More Desired Than Gold: Peter Waldo and the Waldensian Tradition

*Reformation 500: Exploring the Traditions of Protestantism – Part 2*


            For just a moment, imagine that it’s a little past 9 a.m. on a lazy Saturday morning. You are sitting at your kitchen table with a steaming cup of coffee and your favorite newspaper in hand. NPR’s “Morning Edition” is playing in the background, but you aren’t really paying attention. Instead, you’re wishing it was 10 a.m. so “Car Talk” would come on and offer you some comedic relief from the depressing headlines. Then, just as you take the last bite of your breakfast bagel, you hear an unexpected knock at your front door. You wonder who it could be and what they want. And you’re feeling somewhat annoyed that someone has decided to interrupt your weekly devotional ritual of current events. As you dawdle toward the door, you become even more perturbed because you realize that you are still wearing your pajamas.

            When you finally open the door, you behold a balding fat man in a black polyester suit and suspenders. Do you see him standing there? An overzealous smile on his face and a huge suitcase in his right hand! With a slow southern drawl, he exclaims: “Good morning! My name is brother Jethro and I am here to sell you the greatest treasure in the world. I have the Word of God in 23 different types and translations.” As he opens his case and shows you a stack of the thickest Bibles you’ve ever seen, he shouts, “I’ve got the NIV, ESV, RSV, NRSV, NLT, and the good old-fashioned King James (Authorized) Version for those Shakespearian types. I even have the Joel Osteen Study Bible which comes with a double your money back guarantee. And, by the way, it’s your lucky day! All Bibles are 25% off, today only! Do you mind if I come in for a while and show you my inventory?”

            Stop! What is going through your mind right now? Do you let him in or not? How would you respond to this travelling salesman offering you a copy of the Word of God, at a discounted price no less?

            That’s right! Many of us would conjure up some reason for not letting him in. The easiest (and most pious) excuse would be, “No thanks mister, I already have a Bible, but come to think of it, I’m pretty sure my neighbors across the street don’t have one.”

            Most of us do own at least Bible, don’t we? It is easy to forget just how blessed we are to own a personal copy of God’s Word that has been translated into our language. Likewise, it’s easy to take for granted that we attend a church where the Bible is read and explained every Sunday. Throughout the Middle Ages, most people in the world were not so fortunate. They didn’t have access to the Bible in their homes and they didn’t even hear sermons in a language they could understand. The priests spoke the Mass in Latin, the language of the church. But they needed the Word of God in the language of the people! Thankfully, this began to change with the help of a man named Peter Waldo, who lived from A.D. 1140-1217.




Peter Waldo and the Waldensians

Peter Waldo was a wealthy and educated merchant from Lyons, France, a busy commerce city famous for its silk. He was extremely successful in business, but he was not selfish or greedy. He was known in Lyons for his kindness and generosity. One evening, something happened that caused him to become concerned about the condition of his soul. He was visiting with some friends, when after supper, one of the men suddenly collapsed and died. This immanent encounter with death left a tremendous impression upon him, and he began to seek for truth.

Waldo asked the Roman Catholic priests, “How can I become righteous before God?” The priests, however, could not answer his question. He knew he was a sinner; his conscience told him so. He also knew he was not ready to die, but when he asked the priests what he had to do to be saved, he was not satisfied with their answers.

The Bible held the answers to Waldo’s questions, but he did not own his own Bible. Rich as he was, he did not have the greatest of treasures. The few copies of the Bible that did exist in those days were kept in libraries that common people were not allowed to visit. Besides, they were written in Latin, and few people could read even their own language, let alone Latin.  But after some time, Waldo was finally able to buy a Bible. It cost him a lot of money, but he didn’t mind, for in its pages he found the way of salvation. He learned that he could only approach God through the Mediator, Jesus Christ, who had already paid the penalty for his sins. The only way he could be righteous before God and escape eternal damnation was to trust in the grace of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As Waldo received Christ’s salvation, the burden lifted from his soul. He felt like a new man. Before, he was confused and troubled; now he was peaceful and glad.

Waldo had always been known for his kindness, but now he became concerned about the souls of the people. The Bible taught him how to be saved, and now he longed to tell others the good news. He began to visit people, telling them what God says in his Word. In contrast to the Raman Catholic church, he told them that God only requires repentance and faith in his Son; their good works could not save them! Many people came to Christ under Waldo’s preaching.

