A light that shall never be put out
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Not many martyr’s words can be more inspiring than those of Bishop Hugh Latimer’s to Dr Nicholas Ridley: ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out’.
In 1555 Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London were burned at the stake in Oxford outside Baliol College. What were the shocking crimes for which these two men were convicted? What were the subversive and unstable opinions that warranted such a violent death?
They believed that the Bible alone was the rule of faith, able to make us wise to salvation. Latimer said that “A layman fearing God is much more fit to understand holy Scripture than any arrogant or proud priest, yes than the bishop himself, be he ever so great and glittering”.
In October each year the Church of England recalls the martyrs of the English Reformation. Three hundred people were burned at the stake at the command of Queen Mary and her bishops in the 16th century. They died for their conviction that the teaching of Scripture (the Bible) constituted true Christianity. Even when the church, and its bishops and theologians, its councils and Synods contradicted Scripture – they held that Scripture was to be obeyed. And they would not be moved from that, not for the sake of culture, harmony, or promotion or even the sake of saving their own lives! They were among the first Christians to be called evangelicals. Initially it was a word intended to be an insult, but by their deaths it became a medal of honour! These people of faith were walking in the steps of John the Baptist.
In Mark 6 we read about the death and martyrdom, of John the Baptist. The few passages in Mark’s gospel that are not directly about Jesus, are about John the Baptist. Jesus, said of John, that “…among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (Matt 11:11) John is astonishing man. He lived out in the desert. He was a man who ate locusts and wild honey. He took Nazarite vows. His hair was wild. He never drank strong drink. He preached the law of God and called men and women saying they were accountable before God. He had both courage and convictions. Here was a man ready to point out the sins of the layman as well as great and powerful, like Herod Antipas.
There are two ideas within this passage:
1. The Pattern of Mission. In chapter 6, Jesus had returned from Nazareth, where his ministry faced significant opposition and contempt. Jesus, we are told, “could do no mighty works there.” He was amazed at their unbelief. Jesus facing this general resentment, still commissions the twelve disciples to go out. He sends them out on mission and ministry. By v30 they have returned. The disciples share their successes and their struggles. They give Him their feedback.
2. John’s Death. (verses 14 -16). If you look thoroughly, it’s clear, that Jesus’ ministry was often confused with the ministry of other people, especially John the Baptist. That was actually Herod’s own conviction. In verse 16. “But when Herod heard this he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead.’” Is this John? The only way Herod can explain the similarity in their ministries is to suggest that perhaps this Jesus is John the Baptist in some way raised from the dead! This is important. Mark is selecting this story not to tell us about Herod or John, but about Jesus. Jesus follows a pattern set by the prophets like Elijah and John the Baptist. John was pointing to Jesus not just in his preaching but also in his ministry, his life, to the One who would come after him, the One who would be the climax of the prophets – the Lord Jesus Christ. (The story is here to help us think about Jesus!)
What can we learn from this?
1. Discipleship will be costly! Mark wants us to understand the cost is not just awful for John the Baptist or dreadful for Jesus but will be costly for all who follow Jesus. (Latimer, Ridley and us). Remember Mark is showing us Jesus’ pattern of discipleship: lose your life now, get glory later. This means the way of suffering. Because there is really no other way to serve Jesus than to walk in his steps, being ready to carry the cross and bearing the cost.
If we are not encountering opposition to our faith maybe, we should question how radically we are following Jesus.
2. Expect a Reaction. The great evangelist John Wesley used to ask the young men who thought God might be calling them into ministry to go off and preach as trainees. On returning Wesley asked them two questions: "Has anyone been converted?" and "Did anyone get mad?" If the answer to both these questions was "No," he told them he did not think the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel and sent them back to regular life. When the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin, people are either converted or if they don't like it, they get mad.
Jesus demanded that his followers take up the cross! A sign of death. Some examples can be found in the disciples: Andrew died on a cross, Simon was crucified. Bartholomew was flayed alive. James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded. The other James (son of Alphaeus) was beaten to death. Thomas was run through with a lance. Matthias was stoned and then beheaded. Matthew was slain by the sword. Peter was crucified upside down. Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows. Philip was hanged. The Christian faith is not an easy road. It will lead to opposition, persecution, even death.
3. Be made more like Jesus! Another reason the passage is here is to help us cross the pain line in our witnessing. Do you know what I mean by the pain line? You’re praying for a friend as the New year starts, you want to talk to them about Jesus, but you are worried about being rejected. There is a risk you will look foolish. Maybe you are anxious you will hurt or lose the friendship. That’s the pain line. And we all know about the pain line. Our question is “Am I going to cross the line?” Will I speak up for Jesus or am I going to be silent or just chat about church like it’s a club?” Some of us have crossed the pain line at times. And at other times we have avoided it.
Recall if we cannot get to a place where Jesus is so precious to us that we are willing to risk losing everything else, including friendships, so as to please Him, we will never become a truly faithful, obedient servant who shares the good news to the ends of the earth.
It is with thankful hearts that we have Latimer, Ridley and the John the Baptist as models to show us the cost of being a disciple of Christ.
As we step into 2023 will we be bold in making Jesus known. Latimer, Ridley, John the Baptist and above all Jesus demonstrated the path of losing life now for glory later with Him.
Next time the lessons from John the Baptist to help us handle some of the situations we face.
Revd Peter Breckwoldt is Vicar of St John's Wimborne and a Latimer Trust Trustee.