IF Polycarp was indeed the angel of the Church of Smyrna, then we know some most interesting things about this angel over and above what we read in this Epistle addressed to him. All John Bunyan's readers have heard about Polycarp. "Then said Gaius, is this Christian's wife and are these his children? I knew your husband's father, yea, also, and his father's father. Many have been good of this stock. Stephen was the first of them who stood all trials for the sake of the truth. James was another of the same generation. To say nothing of Peter and Paul, there was Ignatius, who was cast to the lions. Romanus, also, whose flesh was cut by pieces from his bones. And Polycarp, that played the man in the fire." You possess Polycarp's whole history in a nutshell in that single sentence of John Bunyan about him. And if you but add that one sentence to this Epistle you will have a full-length and a perfect portrait of the angel of the Church of Smyrna.
Polycarp was born well on in the first century. And it must have been a matter of constant regret to Polycarp that he had not been born just a little earlier in that century so as to have seen his Lord with his own eyes and so as to have heard Him with his own ears. But as it was, Polycarp was happy enough to have been born, and born again, quite in time to enjoy the next best thing to seeing and hearing his Saviour for himself. For Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, and he must have often heard the Fourth Gospel from John's lips long before it had as yet come from John's pen. And that was surely a high compensation to Polycarp for not having seen and heard the Divine Word Himself. And then we are very thankful to possess a circular-letter which the elders of the Church of Smyrna sent round to the Seven Churches telling the brethren everywhere how well their old minister had played the man in the fire. After narrating some remarkable incidents connected with Polycarp's apprehension the circular-epistle proceeds:-
'When Polycarp was brought to the tribunal the pro-consul asked him if he was Polycarp. Have pity on thy great age, said the humane Roman officer. Swear but once by the fortunes of Cæsar. Reproach this Christ of thine with but one word, and I will set you free. "Eighty-and-six years," answered Polycarp, "I have served Jesus Christ, and He has never once wronged or deceived me, how then can I reproach Him!" And then as some of the executioners were binding the aged saint, and others were lighting the fire, certain who stood by took down this prayer from his lips: "O Father of Thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ. I bless Thee that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour. I thank Thee that I am permitted to put my lips to the cup of Christ. And I thank Thee for the sure hope of the resurrection and for the incorruptible life of heaven. I praise Thee, O Father, for all Thy soul-saving benefits. And I glorify Thee through our eternal High-Priest, Jesus Christ, through whom, and in the Holy Ghost, be glory to Thee, both now and ever, Amen." Eleven brethren from the Church of Philadelphia suffered with Polycarp, but he is famous above them all; the very heathen venerate his name. He was not only an eminent teacher and an illustrious martyr, but in all he did he did it out of a truly apostolical and evangelical spirit. Polycarp suffered his martyrdom on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour of the day. I, Pionius, have transcribed and posted this letter to all the Churches round about. So may our Lord gather my soul among His elect, Amen.'
Apostolical, evangelical, and most illustrious, martyr, as Polycarp proved himself to be at the last, yet, when he began his ministry in Smyrna he was a man of like fears and flinchings of heart as we are ourselves. You may depend upon it, Polycarp was for a long time in as great bondage through fear of death as any of yourselves. And every syllable of this Epistle is the proof of that. His Master dictated every syllable of this Epistle with the most direct and the most pointed bearing on Polycarp and on his ministry in Smyrna. Every iota of this Epistle shows us that it was addressed to a minister who was at that time of a timid heart and one whose continual temptation it was to flinch and flee. The very name that Polycarp's Master here selects for Himself in writing to Polycarp spoke straight home to Polycarp's trembling heart. "These things saith He which was dead and is alive." Polycarp was in constant danger of death and in constant fear of death. But after this Epistle, and especially after that opening Name of His Master, Polycarp became another man and another minister. Till this was Polycarp's song every day till the day when he played the man in the fire-
Death! thou wast once an uncouth, hideous thing!But since my Master's deathHas put some blood into thy face,Thou hast grown sure a thing to be desiredAnd full of grace!We found the litotes device in the first of these Seven Epistles, and we find here the parenthesis device in the second of the Seven. When the Spirit speaks to the Seven Churches He does not despise to make use of the rhetorician's art. He recognises and sanctifies that ancient accomplishment by His repeated employment of it, and in His repeated employment of it He gives us so many lessons in our employment of it. "The parenthesis is the delight of all full minds and quick wits." Now though these exact words have never before been applied to Him whose Epistle to Polycarp we are now engaged upon; at any rate, we may surely go on to apply these so expressive words to His so-talented amanuensis. And this full-minded and quick-witted parenthesis comes in here in this way. Polycarp's poverty was one of his many trials and temptations as the minister of Smyrna. And just as the ever-present image of his Divine Master's death and resurrection nerved Polycarp to overcome all fear of his own death, so in like manner his poverty is here put to silence for ever by this parenthesis, ("but thou art rich"). And not only have we a parenthesis here, but a paradox as well. And both of these rhetorical devices are demanded here in order to give utterance to the fulness of the mind and the quickness of the wit both of the true Author of this Epistle and of the highly privileged amanuensis of it. So he was. Polycarp was both poor and at the same time rich. As many of his best successors in the ministry still are. They are almost as poor as he was as far as gold and silver go. But they are even richer than he was in many things that gold and silver cannot command. For one thing, they are far richer than Polycarp could possibly be in the riches of the mind. They are surpassingly rich in so far as they possess the talents and the trainings and the tastes of cultivated and refined Christian scholars. Money is greatly coveted because it gives its possessor the entrance into the best society of the day. But a well-educated and a well-read minister has entrance not only into the very best society of his own day, but of every day, and he will deign to enter no society of any day but the very best. He keeps company with the aristocracy only. Again, riches are to be desired for what they enable their possessor to be and to do and to enjoy. Riches enable their possessor to the true enjoyment of life, to the true use of life, to true power in life, and to the opportunity and the ability of attaining to the true end of life. Unchallengeably, riches in the right owner's hand immensely assist in the attainment of all these high ambitions. But sure I am, there is no class of men among us who are so rich in all these respects as just our well-educated, well-read, hard-working, absolutely-devoted, ministers. No doubt the parenthesist had in his eye Polycarp's riches toward God exclusively. But had he written in our day he would certainly have extended his arms to embrace a poor minister's few but fit books, and his select friendships, as well as many other things that go to alleviate and even to make affluent his remote and arduous life. Money brings troops of friends also, so long as it lasts. But when Polycarp was robing for presentation at Court, so Pionius tells us, his young men would not let him so much as touch his own shoe-latchet. Now you may have your shoes put on and taken off for money, but you cannot have them tied with heart-strings, as Polycarp's shoes were tied that day.
