John Knox and the Unstoppable Power of a Fragile Weakness

My family and I are currently listening to the audiobook version of The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, a didactic biography written by Douglas Bond. The title of this book is indeed striking: the mighty weakness of John Knox. It is striking because Knox towers like a giant over Scottish history. Although not uncontroversial (both then and now!), he was undoubtedly the principal actor in the drama of Scotland’s Reformation, confronting kings, queens, bishops. and a host of other powerful forces with the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is surprising, therefore, is the incredible weakness that beset Knox mightyweaknessofjohnknox-temp_2011-01-31-1throughout his whole life: weakness of body as well as of soul. How could such a weak individual accomplish such mighty feats? As Douglas Bond makes clear, it is precisely Knox’s weakness that accounted for his might, for it caused him to throw himself wholly upon the grace of God that is made perfect in human frailty. Bond writes:

From the first page to the last of Knox’s written works, the reader is brought relentlessly back to the source of Knox’s greatness: Christ was at the center of every dimension of his life. It is this, and this alone, that made Knox mighty in his weakness. Peel back the layers and read between the lines – there is never a hint of false modesty in the man; his statements about himself, good or bad, are corroborated by those closest to him. His was an age when one did not admit weakness; devouring lions crouched in wait to crush weak men. Yet Knox unabashedly admitted his fears: “I quake, I fear, and tremble.” It was that honest admission of his frailty, and his corresponding reliance on Christ, that gave him such force against the enemies of the gospel. He was not posturing when he admitted his fears. Because he knew himself to be a man of inherent weakness, and because he was an honest, humble man, he could say without pretext, “I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my honor was that Christ Jesus should reign.”…

We’re tempted to detach from a man like Knox, to shuffle him off into irrelevant oblivion because his circumstances were so different from ours. Weren’t his battles more manageable because his calling was so high and mighty, and because his life was so glamorous? After all, he wielded a real broadsword, endured a castle siege, and survived slavery in a French galley; he had audiences with a queen and preached before a king; he contended with the powerful and influential in the realm, dodged the bullets of assassins, and steered the ship of Reformation for an entire nation…Bear in mind that these glamorous adventures nearly killed Knox; they did ruin his health, and he was forced to endure life in almost constant physical pain. Such glamour maybe overrated. Furthermore, unlike many of our conflicts and woes, Knox’s battles had multiple fronts: queens, envious bishops, vacillating nobles, dubious allies, the cannons of the French, and lone assassins, all amid near-constant headaches, burning fever, and gut-wrenching illness. In a letter to John Calvin, Knox wrote, “I am prevented from writing to you more amply by a fever which afflicts me, by the weight of labors which oppress me, and the cannon of the French which they have now brought over to crush us.” Nevertheless, Knox concluded his letter to Calvin with confidence in God: “He whose cause we defend will come to the aid of his own.” Knox was mighty in spiritual warfare because his life was subdued by his Champion, King Jesus, who, true to His promises, subdues all His enemies…

Preaching Christ at St. Giles Edinburgh, contending with monarchs and weak-willed nobles, Knox tirelessly distributed “the bread of life as of Christ Jesus I had received it” until his last sermon, preached November 9, 1572. Too weak to walk, he was carried to and from his pulpit at St. Giles. Pain was nothing new to Knox; he had lived most of his life with it. Nevertheless, he wrote: “The pain of my head and stomach troubles me greatly; daily I find my body decay. Unless my pain cease, I will become unprofitable.” In the excruciating days that followed, friends and supporters gathered at his bedside. “The time is approaching,” he told them, “for which I have long thirsted, wherein I shall be relieved of all cares, and be with my Savior Christ forever.”

He was correct. Monday, November 24, 1572…he sighed deeply and said: “Now it is come. Come, Lord Jesus, sweet Jesus; into thy hand I commend my spirit.”…Two days later, Knox’s body was laid to rest on the south side of St. Giles (at the time of this writing, under parking stall number twenty-three). From commoner to nobility, a vast crowd filled the streets of Edinburgh to pay their respects. The earl of Morton, the regent, is variously quoted as saying at his grave, “There lies one who in his life never feared the face of man.” As if to aid timorous Christians through the centuries, Knox’s fellow minister, Thomas Smeaton, eulogized him by pointing to God’s gracious activity on display: “I know not if God ever placed a more godly and great spirit in a body so little and frail.” Any Christian who has ever felt little and frail can take heart from God’s gracious work in the life and ministry of Knox.[1]

Like Bond, I too take heart in reading about the life and ministry of John Knox, not because I admire his innate strength and ability, as though his sufficiency were of himself, but rather because his sufficiency was from God (2 Cor. 3:4). Knox was a powerful embodiment of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7-10:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

As in Knox’s day, so too in our own do ‘devouring lions crouch to crush weak men’. Our temptation is always to hide our weakness and frailty with fig leaves of false bravery and strength. We have much to learn from Knox, namely, that when we cast ourselves utterly upon the power and grace of God in Christ, then we discover that it is in our weakness that we are strong, that it is in our frailty that we are firm, that it is in our fear that we find our courage.

Perhaps if there were more weak and fragile people like John Knox, the world would witness an unprecedented downfall of the mighty powers that set themselves in opposition to the kingdom of God.


[1] Douglas Bond, 2011. The Mighty Weakness of John Knox. Lake Mary: Reformation Trust Publishing, (Kindle Locations 294-362). Kindle Edition.