I’m both burdened and excited about my topic. It’s been a bit challenging. I’ve not been an ardent student of Anabaptism through the years, although I have read Anabaptist writings for the past 27 years of my life. I would not count myself to be an expert on this subject, but I have enjoyed the challenge of studying this subject.
All my Christian life I have pursued truth and reality through Christian history. It is my desire that we can do the same thing—seek truth and reality through Christian history. I believe it’s God’s will for us to do that, and I have been blessed and deeply challenged by my repeated study of the early Anabaptists. I am no expert, so I beg your patience. You may know way more than me.
Nevertheless, I want to take this subject and lift it, showing the Anabaptists as an example of what God can do in the hearts and lives of people who surrender themselves totally, wholly, and unreservedly to him! I believe wherever man does that, God is glorified.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shined” (Psalm 50:2). The words “praise” and “beauty” are very close in meaning. Out of Zion, the perfection of his praise, God has shined. Just as it says in I Peter, we should show forth the praises or the virtues of him that called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Brothers and sisters, that is our calling! As God’s people, we have been called to show forth his praises, or his beauty; the virtues of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. That’s exactly what the early Anabaptists did. The early Anabaptists have shown us the true beauty of holiness, the perfection of beauty that God can work in the hearts and lives of people.
I want to say something about the title, we are not just studying a people, not just the theology of a people. Rather, we are studying Christ working in the early Anabaptists, both to will and to do of his good pleasure! That’s what we are going to be studying. When we open up the history books, we can read about it. God in his wisdom and his loving kindness has laid this history out to us, and preserved it, not so we could look at it and find it interesting. He preserved it so that we could look at it and be challenged, stimulated, inspired, and brought to a place of repentance and change in our own lives.
What a beautiful example the early Anabaptists were of the verses we find in II Corinthians 4. I want to change the pronouns a little bit in these verses, just so we can apply them to the early Anabaptists. We are troubled on every side—were they not?—yet not distressed. We were perplexed, but we were not in despair. We were persecuted, but we were not forsaken. We were cast down, but we were not destroyed. Hallelujah! That is their testimony. We were always bearing about in our bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our bodies! For we which live were always delivered unto death for Jesus sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. That’s the testimony of the early Anabaptists.
Death worked in them, and the life of Christ was spread all over Europe. Let me repeat that—death worked in them, and the life of Christ was spread all over Europe! Get hold of that; let it get deep down in your soul! God does not change; that’s the way God does it. Death worked in them, and the life of Christ was spread all over Europe. Do it again Lord. Do it again! Do it in our day. Do it in this country, dear God, that death would work in us that the life of Christ would be spread all over this country through us. Amen.
Christ, the perfection of beauty shone all over Europe through the early Anabaptists. Oh God, help us to see deeper! Help us to see beyond even some of the things they did, and even some of the things they believed, to the Christ that was inside of them, working in them, moving in them, breathing in them, living his life out through them! That’s what the early Anabaptists were all about—Christ in the early Anabaptists.
Let’s focus a bit more on the title. I want you to notice how I phrased it: “early Anabaptists.” There is a reason for that; I’m going to be focusing on a 50-year period, from 1525 to 1575. We may go across that a couple of times, but it seems to me that Zion was in its prime during those years. Most of the authors I read stay in this period. It seems that in the midst of all the dying and persecutions, the spirit of Christ was mightily upon them, working in them. His work was such that a beautiful testimony, one that has endured through hundreds of years, was raised up back there in 1525 to 1575.
After 1575, the persecutions began to slacken. The people began to settle down more, and I’m not faulting them for that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live your whole existence running for your life. When the persecutions began to slacken, the people began to settle down, and some hearts began to cool. Sound familiar?
Christian history is a study of the biography of peoples’ lives. I want to define the word “biography.” It’s made up of two words: bio, which means life; and graphic, which means to write. The idea is a writing of a life.
In the Old Testament, we find the word “testimonies.” You will find that word many times in the Old Testament. In Psalm 119, it appears twelve or thirteen times. The testimonies are the recorded biographies of the people whom the spirit of God breathed out for us: David, Jonathan, Saul, and the like. In the Old Testament, these records are called “testimonies,” and in the New Testament, they are called “witnesses.”
In Psalm 48, we have a beautiful portion of scripture. It’s talking about the testimony of Zion, or the biography of Zion. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God.Notice who gets the praise in the city of our God—the Lord! Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shined. The joy of the whole earth is mount Zion on the sides of the north, the city of the great king. God is known in her palaces for a refuge. As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God: God will establish it for ever.
