’t need a priest to get to God. He thought that it was more important to worship God in spirit and truth rather than with impressive traditions.
He also held that the real Church consisted of God’s chosen people, who didn’t need a priest to mediate with God for them. In addition, Wycliff believed that the church was far too interested in worldly authority, and had forfeited its spiritual authority by its greed for political power.
The traditions and customs of the church didn’t matter much to John Wycliff. He was a greatly educated man, but didn’t think that formal education was the most important thing for a minister. He once pointed out: "The Apostles had no college degrees!"
But as much as anything else, Wycliff believed that the Roman Catholic Church was wrong in the way that it treated the Bible. In those days, the teaching of the church was more important than the teachings of the Bible. Wycliff didn’t agree with this at all. He earnestly taught that where the Bible and the church do not agree, it is the Bible that should be followed, not the church. That may seem obvious to you today, but it was revolutionary in the high days of the Papal throne. Wycliff thought the Bible was the ultimate authority, not any Pope or council. That’s why he thought it was so important to get the Bible into the hands of common folk.
So, one of the charges against Wycliff was that he had made the Bible common and more open to laymen and even women! In those days, people thought it was good for the clergy to be educated and well read in the Bible, but they thought that giving the Bible to the common folk was like casting pearls before swine. Church authorities were instrumental in having the reading of Wycliff Bibles forbidden under penalty of death. Can you imagine that? The death penalty for reading the Bible! Many martyrs perished in flames for refusing to give up the book.
More than anything, Wycliff was a man devoted to the scriptures. It had been hundreds of years since anybody was really concerned with getting the Bible into the hands of common people. He once said, "The Sacred Scriptures are the property of the people, and one which no one should be allowed to take from them . . . Christ and His apostles converted the world by making known the Scriptures to men in a way they could understand . . . and I pray with all my heart that through doing the things contained in this book we may all together come to everlasting life."
Most church leaders felt that they were wasting their time trying to teach the Bible to the common people. But Wycliff believed that people had a hard time understanding the Bible because incompetent and ignorant people were teaching it so poorly. For this reason, Wycliff put a lot of emphasis on preaching the word, and doing it well. While at Oxford, he attracted many enthusiastic supporters through his energetic preaching and teaching. While other preachers told stories about the saints and interesting fables, Wycliff taught the Word of God. His reputation for exegetical teaching - for letting the Bible speak for itself - spread across the land. His sermons were powerful. His vigorous pamphlets were widely distributed. He organized a group of priests to preach throughout the land. He thought that preaching was the most important duty of a minister, and called those pastors content to let others preach for them "murderers of Jesus."
Before long, his followers numbered in the hundreds, and became known as "Lollards" - which may mean "mutterer” perhaps for the way the Word of God was always on their lips. By 1395, the Lollards had developed into an organized group, with their own ministers and popular support. They stressed a Bible-based religion; the availability of the Bible to the common man, and good preaching. Wycliff and the Lollards became a small reformation that began a hundred years before Martin Luther. And the Lollard’s passion for the Bible prepared the ground for Luther’s Reformation when it came to England.
But the authorities of the church couldn’t stand to let Wycliff keep preaching the doctrines that threatened the Pope’s power. Friends in high places gradually deserted him, and church authorities eventually forced him out of his influential teaching position at Oxford.
On a day in May of 1378, the teachings of John Wycliff were put on trial in the Blackfriar’s Monastery of London. As the judges took their seats, a sudden cry of terror erupted. The walls of the judgment-hall trembled; and earthquake shook the city of London. Some thought this was God speaking through nature, voicing His support of the accused reformer. But the trial went on.
And in the end, Wycliff was condemned and excommunicated. He was allowed to retire to a small town, where he worked on his translation of the Bible into English. Wycliff had expected to meet with a violent death from his persecutors, but God allowed him to finish his work before he died. He lived to be 64 years old.
In retrospect, John Wycliff has been called "the Morning Star of the Reformation" because of his insistence that the Bible was the only legitimate authority for faith and practice.
Thirty-one years after he died, a church council formally condemned Wycliff. Twelve years later his body was dug up and removed from the "holy ground" surrounding the church. His bones were burnt and cast into a river. But somehow it was all very fitting; because the river that bore his ashes eventually emptied into the ocean, and its waters circulated all around the world. So did the passion for the word of God that so marked the life of John Wycliff. So, the next time you pick up a Bible in a language you can read, thank God for men like John Wycliff.
Dear Lord we thank You for Your word. We pray that we would value it and that we would learn from it and pass it on to those around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.