It's hard not to love Polycarp.
You already read (a little) about his martyrdom on the Early Christianity page. By then, he was 86 years old and respected by everyone. Even the soldiers who arrested him, after they heard him pray—and after he had made them a meal—regretted that they had been sent to arrest "so godly and venerable an old man."
There is some question whether Polycarp was 86 years old when he was martyred or whether he'd been a Christian 86 years. His words are, "86 years I have served him, and he never did me any injury" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9).
Either way, there is strong tradition that he was appointed bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John. Irenaeus—later bishop of Lyons in Gaul and author of the important work, Against Heresies—has this to say on that matter:
One of my favorite stories is a very short one. He met Marcion, a unique and popular gnostic heretic one day, and Marcion asked him, "Do you know who I am." Polycarp calmly replied, "I do know you. You're the firstborn of satan" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:3:4).
It's always seemed unusual to me that Irenaeus, from whom we know the most about this man of God and martyr, wrote such a huge work as Against Heresies. Irenaeus makes it clear that both Polycarp and John were quite short with heretics.
He relates, for example, that John went to the public baths in Ephesus and saw the gnostic Cerinthus there. Immediately, he rushed out of the bath house, shouting, "Let us flee, lest the bath house fall down! For Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within" (ibid.).
Irenaeus indicates this was the normal mode of dealing with heretics for Polycarp:
Irenaeus, however, far from fleeing these things, studied them and wrote a several hundred page book about them. He did so in order to correct friends like Florinus, an elder who had fallen under the sway of the gnostic, Valentinus. Nonetheless, I wonder whether it would have been wiser to follow Polycarp's pattern.
As it turns out, it was better for us that he didn't. His book preserves information about the early Christian faith, about the gnostics, and about early Christianity that we would never have known otherwise.
Polycarp wrote more than one letter in his lifetime, but only one survives. Irenaeus mentions there being many others:
Sadly, we have none of those, but the letter to Philippi is awesome. You can feel the depth of spirit, the balance, the wisdom, the humility and the tenderness of this great man throughout.
Mostly, it contains various exhortations. You can tell from it that the greatest work of a shepherd in the early church was to encourage the saints in faith, in holiness, and in obedience to God (see also Those Incredible Christians).
One thing that has always stood out to me is the lack of conflict between faith and works in the early church. Today, we have Pentecostals who emphasize works and oppose eternal security. Then we have Baptists who emphasize faith and teach eternal security. Their argument often boils down to which verses carry more weight. Should we emphasize John 10:28 or 2 Pet. 2:20? Eph. 2:8 or Jam. 2:24?
You'll seach in vain for answers to those questions in the writings of the Pre-Nicene (before the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325) churches. They seem to have taken all those verses in stride, completely comfortable with all of them.
The letter to Philippi is just about the best example of this:
Expressions of faith in one sentence, then works in another, are typical of both early Christian writings and the New Testament. I spent years trying to decipher the issue before The Letter of Diognetus dropped a crucial hint in my lap. My conclusions are here.
I pointed out to you earlier that Polycarp was appointed bishop by the apostle John. When I did, I included a link to my Bishops, Elders, and Deacons page.
His letter to Philippi is a fascinating testimony to the difference in leadership structure between Paul's churches and John's.
Smyrna was one of John's churches. It had Polycarp, one bishop who was basically the head of the group of elders. Philippi, on the other hand, being one of Paul's churches, should have had a group of elders that were all bishops.
He does not identify himself as a bishop in his introduction. He writes instead:
Yet not only does Irenaeus identify him as a bishop, but Ignatius addressed him as bishop in a letter written long before the letter to Philippi. So Polycarp was a bishop, leader of a group of elders, but he purposely avoids bringing that up.
Further, when he addresses the duties of church leaders, he addresses only deacons and elders, the only two offices that would have existed in one of Paul's churches (at least at this early date).
The subject is fascinating.
As I said earlier, Polycarp's letter is awesome. It breathes with the spirit of early Christianity: pure, pristine, refreshing.
It's short. You ought to read it. Google it, and you'll have a choice of translations to read. It's longer than Paul's letter to the Ephesians, shorter than his letter to the Corinthians, so it's an easy—and pleasant— read.
I had more to say on reading his letter, but I moved it to a page on reading the early Christian writings.
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