As we have heard, so have we seen. Someone told us about Zion, what the city was like. And as we heard them say it, so we have also seen it with our eyes.
We have thought of thy loving kindness, oh God, in the midst of thy temple. According to thy name, oh God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness.Isn’t that a blessing? God’s right hand is full and running over of righteousness. Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments.
These are the verses on which I would like us to focus: Walk about Zion, and go round about her; tell the towers thereof. Why? This God is our God forever and ever. He will be our guide even unto death.
According to Hebrews 12:22, the New Testament church is Mount Zion. Now I know what God was saying in the Old Testament. And you know how these things can be when you’re reading in the Old Testament. I believe the Psalmist was even thinking about Zion in its beauty and its glory there in Jerusalem where the temple was. But as prophetic things are, so many times they were seeing them in reality in that day, but also looking ahead to a greater day. And brothers and sisters, we can even look at it today and see ahead to a greater day yet.
According to Hebrews 12:22, we are come to mount Zion. We who have been born again by the spirit of God are come to mount Zion! That’s the New Testament church, the dwelling place of God. I see these verses that God is encouraging us to look at Zion, to study Zion. God is encouraging us to look back and see what Zion was like in days gone by. We are encouraged to set our hearts on what we see, and we are encouraged to receive what we see as an example for our own lives. And by the way, we are to take what we see, which encourages and inspires our own hearts, and in turn pass it on to the next generation!
I’ve been studying Zion for three months, and I’m now going to pass it on to the next generation. All you children and young people, sit up and take notice. This is what Zion was like a few hundred years ago. Study Zion, walk round about her! Look at Zion from this perspective, and look at Zion over here. Tell her towers, and look at her palaces so you can pass it on to the next generation. That’s one of the burdens on my heart.
The history of the saints who lived before us is one of God’s primary methods of challenging and instructing his people so they can go on in all He has for them. Think about it. If you can look and see how God shone through Zion in days gone by, you also can look at it and know that the God who did these things is also our God. What God did in those days, He also can do in these days. Do you believe that brothers and sisters? What God did in 1525, God can do today! He is the same yesterday, today, and forever! God can never change. What God did back in those days, He is longing to do again, don’t doubt it! He’s looking only for some vessels willing to yield themselves completely to Him.
I want to define a little here about biography. History is a record of facts. These facts demand a personal factor. When you were in school, you likely had a history teacher. Some of us had history teachers and didn’t like history, whereas others of us had history teachers and thought history was great. Do you want me to tell you the difference between the teacher we liked and the one we didn’t like? The difference was biography! The history teacher who took the lives of personal men and made them come alive made history come alive. History is a record of facts, but these facts demand a personal factor or they can be very dry and lifeless.
The key to history is biography, or the study of a life. Biography is the most suggestive, inspiring, and instructive of all studies. To portray the lives of Christian men is to teach theology by example. That’s what we’re going to be doing.
When Jesus cast out the devil in the synagogue, do you know what the people said? Instead of saying “what is he doing?” they said “what new doctrine is this?”! Why would they say that? He didn’t give a teaching on casting out devils; he just did it. And the people knew that it was a new doctrine, not just a new thing to do. The doctrine and the doing were one and the same thing. That is a beautiful example of how we are going to approach the early Anabaptists. What new doctrine is this that we see by the way these people lived?
One of the greatest gifts that God gave to man was 160 pages of God-breathed biography: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These record the inspired, God-breathed biography of God’s son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the expressed image of the Father! Isn’t that true, brothers and sisters? That is one of the greatest gifts that God could give to us.
It was this biography that captivated the early Anabaptist. They went beyond theology. They learned their theology by his example. Because they learned their theology by His example, they were carried far beyond the reformers. Brothers and sisters, if you also will learn and develop your theology by the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, it will take you places you never dreamed you would go.
