The Quest of Kings
Even though Lefevre stood abreast of all other teachers and professors in his day, his faith combined with his perpetual humility and desire for the truth continued to propel him, and he never ceased to grow in knowledge. Lefevre deeply loved the church, and he grew up firmly attached to her dogma, rituals and worship. As a gift, Lefevre decided to embark upon writing a history of the lives of previous saints and to aid in his study, turned his attention to those canonised in the Bible rather than just those that had been canonised by the Catholic Church. Having studied almost every other subject, in 1507, and at an age well into his seventies, Lefevre finally turned his attention to the study of the Bible as another original source that he was yet to conquer. Little did he realise that he would be the one who was about to be conquered by it. The dramatic change it would provoke would not just be in his own life but the life of His beloved France.
No sooner had Lefevre opened the pages of the Bible when the pen fell from his hand and the portal to a new world began to be opened as the Holy Spirit began to enlighten his mind with understanding and the light of His presence fell. He quickly realised that he had discovered the greatest treasure in any field of education and the original source for all truth. The wisdom, understanding and knowledge that he mined from the Scriptures firmly gripped his soul and he quickly surrendered to his new discovery.
Abandoning all other subjects and pursuits, Lefevre embarked on what would become his final and ultimate quest of searching for the Lord through the Scriptures. After seeking the Lord in almost every field of study and looking to unify Himself with Christ he had finally discovered the true love and passion of his life and from this point on, determined in his heart that he would interpret all other things including the church by this one book. The Scriptures henceforth became the final and ultimate authority in his life. As Lefevre began the patient and faithful study of the Scriptures, life was breathed back into his heart as he had never experienced before. He had finally discovered what he had spent much of his life searching for.
Writing to his students in his commentary to the Book of Psalms in 1508, Lefevre could hardly contain his joy at the new-found discovery he had made. Proclaiming to each one of them he wrote he announced that he had discovered the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and wrote: “The Scriptures are like a chest in which the treasures of wisdom lie hidden in darkness impenetrable to our eyes, unless someone should unlock it and train upon it a sacred light”.
Having discovered the Scriptures and given his devotion and time to it, he wrote in 1509 in his commentary to the Book of Psalms that "For a long time I pursued human studies and paid little more than lip service to the study of divine things (for they are majestic and not to be approached rashly); but once I had tasted them as it were from a distance so much light shone forth that all human learning seemed to me to be darkness in comparison, and so wonderful was the fragrance they breathed that nothing can be found on earth to compare with its sweetness... for our spirits live by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God and what are these words but sacred utterances?”
William Farel, one of Lefevre’s students who would go on to prepare the way for John Calvin wrote of Lefevre’s abandonment of the book of saints which had originally led him to the Scriptures when he wrote "When he understood the gross idolatry associated with prayers to the saints, and that these legends could be used like sulphur to light the fire, he left it all and after that devoted himself completely to Holy Scripture."
No longer was Lefevre content on human wisdom, but now sought the divine wisdom that came through the Scriptures. In 1512, a colleague in Paris observing the transition in Lefevre's life wrote: "Not content with his labors in the liberal arts, this most devout man concentrates his attention on divine matters and has dedicated himself totally to them; and he will bring great enrichment and assistance to our theologians and to students of God's word as he explains what is implicit, elucidates what is obscure, simplifies what is complicated, and everywhere restores passages that are defective and mutilated."
Beginning with the letters of Paul, Lefevre spent the next 13 years from 1507 until 1520 entirely devoted to the study of the Scriptures and the discipleship of his beloved students. As the light began to be separated from the darkness in his own heart, he began to shine more and more brightly. With each passing chapter, the Lord began to gather more and more students whose hearts were ripe to receive the true gospel of Jesus Christ and be indoctrinated with a living and abiding relationship with Christ. To aid in his studies, Lefevre moved out of the University of Paris and into the monastery library of the abbey of St. German-des-Pries where he could execute his studies more peacefully and focus on mentoring his students without the distractions of other academic pursuits.
