I think that many times, we think of church history figures as living rather boring lives. They were academics or authors of big books and they sat in their libraries and studies and they pondered ideas. That may be true for a lot of figures in church history, but it’s not at all true of John Knox.
We don’t know much about the early years of John Knox. When we first bump into him, he is serving as a bodyguard. He served as a bodyguard for one of the early leaders of the Scottish Reformation. I don’t know if Knox was the kind of guy who worked out at the gym and looked like he should be a bodyguard or whether—and this, I think, is more likely—it’s that he was trustworthy, that he could be relied upon, that he possessed the level of courage and the level of loyalty that was necessary.
Things were tumultuous at the beginning of the Scottish Reformation. The Reformers took one of the leaders of Roman Catholicism and executed him, and as a result, the authorities cracked down on the Reformers, including Knox. For his role as a Reformer, Knox was sentenced to work in a galley ship. It’s hard to think of anything that speaks more of drudgery than working in a galley ship—every day, just rowing and rowing and rowing. Imagine the circumstances on that ship—it’s dank, it’s dark, they weren’t well cared for as prisoners. This is what Knox was subjected to. I don’t even like being on the treadmill for a few minutes, let alone spending years on a galley ship.
Eventually, Knox was released and spent time in England. Soon, Mary I, or Bloody Mary, came to the throne and re-established Roman Catholicism, and Knox was ejected. He then went to Geneva.
Geneva was a fascinating place during the sixteenth century—Calvin was preaching, the consistory was up and running, the gospel was being proclaimed, and the city was thinking about how the gospel transforms culture. And all these refugees were flooding in from Scotland, Italy, Spain, and various other places where the Reformation was tenuous or was challenged. Geneva is walled city, so there is a finite amount of space. One of the things the Genevans started doing was taking the roof off of their houses and adding an extra floor so they could house refugees.
Geneva is known as a great watchmaking city, and some of the finest watches in the world are still made there. A lot of that has to do with Calvin. A group of Florentine jewelers who believed in the Reformation, believed in the gospel, were kicked out of Italy and went to Geneva. Calvin put them to work in making watches. Next to St. Pierre Cathedral there’s a building that Calvin set aside for the Scottish refugees so they could have services in English. Knox is there, taking part in the life of the city and seeing the effect of the gospel. He learned at the feet of Calvin, and when he returned home he sought to bring the same reform efforts to his beloved nation of Scotland. And so he famously said, “Give me Scotland or I die!”
This was Knox’s courage, this was his passion, and he turned that adventurous life into the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of God’s kingdom in his beloved land of Scotland.