Chains and a Crown, Ornaments Fit For a Saint
Polycarp pt.I - in Partnership with Tim Suffield (Nuakh.uk)
This is the first of a number of articles in partnership with Tim Suffield from Nuakh.uk (Update: pt.II is now live over at Nuakh). Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be looking at the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philipians. For those of you who don’t know, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, a Bishop from Smyrna in the Early Church, who was martyred for his faith not long after he wrote this letter. We thought that as we’re looking at a letter from and for the church, that we would write these articles in a similar fashion. Whilst each article will be addressed officially to either Tim or myself, we invite you to listen in, and to read Polycarp’s letter along with us. For those of you who would like to check out the full letter first, here’s a recorded version you can listen to in your own time, and here’s a link to the letter in full.
Grace and Peace,
I hope this finds you and your wife well—Anna likewise sends her blessings. As always I’m encouraged by your diligence in studying God’s word and serving his bride and I’m thankful for the opportunity to partner with you in studying this wonderful letter.
Here’s the portion of Polycarp I’ll be writing to you about today:
“Mercy to you, and peace from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, be multiplied.
Chapter I — Praise of the Philippians
I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because you have followed the example of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord; and because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endures even until now, and brings forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] “whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave.” “In whom, though now you see Him not, you believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;” into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace you are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.”1
Before I say anything else, I should introduce Polycarp, an early church father, and a martyr for the sake of the gospel. Aside from this letter, which was written by Polycarp himself, we also have another letter outlining the context and and detail of Polycarp’s martyrdom, as well as a letter from a fellow church father Ignatius, who—before his own martyrdom—entreated Polycarp,
“…bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us. Be ever becoming more zealous than you currently are. Weigh the times with care. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; who could not be touched and could not suffer, yet who [took on flesh] on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.”
Ignatius of Antioch, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus2
Weighing the times as his brother exhorted had him, Polycarp saw persecution fast approaching, and responded the only way he could. Polycarp, knowing the danger that could await him if he stayed, devoted himself not to fleeing, but to prayer. One night as he was praying for his own churches and for others, he was granted a prophetic vision in which his pillow seemed to him to catch alight beneath his head and burn fiercely. It is reported that, “turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, “I must be burnt alive.”
In the letter reporting of his death, the author commands the hearers “to ascribe the authority over all things to God.” In the face of such a loss, losing their beloved bishop, how encouraging must Polycarp’s example of faith have been.
He was given an opportunity to repent of his faith in the name of Caesar of Rome, and he responded by stating, “I am a Christian” and offering to teach his judge the doctrines of the gospel if he would simply appoint a day. He was threatened with wild beasts, and responded that he could not “repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.” The judge, echoing Polycarp’s vision, commanded that he be consumed by fire. I can only imagine the smile on his face as he spoke the last words we have recorded:
“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why the delay? Bring forth what you will.”
The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus
I love that his last words were, in effect, “bring it.”
What we see in Polycarp’s letter to the Ephesians is that this mindset predated his vision and subsequent martyrdom. His life and teaching bore out in his final response and so how better can we repay that faithfulness than to read, study, and imbibe his teachings in so far as they accord with scripture. As we’ll see over the course of our letters, we have many great reasons to do so.
The Place of Scripture in Polycarp’s Epistle
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
ESV John 20:28–29
While Paul, Peter, and the other writers in the New Testament were writing to audiences and churches who hadn’t seen Jesus during his life, Polycarp represents the first generation after the Apostles of teachers who would have been speaking directly to audiences who weren’t even alive during that time. Polycarp, therefore, had his work cut out for him to teach about the tenants of the faith. It’s encouraging then to see that even at this stage in the early church, Polycarp does so by leaning not only on the Old Testament—as we’ll see later in the letter—but also on the New Testament. It gives us some insight into not only the high view of the importance of scripture as early as the first century, but also its usage.
In this passage, speaking as someone who would go on to be bound by chains, encouraged by those who already had been, to people who might very well find themselves chained in the future, Polycarp describes those chains as a fitting crown for the saints of the church—including you and me. Although we might feel like we’re sitting pretty here in the UK, we should never be tempted to think that we are beyond the possibility of persecution. Jesus taught us that, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV). Polycarp, believing that to be true—which hopefully both of us also do!—he goes on to help give his readers a strong biblical understanding of why and how that is the case.
It’s worth saying, before I begin to explain how he does so from scripture, to remind us and those reading along that chapters and verses are not infallible, and therefore we shouldn’t expect him to rigidly follow them as we might today. With that said, he begins his explanation with words from Acts 2:24, which says, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”
Why fear death when our saviour has already faced it down and defeated it? He goes on to explain, with Peter words: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet. 1:8 ESV) So, Jesus, having died and risen again, has granted his disciples—both the twelve and the saints to come—with faith that leads to rejoicing, glory, and, present in the verse, but not in Polycarp’s letter3, obtaining the outcome of their faith, the salvation of their souls. Though this last part of verse 1 Peter 1:8 isn’t explicitly mentioned, he goes on to complete his argument with words from Ephesians 2:8:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
which Polycarp summarises by saying:
“by grace you are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.”
In summary, Polycarp’s encouragement to us, as saints who will likely face persecution in this life, is that having been bestowed with the gift of faith, by the same God that rose Jesus from the dead, our chains ought to cause us not to feel dread or failure but, rather, inexpressible joy brought on by a full understanding of the grace of God. Though our chains might look like shackles to the world, to the saint, they form a saintly crown of righteousness.
Chapter I serves as a fitting preface, not only to the letter we’re about to read, but also for our understanding of the early church. Whilst Acts tells us about her founding and foundation, this letter helps to illustrate how those doctrines and churches continued on in the faith past the direct influence and oversight of the apostles. Finally, whilst not intended to serve as scripture, this letter is nonetheless intended for use by the church, and has been replicated and translated to that end ever since. Thanks be to God that you and I have the ability to write one another letters, but also to read and be encouraged by those who have done so throughout church history.
I look forward to hearing from you about Chapter II, may the Lord bless you and keep you brother.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
This version is based upon the translation performed by Cleveland Coxe in 1885, we have lightly modernised this translation for readability.
It’s possible that given the verse he follows this with, he didn’t feel the need to add this.