I would like to reinforce in your minds where we have come to at the beginning of the 21st century. Many of you are probably not all that aware of the fact that it wasn’t all that long ago that we did not have an English Bible. Indeed, until the 16th century and the invention of moveable type, the only English translation of the Bible that was extant in the world stemmed from the work of John Wycliffe. He held that the Bible, not the pope, was the exemplar of Christianity, the sole authority for faith and practice. So his writings were condemned as heresy. In other words, it was not popular, it was heresy, to translate the Bible into the English language. As a result, this outrage was condemned by the church, and 44 years after Wycliffe died Pope Martin V had his bones unearthed, incinerated, and then the ashes were unceremoniously thrown to the wind.
As significant as Wycliffe’s contribution was, though, I think no single person made a greater contribution to the legacy of the English Bible than William Tyndale. He purposed to make the Bible available to the commoner so that a boy who drives the plough would be as familiar with the Bible as the Pope. After a lengthy imprisonment Tyndale, like Wycliffe before him, was tried for translating the Bible into the English language and was martyred. His body ablaze, he cried out “Oh Lord, open the eyes of England’s king.” Ironically, his prayer found an answer in King Henry VIII, who authorized an English translation of the greatest volume to be chained to every church pulpit in the land. People would come from far and wide and they would experience for the first time the reading of the Word of God.
A number of years later the Geneva Bible came along and added verse numbering to the Bible and italicized English words to enhance the literary flow of the text. That became the Bible aboard the Mayflower when it set sail for America in 1620. It was the Bible of choice for William Shakespeare and John Milton and John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.
Then, of course, King James I of England commissioned an English translation of the Bible which was destined to become preeminent among English Bibles. For the next 400 years the King James Version, which was commissioned in 1604 and completed in 1611, became the most cherished Bible in the English speaking world. I think it’s important to recognize that the translators themselves were the leading academicians of prestigious institutions like Oxford and Cambridge and Westminster. They had a stated mission: to deliver God’s Word to God’s people in a language that they could understand. They carried out that mission with linguistic artistry and stylistic majesty, and I think above all else enduring reverence for the divine Author.
This King James Version would likely have remained preeminent among English Bible translations if it were not for three principle factors: the evolution of language, progress in knowledge and understanding of original biblical languages, and the discovery of earlier and better manuscripts. Recognizing the need for faithfulness to the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, the advances in our understanding of biblical languages and changes in the meaning and spelling of biblical words, my good friend Sam Moore, who is the former president of Thomas Nelson, the leading publisher of Bibles in the world, commissioned a new English translation of the Bible in 1975 which came to be known as the New King James Version of the Bible.
This legacy of a common English Bible from Wycliffe to the New King James Version in 1975 is just one part of the story. The even greater legacy, to my mind, is God’s faithfulness in preserving His Word from the time of the original writings to the present.