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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, July 06 2023

Would you stand with Polycarp?

Polycarp, an elder who had served God for many years, remaining faithful to apostolic teaching and practice, including God’s annual Holy Days, was brought into the Roman arena and commanded to reject Christ or die.

United Church of God

The chants of the crowd in the Roman theater at Smyrna grew louder, demanding the deaths of more Christians, in addition to the many Christians who had already been killed as part of the violent games. “Away with the atheists!” they cried, in reference to those who denied the Roman gods. Then cries from the frenzied crowd demanded: “Let search be made for Polycarp!”

Polycarp was eventually found and brought before the Roman magistrate. The proconsul pressed him to swear by Caesar’s spirit and curse Christ, effectively telling him, “Deny your faith, and I will set you free.” Polycarp refused, saying: “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The pressure on Polycarp was then increased, and he was threatened with death by wild beasts or fire, but promised release if he would recant his faith. This was a moment of supreme testing for this aged man who was a dedicated elder in the province of Asia (now western Turkey) during the second century A.D. He had been taught by the Apostle John, and had upheld the teachings of Christ when others were compromising.

Polycarp lived in the period when the teachings and practices Jesus delivered to the original Church were being distorted and changed. It was a time of great internal stress for the Church. Roman authorities were clamping down on those subversives who refused even token participation in emperor worship, a symbol of state loyalty. (Be sure to click on the link below to find out more about the environment in which Polycarp lived and preached the truths of the Bible.)

Decades earlier, Jesus had directed the Apostle John in the book of Revelation to write a series of messages to the seven churches of Asia, including Smyrna, each fitting the locale and spiritual condition of the recipients (though these messages were also meant for the Church down through the ages). Christ’s message for members in Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop, is found in Revelation 2:8-11. It was intended to help them face a time of intense trial and martyrdom. In referring to Himself as “the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life,” Christ was assuring them He is in control of history, and even life and death. As He suffered and died and was raised to eternal life, so would it be with His followers.

Due to persecution, a growing number among the Christians were abandoning anything considered remotely “Jewish.” The early Church kept God’s seventh-day Sabbath, and observed the Passover and the other annual festivals God gave to Israel. Polycarp was keeping the Passover and other biblical festivals, and teaching the churches of Asia to do the same.

The Quartodeciman Controversy

One of the great controversies among Christians at that time was the continuing observance by Polycarp and others of the Passover on the biblical date of the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan in the spring in the northern hemisphere. The church of Rome and other western congregations had shifted to the observance of what would later be called Easter Sunday. Polycarp traveled to Rome to discuss the matter with the Roman bishop Anicetus, but the contention remained unresolved:

“For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance {in his own way}, inasmuch as these things had been always {so} observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep {the observance in his way}, for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters [or elders] who preceded him [in Rome]” (Irenaeus, Fragments 3, Ante-Nicene Fathers, newadvent.org).

The rift among the congregations continued to grow, with the matter becoming more heated a few decades later, when a Roman bishop sought to excommunicate the eastern churches over this matter. History labels those who kept the Passover observance and Festival of Unleavened Bread according to the teaching handed down from the apostolic era as Quartodecimans (or “Fourteeners,” for the 14th of Nisan). Church historian Henry Chadwick writes: “There can be little doubt that the Quartodecimans were right in thinking that they had preserved the most ancient and apostolic custom. They had become heretics simply by being behind the times” (The Early Church, 1967, p. 85).

With the background of the Quartodeciman Controversy, we can better understand the issues Polycarp faced before the Roman consul when he was being pressed to renounce his faith under threats of execution. This story is preserved for us in an early letter from the Smyrna congregation known as “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (also reproduced in Eusebius’ History of the Church, both of which you can find online). Faced with being burned alive, Polycarp said: “You threaten with fire that burns for a bit and after a little while is quenched, for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”

Polycarp was tied up on the pyre. With his final prayer looking forward to his resurrection, the fire was lit, but remarkably it billowed up around him without burning him. So an order was given to stab him through the flames, whereupon he bled to death, the fire strangely ceasing. At some agitators’ insistence, his dead body was then burned, successfully this time.

The example of Polycarp’s courage and faith in the truths of the Bible contains lessons for us today. Faith in the authentic teachings of the Bible are under attack from many quarters, as a rising tide of secular hostility to the Bible continues to mount. God’s great plan for human salvation is revealed through the festivals of God, outlined in the Bible.The same festivals and times of observance Polycarp taught and defended with his life.