Polycarp pt.V - "God is Not Mocked"
In partnership with Tim Suffield (Nuakh.uk)
This is the fifth in a series of articles in partnership with Tim Suffield from Nuakh.uk. We’re looking at 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.
Thank you for your words on money last month, it’s never an easy subject, but I’m convinced that by having such uncomfortable subjects thrust upon us by the shape of this letter, we’ll find the endeavour all the more fruitful. It’s true that, “Money makes the world go ‘round, we hear. It can certainly make us go in circles.” I feel the pressure to turn that grindstone over and over, each time expecting a different result. I’m grateful that last year was a season of plenty for us, but this year we’re starting off on a much tighter budget. In both circumstances, we’ve seen and we trust that God is in control. Money wasn’t your only subject last month, but let me encourage you that though money and leadership of one’s household might have seemed unconnected to you, the two are currently intrinsically linked for me personally, and I thank you for your exhortations with regard to them both.
Here’s the portion of the epistle I’ll be looking at today:
“Knowing, then, that “God is not mocked,” we ought to walk worthy of His commandment and glory. In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men. They must not be slanderers, double-tongued, or lovers of money, but temperate in all things, compassionate, industrious, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who was the servant of all.
If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, “we shall also reign together with Him,” provided only we believe. In like manner, let the young men also be blameless in all things, being especially careful to preserve purity, and reining themselves in, as with a bridle, from every kind of evil. For it is well that they should be cut off from the lusts that are in the world, since “every lust wars against the spirit;” and “neither fornicators, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God,” nor those who do things inconsistent and unbecoming. Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.”
I discovered the power of verbs in Germany. The German language has adjectives, but they’re invariably rather basic, and therefore aren’t used in the same fashion as in English. To evoke a response in a listener, or a reader, one would often use verbs to bring the item, event, or person to life. Sometimes when I’m reading a passage in English, I’ll look at certain nouns and adjectives, and think about the verbs they could be replaced with.
Side-Note: I know what you’re thinking, “Mrs R is a lucky girl if she gets to have conversations like this all the time.”
You have no idea.
When Polycarp talks about “slanderers, [the] double-tongued, or lovers of money” and the “temperate in all things, compassionate, industrious” or the “fornicators, effeminate, [or] abusers,” he might be using nouns, but he’s suggesting actions. Just as a lawyer practices law, or a fighter fights, or a husband loves; slanderers slander! Given that the subject of this portion of the letter is “mocking God,” we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that because we wouldn’t describe ourselves as “a slanderer” that we’re in no danger of this egregious sin.
We might also struggle to describe ourselves as “temperate in all things,” or to call ourselves “compassionate, [and] industrious.” Abstaining from sin, and attaining righteousness are only possible by the power of the Spirit, but should nonetheless mean that our lives are punctuated with a neglect of sin and a love of righteous actions.
Let’s look at what Polycarp says about this.
Walking Worthy of God’s Commandment and Glory
Previously I’ve talked about how Polycarp sees himself as simply a member of the body of Christ, not as a final word, or a writer of Scripture. He has built his own letters on a foundation of the word of God, but now he looks to other members of Christ’s body to support the hearers as they endeavour to follow the way of the Lord.
Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.
We are not lone rangers. I remember meeting a a man who called himself a missionary about a decade ago. His model was to go from town to town, city to city, and preach in the open air and evangelise to anyone who would listen. Over the following weeks he would try and help his newfound disciples to know the way to God and how to be a good christian, and then he would leave to go to the next destination. I met him on his second roundtrip. He’d already visited a few of the previous cities and found that none of his would-be-disciples were still following the Lord, and he was incredibly discouraged. I asked if he’d kept in contact with them after he left, he said he hadn’t. I asked whether he’d gotten them connected to a local church, and that’s when everything began to make sense. It turned out that he didn’t believe in “churches” and didn’t even attend services in any of the cities he visited. He would worship God by himself or with his wife, but rarely with others, and he believed others should do the same.
We need others around us who will help to mould and to strengthen us, to teach us, to correct us, and to train us in righteousness according to the word of God and the power of the Spirit. (see 2 Tim 3:16-17)
Recently, I began to struggle with a sense of impending loss. The idea that certain things would be taken away from me and that I had no power to stop it. I’ve been in a period in which I’ve had things I deemed important taken away due to things completely outside of my control, and in my mind I’d begun to spiral. I contacted one of my Elders. Once I began to talk, the power of the worry began to diminish immediately and peace quickly to replaced it. Sharing the weight with another member of the body of Christ was all it took, and it shouldn’t be any surprise to us when that happens. God has given us his church to be the body of Christ on earth, and so we should expect him to bring us comfort through it.
Worry isn’t our only struggle though, sometimes it is slander. Sometimes we have been slandered, and sometimes we’ve been the ones sewing discord and need to “[rein our]selves in, as with a bridle, from every kind of evil”. Whether sinning, or being sinned against, we ought not wait until we’re brought by others before our Elders, but go to them with haste. In larger churches this may not be possible, but deacons and even just brother and sisters are there for us to run to. Who can you go to when things are tough, when you’re stuck in your sin, and when you’ve been hurt by the sin of others mate?
Making a Mockery
In the account of Joseph’s “run in” with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) he rails against the idea of lying with her by saying, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” Sinning against man is wicked, but as Christians we need to go a step further. Sinning, despite knowing that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross makes a mockery of God, and that should grieve us.
Christians have done this throughout the past 2000 years, and will sadly do this till Jesus returns. Though the church will never fall, it does sometimes fail us. More than that though, it fails God.
I’ve been in difficult churches, some have hurt me and those whom I love.
Many have left church, or the idea of church behind entirely, because of experiences like mine, or worse. The truth is, that in this age, the church will never achieve glorification, and no christian will attain perfection, but I still believe that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church (see Matt 16:18-19), not because it is subject to perfect earthly leaders, but because at it’s head is a perfect and holy Lord.
We should take Polycarp’s adjuration seriously when he says:
In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men.
Deacons were first called to serve bread to widows (see Acts 7), but from the beginning this calling was first to God, and then to man. If we do good to anyone, we do it for God, by the Spirit; if we do not, we are sinning not simply against our brothers and sisters, our enemies and allies, but first and foremost against God.
Provided Only That We Believe
If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, “we shall also reign together with Him,” provided only we believe
Finally, before I sign off, I’d like to finish with this.
If we please God, according to his promises, living worthy of him by the power of the Spirit, the support of the church, and ultimately through our belief in Jesus, we will live eternally in the age where there is no more sin or suffering. I said earlier that the church has not yet been glorified, but she will be, and that we had not yet been perfected, but we can have hope that we will be. Provided that you believe in Jesus, which I know you do, you will rise, reign, and reap the eternal harvest of heaven. As far as it rests on you, do what you can then to do what he pleases more than what pleases you, and pray that I would do the same.
Bless you brother. I feel like my letter this week is a little all over the place, but I hope it blesses you all the same. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.
Grace and Peace,