Polycarp and Paul’s Legacy (Polycarp pt.III)
“Not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to.”
This is the third in a series of articles in partnership with Tim Suffield from Nuakh.uk. We’re looking at the Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians. Polycarp was a disciple of John, who was martyred for his faith not long after he wrote this letter. As we’re looking at a letter from and for the church, we’re writing these articles in a similar fashion. Each article is addressed to either Tim or myself, but we invite you to listen in, and to read Polycarp’s letter along with us.
For those of you who’ve missed the series so far, you can find pt.I here, and pt.II over on Tim’s blog Nuakh.uk or by clicking here.
Thank you for your letter. It encouraged me to “go again”—to serve God and his people, and to do so seriously and joyfully. I also loved this line, “the Fathers…speak all the louder to our day by not being concerned with our concerns at all.”
I’ll keep that in mind as I write.
I’ve been looking into Chapter III over past couple of weeks:
“These things, brothers, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, “is the mother of us all.” For if anyone be inwardly possessed of these graces, he has fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that has love is far from all sin.”
“Not because I take anything upon myself”
Given that I asked you to write these letters, I found it ironic that this passage fell upon me given that Polycarp explains that he wrote this letter, “Not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to.” With that said, this is a good opportunity for me explain why I asked you to join me on this project, and why I’m glad that your letters are being shared with the world.
We have letters from throughout Church History because blessed brother and sisters who have gone before us have preserved letters that served their souls. We’re now blessed with correspondences from trusted advisors, friends, pastors, spouses, and strangers, most of which are freely available online. I think, for instance, of the many people who wrote to C.S.Lewis in hope of a response, because they knew that such a letter would be a blessing to them, and how over the years these have been shared to bless others too.
When I asked you to write this series of letters with—and to me—I did so because of your character; because I trust in your theological understanding; because I value your counsel; and because I consider you a friend.
With that said, one of the reasons Polycarp makes this declaration is to make clear that neither he, nor anyone else, can write with the authority of his forebear Paul (note: we should assume by extension that he would include the rest of the canon of Scripture too.)
If his writing—and our writing!—falls into this s category then, why write at all?
If We Have the Bible - Why Keep Writing?
Polycarp compares himself to Paul in two ways. Firstly, to make clear that he is isn’t Paul and his words aren’t, therefore, Spiritually inspired. Then, having done this, he explains that like Paul—who had preached to the Philippians’ forefathers and had written to them thereafter—Polycarp had now been called upon to write to the church in Philippi in a similar, but distinct way. I’ll look at preaching in a moment, but let’s take a look at what he says about writing first.
“…when absent from you, [Paul] wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you.”
He breaks down the use of Paul’s letter in three ways:
Receive. Study. Be built up in the faith.
None of these actions were intended to merely be done alone, but with others. The letter would be corporately received, and was then reproduced for the good of others. Study was done with, or supported by, those who knew how to get the most out of the letter (i.e. Preachers/Pastors), and we need only look to Paul’s own words in his letter to the Phillipians to understand what “the means of building you up in that faith” were.
In his first chapter, Paul says:
“…I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ….so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”
Paul trusts in the enduring and final work of Jesus Christ to perfect his work in the Philippians on the final day, but in the mean time, they are to “approve what is excellent.” How will they do this? By building one another up, as he goes on to say:
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
Standing firm with one spirit, one mind, side by side.
Why write? Polycarp’s letter is not a new message or a rallying cry to “try a fresh ministry this winter!” His message is that this new generation needs to receive those old scriptures afresh, to learn how to study the word of God, and follow in their forebears footsteps by standing together by the Spirit, with one mind, united in union with Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I feel the weight of Polycarp’s example here.
Do we follow that example, you and I? Do we write as though we’re speaking old truths anew, or do we try and expound the novel knowledge of our age? I think in your case the answer is that you do a tremendous job trying to keep within those guardrails. Your commitment to publishing “Cold Takes” is commendable. Why so? Because, you’ve said yourself that you have a temptation to, “respond to whatever the newest thing is in the zeitgeist.”
I share that temptation.
I’ll add another, which I outlined in my recent article “Silence,” in which I said:
“as a writer, my natural inclination would be to give [my] anger an outlet. I’m tempted to write fast, to write well, but to write unrighteously, as it says in James, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.””
As a result of my temptation, I’ve made my own commitment, a parallel to your “Cold Takes” stance to make sure that I never write from a place of anger, even if in the moment I think it’s righteous anger? Why? Because the source would spoil the well. Whether it’s anger, or the zeitgeist, or folly, or worldly passion, when we let motivations other than the gospel drive our writing—whatever the subject may be—it surely cannot produce the righteousness of God.
I say all of this not particularly to benefit of others—though I certainly hope it does—and certainly not to lift either of us up as examples, but rather to place Polycarp’s example and our commitments before us on the table so that we can challenge ourselves—and challenge each other—to keep going.
We have received and studied the word of God, therefore, let’s make sure our writing builds up the bride of Christ as opposed to tearing her down.
Preaching like Paul
“He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive.”
In addition to writing, Polycarp talks of preaching. I think we can safely assume that Polycarp preached himself and, therefore, was also seeking to follow this example. One of the reasons he shares it here though is surely because he was presenting it as a guide for the preachers present as the letter was being read.
I haven’t preached in a while now, but I know that you’ve been preaching more regularly, and so (perhaps cheekily) I’ll pose this question to you.
Are you, Tim, seeking to accurately and steadfastly teach the word of truth?
I am sure the answer is yes, but I wonder how often we ask ourselves questions like this. I think it’s important that we do, and that we allow others to ask these kinds of questions of us too.
I’ve spoken to many preachers in the circles we run in who say that they're never challenged by friends, but only by those who actively oppose them. Is it any wonder then that we’ve seen multiple leaders fall as of late, who it seems fell into this category of being “unchallengeable”.
Polycarp ends this chapter saying:
[Your Faith,] followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, “is the mother of us all.” For if anyone be inwardly possessed of these graces, he has fulfilled the command of righteousness, since he that has love is far from all sin.”
Therefore, with faith, and hope, and love for God and my neighbour, I challenge you. Similar to what I said about writing, this challenge isn’t because my love begets confrontation, but because it musters up a desire to build you up. How can I build you up as a preacher? As “he that has love is far from all sin” it stands to reason that my love for you would compel me to guard you from temptation to sin too, by exhorting you in the same manner as Polycarp.
In addition, I do this to love not only you, but my neighbour, including those under your teaching.1 We both believe that faith is received through hearing the word of God preached, if that is so, then we can’t undervalue Polycarp’s challenge to preachers.
Whether in our writing, or our preaching, we are to follow the example of the Apostle Paul, imitating him as he imitated Christ. As high a call as that is, we should come to it not with boyish bravado, but with Christ-like humility.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Chapter IV next week.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
By extension, this is to love anyone reading this who is likewise challenged, and therefore to love the wider church too.