Nailing one’s colours to the mast

Over the years I have often referred to baptism as the occasion when we nail our colours to the mast. I cite Paul’s words to Timothy which clearly allude to baptism:

Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6.12)

‘Baptism’, I say, ‘is the occasion when we declare that Jesus is Lord – Lord not just of the world, not just of the church, but also of my life. It is the time when we declare before all the world their love for Jesus and their desire to serve him. It is the time when we nail our colours to the mast’.

But what does it mean to ‘nail one’s colours to the mast’? It means, of course, to publicly display one’s convictions, come what may, with the resolve to maintain those convictions to the end. However, I confess that it wasn’t until recently I discovered the origin of the term.

Apparently the expression was coined in reference to the exploits of the crew of HMS Venerable, a 74 gun ship, at the Battle of Camperdown, a naval engagement that was fought on 11 October 1797 between English and Dutch ships as part of the French Revolutionary Wars. The English fleet was led by HMS Venerable, the flagship of Admiral Adam Duncan. The table didn’t initially go well for the English. The mainmast of Duncan’s vessel was struck and the admiral’s blue ensign (or colours) was brought down. This could have been interpreted by the rest of the fleet meaning that Duncan had surrendered – for at that time the lowering of the colours was an acknowledged mark of submission. Step forward, Jack Crawford, a 22 year-old sailor, who despite being under intense gunfire, climbed what was left of the mast and nailed the colours back to where they were visible to the rest of the fleet. The act proved crucial in the battle and Duncan’s forces were eventually victorious. Crawford returned home to a hero’s welcome and was given a silver medal and a government pension of £30 per year!

To nail one’s colours to the mast, then, takes courage. Yes, it takes courage to confess our faith in a world where Christians are increasingly becoming a ‘peculiar’ people.

Interestingly Paul in1 Timothy 6.13 goes on to speak of Jesus making “the good confession” at his trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. I have no doubt that if Jesus had played his cards right, he could have provided Pilate with an excuse to set him free. But Jesus refused to back down, even when the odds were stacked unfairly against him. For when at his trial Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (John 18.33), Jesus did not deny that he was the Messiah, God’s Son. True, he told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18.36). But he did not deny his specially calling. Jesus stood his ground – he ‘made the good confession’ – he ‘nailed his colours to the mast’.

Here we have a reminder that Christianity is not for wimps. For Christianity is about following Jesus – and that takes course. On more than one occasion Jesus declared:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8.34).

Following Jesus involves going his way, whatever the cost; going against the stream; being different; ‘nailing our colours to the mast’, come what may.

Yes, it’s tough being a Christian. But thank God, there is a reward. In our case, it’s not a silver medal or a government pension, but rather life in God’s kingdom. Or as Paul put it when writing to Timothy: “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6.12.)

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