The moment Lefevre put aside all other endeavours and resolved to study the Scriptures became the moment God began what was later to become known by historians as the French Reformation. The same wind that was blowing around Lefevre in his private study would one day blow through all of France and liberate all those who would recognize the sound of the Holy Spirit moving. Beginning the size of a small cloud and beckoning to the call of the small still voice Lefevre heard within him, what began small in his office would one day roar like a lion. Being heard down every valley and across every mountain top it would awaken the unsuspecting people of France to their destiny in Christ.
As Phillip Schaff wrote in his history of the Christian church “every true progress on church history is conditioned by a new and deeper study of the Scriptures, which has first, second, third, infinite drafts.'' The move of the Holy Spirit in France was to be no different and Lefevre was firmly appointed at its helm and leading the way. As is often the case for those with difficult but influential and significant callings, Lefevre had gone through many years of searching both within and without. When he finally did find the greatest source of all treasure and spiritual truth, he devoted 13 solid years to its study giving his mind, soul and heart to the revealed truth that came from its pages. This came to him through the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit. He was not seeking a book as much as he was realizing the One that it spoke of which led to an ever increasing and abiding relationship with the living God.
Within the first few years of devoting himself to the study of the Scriptures, Lefevre’s hard work and discipline led to the completion of his first Latin commentary of the Book of Psalms in 1508 and then in 1512 he published a second work commentating on Paul's letters including the Book of Romans. It was in this commentary, that Lefevre began to expound upon the basic doctrines of the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. It was Lefevre's commentary on the Book of Romans which Martin Luther read which subsequently led him to accept and believe that salvation is received only through faith and not by works alone.
Writing in his commentary to the Book of Romans, Lefevre writes about justification by faith: "Let every mouth be stopped; let neither Jew nor Gentile boast that he has been justified by himself or by his own works. For none are justified by the works of the law, neither the Gentiles by the implanted law of nature nor the Jews by the works of the written law; but both Gentiles and Jews are justified by the grace and mercy of God."
Referring to the those who live "good" lives and who obey the law, Lefevre writes in his commentary: "But he is still not justified, still not the possessor of that righteousness from which he is able to have eternal life; for it is God alone who provides this righteousness through faith and who justifies by grace alone unto life eternal."
Continuing his commendation of justification by faith rather than works alone, Lefevre writes: "And when the Apostle speaks of God as justifying him who has faith in Jesus he shows that this righteousness and justification are from God and not from men. Therefore no one should glory in himself and in his own works as though he could be saved by them; for there is no cause for glory save in God alone, in the wounds of Christ, and in his blood."
What occurred in France 500 years ago was born entirely on French soil and even Lefevre's main opponent at the University of Paris said of him that he was "Luther's teacher" and that "if the sect of wretched Lutherans should, as in proper, take its name from its first head, it might well have been named after Lefevre rather than Luther." Writing later in the 16th century, Thomas Beza wrote that Lefevre came before all of the other reformers when he that Lefevre was the man “who boldly began the revival of the pure religion of Jesus Christ; and as, in ancient times, the school of Isocrates sent forth the best orators, so from the lecture room of the doctor of Etaples issues many of the best men of the age and of the church … For who would have imagined that a single individual, not particularly impressive to look at, would have succeeded in chasing barbarism from the world's most famous university where over a period of many years it had been firmly entrenched? Yet such is Jacques Lefevre, a person of humble background and from a place of little repute,... but nonetheless one of the earth's noblest of men, if one takes into account his erudition, his piety, his magnanimity, and, most notable of all, the fact that he himself was brought up in the midst of this barbarism – this man, I say, successfully carried through this lofty understanking and put ignorance to flight. " Furthermore, J.H. Merle D'Aubigne wrote in his 8-volume work on the Reformation that “The Reformation was not, therefore, in France a foreign importation. It was born on French soil; it germinated in Paris; it put its first shoots in the University itself, that second authority in Catholic Christianity. God planted the seeds of this work in the simple hearts of a Picard and a Dauphinese [Lefevre’s student], before they had begun to bud in any other country on earth.”
