As we near the end of the New Testament, we naturally see the end of the apostolic era. These apostles, and others closely associated with them, have given us the Scriptures of the New Testament. Tradition tells us that most of them were martyred for their faith and their obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples.
Church history properly starts at Pentecost, as a community of faith is produced through Peter’s apostolic preaching. They are a community of one baptism, signifying their allegiance to one Lord, Jesus Christ. The apostles are the primary foundation builders of the universal church and the first generation of churches is characterized by something that future generations have longed for: apostolic authority.
What would happen to the church once these men pass from the scene? We get a glimpse of this in Paul’s letters to Timothy, his son in the faith. Timothy is to entrust the deposit of doctrine and the life that accompanies true belief to faithful men of future generations who are also able to teach others. It is a simple strategy, but on a human level, one of utmost importance if we are to see Christ continuing to build His church.
From Apostles to Fathers
At the turn of the first century, all the apostles have passed away. Their Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations is now officially passed on to the next generation. There is a clear void to fill. Not only must the gospel continue its spread across the world, but existing churches need to be strengthened so that the church can remain the pillar and support of the truth. Who will fill this considerable void left by the apostles? Who will continue to pass the torch for the gospel to succeeding generations? Who will carry the baton and continue to feed the sheep of Jesus?
We often have a romanticised view of what the early churches must have been like: “they are so close to the time of the apostles” we say. And even though this is true and providentially a unique privilege for those early churches, the reality is that these were still infant churches so to speak. The simplicity we imagine for these second generation churches is too simplistic. The church had yet to fight some of the major theological battles that would help her to mature and be purified, and yes, to separate from those who would undermine and even deny the faith as it was handed down once for all for the saints.
So we too are in a very privileged position. We have the benefit of standing on some pretty broad shoulders, leveraging off the wisdom of those battles already fought throughout church history. These early churches did not have this comfort. Given these immense challenges that second generation churches would face, who would take up the task?
Enter Polycarp: one of the most significant characters in the early history of the church during the patristic era (the word patristic is derived from the Latin word for ‘father’—thus denoting the era of the early church fathers). Polycarp, along with other prominent figures such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius, plays a major role in helping the church transition from the apostolic era to the post-apostolic era. He exemplifies Paul’s instruction to Timothy mentioned earlier, by passing down the faith of the saints to future generations. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the foremost early apologists of the Christian faith, was mentored by Polycarp.
Polycarp plays a major role in helping the church transition from the apostolic era to the post-apostolic era.Tweet
Polycarp, born around 65 AD, himself discipled by the apostle John, became the renowned Bishop of Smyrna. Of his life little is known, but the little we have is highly interesting. Irenaeus paints this picture of his mentor in a few sentences:
I could describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and taught; his going out and coming in; the whole tenor of his life; his personal appearance; how he would speak of the conversations he had held with John and with others who had seen the Lord. How did he make mention of their words and of whatever he had heard from them respecting the Lord.
Irenaeus, who would later make his own significant contribution to church history, even eclipsing his mentor, was a fervent admirer of Polycarp throughout his life. He was instructed by John, along with his good friend and contemporary Ignatius.
The fact that Polycarp “was instructed by the apostles and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ” stirs our curiosity. Polycarp was therefore considered a living link with the disciples of Jesus and the apostles. In the absence of the Bible as we know it, men like Polycarp were considered the best and most authoritative sources of information about what the apostles taught and how they led churches. Instinctively we are drawn to Polycarp because he lived in such close proximity to the apostles. We anticipate a purity to his doctrine since he was instructed by an apostle. And even though this is true, we must remember that he is serving an infant church. As we will see, Polycarp lived in a time of persecution. As with many other ancient writers, the meaning of suffering became a central concern. Without seeking suffering, they has their share of it.
We may not have as much information on Polycarp as we might have wanted, especially regarding his conversations with the apostles. It is still evident that he was not a one-dimensional follower of the Lord. It is therefore with much excitement that we look at Polycarp’s life.
We will survey Polycarp’s life along the following lines: first, Polycarp as bishop; and second, Polycarp in Smyrna. These first two sections will cover some historical background that will provide the context for three further aspects of his life: Polycarp as theologian; Polycarp as martyr; and finally, Polycarp as example—we will explore the ways in which Polycarp can still be an example to us today as we live out the Christian life.
