A Precious Discovery in an Old Library

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
"I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil"
A Precious Discovery in an Old Library
Books are like ships, carrying their stores of treasure across the waves of time. Their precious cargoes are priceless beyond the worth of gold, silver and precious stones. The currency of books is knowledge, precious gifts bequeathed from one civilisation to another. The writer dies, his society and generation fades away like the leaves on the trees, yet the words, the ideas and the philosophies preserved through literature remain ready to be collected and studied by future students and academics. Of all the works of literature, there is none which can rival the value of the cargo which the Bible transports. This is the book which contains the mind of God, which is salvation, for a lost and perishing world. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, devoted his life to the Bible through his readings, translations and expositions. He rediscovered treasure from the vaults of Scripture that he in turn has given us through his own writings; treasures which include that most precious of all truths, "Justification by Faith Alone."

When did Martin Luther first discover the wonders of Scripture?

In the University of Erfurt where he was reading law, there was a Bible, one of those old ships that had been cast adrift on the waves of time. How long had this precious book been sitting gathering dust on the university's shelves? This is impossible to say, but the balance of probability is that it had been there for a long, long time. The spiritual climate of the Middle Ages did not value Scripture. It would not have been in the academic interests of an educational institution to populate its shelves with Bibles. At one time, probably by chance, this copy of Jerome's Latin Vulgate was cast onto a shelf among other books; and there it lay forgotten, out of sight and out of mind. It had been overlooked many times. It had been lifted, flicked through and then returned to its dusty location in favour of other works. God, however, had a purpose for this old volume. It had not been placed on this shelf by mere chance. The one who directs the wind and the tides had providentially placed this old book in the Erfurt library for the benefit of one student.

Arriving in Erfurt in 1501, the young 18-year-old scholar was immersed in the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Cicero and Virgil. Filling his mind with the knowledge he gained from these scholars, he frequently discussed their teachings to the extent that his student and friend Philip Melancthon would later record that "the whole university admired his genius." The young and active mind of Luther, however, was not satisfied with the scholastic theologies of the Middle Ages, nor was he content with the writings of the Greek philosophers. God had planted within his soul the desire for spiritual enrichment. He needed another ship laden with greater treasures than those which he had previously looted. The library was a favourite haunt. He was frequently found looking for books, not just books, but treasures from another age and another time with which his sensitive soul could be enriched. One of these searches brought him to the old Bible that for years had lain unwanted and unappreciated in Erfurt's library.

For twenty years, Martin Luther had never seen a Bible, nor had he turned the sacred pages. He knew some of the stories from the Gospels and had heard some passages from the Epistles. These were set passages which were decreed to be read at certain times during the year in church. In his ignorance, Martin believed that these passages were the sole substance of the Bible. When he lifted down the volume, he was amazed at the rich and rewarding content he found. D'Aubigne, in his 'History of the Reformation', describes this eureka moment in Luther's life:

"His heart beats as he holds the divinely inspired volume in his hand. With eagerness and with indescribable emotion, he turns over these leaves from God. The first page on which he fixes his attention narrates the story of Hannah and of the young Samuel. He reads - and his soul can hardly contain the joy it feels. This child, whom his parents lent to the Lord as long as he liveth; the song of Hannah, in which she declares that Jehovah 'raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes;' this child, who grew up in the temple in the presence of the Lord; those sacrificers, the sons of Eli, who are wicked men, who live in debauchery, and 'make the Lord's people to transgress;' - all this history, all this revelation that he has just discovered, excites feelings till then unknown."

Inspired by what he has read, the young law student would return on many occasions to pore over this book, which was 1,000 times more satisfying than the reasoning of Aquinas and the logic of Aristotle. Without a doubt, the words of the Psalmist became Luther's personal experience at this time; "I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil" (Psalm 119:162). His entire testimony and ministry was erected upon this first opening of the old Bible in Erfurt's library. Having opened the vault and seized some treasure, he discovered that there was so much more to take. Therefore, he must constantly return; and through his life he would never exhaust the riches that the Gospel Ship offered up. He would be a man who found peace through the teachings of Scripture. He subsequently translated the Bible into the language of the German people; and he would preach, teach and expound the doctrines of God's Word until the day he died. Opening the vaults of that old ship in a dusty medieval library would yield benefits in which we continue to rejoice today.

How privileged we are! Enjoying the resource of the Bible in our native tongue is not a blessing to taken lightly. Martin Luther, through the years, discovered truth through many agonies that we cannot begin to understand. Let us in this 500th Anniversary Year read the Bible more diligently, study its doctrines more intelligently and love the Saviour presented in all its pages more passionately. Then we will say, as the young law student would have testified:

"I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil".
(Psalm 119:162)
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