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Polycarp: Why he matters to Pastors today

By September 12, 2019 No Comments

Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, has become somewhat of a personal hero of the faith of mine ever since I read of him whilst studying to teach the book of Revelation around two years ago.

The fact that the churches being addressed in chapters two and three of Revelation were real churches, in real places, with real problems, pastored by real men is not something that surprised me, but, upon reading of the testimony and martyrdom of the Pastor of the church in Smyrna the reality of the whole situation became all the more real. It is far easier to identify with real people with real stories, and the reading of Polycarp’s story made this small section of the Bible come alive for me personally.

To summarise what is known about Polycarp, it is estimated that he was born around the year 69 A.D., and died around 156 A.D. As with many of his era, the exact dates of his birth and death are not known with concrete certainty. However, through his now famous words

“Eighty and six years have I served him…”

we can confidently surmise that if his death was around 156 A.D., his birth can only have been between 69 and 70 A.D.

Interestingly, some assert that due to this aforementioned statement in which Polycarp claimed to have served God for eighty six years, we can infer that he was baptised as an infant. Whether or not this is the case is pure conjecture, and without the records we cannot say for sure. Polycarp could be speaking of the bigger picture in the sense that even before his conversion to Christianity – and this rings true for all of us – we are all serving the Lord’s Sovereign purpose. This is certainly the case for the fallen spirits bound until their service is required in Revelation 9.13-15

To further this idea about our subject, Gwynne Williams writes

‘Polycarp was apparently converted at an early age and was a long standing member of the Church at Smyrna.’

Known as a teacher of Apostolic tradition, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. It is generally accepted that his Epistle to the Philippians is the best window into his particular focus of ministry and perhaps his life in general, and this will be treated in this paper as such. 

His installation as the Bishop of Smyrna came at the hands of the Apostles, so we are led to believe, although clarification as to which Apostles is not given. Having such close fellowship and relationship with the men, or man, personally sent out by the Lord Jesus would surely have had a tangible and positive impact on his life and ministry. 

Aside from the privilege the Apostles had of fellowshipping with and learning directly from the Lord, perhaps the next best thing would be to learn from someone who was taught personally by Jesus, whose emphasis in teaching and doctrine would be the actual words spoken by Jesus as opposed to a written record of what He said (not to discount or discourage the written Word). Beyond this two step link, the impact must surely lessen; we can quickly descend into hearsay and slightly different versions of the truth once we lose the direct link to the Lord. All this to say, Polycarp found himself in a privileged position in that he could learn from, and fellowship with, those who spent time personally with the Lord Jesus.

According to Williams Polycarp held the office of Bishop of Smyrna for around fifty years. This is a philosophy of ministry that I personally strongly agree with; the pastorate should not be used as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, God’s church and people should not be used in order to fulfil our own personal agenda or ambition. For Polycarp to serve in one office for fifty years is a tangible demonstration of his character and commitment. Those of us called to vocational pastoral ministry should take heed of this example, especially when the going gets tough.

Polycarp ministered in a vastly different time to the one in which we live, and we are apt to look back with rose tinted glasses on and romanticise that times gone by were simpler and easier. In a recent devotional teaching on the book of Revelation I shared these thoughts,

‘Smyrna was a big, beautiful, proud city at the time of writing, commercially rich and vibrant.

“Smyrna was a leading city in the Roman cult of Emperor worship”, writes David Guzik.

The Christians here lost jobs, money, possessions, and sometimes life for simply being Christian; for professing the faith that we also profess to have.’

So whilst the environment itself may have been simpler in terms of the modern complexities we battle with – being ultra connected to everything and everyone all the time, for example – the religious environment was most certainly not easier or more romantic. It is precisely this environment, the Roman Emperor-worshiping paganised society, that cost Polycarp his life. 

Turning attention to his extant Epistle to the Philippians, there is much to gleam about the man and his ministry from the text.

Even in the opening lines there is an insight into the man and his mindset. We read

‘…to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi…’.

Instantly we can see two things; first that Polycarp recognises that the church belongs to God, a position that sadly would disintegrate as history progressed into the Middle Ages. Secondly we can see that Polycarp understands the Biblically-conveyed truth that we as humans are nothing more than sojourners, having our real citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3.20). 

Into chapter three of his epistle we see his reverence for what we now consider Scripture. Polycarp writes

‘For neither I, not any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.’

This is most interesting as he clearly considers the writings of Paul to be Scriptural, a position also held by the Apostle Peter in his second epistle (2 Peter 3.15). For Polycarp to recognise Paul’s writings as wise and blessed, and Paul’s character to be the same, he simply has to be of the same mind as the Apostles themselves, further strengthening the position that Polycarp fellowshipped with, and learnt from, those men who were tutored under our Lord and Saviour. 

Polycarp also shows himself to be humble in the very same chapter. He states that he does not count himself righteous or worthy to write such a letter, he is simply fulfilling their request, and that he considers his writings not comparable with those of Paul, as mentioned above. Through putting himself in a subservient position to Paul in terms of conveying Biblical truth through writing, we see Polycarp’s humility, and again this is an applicable lesson for those of us called to lead God’s people. Here is a man who served in an influential and somewhat powerful position as a bishop who is unreservedly putting himself under Paul in terms of truth conveyed, despite Paul not having held any such type of office.  