Polycarp as Bishop
For those in an autonomously governed local church, perhaps when we hear the word ‘bishop’ we may be tempted to twitch and even to be suspicious of those with such a title. Give me elders any day of the week; bishops belong to Anglicanism or worse to Roman Catholicism. Not only is this kind of thinking anachronistic, but it also betrays our ignorance of the complexity of church history. To understand Polycarp’s role as the Bishop of Smyrna we need to trace what a bishop was in the New Testament era and then follow the progression of this church office into the post-apostolic era.
A bishop is an overseer of the flock of God. He is to pastor and shepherd the church. During the New Testament era, the title ‘bishop’ describes the function of an elder—one who oversees.  In passages like Titus 1:5-7, the terms ‘overseer’ and ‘elder’ seem to be interchangeable. The qualifications of a bishop and his duties are supplied in 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus 1. In a nutshell, a bishop needs to be a man of godly character, blameless and able to teach. Although the New Testament refers to bishops and elders, it never mentions these terms as distinct from one another, as to indicate separate functions, despite the best efforts of some historians who try to claim that a distinction between elder and bishop is of apostolic origin.
The pattern of appointing elders is clear from the practice of Paul and Barnabas. They appointed elders in all the churches they founded on their missionary journeys. It is clear that elders had a decisive place in church life. The stability and purity of the flock depended largely on them in times of temptation or crisis. Their position of authority by extension was ripe for abuse.
Now, by the time we come to the post-apostolic era in the 2nd-century, there are clearly three distinct positions of leadership in the church: bishop, elder and deacon. In the letters of Polycarp’s contemporary, Ignatius, we see a clear distinction between the offices of bishop and elder, this includes a letter written by Ignatius to Polycarp himself. By association it is clear that Polycarp as bishop practices a threefold order of ministry ordination. He is the bishop, possibly assisted by several elders and deacons. For the church in Smyrna, Polycarp functions as its chief pastor and administrator.
This process of creating a distinction between the office of bishop and elder becomes important in the development of the doctrine of apostolic succession in the early church. By about 150 AD it is widely held that bishops and not elders were the direct successors of the apostles and they were therefore the chief guardians of the apostolic teaching.
Even though this introduction of hierarchy into church leadership is unwarranted in light of biblical prescriptions, it is evident that Polycarp was qualified to be a bishop according to biblical requirements. He was a man of godly character and he possessed the ability to teach. Herein lies some of the complexity of exploring saints from church history. Here we have a man characterized by godliness, yet he operates within a deviation from the New Testament blueprint. And since we have perfect hindsight, we are well aware of the trouble this distinction between bishop and elder caused throughout church history, chiefly among the hierarchical structures of the Roman Catholic Church.
Before we are too eager to pass judgment on Polycarp and his generation, and thereby reveal our chronological snobbery, we would do well to understand why they introduced this distinction between bishop and elder, although these reasons do not suffice to overturn or undermine the biblical template for church governance.
The distinction may be accounted for by identifying sociological pressures from within and from outside the church. For practical reasons it may have seemed beneficial, even necessary, for a single man to be the chief administrator in a city consisting of various house churches or groups of fellowship. In these circumstances, the bishop became the chief pastor ruling over several churches in one geographical area. Additionally, as the church became more Gentile-orientated, the danger of heresies increased and therefore greater emphasis was placed on the authority of the bishop.
By all accounts Polycarp was a respected bishop, someone who performed his duties with excellence and thereby gained a fine reputation as an ambassador of Christ. We are always to pursue doctrinal purity through following biblical instruction faithfully. What this aspect of Polycarp’s ministry teaches us is that we probably all have blind spots we do not recognize. And yet, Christ continues to build His church, and continues to feed His sheep through imperfect human instruments.
Polycarp in Smyrna
What do we know about the church in Smyrna, where Polycarp served as bishop? Available historical information is silent on how Polycarp ascended to the role of bishop in this city. We will therefore piece together the information we have to paint a picture of the kind of church Polycarp was the overseer of.
Smyrna was a Greek city located at a strategic point on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Due to its advantageous port conditions, its ease of defense and its good inland connections, Smyrna rose to prominence. Today Smyrna is known as Izmir in Turkey. Around 130 BC, Smyrna was organized into the Roman province of Asia. This happened as Roman influence started to increase in the ancient Mediterranean world and the Greek influence started to decrease. Smyrna is said to have created the cult of the goddess Roma to build ties with the city of Rome. Even though Pergamum was made the capital of this newly constituted Roman province, Smyrna, as a major seaport, became a leading city in the province. As one of the principal cities in the area, Smyrna competed with Pergamum and Ephesus to be the leading city of Asia Minor.
