February, 2013

On the Shoulders of Giants – Polycarp of Smyrna

Ever so often while reading about Church History, a name will jump out at me and I’ll think, “If I ever have another child, that is what his name will be!” Polycarp of Smyrna is just such a name. And his faith and steadfast love for Christ are worthy of honor.


Polycarp is a lesser known figure in Church history, but an important one with a tremendous testimony. Polycarp (69 – 155 AD) was a 2nd century bishop in Smyrna (modern day Western Turkey). Smyrna is the second church addressed by John in Revelation 2-3. It was an important city in the time of the early church. And Polycarp was the leader of the church in this city. Irenaeus and Tertullian (two 2nd century Christian writers) record that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Apostle. Remember, John was the youngest of the apostles and also lived the longest. John probably died around 100 AD. So Polycarp was one level removed from Jesus and most likely would have been acquainted with John while he was writing the Gospel of John, the Letters of John, and Revelation. It is interesting to note that of the seven cities addressed in letter in Revelation 2-3, Smyrna is the only one not told to repent. It appears that John’s disciple was not only a faithful example but a good pastor.

One of Polycarp’s greatest contributions to the church may have been his resolute faith in the face of certain death. It was in his death that he was able to demonstrate how we are to live. The emperors of Rome had instituted a series of brutal attacks on the Christian church. This was largely because Christians would not offer sacrifices or worship the Caesar as Lord. This was viewed as treasonous by the Roman government. The government reasoned that they only way to deal with treason is to make a spectacle of the traitor so that no one else would be encouraged to follow in the acts of sedition.

By this time, Polycarp was an elderly man. He was, however, seen by the authorities as an important leader in the church and one they needed to eliminate. Polycarp had not wished to leave his church or the city, but the people in his church urged him to hide. He hid in a farmhouse outside of the city when he was discovered. Despite his friends urging him to run, Polycarp simply replied, “God’s will be done.” He invited the soldiers into the house and actually made them breakfast. In the midst of his being arrested and brought in to be killed, he showed the soldiers a generous hospitality. This should be a challenge to us who struggle with finding time to be hospitable with our neighbors. If Polycarp could find the time and motivation to do it, we can too.

Polycarp was arrested on the charge of being a Christian. On the journey into the city, the sergeant in charge repeated pleaded with Polycarp to recant his faith, deny Christ, and all would be over. He could be released right now. Polycarp politely declined. He brought to the city and questioned by the authorities. The 4th century historian Eusebius records the dialogue:


Proconsul: I have respect for your age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Swear. I will set you free. Curse Christ.

Polycarp: Eighty-six years I have served him and he did me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?

Proconsul: I have beasts, and I will throw you to them unless you repent

Polycarp: Bring them, for repentance from better to worse is not a change to be desired, but it is good to change from cruelty to justice.

Proconsul: If you do not fear the beasts, I will have you consumed by fire. So repent.

Polycarp: You threaten me with a fire that burns for an hour and is speedily quenched; so you know nothing of the fire of the judgment to come and of the eternal punishment which is reserved for the wicked. Why delay? Give your orders.

As Polycarp was burning to death on pyre, a Roman soldier had compassion on him and quickly killed him with his sword. Polycarp died because of his unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ. He is an example of a life well-lived. I pray for his courage for all of us. Would it be that at the end of a long life following Christ, we could echo Polycarp’s words, “Eighty-six years I have served him and he did me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” As we peer from the shoulders of giants, may we look to their example of faith in Christ and long to see God do such a work in our lives.


On the Shoulders of Giants – Augustine of Hippo

The history of the Church is often referred to that of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. This phrase is historically attributed to Bernard of Chartres who likely developed it by observing the art and architecture of the Cathedral of Chartres in France. In the cathedral the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) appear smaller than the four Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) but have a greater vantage point of the Messiah because they stand on the shoulders of these prophetic giants. Like the Gospel writers, the Church today has a greater view of the Messiah because we stand on the shoulders of the giants of Church history. We have the privilege of seeing the Gospel more clearly than the earlier prophets because we stand in the light of the risen Son. We benefit from the giants of the Church who have wrestled with the issues of our faith. We benefit from their mistakes and triumphs. We benefit from their examples.

Augustine of Hippo is one of greatest of these giants. He was born in Hippo (modern day Algeria) in 354 to middle class parents. His father was not a believer until the year before his death but his mother, Monica, had a deep and abiding faith. Augustine was given the best education that they could afford. His studies instilled in him a quest to find the “enjoyment of my God.”¹ This quest led him through various pagan philosophies, but Augustine knew that what held him back from enjoying God was not intellectual. He struggled mightily with sexual lust. “I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy [God] (as opposed to his lusts), but I could not….”

It wasn’t until 386 that Augustine was deeply convicted by his bondage to lust. He sought refuge in a small garden but the Spirit continued to gnaw at his conscience. He flung himself down beneath a fig tree where he heard the voice of a child saying “Tolle lege” (Take and read). Augustine knew this was a divine command to pick up the Scriptures. He turned to the passage which the Bishop Ambrose had recently preached, “Not in lust…Rather arm yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:13, 14). In an instant Augustine felt his heart flooded with light and all darkness dispelled.” This was it! He had found the object for which he heart so yearned. His restless heart had been stilled by the fullness and peace of the Gospel.

Few people in the history of the church have had a greater impact than Augustine. Much of the Reformation was the logical outworking of Augustine’s theology. Many of the Reformers (e.g. Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Knox, etc…) looked at their work as simply the natural result of Augustine’s thoughts from 1200 years before. They would argue that the Reformation did not begin in Wittenberg in 1517 but in Milan in 386.