Polycarp closes chapter ten of this epistle with a charge which is most appropriate and relevant for those of us called to pastoral teaching ministry. He writes,

‘Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct.’

Whilst the first imperative is challenging yet achievable, to teach others how to live a good life, the second is far more difficult. Often times we are apt to teach others but then, sadly, not live up to the standards which we exhort others to strive for. However, given the torturous and terrible way Polycarp met his demise – or, rather, how his demise was planned – we see that he can wholeheartedly exhort his readers to live like this, because he had the character within him to actually live like this. 

Moving on to the martyrdom of the faithful saint, David Guzik summarises the event in his excellent commentary, Enduring Word. He writes, 

‘…a great persecution came upon the Christians of Smyrna…He knew what God said to him, and calmly told his companions, “I see that I must be burnt at the stake”…As they tied Polycarp to the pole, he prayed: “I thank You that You have graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour, that I may receive a portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ.” After he prayed and gave thanks to God, they set the wood ablaze. A great wall of flame shot up to the sky, but it never touched Polycarp. God set a hedge of protection between him and the fire. Seeing that he would not burn, the executioner, in a furious rage, stabbed the old man with a long spear. Immediately, streams of blood gushed from his body and seemed to extinguish the fire. When this happened, witnesses said they saw a dove fly up from the smoke into heaven. At the very same moment, a church leader in Rome named Irenaeus, said he heard God say to him, “Polycarp is dead.” God called his servant home.’

The inspirational account of the martyrdom of Polycarp peaked my interest in the man and his ministry. This is not to say that I, nor anyone for that matter, should seek to emulate the late saint in the manner in which he met our Lord, but the events of his death are full of character, conviction, and steadfast faithfulness to Christ.


These are the very qualities that Christians need to embody today, and to this end, Polycarp (and others, no doubt) stands as a shining example.


Through his writing it is clear to see the humility of the man; calling for his readers to examine the writings of those he considered wiser, those he considered to have a stronger grasp of the faith, those he considered to be more upright and blessed. We also see that, despite this humility, Polycarp himself certainly understood the main tenets of the faith that we all hold so dear. His repeated allusions to justification by faith show this,

‘…building you up in that faith which has been given to you…if any one be inwardly possessed of [this grace], he has fulfilled the command of righteousness…’

(Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 3).

To conclude, the life of Polycarp is muchly unknown other than what we can take from his writings and other extant documents from the time. One source claims that Polycarp’s major legacy is

‘…[having] remained totally faithful to the teachings of the apostles.’

This in itself would surely qualify him as a good and faithful servant in line with Acts 2.42, in that Polycarp remained steadfastly dedicated to the teachings of those who had personally fellowshipped with and learnt from the Lord Jesus. By logical corollary, then, we may assert that the teaching Polycarp remained faithful to was that which came from the Lord Jesus, via the apostles. 

Irenaeus, in his work ‘Against Heresies’ writes, 

‘But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.’

Clear to see, then, that the life and ministry of Polycarp were based on a steadfast dedication and faithfulness to the Gospel handed to him from those who received the commission personally to preach from the Lord Jesus.

As previously discussed, this is a strong lesson for those of us serving the Lord in any capacity now; the teachings of Jesus need to be paramount in the life of a Christian, and the dedication to them needs to remain absolute, even to the point of death. 

In closing, it remains to say that Polycarp is an excellent example of a man called of God, recognised by men to be so, who served faithfully and with admirable longevity in a difficult ministry environment, who embodied the principle of his Apostolic mentor John who wrote of the faithful martyrs that they loved not their lives, even unto death (Revelation 12.11b). 

In one final example of his character and commitment to the Gospel, it is hard to express better than this,

‘Polycarp truly lived according to the following words from his only extant work, his epistle to the Philippians: “Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood, and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another, and despising no one.’ 

 


 

References

 

CHURCH FATHERS: Epistle to the Philippians (Polycarp). Retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0136.htm

 

CHURCH FATHERS: Against Heresies, III.3 (St. Irenaeus). (2018). Retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm

 

Fitzgerald, B. (2006). Saint Polycarp: Bishop, Martyr, and Teacher of Apostolic Tradition [Ebook]. Retrieved from https://www.st-philip.net/files/Fitzgerald%20Patristic%20series/polycarp_of_smyrna.pdf

 

Fletcher, I., & Nathan, P. (2005). Biography: Polycarp: The Apostolic Legacy. Retrieved from http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/biography-polycarp/534.aspx

 

Guzik, D. (2018). Enduring Word Bible Commentary Revelation Chapter 2. Retrieved from https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/revelation-2/

 

Osborne, L. (2010). Sticky teams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

 

Travis, J. (2018). Revelation 2.8-11 – To the church in Smyrna [Blog]. Retrieved from https://jamestravis.net

 

Williams, G. (1982). Polycarp of Smyrna c69-155 A.D. Reformation Today, 67(May-June 1982), 15-17. Retrieved from http://www.reformation-today.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/RT_067.pdf

 

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