In many ways it was Lefevre rather than Luther who was the "great reformer" and it was Lefevre's commentary, rather than Luther's thesis 5 years later that mobilized the humble men and women of Europe. Together with Ulrich Zwingli, Luther would often use Lefevre's writings as notes from which to preach from in expounding their own beliefs and doctrines to their congregations and audiences.
Born in relative poverty compared to his contemporaries, Lefevre had risen to become in their eyes the most learned and recognized professor in all of Europe. Lefevre never sought recognition or influence for himself and was always content with the fellowship he had with Christ. He was never good at promoting himself and never cared to be publicly known. He could of stood in anyone of Europe’s many royal courts, but instead chose to stand alone before the Lord in the courts of His dwelling place and minister to Christ enduring the ridicule and persecution that came his way from those in positions of authority around him who increasingly perceived Lefevre as a threat. Consequently, the Lord granted him the right to become the first spiritual father and author of one of His greatest disciples of the church age – the Huguenots.
The light that was beginning to shine in Lefevre’s heart began to shine so brightly that its spiritual warmth and power could be felt throughout not just Europe’s academic elite but amongst all social ranks including students and teachers alike who were becoming hungrier and hungrier for the truth. So bright had the light become which Lefevre was carrying, that it could no longer be hid no matter how much Lefevre attempted to avoid public influence and recognition. It was about to engulf a group of students who were arriving from the highest and lowest realms of European society. Referred to by historians as The Circle of Friends but named here as The Fellowship of the King, this fellowship of students would become indoctrinated and charmed by a love for their Saviour that for many would lead to paying the ultimate price for their faith and belief in Christ. So great was the burning heart experience within them and their love for God, they would not hesitate to walk straight into the flames and give up their lives without reconsidering their testimony and witness of Jesus Christ. Burned alive and executed for the revival of righteousness and work of faith they started that would ultimately lead to the spiritual foundations of the American Republic being formed, one of the students in Paris could be heard quoting Psalm 115 4.5 as the flames began to move up their bodies: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak, eyes, but do not see…”
Before they could finish the Psalm, they were taken by the flames but not before becoming a fire that would spread unhindered and out of control amongst the common and ordinary people of France. Responding to the trumpet blast sounded by the students, the people of France would rise up as one man from the ashes of the dark ages to stand in His presence and become His servant to the nations. Having stood before Him they began to walk with Him; and having walked, they began to run to Him until like David they were tearing down one demonic doctrine after another with the simplicity of their devotion to Christ. Confronting the great evil of their times historians call the dark ages, they attained the testimony that Jesus is not just the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but the only true King and conqueror of the human heart.
Unlike in the surrounding nations where the seed of the Word of God quickly sprouted and nations arose to provide leadership to the changes that were being brought into the church, what happened in France would take centuries to become truly visible. As we will see, the greater the persecution Lefevre and his students experienced, the deeper the Word of God was thrust into their hearts until they themselves became the Sword of the Spirit in His hand. Just as Jesus prophesied the tribulation and trials that surely awaits those who understand well the Word of God and truly carry it within their hearts, the seed of the Word of God that was about to be sown into the French people would experience centuries of persecution before the roots would be firmly grounded in the soil so that not just a tree of life, but an Oak of Righteousness would be able to emerge.
When the seed did finally sprout, it would lead to one of the brightest torches of liberty and personal freedom that has been idolized by the Statue of Liberty on Long Island in New York. Built in France by the French and paid for by a love offering from the people of France this statue represents a movement that will once again be reawakened by the convictions of righteous and godly men and right a ship that is increasingly veering off course. In many ways the Oak of Righteousness whose roots were first laid in French soil 500 years ago is still yet to be fully revealed and when it does it will truly fulfil the mandate that was originally given to the Huguenots in France to stand in His courts as His servant to the nations “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.19-20).