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Maybe we need a little lesson from naval history ...

J John explores the meaning of a naval expression increasing numbers of believers are using in our post-Christian age …

J John explores the meaning of a naval expression increasing numbers of believers are using in our post-Christian age …

A friend recently reminded me of the expression ‘nail your colours to the mast’ and wondered about its background. A little research came up with a most rewarding answer.

In the ‘Age of Sail’ ships were identified by the flags (or ‘colours’) that they flew from the top of their masts. At a time before radio this was vital, allowing sailors to identify who was on their side and who was the enemy. This action has given rise to all sorts of English phrases. So sometimes ships would disguise themselves by hoisting other flags and would ‘fly under false colours’. If they then suddenly changed their flags to reveal their true identity they were ‘showing their true colours’.

In a sea battle any ship that wished to surrender would lower her colours. There is a story of how, during the great sea battle of Camperdown in 1797 between the Royal Navy and the Dutch, the colours of the British flagship were shot down. Recognising the danger that this would be taken as a sign the British had surrendered, a sailor, Jack Crawford, climbed to the top of the main mast and, ignoring heavy fire, replaced the colours, nailing them to what was left of the mast.

The battle continued and eventually the Dutch fleet was destroyed. Some historians consider that it was this victory that allowed ‘Britannia to rule the waves’ of the world for the next 150 years. In which case, Jack Crawford’s single act of heroism had consequences of extraordinary significance.
So, for a ship’s captain ‘to nail his colours to the mast’ was to do two things.

First, it was to state clearly the identity of the ship and who she served.

Second, it also made surrender virtually impossible. It was a bold act of defiance, saying, in effect, that we will sink rather than admit defeat.

For anyone who is a Christian today this idea of nailing colours to the mast is incredibly appropriate. In this aggressively post-Christian age there has never been a greater temptation to ‘sail under false colours’ and to hope that no one notices you. This is a disastrous strategy.

After all, if you have been disguising yourself for some time, when you do have to take a stand on a matter of faith, you will find it very difficult. So you may find, like Peter at the trial of Jesus, that you have denied your faith (Mark 14: 66–72).

In any new setting, it is wise to reveal as soon as possible that you are a Christian. In Acts 4:13–20, after the resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, Peter adopts a very different attitude towards keeping a low profile. There may be a time and place for Christians to be secret believers, but I do not believe that in the West it is yet. Far better in the long run to fly the colours openly and make it clear where our allegiance lies.

Actually, it is a good idea not just to fly the colours of the Christian faith but to nail them too. Most of us like to be liked and it is always tempting to back off when we are threatened. Yet the fact of the matter is that we have to speak and live as Christians whatever happens. We cannot lower the flag of Christ just because we face hostility.

Let’s nail our colours to the mast!

www.canonjjohn.com

Photo: Shutterstock / Jonutis

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