A (brief)Who’s Who in the Early Church.

Mostly last year, as I was getting this blog started, I profiled several key figures in the development of the Early Church. I hope to do more of these, as it is always helpful to look at some examples of faithful believers who have gone before us. Below are the links to these blogs, do go and check out one or two of these Early Christian characters.

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy

Ignatius: Focused on Unity

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Clement of Alexandria: Evangelist and Intellectual

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

A recent more detailed series on Clement of Alexandria’s life and work is available here:

Clement of Alexandria: The Intentional Christian Life

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

The Exhortation of Clement of Alexandria: An Appeal to Reasoned Faith

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy.

Image result for irenaeus of lyons

Irenaeus was a second century Bishop and theologian. Born c.125, Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp (more on him can be found here), who in turn had heard the Apostle John teaching the Gospel. Irenaeus was converted as a young man, and after taking this defining and challenging decision to follow Christ in a hostile ancient world, Irenaeus ended up in Lyons.

The then bishop of the city, the local church leader Pothinus, sent the young Christian to Rome, where Irenaeus was on mission for the cause of the Gospel. During this time away from Lyons, a fierce persecution broke out, and Pothinus was among the many Christians in and around the city to be put to death.

The Lyons that Irenaeus returned to was a different town to the one he had left only a few years before. But shortly after his return in c.180, Irenaeus was made Bishop of the small surviving church there, and it is in this role he would remain till his death in c.202 AD.

Irenaeus is remembered as a teacher, writer and theologian, whose most famous work was his Refutation Of Heresies.

Irenaeus’ Refutation primarily challenged the heresy of Gnosticism.

The gnostics arose during the first century, and operated on the fringes of Christian and Jewish groups. They taught transcendence and enlightenment, not sin and salvation. The gnostic considered the way to salvation being a personal understanding of the supreme divine, a mysterious force that they taught superseded the Christian God. Christ, sin and repentance were all concepts discarded by the gnostic, instead their writings deal with spiritual forces, transcendence and wisdom. Such wisdom made them an elite sect, only the enlightened could access their spirituality, and understand the role their gods and powers played in the world

Clearly, these gnostics had moved far away from the Gospel, and rightly, Irenaeus challenged them on this.

Irenaeus rightly taught the wonderful Gospel message, that God so loved the world He had made, He sent His one and only Son to pay the penalty that fallen, sinful men and women deserved, so that we could know Him, and life afresh. And Irenaeus taught that this was a message for everyone. That it did not matter how clever or elite or rich you were. All you had to do was come to Christ in repentance. He refuted the elitist, transcendent claims of the gnostics, instead offering a Gospel that clung to Scripture, and rested wholly on who Christ is and what He had done.

Three Things Irenaeus Taught

In response to the Gnostics, Irenaeus wrote his Refutation. I just want to pull out three things he taught within it, very briefly.

Irenaeus emphasised the importance of the Local Church. He was perhaps the first writer to speak of the catholic church – the universal church to which all Christians are members. But Irenaeus recognised that the true importance for the Christian was the Local Church. Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Lyons and Rome were all local congregations. Part of this wider body of the bride of Christ, but in themselves manifestations of that body in their local communities. He recognised this universal true church of believers, but saw that this wider church was seen in the local church. He wasn’t speaking of a Catholic Church, subservient to one particular figurehead, but instead a catholic church, Local Churches united in the Gospel the world over.

And this universality extended to the second point I want to draw out, Irenaeus urged his readers to recognise that the Gospel was for everyone. It was not the property of the intellectual or social elite, nor of the slaves and paupers. It was for everyone. Irenaeus contrasted the Gospel to Judaism. The latter preserved the purity of a single nation, but the former? Well “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28.) The Gospel is an appeal for all and to all. Jesus commanded His discples, go and make disciples of all nations! (Matthew 18:19) Go out with the Gospel said Irenaeus, and preach without reservation to all you meet.

Off the back of that: my final point. Irenaeus taught that the Gospel offer was a challenge. Christianity claimed the truth for all nations. But it claimed the truth. Not a truth, the Truth. Jesus said quite plainly. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6.) Irenaeus rallied against gnostics who taught that personal enlightenment could bring about divine peace and understanding. This simply isn’t the Gospel message.

Irenaeus reminded his readers that the Local Church held out a Gospel for all men, but not everyone would accept it. It necessitated a choice. An acceptance or rejection of the truth of Christ. A choice that each and every individual had to make, and still does today.

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

The agora of Smyrna, where the charge against Polycarp was read out.

My pastor recently opened his sermon with the story of Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna. It’s a story I’ve come across many times in my studies, and used in research papers on anything from Early Christian community organisation to evangelism in pagan urban environments. But I’ve never focussed in on the story itself, and it’s a gripping tale of a man standing fast for Christ in the face of persecution. A version of the story is preserved in the eponymous text, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. So this blog is going to be a bit different, focussing in on the story of Polycarp, who he was and what happened to him.

The  Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around 160 AD and provides our earliest account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. The text tells the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom: his arrest, trial and death, from the point of view of an eye witness. This witness tells us that he is writing his work so that we might see how Polycarp lived out the Gospel in his death.

So what happened?

Polycarp, an old man well into his 80s, was a key church leader in the Roman city of Smyrna. Though almost none of his teaching survives directly to us, the one letter we have, a missive to the church at Philippi, shows a pastoral man, humble and direct. He was a respected leader, both in his own time, and also in the centuries to come.

Born in AD 69, he was killed in 156.

Polycarp had heard the news that the Roman authorities were coming for him. But he did not run, seeing it better that he submit to the authorities God had placed over him. When friends urged him to flee, he calmly replied “The will of God be done” and waited for the inevitable.

Whilst he was resting in the country house of a good friend a short way out of the city, the soldiers arrived. Having tortured two slave boys for the location of the aged bishop, the soldiers rode out to the house and confronted Polycarp.

His response amazed them. He willingly submitted to them, but in a remarkable show of grace and humility, Polycarp fed and watered his captors, asking that he be given a few hours to pray alone before they took him away. The soldiers relented, giving him his time alone, and we are told that his humble kindness so amazed them that some began “to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

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?

Polycarp.

After he had prayed, the soldiers led him into the city and took him before the Roman proconsul. Here Polycarp was defiant. The proconsul, a senior Roman figure and the imperial authority in the region, demanded that Polycarp recant his faith. He demanded that Polycarp “swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” He pressed him, offering him his freedom and indeed, his life, if only he would recant his faith.

Polycarp could not. He looked at his captors and he 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?”

In this act of defiant faithfulness, Polycarp signed his own death warrant. The proconsul continued to press him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records the trial suffered by the old man. After being pressed hard, the old saint would not relent, and eventually, the proconsul sentenced him to death. The charge that was read to the people? “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”

Polycarp was taken to a pyre, put against a stake, and burned to death. The  Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how he prays as the flames surround him, and it says the smell was not like burning flesh but the beautiful aroma of a loaf baking. Polycarp was ready to go to His Lord and be forever with Him.

The death of Polycarp was religious persecution. State persecution. The charge was Christian faith, denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The story of Polycarp is a picture of humility, grace and faithfulness. At the end of it all, Polycarp considered his God worth everything he had. Even his very life.