3 Lessons for Pastors Today From the Life of John Knox

This October 31 is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It was one of the great liberating turning points in history, and it deserves to be celebrated. Recently, however, I have been immersing myself in a study of the life of John Knox (c. 1513-1572), the leader of the Reformation in Scotland.

Many pastors today in our “touchy-feely” “politically correct” world could learn from this underrated reformer.

1. He was fearless.

There’s an old saying: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters; it’s the size of the fight in the dog!” That was certainly true of John Knox. I did not know until recently that he was just a little guy. It was said that he was “low in stature and of a weak constitution.” When some friends told him that he should be a pastor and preach to them, he actually burst into tears at the thought of standing before a crowd and ran out of the room! That was not such a great start for a mighty reformer.

However, his weak body and mercurial emotions hid the fact that he had the heart of a lion. He was the body guard of Scottish reformer George Wishart, and would carry around a large two-handed broadsword to protect him! (It may have been about as big as he was.)

When enemies came to arrest Wishart, Knox pulled out the sword and was prepared to defend his friend to the death. Wishart told him, “Nay, return to your bairns [children] and God bless you. One is sufficient for a sacrifice.” Wishart was tried and burned at the stake. Knox escaped with his life, only to keep running from attempts on his life for the next thirty years or so.

At one point he and others were holed up in a castle on the Scottish coast; the French navy bombarded the castle and later captured Knox and everyone else. He spent the next 19 months as a galley slave, being whipped and half-starved. But they just could not break this man. The French tried to force him to venerate a picture of the Virgin Mary by kissing it. He grabbed it from their hands and threw it in the river saying, “Let our Lady now save herself; she is light enough! Let her learn to swim!”

He was later released, and soon everyone in England and Scotland knew that he would not yield to the powers of tyrants. He never minced his words, and he never backed down. Whether it was Mary Queen of Scots or the English Queen Mary I, all knew that Knox spoke his conscience no matter how “politically correct” or literally life-threatening it was for him.

When Knox died his contemporary James Douglas the fourth Earl of Morton said, “Here lies one who never feared any flesh.” I wish we had more men like that today.

2. He was prayerful.

There is a statue of Knox in Geneva, Switzerland (where he spent many years in exile), and carved in stone it says of John Knox: “Un homme avec Dieu est toujours dans la majorité.” “One man with God is always in the majority.”

The secret to Knox’s fearlessness was his close communion with God in a life of prayer. He did not just shoot up some “quickie” prayers now and then. He wrestled with God daily — on his knees. Before he studied the Word of God, before he preached, before he wrote, before he went out and shepherded his flock… he spent time alone with God.

This is becoming more and more rare these days. Often we think we can handle things alone. God is just something we “attach” later to ministry to make it look more acceptable. Or sometimes we have great faith in our prayers or our talent or bank accounts. Not John Knox. He had faith in God alone.

Here was a guy who was often running for his life. He often had soldiers literally trying to kill him. He was often crushed by the weight of caring for churches while Europe’s most powerful monarchs were trying to kill off everyone who believed as he did.

In all of this he humbly sought the prayers of his friends as he fought on: “He whose cause we defend, will come to the aid of his own. Be mindful of us in your prayers.” He knew he could not minister alone. He needed prayer warriors to intercede for him, and he got them praying!

The Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, said that she was “more afraid of [Knox’s] prayers than an army of 10,000 men.” In the late nineteenth century, the great Puritan Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “When John Knox went upstairs to plead with God for Scotland, it was the greatest event in Scottish history.”

His most famous prayer of course, was “God give me Scotland or I die!” He never ceased praying that, and God gave him Scotland.

3. He was a preacher!

What many people don’t know is that Knox was a tender-hearted, compassionate pastor to his flocks in Geneva and Scotland. And unlike many televangelists today, he did not live above his constituents. At the end of his life, he said, “None have I corrupted, none have I defrauded, merchandise have I not made.” He had lived so frugally that he barely had any money at all to will to his wife and children (they were later taken care of by friends, however).

He was a compassionate yet frugal shepherd, but he was also a lion in the pulpit! Knox preached at least three times a week (sometimes five times!) and each sermon was at least an hour long (sometimes two).

He would follow the “new” reformed method of preaching systematically through the Bible, verse by verse. Today, this form of preaching (called “expository preaching”) is unheard of in most churches except in a few evangelical circles. All too often today pastors try to find out what everyone is thinking and preach to their “felt needs” (almost always a topical sermon). But for Knox, verse by verse expository preaching was the lifeblood of teaching his people.

He would often divide up his sermon into preaching doctrine followed by application to everyday living. Imagine doing that today. Many Christians today cannot tell you what they believe and probably could not defend their beliefs from the Bible if a gun were stuck to their head. But in Knox’s church people were taught doctrine as well as application. They knew what they believed and could explain it and defend it. Sadly, Knox’s type of preaching might empty more churches today than fill them.

John Knox was never afraid to address the “touchy” subjects of his day. The “touchiest” of all touchy subjects was the issue of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchs of Europe. As a Protestant, Knox preached against what he thought was the idolatry and false salvation message of the Catholic Church as well as the authority of the Pope.

But he also railed against the overreach of the kings and queens of his day. He was not afraid from the pulpit to say that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was the Nero of his day! Several times he publicly preached against what he thought were the abuses and political intrigue of Mary Queen of Scots… even rebuking her to her face when called to a private audience with her.

You have probably heard of Benjamin Franklin’s great quote: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” My guess is he probably got that idea from John Knox’s theology. In Knox’s sermons he told his people that it is our duty to obey those who govern the land… unless they overstep their lawful boundaries.

He warned Mary Queen of Scots that in the Bible, Israel was punished if they followed an unfaithful king. In the same way, it was the duty of every faithful Christian to not only warn the rulers if they stray from their lawful boundaries; it was also the duty of Christians to rebel — even with force of arms to protect their God-given rights — if the king or queen would not back down. You can see how America’s founders were greatly influenced by this line of thought.

If you have never read about Knox, a really good biography I have come across lately is “The Mighty Weakness of John Knox” by Douglas Bond.
This book is just one in a great series called “A Long Line of Godly Men” (Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Watts, George Whitefield, etc.).

Here is a great video by Dr. Ryan Reeves telling the story of this very tumultuous time in European history:

Would to God that more pastors in America would read the life of John Knox, and follow his example by pleading with God and preaching the stars down for their people.