January 20, 2021

Friday with the Fathers (3)

The Church Fathers, Kievan Miniature (11th c)

By Chaplain Mike

Thus far in our Lenten series on the Apostolic Fathers, we have discussed Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. Today we consider the last of the three chief Apostolic Fathers: Polycarp of Smyrna.

Polycarp and Ignatius knew one another, and Ignatius wrote one of his letters to Bishop Polycarp as he made his way to Rome in chains. The Bishop was so impressed with these epistles that he later attached them to one of his own letters and commended them to a church for their edification.

Polycarp lived c.69-c.155 AD and was a student of the Apostle John, who consecrated him as Bishop of Smyrna. The little we know about his life comes chiefly from the writings of Irenaeus and a letter from the Smyrnaeans recounting Polycarp’s martyrdom—the oldest written account of a Christian martyr’s death outside the New Testament. Irenaeus claimed to be one of Polycarp’s pupils, said that the Bishop knew and conversed with many of those who had been with the Lord during his earthly ministry, and he also noted that Polycarp was a companion of Papias, another representative on the traditional list of Apostolic Fathers.

According to Michael W. Holmes:

His life and ministry spanned the time between the end of the apostolic era and the emergence of catholic Christianity, and he was deeply involved in the central issues and challenges of this critical era: the growing threat of persecution by the state, the emerging gnostic movement (he is particularly known for his opposition to Marcion, one of the movement’s most charismatic and theologically innovative teachers), the development of the monepiscopal form of ecclesiastical organization, and the formation of the canon of the New Testament.

• The Apostolic Fathers, p. 272

Only one of Polycarp’s writings survives: his Letter to the Philippians. This “word of exhortation” deals with the subject of Christian living, or “righteousness.” A specific occasion that prompted Polycarp to write Philippi concerned a man named Valens, a church leader who had been unfaithful with church finances. Also, according to the epistle, Polycarp appended Ignatius’ letters to this correspondence and commended them to the Philippians for their edification. One of the chief characteristics of this epistle is its acquaintance with New Testament letters and writings. It contains over a hundred quotes or allusions to NT passages, making Polycarp a key witness to the development of the NT canon.

Suffering with Christ
One of the most profound passages in Polycarp’s letter speaks of Christ as the “guarantee of our righteousness,” and urges the Philippians to imitate him in persevering, even through suffering:

“Let us, therefore, hold steadfastly and unceasingly to our hope and the guarantee of our righteousness, who is Christ Jesus, who bore our sins in his own body on the tree, who committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; instead, for our sakes he endured all things, in order that we might live in him. Let us, therefore, become imitators of his patient endurance, and if we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For this is the example he set for us in his own person, and this is what we have believed.” (8:1-2)

Polycarp himself would have opportunity to follow his own counsel on the occasion of his martyrdom. According to The Martyrdom of Polycarp, when the Bishop entered the stadium he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Be strong, Polycarp, and courageous.” And when the magistrate persisted in calling the aged Polycarp to revile Christ, he replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”

The narrative concludes: “Such is the story of the blessed Polycarp. Although he (together with those from Philadelphia) was the twelfth person martyred in Smyrna, he alone is especially remembered by everyone, so that he is spoken of everywhere, even by pagans. He proved to be not only a distinguished teacher but also an outstanding martyr whose martyrdom all desire to imitate since it was in accord with the pattern of the gospel of Christ.” (19:1)

Avoid the love of money
One specific issue that Polycarp addresses in Philippi is the deadly sin of avarice. This sin had caused a problem in the congregation when one of their leaders proved unfaithful in the stewardship of church funds.

I am deeply grieved for Valens, who once was a presbyter among you, because he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him. I warn you, therefore, avoid love of money, and be pure and truthful. Avoid every kind of evil. But how can someone who is unable to exercise self-control in these matters preach self-control to anyone else? Anyone who does not avoid love of money will be polluted by idolatry and will be judged as one of the Gentiles, who are ignorant of the Lord’s judgment.

…Therefore, brothers and sisters, I am deeply grieved for him and for his wife; may the Lord grant them true repentance. You, therefore, for your part must be reasonable in this matter, and do not regard such people as enemies, but, as sick and straying members, restore them, in order that you may save your body in its entirety. For by doing this you build up one another. (11:1-4)

Throughout the letter, as the Bishop gives instructions to various groups in the church, he repeatedly warns against “the love of money.” How sad that our spiritual lives can get sidetracked by material greed! And how ironic that Paul had commended this very church in his NT epistle for their singular spirit of generosity and sacrifice. We must not forget that the first act of God’s judgment in the NT church was upon Ananias and Sapphira for lying about money. It has been a concern ever since.

Polycarp’s timeless words commending Christian virtue that grows out of Christ’s grace and salvation are the great counter to this and all temptations:

Stand fast, therefore, in these things and follow the example of the Lord, firm and immovable in faith, loving the family of believers, cherishing one another, united in the truth, giving way to one another in the gentleness of the Lord, despising no one. When you are able to do good, do not put it off, because charity delivers one from death.

All of you be subject to one another, and maintain an irreproachable standard of conduct among the Gentiles, so that you may be praised for your good deeds and the Lord may not be blasphemed because of you. But woe to the one through whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed. Therefore teach to all the self-control by which you yourselves live. (10:1-3)

Text cited from:
The Apostolic Fathers, by Michael W. Holmes


  1. “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”

    I’d like to think I would do the same, but I really don’t know.

    • Hopefully neither of us will ever have to find out — but it’s good to know we have such great examples to follow if we do. (Most notably the example of Jesus that Polycarp followed.)

      I remember reading about Polycarp’s martyrdom as a young believer (can’t recall if I was reading Eusebius or Foxe) and thinking “wow, Polycarp was studly!” My mind has not changed on that matter.

  2. Great stuff Chaplain Mike… love this Early church father stuff….

    They do seem to talk alot about perseverance…

  3. Bravo CM, I would love to see more of this type of stuff here at IM

  4. Love it, CM. Thanks for feeding us a good Friday meal.

  5. “When you are able to do good, do not put it off …”

    Lord, grant me such urgency!

  6. David Cornwell says

    Very humbling and inspirational. Great reading for this time of Lent.

  7. “and do not regard such people as enemies, but, as sick and straying members”

    “giving way to one another in the gentleness of the Lord, despising no one”

    Polycarp sounds like a gentle man. Thanks for doing this series, Chaplain Mike. It’s interesting to think what it would have been like to live at that time.

  8. A fine, inspiring post, CM. Thank you.

  9. The humility heard in Polycarp’s gentle rebuke is not only refreshing, it’s a word and example I needed to hear just now. Thank you.

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