The church in Smyrna was likely founded by Paul or someone associated with Paul on his third missionary journey during the time where he used Ephesus as the base for his ministry. Paul proclaimed the gospel in the synagogue in Ephesus for a period of three months (Acts 19:8). Paul subsequently withdrew his disciples and started teaching them in the hall of Tyrannus for the next two years (Acts 19:9-10). Acts 19:10 provides a clue that the Smyrnaean church may have been founded during this two-year period: This (Paul’s teaching of the gospel) continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. Luke’s mention of Asia here most likely refers to the province of Asia, and since Smyrna is about 35 miles from Ephesus it is highly probable that this city was reached with the gospel during this time. As with many of the other churches that Paul and his companions planted, this church probably originated among a Jewish colony of the dispersion to which Greeks were then added.
Smyrna is also one of the seven churches in the book of Revelation to whom the John writes, probably during the closing decade of the first century. At this point it is unclear if Polycarp had already come under the tutelage of John. We could, however, speculate along with others in church history that Polycarp may have been the “angel of the church in Smyrna” to whom the Master says, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
The words of our Lord Jesus to the church in Smyrna were as follows:
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’Rev. 2:8-11 (ESV)
Through John, Christ delivered a message meant to encourage them in light of what they were facing presently and were about to face in the future. The church at Smyrna was to undergo some intense persecution and tribulation. Jesus wanted to encourage them to stand strong, even if it meant physical death.
As we move into the post-apostolic era we know that Ignatius, who was the Bishop of Antioch, visited Smyrna and wrote a letter to them and to Polycarp, their bishop. From the letter of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans we can reconstruct some of what the pressing concerns were in this church, concerns that Polycarp as their bishop would have to deal with.
Ignatius clearly expresses the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In His death, Christ truly suffered on our behalf, not in appearance only. In His resurrection, Christ possesses a human body. Ignatius thanks God that the church in Smyrna holds to the gospel faith as he does. Ignatius warns them to guard themselves against heretics, especially those who say that Jesus was human in appearance only. This is an early heresy known as Docetism. They are to pray that these heretics would repent; since they deny Christ’s incarnation, they altogether deny Christ. In no uncertain terms, those who do not believe that Jesus came in the flesh and shed His blood for the salvation of the world will be condemned and do not have eternal life. He instructs them to separate from these heretics who are ashamed of the cross, who mock Christ’s passion and make jest of the resurrection. They are not even to talk with them, publicly or privately. Such abominable heresies just lead to schisms and evils. Ignatius encourages the church to honour their bishop. They are not to baptize or celebrate communion without Polycarp, for it is then unlawful. All marriages should also take place with Polycarp’s knowledge. To do anything without the bishop is to destroy the unity of the church and to replace order with confusion. The laity should be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the elders, and the elders to the bishop who submits to Christ. Ignatius commends the church for receiving servants of Christ and giving them refreshment. He thanks them for their prayers on behalf of the saints at Antioch and encourages them to send an envoy to Antioch for mutual edification. After saluting Polycarp by name, he greets various individuals of the church and commends the whole church to the grace of God. He prays that they would be filled with the Holy Spirit and sacred wisdom.
Polycarp as Theologian
With the historical background in place concerning Polycarp’s role as bishop and the development of the church in Smyrna he shepherded, we can now turn to his writings to learn from his theological insights.
Unfortunately for us, only one of his letters is available to study today. Polycarp wrote a letter to the church at Philippi, which will be the source of our theological exploration. His letter to Philippi is not a theological treatise, but as with many of the epistles of the New Testament, it serves as an occasional letter. This reality leaves us with two options: we can decide to neglect this letter’s contribution to theology along the lines of one writer who says that it lacks theological sophistication or significance for the story of theology, or we can decide to embrace it and see the glimpses and anticipations of future theological developments. At the same time we will see that orthodox beliefs were always present, even if they are conveyed in embryonic form. Let’s follow the second option.
Based on Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, the theologian Thomas Oden was able to identify the following theological insights:
- Polycarp was more concerned with the proclamation of the love, power and the justice of God the Father through the Son, than with the bare existence of God. Our doctrine of God should emphasize what God has done in the gospel and we should not be fixated on proving His existence.