I want to say more about the New Testament word “witnesses.” In the Greek, it is the word martus, from which we get the English word “martyr.” Strong’s concordance will show you thatmartus the term used for “witness” all the way through the New Testament. It’s translated “testimony” sometimes and “witness” sometimes, but every time it’s the root word martus, or “martyr.” This word means far more than just speaking about Christ, although it does include speaking about Christ. It means to live a dying life that testifies of Jesus Christ and his salvation, all the way unto death, like Stephen, my faithful witness (Acts 22). Why did God say that about Stephen? Because he died? Yes and no. He said that because he died, but he also said that because of the dying life he lived! Look at the life of this faithful witness. His life ended in a pile of stones outside the city, but that wasn’t the reason why he called Stephen his faithful witness. Stephen was that one who stood there, his face shining like an angel, before the Sanhedrin. He was so anointed with the Holy Ghost, the holy light, and powerful words that they gnashed their teeth when he spoke. Yes, “my faithful witness Stephen”! Oh God, have mercy on us.
And ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you. (Acts 1:8) And the results? You will have a good feeling? No, that’s not what God says. What is the result? “Ye shall be my martyrs! You shall be martyrs to me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” That’s the result of the Holy Ghost coming upon the early church. “Ye shall be martyrs unto me” The book of Acts shows how beautifully they lived that out, not just in their dying, but as they lived a dying life! The early Anabaptists were these kind of witnesses. Yes, Christ was in the early Anabaptists. He found His willing, yielded vessels in them. God also will have his witnesses in our day.
Perhaps a few examples of the Anabaptists’ life and practice would be in order, just to skim the surface of their lives. The words of their enemies can be very revealing. They said of the early Anabaptists: “They are hypocrites of the darkest dye.” “They are devilish enemies!” But they also said a few other things. It was interesting to me that they could do this, but I believe it was the Spirit of God making them do even what they didn’t want to do. They said: “These people may be readily known by their quiet unassuming lives; they are modest in there attire, and wear neither costly nor unclean clothing.”
Did you get that balance? They wore neither costly nor unclean clothing.
Their enemies further said: “They live by the labor of their hands, and even their preachers are shoemakers and weavers. They do not lay up riches; but are content with that which is necessary. They live pure lives, and are temperate in eating and drinking. They do not visit drinking houses, and they do not attend places of amusement! They exercise self-control, and may be known by their considerate speaking, for they do not indulge in joking, slander, or gossip.”
Zwingli, who had so much trouble with the Anabaptists, said that dealing with the Roman Catholic Church was nothing compared with the problems he had with the Anabaptists. But he said this: “If you investigate their life and conduct, it seems at first contact irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive; it seems like they live above this world. Even those who are inclined to be critical will say that their lives are excellent!” I like that.
Bullinger, who took over as the head pastor in Zürich after Zwingli lost his life because he bore the sword in battle, wrote this about the Anabaptists: “Those who unite with them will by their ministers be received in the church by re-baptism, repentance, and newness of life. They henceforth lead their lives under a semblance of quite spiritual conduct. They denounce covetousness, pride, profanity, the lewd conversations and immorality of the world. Drinking and gluttony they want nothing to do with! In short, their hypocrisy is great and manifold.” He was trying to figure out how the devil could make such holy lives out of these people. He went on to lament in these words: “The people are running after the Anabaptists as though they were living saints.” And they were, hallelujah!
Capito, the reformer in Strasbourg wrote these words in 1527: “I frankly confess that in most Anabaptists there is piety and consecration and indeed a seal which is beyond any suspicion of insecurity.” That’s what he testified about them!
The preachers in another city said this: “The Anabaptists have a semblance of outward piety to a far greater degree than we and all the churches which unitedly with us confess Christ; and they avoid offensive sins which are very common among us. But yet they are the deceived ones and we the right!”
It seems to me that there was such a witness of right and wisdom in the hearts of these men that their conscience constrained them to write the true reality of what these people were like. Oh, but by the way, they were deceived, and the devil was leading them! Have you ever heard that one before?
Finally, a Roman Catholic wrote these words in 1582: “Among the existing heretical sects, there are none which in appearance leads a more modest life than the Anabaptists. As for their outward public life, they are irreproachable—no lying, no deception, no swearing, no harsh language, no intemperate eating or drinking, no outward personal display. They are not proud in the way they dress. None of these things are found in or among them, but instead humility, meekness, honesty, straightforwardness, and patience in such measure that one would suppose that maybe they have the Holy Ghost.” Imagine that!
Somehow it didn’t fit inside the little box of their enemies, and because of that, they had to say it was wrong. Although everything these people lived was beautiful, the perfection of beauty shining out of Zion, they missed it! They missed it because of their religion, and their laws, and their little boxes in which they thought God’s people should stay! They missed the beauty of these people.
