Even Polycarp needed encouragement
About a week ago, our church calendar marked the feast of St. Polycarp (AD 69–155), bishop of Smyrna and martyr (Feb. 23). Such a commemoration could have included reading the account of his Martyrdom or his Letter to the Philippians. The aged pastor has been a source of comfort and encouragement to Christians since the days of his ministry and his death for the sake of our Lord. His connection to the apostles, his steadfast devotion, and his bold confession rightly make him a saint worth remembering and emulating. But as a redeemed sinner, a man who was in his weakness not always sure and steadfast, he also needed to receive comfort and encouragement from other pastors and teachers. This might sound familiar.
So, I recommend to you the letter Polycarp received from Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35–108). This brief letter, written by an old soldier in the ministry to a younger man, is full of exhortation and encouragement. Pursue the spiritual life with devotion in prayer. Fight courageously against heresy and be diligent to teach the proper duties of Christians within their stations. At least five times, Ignatius likens Polycarp to an athlete, pushing him to not give up. In short, Ignatius tells Polycarp to be a man and work hard in service to His Lord. Such a letter can strengthen weak hearts and steel us for the fight, so that we might also be sure and steadfast in our witness, whether in our words or death.
LETTER FROM IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH TO POLYCARP OF SMYRNA
Heartiest greetings from Ignatius, the “God–inspired,” to Polycarp, who is bishop of the church at Smyrna—or rather who has God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ for his bishop.
While I was impressed with your godly mind, which is fixed, as it were, on an immovable rock, I am more than grateful that I was granted the sight of your holy face. God grant I may never forget it! By the grace which you have put on, I urge you to press forward in your race and to urge everybody to be saved. Vindicate your position by giving your whole attention to its material and spiritual sides. Make unity your concern—there is nothing better than that. Lend everybody a hand, as the Lord does you. “Out of love be patient” (Eph. 4:2) with everyone, as indeed you are. Devote yourself to continual prayer. Ask for increasing insight. Be ever on the watch by keeping your spirit alert. Take a personal interest in those you talk to, just as God does. “Bear the diseases” (Matt. 8:17) of everyone, like an athlete in perfect form. The greater the toil, the greater the gain.
It is no credit to you if you are fond of good pupils. Rather by your gentleness subdue those who are annoying. Not every wound is healed by the same plaster. Relieve spasms of pain with poultices. In all circumstances be “wise as a serpent,” and perpetually “harmless as a dove” (Matt. 10:16). The reason you have a body as well as a soul is that you may win the favor of the visible world. But ask that you may have revelations of what is unseen. In that way you will lack nothing and have an abundance of every gift.
Just as pilots demand winds and a storm–tossed sailor a harbor, so times like these demand a person like you. With your help we will get to God. As God’s athlete, be sober. The prize, as you very well know, is immortality and eternal life. Bound as I am with chains that you kissed, I give my whole self for you—cheap sacrifice though it is!
You must not be panic–stricken by those who have an air of credibility but who teach heresy. Stand your ground like an anvil under the hammer. A great athlete must suffer blows to conquer. And especially for God’s sake must we put up with everything, so that he will put up with us. Show more enthusiasm than you do. Mark the times. Be on the alert for him who is above time, the Timeless, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet who for our sakes became subject to suffering, and endured everything for us.
Widows must not be neglected. After the Lord you must be their protector. Do not let anything be done without your consent; and do not do anything without God’s, as indeed you do not. Stand firm. Hold services more often. Seek out everybody by name. Do not treat slaves and slave girls contemptuously. Neither must they grow insolent. But for God’s glory they must give more devoted service, so that they may obtain from God a better freedom. Moreover, they must not be over–anxious to gain their freedom at the community’s expense, lest they prove to be slaves of selfish passion. Flee from such wicked practices—nay, rather, preach against them.
Tell my sisters to love the Lord and to be altogether contented with their husbands. Similarly urge my brothers in the name of Jesus Christ “to love their wives as the Lord loves the Church” (Eph. 5:25). If anyone can live in chastity for the honor of the Lord’s flesh, let him do so without ever boasting. If he boasts of it, he is lost; and if he is more highly honored than the bishop, his chastity is as good as forfeited. It is right for men and women who marry to be united with the bishop’s approval. In that way their marriage will follow God’s will and not the promptings of lust. Let everything be done so as to advance God’s honor.
Pay attention to the bishop so that God will pay attention to you. I give my life as a sacrifice (poor as it is) for those who are obedient to the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons. Along with them may I get my share of God’s reward! Share your hard training together—wrestle together, run together, suffer together, go to bed together, get up together, as God’s stewards, assessors, and assistants. Give satisfaction to Him in whose ranks you serve and from whom you get your pay. Let none of you prove a deserter. Let your baptism be your arms; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your endurance, your armor. Let your deeds be your deposits, so that you will eventually get back considerable savings. Be patient, then, and gentle with each other, as God is with you. May I always be happy about you! *
*I omitted the final few paragraphs of the letter as they are focused on practical and historical concerns of various congregations and individual members. The entire letter may be found in The Library of Christian Classics, Volume I: Early Christian Fathers. Translated & edited by Cyril C. Richardson. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953.