Still, Waldo wished the Bible could be translated into the language of the people. At that time, the Roman Catholic church did not want the Bible to be written in the language of the people. They told the people that only the priests were wise enough to understand the Bible and the common people wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway. Waldo disagreed! He believed that the people should be able to read it for themselves. We are not sure if Waldo himself translated the Bible into French, or if he hired scholars to do it for him. Most likely, they worked on it together.

It was a huge undertaking, but after having read the Bible himself, Waldo was convinced that it was necessary. Finally, it was finished. This was the first translation of the Bible into a modern language. What a gift this was for the people of France! Still, it could not be distributed to very many people because the printing press wasn’t invented yet. Each copy had to be hand written. This took many long hours and was very expensive. But Waldo was so determined to teach people the way of salvation that he gave copies away at his own expense. Many people discovered the treasure of the Word of God because of his efforts.

You would think that the Roman Catholic Church would have appreciated Peter Waldo’s ministry of distributing the Word of God to the people, but this was not the case. The archbishop warned, “If you continue to preach, I will have you condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.” Waldo replied, “How can I be silent in a matter that concerns the souls of men?”

In 1184, Pope Lucius III anathemized Peter Waldo, which means he proclaimed that they were accursed. He ordered the archbishop to stop Waldo from preaching and giving out Bible’s to the people. So, Waldo was forced to flee the city, but as he went from place to place, he taught people about the Bible. Despite being pursued, Waldo’s enemies failed to kill him. God protected him so that he could preach the gospel in several other countries. He finally went to live in Bohemia, where he died peacefully around the year 1217.

Before Waldo died, he and his followers joined up with a long-standing group of Christians in the Italian Alps who had never agreed with the Roman Catholic Church. They shared Waldo’s beliefs and were willing together to spread the good news. As the groups formed, they became known as the Waldensians.

Peter Waldo and the Waldensians planted the early seeds of the Protestant Reformation. They had a profound influence on the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus, the German Martin Luther, and many of the Swiss reformers. Most of the Waldensians eventually merged with either the Presbyterian or Methodist churches in subsequent centuries, but there are still about 20,000 members of the Waldensian church around the world today.


More to Be Desired than Gold (Psalm 19)

Peter Waldo discovered the meaning of the middle section of Psalm 19, which praises God for his glorious Word, and he made it his life goal to introduce others to the benefits of reading the Bible. Many years later, C.S. Lewis wrote of Psalm 19: “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter, and one of the greatest lyrics in the world. (Reflections on the Psalms).

Psalm 19 is a poem or hymn written by King David to praise God for the primary ways he reveals himself to us: through creation (the natural world) and through the written Word of God (the Bible). Verses 1-6 paint a beautiful picture of how God declares his glory and speaks to his people through the sky, sun, and moon. In verses 7-11, David moves from macrocosm to microcosm and highlights the purpose and benefits of the written Word. For the heavens declare the glory of God, but the law declares the will of God. Let’s look at these verses together!

Notice the subject of each clause “law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, rules.” They are listed in synonymous parallelism and all refer to God’s Word. At the time, it pointed specifically to the Torah or Law of Moses (the first 5 books of the Bible), but by extension, encompasses the whole Bible today. Likewise, the object of each clause is in parallel form, describing an aspect of God’s Word—“perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true.” Each clause ends by highlighting how God’s Word benefits human beings. It revives our souls! It makes us wise! It brings joy to our heart! It brings light to our eyes—which means it gives us direction in life! It endures forever—which means it is a permanent foundation for life! It brings righteousness altogether—right living before God and people.

David brings these descriptions and benefits of the Word of God to a climactic conclusion in verses 10-11. He likens the worth and desirability of God’s Word is to fine gold and the sweetest honey. God’s word is to be desired more than gold or honey or any of the other precious treasures for which humans strive so ardently. Why? Because God’s Word gives us the warnings we need to live a life without regrets. Indeed, there is great reward for honoring God’s Word in every aspect of our lives!


            Well, there you have it! God’s Word is to be desired more than gold because it is the greatest treasure of all! It is worth more than all the monetary and material wealth in the world! So, let me conclude by asking: Do you own a Bible? Do you read the Bible? Do you meditate on its meaning and apply its wisdom to your life? Do you see how it points you to your need for a savior and redemption through God’s Son Jesus Christ?

            If you don’t have a Bible, let me be your Peter Waldo and I will get you one! If you already have one, read it! Read it in the morning! Read it in the evening! Read it on your lunch break! Read it before you go to bed at night! Read it to your children! Read it to your grandchildren! Read it to whomever will listen!

            Let us express our gratitude to God for the gift of his Word in our own language! How should we do this? Read it!!!

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