It was May of 1940. The dreaded German Panzar Division had swept across Europe and had the British Army pinned down at Dunkirk.
The British and French generals thought that the narrow twisting roads and paths through the Ardennes forest were too small to allow the mass movement of the large German tanks and machinery.
However, German General Heinz Guderian managed to maneuver the large tank force through the Ardennes and was ready to strike. The British commander was able to get a communiqué back to Britain that consisted of just three words, “but if not!”
Those three words sparked a surge of courage, determination and downright grit throughout the British military and the entire civilian population. Those three words brought about the bravest, most unorthodox successful rescue of any army in the pages of history.
Admiral Ramsey was chosen to attempt the Dunkirk rescue. He ordered all civilian fishing, pleasure and commercial craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to report to Dover to join the Naval ships for the rescue. Some 850 craft arrived and the civilian owners and their crews volunteered to man their craft. They had only one day to complete the rescue which would be only 45,000 of the approximately 365,000 troops.
As they departed from Dover, something unexplainable happened. Just as General Guderian was ready to surround and attack with his large tank force, Hitler ordered him to stop at the outskirts of Dunkirk. Instead of one day and 45,000, Admiral Ramsey had 9 days and rescued 338,226 British and French troops and brought them back to Dover.
This story is moving beyond words, but what captures my attention many years later is the simple message that was sent from the British commander… “but if not!” Three powerful thoughts emerge as we examine their content and their meaning.
They were spoken with resolve. These were the words uttered during the Babylonian captivity by three young Hebrew men who were asked to compromise their faith or face death in a fiery furnace. Believe you me, they didn’t flinch when they uttered these words. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” The English soldiers embodied that same resolve.
Secondly, they were understood clearly. It is said that 80% of England at the time understood the message in its biblical context and in its real life application immediately. They recognized what the soldiers were saying. Finally, their message brought courage, strength and salvation. Courage and strength to the English people who responded immediately and without hesitation and the salvation of 338,226 British and French troops.
The comparison to our lives is swift and clear in my mind. We must speak with such resolve! Resolve is defined as strong determination, which in the aforementioned case is more than just talking the talk—it involves walking the walk. I remember a preacher of years gone by saying, “It’s not how loud you shout or how high you jump, it’s how straight you walk when you hit the ground that matters!”
Secondly, there is a desperate need in our world for a knowledge and understanding of the word of God and it’s principles for life. According to George Barna, only 9% of evangelicals in America have a truly biblical worldview. If that’s the case, then the message sent by the British commanders would have fallen on spiritually deaf ears today.
Lastly, resolve and understanding will bring courage, strength and salvation. Victor Hugo said, “Let us be like a bird for a moment perched on a frail branch when he sings; though he feels it bend, yet he sings his song, knowing that he has wings.”
One of the early church fathers, John Chrysostom, was brought before the emperor and commanded to renounce Christ. The emperor threaten him saying if he would not renounce Christ he would be banished from the country forever; he would be separated from his father’s land for the rest of his life.
John responded, “You cannot. The whole world is my Father’s land.” The emperor then said, “Then I will take away all of your property and treasures.” John replied, “You cannot, for all my true treasures are in heaven.”
The emperor then said, “I will send you to a place of absolute solitude where there is not one friend for you to talk to.” John said, “You cannot, for I have a friend that is closer than a brother to me. He is my elder brother, Jesus Christ, who has promised to be with me always to the very end of the age.”
In anger, the emperor then said, “I will then take your life.” John said, “You cannot. For my life is forever hidden in Christ with God.” That kind of resolve and understanding has brought courage, strength and a promise of salvation to generations of Christ Followers … it still does!
Tim Throckmorton is the former Executive Pastor of the Plymouth Heights Church of the Nazarene in Franklin Furnace Ohio and the Portsmouth First Church of the Nazarene in Franklin Furnace, Ohio. He is currently the Senior Pastor at Crossroads Church in Circleville, Ohio.