Weapons to Combat Heresy: Perseverance, Fasting, and Prayer
Polycarp pt.VII in partnership with Tim Suffield (Nuakh.uk)
This is the seventh article 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.
For those of you who’ve missed the series so far, you can read the previous articles in the series at these links: I; II; III; IV; V; VI. Each article can be read independently of the others, however.
Thank you so much for your letter and for your prayers, it is always an encouragement to hear from you, and to learn from your wise words. You asked me to thank God that he broke you, and I am truly thankful for that, but I am also thankful for the man he has repaired by his Spirit, and continues to sanctify. I will keep your prayer requests top of mind, especially during this next season.
I spoke with someone recently who felt convicted that they needed to pray for their Pastor more, and I think many people could do with similar convictions. I hope others reading these letters would take up your call to pray; not only for you, but also for the pastors in their churches.
Today I’ll be looking at the seventh part of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, which means we’re almost halfway through the letter!
Here’s today’s reading:
“For whoever does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist1” and whoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.
Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from* the beginning; “watching unto prayer,” and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation,” as the Lord has said: “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.”!
Recently Mrs R asked me to teach her some kickboxing. Although it has been a number of years since I last practiced—not to mention my physical limitations—I happily agreed.
I began by teaching her how to stand.
As most people have gotten used to a certain way of standing by the time they're fully grown, this lesson is often far harder than it sounds. A fighter needs to fall into her “stance” at the drop of a hat, and the strength of that stance can often determine the outcome of an altercation2. To illustrate the importance of this skill, I had Anna stand normally, and then lightly tested her strength by pushing on her shoulders, and then again by pulling her arm as she attempted to punch me. In a normal standing position, this would ordinarily lead to the fighter falling backwards, either onto their favoured foot, or simply onto their rear-end. For obvious reasons, I didn’t push or pull Mrs R nearly hard enough to trigger such a reaction, but just enough for the exercise to hit home. Later, after she’d begun to place her feet correctly, her punches grew more powerful, she became much harder to budge, and since then she has even learned to kick without pushing herself over!
In this passage, Polycarp takes a similar approach, pushing on our spiritual shoulders, to make sure that we’re standing firmly on solid ground. In the face of false teachers who would love to push us back, or have us fall head over heels for their lies, we ought first to be certain our stance is sure.
Using the words of his own teacher, John, Polycarp enjoins us to:
“forsak[e] the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, [and] let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning;”
With our feet firmly planted, then, what should we then go onto to do?
How do we fight, and armed with what weapons?
In the Philippians case, the false teachers in question were teaching the false doctrine of Docetism, which holds that Jesus never truly took on flesh, but was instead simply a spirit. We could get into the many ways that undermines the beauty of the gospel, but that reaction would, in many cases, be the wrong first step. Having first checked our own footing, we should carefully consider Polycarp’s advice about what it looks like to fight against things. The answer may surprise us, but I don’t think it should.
How often do we think that we are the answer to God’s problems, when in fact he is always the answer to ours. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints3” but that we should do so according to the strength of the Spirit, and the wisdom of the word of God.
We’d do well to remember Jesus’ words to Simon Peter—as Polycarp reminds us—when he said:
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Matthew 26:41 ESV
Our flesh, including our tongues, our ever ready keyboard-trained-hands, our racing hearts, our clenched fists, it is all weak. It is unsurprising then that Polycarp, having set the foundation, then has us “watching in prayer.”
If we’re at all tempted to view that as inaction, or perhaps a lesser action, then we’re deluding ourselves. What’s more powerful, a prayer to the creator of the universe, or a strongly-worded tweet? How much more important are the prayers of the saints than their quick-witted rebukes?
I’m writing this whilst Twitter is in the throes of the latest controversy, which has led to an unseemly number of people rebuking a man who is about as far from a wolf as one could imagine. He’s sinner, I think he probably erred in what he said, but the speed with which some have begun to cast aspersions on his character and wisdom is shocking. I wonder how much of that might have been prevented if more people were kneeling on solid ground, inspecting their own shortcomings, praying for forgiveness, for patience, and for wisdom. I might be wrong, but I suspect not.
Defence and Attack
To clear, I’m not suggesting that there is no occasion for standing up against false teaching, but we have to be cautious about the weapons we use. In this passage, Polycarp has strong words to say about these false teachers, and makes a clear delineation between true and heretical doctrines. Since the conception of the church, packs of wolves have sought to usurp scripture’s authority and replace it with extra-biblical “wisdom.”
Thankfully though, we needn’t fear any permanent or universal abolishment of the church, or our of our eternal inheritance. Peter tells us:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you”
1 Peter 1:3-4
What is kept in heaven for you, cannot be shaken by any earthly power, or spiritual principality. Equally, for those false teachers who do not repent, their inheritance4 through Christ’s death is equally sure. The yeast of heresy proves here on earth simply to be cast into the fire. Sadly, some still pursue the enemy’s path, and by doing so will join the enemy in his death, just as we will join our Saviour in eternal life.
That’s a heavy statement to make, but one that we need to remember. The severity of sin deserves this consequence, whether it is their sin, or ours. If we can cast our sins before the cross, and trust in the justice that was secured there, then we ought the trust that justice will be done in these cases too. If we can trust God to deal with the eternal consequences of sin—which we can—how much more can we trust him through the temporary consequences of false teaching happening right now.
Therefore, returning to Polycarp’s point, we don’t only need to “watch unto prayer” but also, “persevering in fasting” and bring “our supplications the all-seeing God not to lead us into temptation.” Our weapons are prayer, fasting, perseverance, and more prayer. Only then can we build upon that.
There’s a quote from Klaas Schilder that has arrested me ever since I first read it—which you can read more about here—which he wrote whilst under Nazi occupation, under a Pseudonym that essentially meant, “the hunter of hitler.”
What did this hunter suggest the saints do?
In this occupied land, they will not place the matter in their own hands, but in God’s hands. To the extent they pray, they will want to see weapons used in this time, but only those weapons that we know from Revelation 11, namely, the weapons of prayer. We realize that others think such weapons blunt and laugh at them. At any rate, people who think so will deem these weapons completely harmless.
Klaas Schilder, The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, eds. George Harinck, Marinus De Jong, and Richard Mouw, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022), 515.
It’s about eighty years later, and the Nazi’s have returned to the dust. Some repented, some didn’t, regardless justice is secure. Prayer, however, still persists, and is going nowhere fast. The weapons of this world will continue to grow ever more powerful, but never so powerful as the preserving prayer of the very least of our number.
There’s a big part of me that wants to write more about all the other ways that we can then go on to protect flocks, to prevent deconstruction, to combat heresy, but I want to faithfully constraint myself to the text.
Perhaps one day I’ll write more about preaching, and discipleship, and writing, and persevering in those things too, but now isn’t the time.
Let’s pray, and then fast, and persevere, and bid God not to let us fall into temptation.
Once we’ve got that down, perhaps he’ll have some next steps for us.
Grace and Peace Brother,
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
1 John 4:2-3 ESV
An altercation which, I should add, I sincerely hope never happens.
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
Jude 3 ESV
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
John 8:44 ESV