- Christ’s descent into Hades between his death and resurrection was assumed, confessed and affirmed by Polycarp.
- The saving work of redemption that Christ accomplished is applied and embodied in our temporal lives by the Holy Spirit. Polycarp reveals an early and accurate understanding of the Spirit’s role in salvation.
- That faith is accompanied by hope and led by love. Polycarp understood that genuine faith produces a sure expectation in the promises of God.
- Believers are called to imitate Christ and grow in maturity. Polycarp understood that the love of Christ compels us to love others and that this grace is effectual in transforming our lives.
These theological insights are certainly significant and we neglect them at our own peril. Additionally, a reading of Polycarp’s letter also reveals some practical insights that demonstrate that he was not only concerned with doctrine, but also with practice. Believers are to live out what they believe in the church and in the world at large.
Some of these practical insights include:
- In light of the coming judgement believers are to live virtuously: the way we live in obedience demonstrates whether we really love Christ.
- We should teach ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord by forsaking the love of the things of the world.
- Wives are to love their husbands in tenderness and purity, raising children in the knowledge of the Lord.
- Widows should act in accordance with the faith of the Lord by steering clear of slandering and evil speech.
- Deacons should be blameless before the Lord, exercising compassion and walking according to the truth as servants of all.
- Young men should be blameless, preserving their purity and forsaking the lusts of the world.
- Elders should be merciful to all, seeking those who wander, visiting the sick, not neglecting the widows or the poor, not too severe in judgment, and eager to restore.
- The church should be zealous in pursuit of what is good by pursuing unity and keeping themselves from false believers and hypocrisy.
- The church is to persevere in fasting, praying, hoping in the promises of God, and enduring with patience.
- The church is to remain steadfast in the truth and conduct themselves blamelessly before outsiders so that God may be glorified.
- Members of the congregation should not harbour anger towards one another.
Polycarp understood that the love of Christ compels us to love others and that this grace is effectual in transforming our lives.Tweet
Polycarp’s letter overflows with practical wisdom which demonstrates that pastoral concerns were never far from his mind. We close this section by mentioning two features of his letter that should serve as encouragement to us who hold to the authority of scripture.
Firstly, Polycarp’s letter is characterized by humility. He does not claim authority to impose his instructions, but rather implores the Philippian church to only obey him as far as he represents the apostolic witness.
Secondly, Polycarp’s letter, which is not more than four pages long, contains more than 50 scriptural references. The heart of good theology always has been and always will be a saturation with God-breathed scripture.
Polycarp as Martyr
We now turn to one of the most famous incidents of second century Christianity: the martyrdom of Polycarp. The circumstances surrounding his martyrdom and the details of his execution have been preserved for us in a document known as “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp.” Scholars are generally in agreement that some of the more miraculous events contained in this epistle have been embellished. Still, we can have confidence that most of the core details of this eye witness account are indeed authentic.
Before we get into the details of Polycarp’s martyrdom, it is important for us to understand persecution in the second century. About 40 years earlier a correspondence took place between the then emperor Trajan and one of his governors, Pliny the Younger. The emperor’s instructions to Pliny were brief, but they provide clarity about the reality of persecution in that era. In a nutshell, the state was not to waste time in seeking out Christians for punishment. If they were accused, though, of being Christian and refused to recant, they would face punishment. Those who do recant and worship the gods should be pardoned without further inquiries. Anonymous accusations should be completely disregarded.
In around 155 AD, some Christians were brought before the authorities in Smyrna and withstood all attempts to renounce their faith. This instigated the anger of a mob who were calling for Polycarp’s life. Polycarp initially fled and, on the advice of his flock, hid himself for several days. Upon being discovered, he decided to flee no more as he decided that his arrest was according to the will of God.
Even though Polycarp was not hounded throughout his life, the mob which included Jews had now accused him and he had to defend himself. What followed would have a considerable impact on the understanding of martyrdom within the church. As one writer concludes concerning the epistle of Polycarp’s martyrdom, “Other than its possible influence on the growing ‘cult of martyrs’ among Christians (that is, the tendency to venerate martyrs as ‘saints’), this document has no theological significance.” This may be too harsh an assessment of its impact, but there is no doubt that these kinds of events instilled a desire for the glory of the martyrs among Christians under persecution. This was also true of Polycarp’s friend Ignatius.