It is interesting to me how much information about the early Anabaptists has been gleamed from the critical writings of their enemies. In fact, much of the history has been put together by drawing out of all the things their enemies wrote about them, and you can see what they believed by what their enemies were saying.
So how did all this begin? It is important for us to go back to the fountainhead, the springs from which this river began to flow. If we are going to understand the river, we need to go back and take a look at the spring, the beginning, the setting, and what grace was upon those who were the instruments in the beginning of this movement.
As in the book of Acts, we must go back a bit to understand Christ in the early church, back to the radical teachings He gave to them, back to the crucifixion where they all stood and watched, back to the resurrection when they heard the beautiful news “He’s not here. He is risen from the dead!” And finally, we must go back to the glorious outpouring of the Holy Ghost. That is what explains the book of Acts, and that is what explains the Anabaptists.
To understand the Anabaptist movement, we must look at how religious Europe was in the day they were birthed. No doubt the time for change was fully ripe in Europe. The Bible had been translated into the German language, which was the language of most of the common people in that day. Before this, they had to understand the Bible through the priests who read it in Latin, so most of the people didn’t even know what the Bible said! They just went by what the priests claimed it said! When the press started cranking off pages and pages of scripture, the common people started to get their hands on a few pages of that book called the Bible. And when they started to read it in the language they could understand, the lights began to go on in their hearts! It’s still the same today! In fact, the religious leaders today will tell you: “Don’t read too much of the bible. It will make you go mad.” That sounds like something the king said to the apostle Paul one time: “Thy much reading has made thee mad, Paul!”
German was the language of the common people in those days. Missionaries had been distributing hand-copied portions of the Bible for 200 years. Here and there, secretly and carefully, they dropped off little portions of the Bible which they copied out by hand to a hungry soul in this town and to a hungry soul in that town. That had been taking place for 200 years.
Luther, in Germany, put his 95 theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg, thus taking his stand against Rome in 1517. Zwingli in Switzerland did the same thing in 1518. Things were beginning to stir in Europe because the Bible was given in the language of the people. Why? Because it was the fullness of the time. Why? Because darkness had covered the earth for a long time, and God was ready to move.
In its origin, the Reformation movement stood for the restoration of primitive Christianity. It’s very important for us to know that, very significant for our own lives. However, in just a few short years, the leaders of the movement (and I mean more than just Zwingli and Luther) felt that a union of the state with the church was needed to be successful. They were in effect saying, “We are not going to be able to do it, so we have to bring the state in here to help this thing along.” Thus, compromise to avoid persecution moved them from trusting God to trusting the government! As a result, the clouds of gray and eventually dark black settled in over them again.
In the beginning, the leaders of the Reformation and the leaders of the radical reformation, or the Anabaptists, walked together. It’s very important for us to grasp this, not just so we can look back and say “too bad.” It’s important for us to grasp it for our own lives. There was a point in time when the leaders of the Reformation and the leaders of the radical reformation, the Anabaptists, were walking in the light together! They were studying the Bible together! They were discussing what they saw and comparing notes together! They were clearly seeing the great gap between the New Testament and the Roman Catholic Church of their day, seeing it together! There was a time when they sat together and discussed what the Bible said, and they were in agreement on many, many points.
It is both shocking and frightening to read what powerful things Zwingli and Luther wrote from 1518 to 1522. They spoke about infant baptism; they spoke about believing in the baptism of true believers only. They spoke about a pure, free and voluntary church! They spoke about the mass, how it was wrong and way off the foundation of New Testament Christianity. They spoke about a church not governed by the state. They even spoke about the persecution that this would bring as they walked in the light of all these things that were dawning on them! But there was coming a point in time when these men would no longer walked together.
Conrad Grebel, Simon Stumpf, Felix Manz, and others said they must obey the scriptures at all cost, whereas Zwingli said they must obey the city council. That was the beginning of the end of their Reformation fellowship, and rightly so.
I tremble to consider the depth of what happened at this point. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Reformers. Don’t jump on them. Look at your own life! Think about all the things you have seen in the scriptures but backed away and said, “Oh, if I do that, what will people say about me. What will happen to me if I say that? They will throw me out of the church if I do that! If I get baptized, I’ll lose my family!” We back off because of that, so we can’t be too hard on the Reformers. We do, however, want to look at them and learn a lesson!