Malicious and abusive language was another of Polycarp's tribulations. I have not enough ancient Church History to be able to inform you just what outlets they had for their malice in that sub-apostolic day. We have Letters to the Editor among the resources of our civilisation. And neither do I know beyond a guess just what Polycarp did when he was again ill-used by the tongues and pens of his day. But if you will hear it I will tell you what Santa Teresa did. And it is because she did what I am to invite you to do, that I for one entirely, and with acclamation, acquiesce in her canonisation. "After my vow of perfection I spoke not ill of any creature, how little soever it might be. I scrupulously avoided all approaches to detraction. I had this rule ever present with me, that I was not to wish, nor assent to, nor say such things of any person whatsoever, that I would not have them say of me. Still, the devil sometimes fills me with such a harsh and cruel temper; such a spirit of anger and hostility at some people, that I could eat them up and annihilate them. At the same time, concerning things said of myself in detraction, and they are many, and are very prejudicial to me, I find myself much improved. It is a mark of the deepest and truest humility to see ourselves condemned without cause, and to be silent under it. Indeed, I never heard of any one speaking evil of me, but I immediately saw how far short he came of the full truth. For, if he was wrong or exaggerated in his particulars, I had offended God much more in other matters that my detractor knew nothing about. O my Lord, when I remember in how many ways Thou didst suffer detraction and misrepresentation, I know not where my senses are when I am in such haste to defend and excuse myself. What is it, O Lord? what do we imagine to get by pleasing worms like ourselves, or by being praised by them! What about being blamed by all men, if only we stand at last blameless before Thee." The slander of the synagogue of Satan in Smyrna was not met, I am sure, with a mind more acceptable to the First and the Last than that.
The last thing that He which was dead and is alive said to Polycarp was this mysterious utterance of His, "Thou shalt not be hurt of the second death." Did Polycarp fully understand that assurance, I wonder? Do you fully understand it? At any rate, you understand what the first death is. In our first death our souls will leave our bodies, and then corruption will so set in upon our dead bodies that those who loved us best will be the first to bury us out of their sight. Now, whatever else and whatever beyond that the second death is, it begins with God leaving our souls. God is the soul of our souls. He is the life, the strength, the support, the light, the peace, the fountain, of all kinds of life in soul and body. And when He leaves our souls that is the beginning of the second death. Only, God does not, properly speaking, leave the soul. He is driven out of the soul. In spite of all that God could do, in spite of all that love and grace and truth could do, the lost soul has banished God for ever out of itself. It has insulted and despised God in every way. It has trampled upon Him in every way. It has shut its door in His face ten thousand times, and has taken in and has held revels with His worst enemies. Had Polycarp feared death more than he feared Him who was now alive; had he feared the fires in the market-place of Smyrna more than the fires that are not quenched; had he deserted his post in Smyrna because of its difficulties; had his soul soured at God and man because of his poverty; when he was reviled, had he reviled back again; when he suffered, had he threatened; and had he reproached Christ when he was bribed with his life so to do,-Polycarp is here told plainly that he would have died the second death with all that it involves. But as it was, he died neither the first death nor the second. Polycarp was changed, rather than died. Polycarp had such a Master that He died both deaths for His servant. It was not for nothing that He said to Polycarp that He was once dead but is now alive. For He was dead with both deaths for Polycarp. It was when He was hurt of the second death for Polycarp that, under the soreness of the hurt, He cried out first in the garden, and then on the Cross. Have we not seen that in the second death the soul is forsaken of God? And was He not forsaken till Golgotha for the time was like Gehenna itself to Him? He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches: He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death. I will ransom them from the power of the grave. I will redeem them from the fear of death. O death, I will be thy plague. O grave, I will be thy destruction.