Still, this document and Polycarp’s martyrdom are not theologically insignificant, as we will see with how ingrained Trinitarian teaching was in Polycarp’s prayer before his martyrdom. Polycarp in his martyrdom exemplifies what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord; this confession must be spoken where necessary among the enemies of Christ, precisely where it brings danger and reproach.
What follows is an extended quotation from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. We really cannot improve upon the vividness and dramatic impact of eyewitness testimony.
Now, as soon as he had ceased praying, having made mention of all that had at any time come in contact with him, both small and great, illustrious and obscure, as well as the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the time of his departure having arrived, they set him upon an ass, and conducted him into the city, the day being that of the great Sabbath. And the Irenarch Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a chariot), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated themselves beside him, and endeavoured to persuade him, saying, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” But he at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said, “I shall not do as you advise me.” So they, having no hope of persuading him, began to speak bitter words unto him, and cast him with violence out of the chariot, insomuch that, in getting down from the carriage, he dislocated his leg [by the fall]. But without being disturbed, and as if suffering nothing, he went eagerly forward with all haste, and was conducted to the stadium, where the tumult was so great, that there was no possibility of being heard.
Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar,” he answered, “Since thou art vainly urgent that, as thou sayest, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and thou shalt hear them.” The proconsul replied, “Persuade the people.” But Polycarp said, “To thee I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.”
The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium thrice, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.” This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.” Speaking thus, they cried out, and besought Philip the Asiarch to let loose a lion upon Polycarp. But Philip answered that it was not lawful for him to do so, seeing the shows of wild beasts were already finished. Then it seemed good to them to cry out with one consent, that Polycarp should be burnt alive. For thus it behooved the vision which was revealed to him in regard to his pillow to be fulfilled, when, seeing it on fire as he was praying, he turned about and said prophetically to the faithful that were with him,” I must be burnt alive.”
This, then, was carried into effect with greater speed than it was spoken, the multitudes immediately gathering together wood and fagots out of the shops and baths; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it. And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals,–a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”
They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast fore-ordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.
Polycarp as Example
Up to this point we have seen Polycarp in his role as bishop. We also have an understanding of the church in Smyrna he ministered to. We have discovered some of his theological insights and we saw that his doctrine was both practical and that it anticipated some of the future formulations of orthodoxy. We have also been drawn to the remarkable event of his martyrdom and how this event reveals his true allegiance to his Lord.
What church history does is that it fashions for us examples. If the saints of the past were faithful in imitating Christ, it fashions examples for us to emulate. If some of these saints have wandered, it is often perplexing to us, but it offers us an opportunity to understand their contexts and to apply some proper self-evaluation on ourselves. In this concluding section, we will highlight four aspects of Polycarp’s life that serve as examples and help us grow in Christlikeness.
- Polycarp was serious about making disciples. We saw that Polycarp was diligent in handing over apostolic tradition. A prime example of this is through his disciple Irenaeus, a man who would go on to eclipse Polycarp.
- Polycarp pledged steadfast allegiance to Christ. Polycarp’s martyrdom should encourage us that it is possible to face adversaries in any area of life without the need to compromise our commitment to Christ. Additionally, we come to understand that God truly is faithful to His children and He provides the grace and strength that causes them to persevere.
- Polycarp was serious about letting the Bible speak. Polycarp’s dependence on Scripture in his letter is noteworthy. He did not claim authority, but derived authority from the teaching and application of Scripture. This fashions a model for us on how to encourage and admonish one another. Our words have authority if they align with the Bible.
- Polycarp was serious about purity. Whether it be personal holiness in the lives of his flock or purity in doctrine as a means to maintain the unity of the church, Polycarp’s instruction regarding purity is vital if we want to preserve what is righteous about the church and if we want to grow in the image of Christ.
God is to be glorified for such men as Polycarp! Amen.
 A. Roberts, J. Donaldson & A. C. Coxe. eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I. New York: Cosimo Books, 2007, 32.
 Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 31.
 Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2010, 84.
 Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 32.
 R. E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 40.
 Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 1992, 436.
 W. A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, 170.
 Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 113.
 Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 369.
 Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 113.
 Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 170.
 Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 171.
 Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 171.
 Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 262.
 Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 114.
 Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 31.
 What follows is a summary of this letter. Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 86-92.
 Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 115.
 Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 48.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 80.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 450.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 564.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 608.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 677.
 Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 33-36.
 Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 37.
 Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity. 50.
 Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity. 54.
 Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 48.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 118.
 Oden, Classic Christianity, 581.
 Roberts, et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, 39-44.