A disciple of the apostle John, Polycarp (69-156) is perhaps the most important link between the age of the Church Fathers and the New Testament era.
He was appointed by some of the apostles as bishop of the church at Smyrna, a pivotal church in modern day Turkey, and was one of the earliest defenders of the faith against the new heresies that rose up along side orthodox Christianity.
|A mural of Polycarp’s martyrdom can be found in the Catholic church near Smyrna.
The man to the far left is believed to be a self-portrait of the artist, Raymond Péré.
Who was Polycarp?
Much of what we know about Polycarp’s life comes from the writings of other Church Fathers, like Irenaeus and Tertullian. We know that he met with and was converted by apostles who had personally been with Jesus. In particular, he studied under John. Later, the apostles appointed him as pastor at Smyrna.
As a leader of the church during the transitional period after the deaths of the apostles, Polycarp helped to provide steady, humble leadership to a growing movement which faced many challenges and difficulties.
He traveled to Rome to discuss disagreements over some issues, including the date of the celebration of Easter. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp and the bishop of Rome, Anicetus, came to quick agreement over core doctrinal issues, while agreeing to disagree over the proper time to celebrate Easter.
In Rome, Polycarp helped to confront heresies, particularly gnosticism and those following Marcion, who held heretical beliefs about the nature of God and rejected the Old Testament. Polycarp was able to convince many of those in Marcionism that they were in error.
The story of his martyrdom in 156 is relayed in a letter written to the church in Smyrna, which survived as is known as, appropriately enough, The Martyrdom of Polycarp. In it, the bishop is described as bravely facing his fate and boldly responding to his persecutors’ request to deny Christ and worship Caesar: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Polycarp was put to death for his King.
Why do you need to know Polycarp?
Outside of the New Testament itself, Polycarp’s epistle to the church at Philippi is one of the oldest Christian documents we possess. From it, we can gather that Polycarp was a man of immense humility, despite his sitting under the feet of John and being an important leader in the early Christian church.
We also find that he was one who greatly valued Scripture. Some have suggested that it was he who first set out to gather and distribute what would become the books of the New Testament. In his letter, he quotes frequently from the Bible, even referencing Paul and his letters “from the study of which you will be able to build yourselves up into the faith given you.”
This lets us know that it did not take years and years for the New Testament books to garner reverence and become regarded as inspired pieces of Scripture. It happened, if not immediately, almost immediately.
His leadership in the Church helped it move beyond the lives of the apostles to everyone else. He held fast on core doctrinal issues, while being gracious over less essential matters. His humility through out his life, regardless of the circumstances, can be of great encouragement to those who follow after him.
Simply put, Polycarp provides a great example to anyone who seeks to stand firm for Christ during an age that challenges the central tenets of the faith, while being loving to those inside and outside the church.
Odd Trivia Fact: The Martyrdom of Polycarp (16:1) records that the fire that had been set to burn the bishop alive would not touch him, so an executioner was sent to stab him in the chest. After this, it says a dove burst from his chest and so much blood came out that it put out the fire.
Regardless of the specifics, it seems clear that Christ provided an evident difference in the way Polycarp lived and died.