Have you ever heard of Stephen Langton? Probably not, but every time you look something up in the Bible, you benefit from his work. More on that later.
Langton lived in England eight hundred years ago, from 1150 to 1228. He was a priest and he was a politician, and was usually in trouble because of his involvement in one or the other or both. When the pope wanted to honor him by appointing him the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John of England refused to accept his authority and made life miserable for him. Eventually, the king was forced to accept Langton, and in time King John came to appreciate his great abilities. Later, in the performance of his duties for the king and the Church of England, Langton had to oppose the pope. Then, the pope removed Langton from the position of archbishop, forced him to leave England, and did much to discourage Langton and make him suffer.
Langton was a godly man, trying to do an honest job of serving his church and nation. But he found himself always in the middle, always being deceived and betrayed, and always getting blind-sided and brought down by his enemies. He could have easily become bitter and vengeful, fighting fire with fire in that dog-eat-dog world. Bishops were not above that. Or, Langton could have become discouraged and quit.
But Stephen Langton never quit, because he had learned the power of forgiveness. He was a preacher, and forgiveness was the favorite theme of his preaching. Two verses from Matthew 18 were very influential in his tumultuous life (verses 21-22): “Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me—up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.’” Only by such forgiveness was Langton able to keep at his work and win the respect he needed to work with so many different people, with so many different agendas, in so many significant ways.
In 1214 the English barons were in a bad mood about the way the king was abusing his power and treating them unjustly. They threatened to revolt and overthrow the king, but they were hesitant, fearing the inevitable bloodshed. Langton was able to negotiate a settlement. He talk the barons into giving up on their plans to revolt by convincing the king to accept some of their demands. In those days, kings weren’t accustomed to backing down on anything, but Langton had the king’s respect and was able to persuade him. After long and difficult negotiations, an agreement was reached and signed. The resulting document turned out to be one of the most important documents in world history, the Magna Carta, which historians now view as the beginning of modern democracy. It spoke of things like justice for all, jury trials, the rights of commoners as well as nobles, the need for legal cause to hold anyone in prison, and, limits on the power of the king, stating that no one was above the law. We take these things for granted today, but they were not a part of English society in 1200 A. D. For his crucial role in all this, Winston Churchill called Langton “the indomitable, unwearying builder of the rights of Englishmen.”
Stephen Langton, empowered by the Gospel to forgive his many enemies and continue to work with them in a spirit of good will, helped the English speaking world take its first steps toward the democratic way of life we enjoy today. We are indebted to him for his faithful obedience.
One more thing. In his free time, Langton divided up the entire Bible into the system of chapters that we still use today. Other attempts had been made in that direction, but Langton’s was the best and the one that became universally used.
Remember that next time you look something up in the Bible. Your task is much simpler because of Stephen Langton.
One of four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Matthew 18:21-22 — Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Hebrews 8:12 — I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.