What may not be as readily known is the impact his mother Monica had on church history. For it by this mother’s tear-filled prayers for her lost son that God sovereignly brought Augustine to faith. Augustine wrote that she had, “shed more tears over my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.” Monica believed the Scripture’s promise that, “the prayers of a righteous person have great power” (James 5:16). There is a deep lesson in this for all parents. How faithful are your prayers for your children? Do you really believe that God will answer your prayers for your children? Would we be so bold as to pray these great prayers for our sons and daughters? The faithful prayers of Monica bring to mind the final verse from the hymn “O Zion, Haste, Your Mission High Fulfilling”: Give of your sons to bear the message glorious; give of your wealth to speed them on their way; pour out your soul for them in prayer victorious; and all your spending Jesus will repay. Would we be willing to pray big prayers like this? Would we pray that other would find the rest of the Gospel in their lives, no matter what it takes?

Augustine labored with all his might and intellect (which was considerable) that people might grasp the joy and satisfaction that is found in God. “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The way Augustine delighted in God forms a basis for all of Christian living. Where is your delight? Is your greatest delight found in God or in temporary and fleeting pleasures? Can you say that your “soul’s joyful resting place is in God”? May we long for the beauty of Christ and the glory of God in our lives.


The Super Bowl and the Glory of God

Today the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens will meet in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, Louisiana. This is arguably the largest sporting event of the year. Last year 111 million Americans and 167 million people internationally watched the game. A 30 second advertisement during the Super Bowl will cost 4 million dollars (that works out to $133,333 per second or roughly the cost of nice Ferrari every second). Many people will gather in homes for Super Bowl parties. Approximately 8 million pounds of popcorn and 28 million pounds of potato chips will consumed. The California Avocado Commission (who knew they had their own commission?) projects that 13.2 million pounds of guacamole will be consumed this Sunday. That’s enough to cover a football field end-to-end and 40 inches deep. There will be some serious partying going on. All of this will be centered on a sporting event in which two teams are vying to take home a sterling silver football trophy and the right to call themselves champions. Super Bowl Sunday is a de facto national holiday.

We are a nation enamored with sports We participate in rec leagues. We put our kids in sports. We watch all manner of competitions on TV. We read about sports on the internet and newspaper. We listen to it on the radio in the car. We talk about it around the office or with friends. We are enamored with sports. Have you ever wondered why?

I believe there are several ways to answer this question. Even for the believer, some ways will show a real desire to honor God in all that we do and some ways will show the insidious nature of our own sin. In short, sports are like most everything else in this world; a mixed bag. But in that mixed bag, I believe there is an opportunity for our own sanctification.

Sports can be a way in which we honor God. Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman,” was a runner and missionary. For Liddell, running was about the glory of God. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Liddell experienced the love, grace, and power of God when he lived out who God made him to be. He had a deep understanding that he was made in the image of God. Liddell ran as if he was running for God. And when he did this, it was a delight to both Liddell and to God.

Sometimes we’ve experienced these moments in sports. Those moments when everything clicks and your body moves the way you’ve always hoped it would. Athletes and artists often describe this as being “in the zone.” This is a glorious thing. In these moments we see God’s creation performing in a way that transcends our ordinary trappings and gives us a sliver of a glimpse of what life is supposed to be like. The rim-shattering dunk, the walk-off homerun, the perfect spiral, the booming drive, the flawless performance. Each of these give us a glimpse of life at the peak. Sports can give us a picture of the excellence of the Creator that we long to see reflected in creation.

So why will many of us gather around a TV to watch young men who are vastly overpaid to play a game? Because in our souls we know there is more to this life than the ordinary. We long to see the transcendent. We long to see our bodies reflect the glorious image of our Creator. Something inside of us wants to witness the glimpse of what could be. But far too often, our desire is for the reflection and not the One who is reflected. We begin to crave the spectacle more than the One who made it spectacular. We have suppressed the knowledge of the Creator and worshiped the creation (Rom 1:18-23).

Sports can be a way in which we show the nature of our own sin. We want to be God, so our enjoyment of sports is often tainted with greed, envy, and anger. Our desire for more can lead to the breaking of rules, abuse of our bodies, and belief that the only thing that matters is winning. Lance Armstrong recently admitted to using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) in his 7 Tour de France victories. The desire to win supplanted any notion of right and wrong. This was not seeking to reflect the image of God, this was doing whatever it takes to replace God. And when this insatiable desire for more is stymied, we often respond in anger. Listen to sports radio after the local team loses and you’ll hear many levels of insanity. The amount of anger and vitriol is staggering. We fail to recognize that we live in a fallen world. Athletic performance and life in general does not always reach the transcendent level. Instead of leading us to our knees in dependence on God’s grace, it can lead us to lash out at others. Apart from God’s grace, many athletes, professional and recreational, spend much of their time angry and bitter.

Sports is a mixed bag. There are moments which point us to the greatest of God reflected in his creation. There are also moments which point us to the depravity and sinfulness of man. This provides the Church a brilliant opportunity for sanctification. As Christians we are not who we once were and we are not who we will be. We have been redeemed by God’s grace and we are being redeemed by God’s grace. There is an element of sports that God can use to convict us our sinfulness. There is an element of sports that God can use to draw our eyes up to his beauty. As we gather for parties this Sunday, may we be captivated by the glory of God and our need of his grace.