Up to that point, the Reformers and the Anabaptists were walking in the same light. In essence, they all were saying, “Look at what the Bible says, but look the way it is in the Roman Church. Look at this—we are justified by faith, not by all these things we are doing in the church!” There was a time when they were walking in the light, and the light was inspiring them. But there also came a point in time when the Reformers made the decision that this was going to cost them more than they were willing to pay. They thought that perhaps there was a way around the “crucifying cross” standing in front of them.
And whether we like it or not, we have been doing much of the same thing, just maybe not on the same issues. Believer’s baptism, that’s not much of an issue today; but then maybe it is for some of you. We often try to find a way around the cross, so we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Reformers. The cost of obedience can be very high for us also, and we often choose the easier road of silence and compromise, even today.
The little group was given three choices at that last meeting, when Zwingli said that they would do what the city council says: (1) They could be quiet and conform to the conscience of the group. (2) They could leave Zürich. (3) They could obey Christ and face imprisonment and much persecution. They chose that last one. Aren’t you glad they did? Look at how much of what we have today hinges on the decision those few men made back there in 1525. Do you think the decisions you make are less important than the decisions they made? Don’t fool yourself. They are very important to you and your life, your family, and the neighbors who live around you.
A few days later, a dozen men soberly trudged through the snow at nighttime to the house of Felix Manx. They were very sober. The whole thing was sinking down into their hearts. Zwingli told them they must submit or they were going to be in trouble. This thing had been stirring in their hearts for a few days, and they were all going to a nighttime meeting at the house of Felix Manz.
The story of what happen that night is recorded, and I want to tell a little of it. I would like you to picture it in your heart. I want you to put yourself in the shoes of these twelve men trudging through the snow at night, sneaking to a place where they could meet privately to do business with God. As they were gathered there in the house, the fear of God settled down upon them. The fear of God is the presence of God! Whenever the presence of God is around, the fear of God is there. The fear of God came upon them so much that they were pressed in their hearts. They got down on their knees before the highest God in heaven. It was just as if the spirit of God brought them down upon their knees. They cried to him in brokenness that night because He knew their hearts. They prayed that He would help them to do His will and show His mercy to them because flesh and blood had not brought them to this place. They all knew as they sat there in that meeting that it wasn’t their own little ides that brought them there, but that it was the Spirit of God working in each one of their hearts. They well knew that their patience would be tried and that they would have to suffer for what they were about to do.
After the prayer, George of the house of Jacob stood up. He had asked God to show him His will in his prayer, and he got up and asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him with the correct Christian baptism upon his faith and testimony. He said, “I want to be rightly baptized. Will you baptize me? I’m not satisfied with the baptism that I had before.”
When he knelt down with this desire, Conrad Grebel baptized him because at that time no servant had been ordained to handle such a work. After this, the others asked George to baptize them, which he did upon their request. In this way, they gave themselves together to the name of the Lord, in fear of God. They commended one another to the service of the gospel. They began to teach and hold the faith. They began to separate themselves from the world and break themselves off from all evil works.
We will return to this picture again because it has 50,000 words in it. But now I would like us to consider our own lives for just a minute. This little walk around Zion is not just something interesting for us to enjoy seeing. It has not been reserved for us so we could just stimulate our minds a bit! This little walk around Zion has been given to us as a challenge for our own lives.
How does this walk around Zion apply to you? What about the compromise. How does it apply to us? Are we walking in the light that God has given to us? Do you see that little lesson here, the little departure that took place, which was just a little departure in the beginning but turned into a wide gap, so wide that some who once sat in the same room talking about the same scriptures turned around and pronounced the death sentence on the others? That’s what not walking in the light will do! How many others have pronounced the death sentence on their Christian brothers and sisters because they were not willing to walk in all the light that God gave them?
Could you join those dozen men on their knees? Could you give your heart knowing that you could be imprisoned in just a few days? Could you join their church? Are you like minded with them? Have you been born again by the spirit of God? Is God living inside of you?
If we respond to the light that God shines in our heart, God gives us more light. If we shut ourselves up to the light that God shines in our heart, God gives us cloudiness. What is God saying to your heart? Are there things stirring inside your heart? Are you in need of salvation crystal clear, a born again experience that leaves you without a doubt that God is living inside of you? That’s what salvation is. It’s not a trip to the altar. It’s not a little prayer you pray. It’s God living inside of you. And when God lives inside of you, you’ll know it! The fear of God also will settle upon you.
Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord will lift you up.