Friday, January 16, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 2: Polycarp

There is a group of writings that immediately follow the New Testament called "The Apostolic Fathers." These include the authors that lived roughly from 100-200 AD, most of whom likely knew one or more of the apostles, or were even mentored and appointed by an apostle.

Polycarp is one of the early leaders of the Christian Church, and was believed to be a disciple of the Apostle John. He was the bishop of Smyrna until his execution around 150-160 AD. His example of martyrdom is one of the more inspiring in the early church. The story goes that spectators had become increasingly blood-thirsty with the death of each Christian at the Roman coliseum. Aware of his piety, then began calling for Polycarp to be brought for trial and persecution. The search ensued:

"Now the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard the news, was not disturbed. In fact, he wanted to remain in town, but the majority persuaded him to withdraw. So he withdrew to a farm not far distant from the city, and there he stayed with a few companions, doing nothing else night and day except praying for everyone and for the churches throughout the world, for this was his constant habit. And while he was praying he fell into a trance three days before his arrest, and he saw his pillow being consumed by fire. And he turned and said to those who were with him: "It is necessary that I be burned alive…

Friday about suppertime the mounted police and horsemen set out, armed with their usual weapons as though chasing after an armed rebel. And closing in on him late in the evening, they found him in bed in an upstairs room in a small cottage; and though he still could have escaped from there to another place, he refused, saying, "May God's will be done." So when he heard that they had arrived, he went and talked with them, while those who were present marveled at his age and his composure, and wondered why there was so much eagerness for the arrest of an old man like him. Then he immediately ordered that a table be set for them to eat and drink as much as they wished at that hour, and he asked them to grant him an hour so that he might pray undisturbed. When they consented, he stood and prayed, so full of the grace of God that for two hours he was unable to stop speaking; those who heard him were amazed, and many regretted that they had come after such a godly old man.

The fact that his captors lamented taking him says much about his gracious piety towards even his worst enemies. In fact, the head of the unit tasked with escorting him to his death pleads for Polycarp to avoid the stake:

Herod, the police captain…tried to persuade him, saying, "What harm is there in saying, 'Caesar is Lord,' and offering incense and thereby saving yourself?" Now at first Polycarp gave them no answer. But when they persisted, he said, "I am not about to do what you are suggesting to me."

What follows is an edited version of this story, with some commentary in italics – which portrays his commitment to Christ in the midst of imminent death. Though the section is a little long, it is fast reading and worth the time.

As Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man." And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. [Those familiar with the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley will recognize the version of this saying 'act like a man" as "Play the man" – also quoted in Farenheit 451.]

And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. The proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, "Have respect for your age," and other such things as they are accustomed to say: "Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, 'Away with the atheists!'" [Note that when the crowd says 'Atheists' – they are referring to Christians – since Christians did not believe in the Roman Gods.] So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, "Away with the atheists!" But when the magistrate persisted and said, "Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ," Polycarp replied, "For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

The Proconsul continued to insist, saying, "Swear by the Genius of Caesar." Polycarp answered: "If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the Genius of Caesar, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing." The proconsul said: "Persuade the people." But Polycarp said: "You I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them."

So the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind." But he said: "Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness." Then he said to him again: "I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind." But Polycarp said: "You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish."

As he spoke these and many other words, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was filled with grace, so that not only did he not collapse in fright at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the midst of the stadium to proclaim three times: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." Then the crowd began to shout out in unison that Polycarp should be burned alive. For it was necessary that the vision which he received concerning his pillow be fulfilled.

These things then happened with such swiftness, quicker than words could tell, the crowd swiftly collecting wood and kindling from the workshops and baths, the Jews being especially eager to assist in this, as is their custom. When the pyre was prepared, he took off all his clothes and removed his belt; he also tried to take off his shoes, though not previously in the habit of doing this, because all the faithful were always eager to be the first to touch his flesh. For he had been treated with all honor on account of his holy life even before his gray hair appeared. Then the materials prepared for the pyre were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: "Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails."

Then he offered up a lengthy prayer of thanksgiving for the opportunity to be burned for Christ. When he had offered up the "Amen" and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire. And as a mighty flame blazed up, we saw a miracle (we, that is, to whom it was given to see), and we have been preserved in order that we might tell the rest what happened. For the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

When the lawless men eventually realized that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, there came out a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. Among them most certainly was this man, the most remarkable Polycarp, who proved to be an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, bishop of the holy church in Smyrna. For every word which came from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

The Romans were so concerned that Polycarp would be worshiped that they went ahead and burned his body, leaving only his bones to be collected by his followers.

Significance of Polycarp to the Early Church

Polycarp's life bridged two important eras in church history, since he "spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic Christianity." The text of Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, his only surviving letter, has a number of elements important for orthodox Christianity. Polycarp shows much familiarity with both the Old and New Testament texts, leading us to believe these were in wide circulation during his service as Bishop. Not only does he quote freely from the New Testament, he clearly views these words as authoritative for faith and practice. He even commends his readers to study the letters of the "blessed and glorious Paul, who… accurately and reliably taught concerning the word of truth" because, "if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you."

It is also significant that Polycarp was "particularly known for his opposition to Marcion" (who created his own 'Bible', leaving out the entire Old Testament, and including only 10 of Paul's letters and a heavily edited Gospel) and directly opposes Gnostic teachings in his letter when he writes, "he who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist." It is noted that he once met Marcion. Upon their meeting, Marcion demanded that Polycarp recognize his group as a legitimate form of Christianity. Polycarp replied, "Yes, I recognize you; I recognize the first-born of Satan!"

Polycarp was so adamantly opposed to Marcion and Gnosticism in general because of his firm conviction that actions flow from beliefs. Wrong actions will flow from wrong beliefs, because "for him, orthopraxy is the other side of the coin of orthodoxy." Thus how can one worship a Christ that they do not truly know? It seems this same dilemma faces the modern church. Though most are not as overt as Marcion, who cut out unwanted portions of scripture developing his own canon for teaching, many evangelicals do have a "Canon inside the cannon," or parts of the Bible they do not recognize as important or worth reading (such as Leviticus).

Significance of Polycarp for Today

Working with marriages and families has revealed one primary dilemma in today's church: a poor understanding of theology. So many of the marital issues would be resolved if many husbands and wives understood how their marriage was meant to reflect the nature of Christ's love for the church. Not only must they understand it; they must believe it. But so many of the actions of our church members reflect the problem of Polycarp's day, since "he believed wrong behaviors were evidence of wrong beliefs, and wrong beliefs axiomatically produced wrong behaviors."

If you are one man trying, then embrace Polycarp's conviction that "actions flow from beliefs," and begin each day allowing the scriptures to "renew your mind" (Rom 12.2), for 'by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil' (Prov. 16.6).

NOTE ON READING – If interested in reading the writings of the Apostolic Father, you can read some online here for free, though I prefer this print edition. For the print edition that includes the Greek text, click here. Both of these print editions have excellent introductions to each work and the modern translation is easier to read than the online version. If you own logos, then pick up the electronic version with full parsing.

No comments: