Monday, December 24, 2012

Polycarp: Epistle to the Philippians

Polycarp introduces his letter simply as,
"Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi: Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, be multiplied."
Polycarp is refereed to by Ignatius as the Bishop of Smyrna. The ecclesiastical division and differentiators between bishop and presbyters in Polycarps days is a bit unclear and seems to have varied based on the apostle who founded the church and it seems evident that some churches had a plurality of leaders while others were lead by a single bishop. By reading the writings of Polycarp and Ignatius, both disciples of John, it is reasonable to conclude that many of the churches founded by the apostle John had single bishop over the church.

Many believe Polycarp to be "the angel of the church in Smyrna" (Revelation 2:8) to which John wrote and the Lord prophesied, "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Revelation 2:10) From the written accounts of his martyrdom, we know that he did remain faithful and was rewarded in his death with grace and glory in the presence of God.

Most of what we know about Polycarp's life and character comes from the writings of his disciple, Irenæus. Speaking directly of Polycarp he says
"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. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time... that, namely, which is handed down by the Church." (Irenæu, Against Heresies, Book 3 Chapter 3)
Speaking of his time spent as the pupil of the master, he says,
"For, while I was yet a boy, I saw thee in Lower Asia with Polycarp... I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever
things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures." (Irenæu, Fragment from De Ogdoade)
Irenæus was also familiar with Polycarp's letter to the Philippians and highly recommended it to his readers.
"There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth." (Irenæu, Against Heresies, Book 3 Chapter 3)
I hope you enjoy the next series of posts as we examine together this valuable letter by one of the truly great men of our faith.

David Robison

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