Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians is an early Christian writing, composed around 110-140 AD by Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. It is considered one of the earliest surviving Christian documents outside of the New Testament. The letter provides valuable insight into early Christianity and its connections to apostolic tradition.
Polycarp wrote this letter as a response to a request from the church in Philippi, a city in ancient Greece. The Philippians had asked Polycarp for advice and encouragement amidst persecution and false teachings. Polycarp, having known the apostles and other early church leaders, was well qualified to provide apostolic wisdom to the Philippian church.
In the letter, Polycarp affirms the Philippians’ faith and endurance amidst trials. He exhorts them to stand firm in the faith, to be grounded in love and hope, and to cling to the truth they had received. Polycarp quotes extensively from the gospels and epistles, demonstrating their authority and proper use. He reiterates key ethical teachings on matters like sexual immorality, materialism, and humility. The letter strongly affirms core doctrines like Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.
Some key themes in Polycarp’s letter include:
- Endurance and perseverance in the faith
- Love, hope, righteousness and humility as Christian virtues
- Avoidance of greed, lust, vanity and false beliefs
- Imitation of Christ even under persecution
- The importance of holy living and obedience to Christ
- Salvation by grace
- The resurrection of believers to eternal life
Polycarp emphasizes Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord throughout the letter. He stresses keeping Christ’s commandments, imitating His example, and looking forward to eternal life. Polycarp references various gospel accounts to encourage the Philippians to follow Jesus’ model of servanthood and sacrifice. He presents Christ as the object and focus of Christian faith.
The letter also reflects key elements of early church polity and ministry. For instance, Polycarp discusses the duties of presbyters (elders) and deacons within the Philippian church. He advocates care for widows, orphans, prisoners, and the needy. Polycarp also mentions the circulation of apostolic writings among the churches.
Some noteworthy excerpts from Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians include:
“But He who raised [Christ] up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved…” (Philippians 2:2)
“I urge you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience…not returning evil for evil, or reviling for reviling…” (Philippians 2:3-4)
“Now the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…give unto you a lot and portion among His saints, and to us with you, and to all that are under heaven who shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Father, who raised Him from the dead.” (Philippians 12:2)
Overall, Polycarp’s epistle represents an invaluable connection between first generation apostles like Paul and John and later church fathers like Irenaeus. The letter was highly revered in the early church and continues to be appreciated today. Along with Clement’s letter and the Didache, it provides a bridge between the apostolic New Testament writings and later Christian literature.
Scholars have debated the authenticity of Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians over the years. However, most regard it as genuine given its early attestation, references to apostolic writings, and connections to known historical figures. Its genuineness is supported by writers like Irenaeus who apparently had access to the original documents. The letter does not seem to reflect later theological developments, but adheres to very early Christian beliefs and practices.
Some key details about the background, composition and history of Polycarp’s letter include:
- Polycarp (69-155 AD) was bishop of Smyrna, ordained by apostles. He was a revered early church father.
- Polycarp possibly knew the apostles John and Philip along with other first generation church leaders.
- He was martyred around 155 AD; his martyrdom was described in a circular letter from the church at Smyrna.
- Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians was written sometime between 110-140 AD.
- The letter responds to specific questions and needs of the Philippian church.
- Irenaeus (120-202 AD) valued the letter highly and quoted from it often.
- The Muratorian Canon fragment (180 AD) references Polycarp’s correspondence with Philippi.
- The entire letter survives today and was known to Eusebius in the 4th century.
- Scholars generally regard Polycarp’s authorship as authentic and date it to the first half of the 2nd century.
The letter provides early attestation to details about Jesus’ life and teaching as well as apostolic practices and beliefs. For instance, Polycarp affirms and quotes the passion and resurrection accounts found in the gospels. He references sayings of Jesus like His teaching on loving enemies (Matthew 5:44) and storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20). Polycarp also alludes to many teachings and statements found in New Testament epistles like Romans, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, 1 Peter, and 1 John.
Polycarp discusses the duties of presbyters (elders) and deacons within the church at Philippi, indicating an established church structure. He advocates care for widows, orphans, prisoners and others in need. His instructions on various ethical matters align with those given by Paul, Peter and John in inspired epistles. In disputing false teachings, Polycarp affirms original apostolic doctrine passed down to him.
Some key early church practices and beliefs illustrated in Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians include:
- Observation of the Lord’s Supper.
- Gathering together for prayer and worship.
- Reading and circulation of apostolic writings.
- Functioning church leadership roles like elders and deacons.
- Baptism and repentance for salvation.
- Expectation of Christ’s future return in glory.
- Bodily resurrection of believers to eternal life.
Polycarp’s epistle reflects how highly the words of the apostles were already revered in the early decades of the church. He elevates the writings of Paul and other apostles as divinely inspired Scripture. He warns against contradicting their teachings, saying:
“Whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and says that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, he is the firstborn of Satan.” (Philippians 7:1)
Likewise, Polycarp affirms orthodox Christology, referring to Jesus as Son of God, Savior, Lord, and future judge. His high view of Christ aligns with apostolic writings and foreshadows later Trinitarian formulations. Yet Polycarp’s expression remains simple and practical compared to later theological sophistication.
Polycarp also discusses the behavior expected of believers. He reflects common early Christian moral instructions against vices like greed, dishonesty, lust, slander, pride and hypocrisy. He advocates virtues like justice, patience, love, generosity, humility, and contentment. His ethical teachings mirror those found throughout the New Testament.
Some key ethical teachings emphasized in Polycarp’s letter include:
- Patience and love in suffering.
- Prayer and dependence on God.
- Holiness and avoiding sin.
- Humility and avoidance of pride.
- Honesty in words and actions.
- Giving generously to those in need.
- Obedience to governing authorities.
- Living quietly and peacefully with others.
Polycarp frequently points to Christ as the supreme ethical example believers should follow. He encourages the Philippians to “be imitators of the Lord” and live according to His pattern. Polycarp emphasizes that spiritual growth and holiness come through God’s grace and the Spirit’s empowerment.
The letter includes references to individuals known from other early Christian writings. For instance, Polycarp mentions Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch and also wrote epistles to churches in the region. Polycarp promised to pass along letters from the Philippian church to Syrian Antioch, indicating networks between congregations. He also refers to Clement, author of an early letter from Rome to Corinth.
Polycarp makes a few autobiographical statements in his letter that give us glimpses of his life and ministry. For example, he states:
“I have served [Christ] eighty-six years…He will reward me for my life on the day of judgment.”
This indicates Polycarp lived a long life in Christian service. He went on to die as a martyr at age eighty-six, refusing to renounce his faith before Roman authorities. Polycarp said he had been a Christian for “eighty-six years I have served him.”
Though composed of only 14 short chapters, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians represents an invaluable piece of early Christian history. Along with 1 Clement, the Didache, and the writings of Ignatius, it forms a core collection of “apostolic fathers” literature from the late first and early second centuries. These writings help bridge the gap between the apostolic era and later Christianity.
Some key insights we gain about early Christianity from Polycarp’s letter include:
- High esteem for the apostles as Christ’s authorized representatives.
- Desire to preserve apostolic writings and teachings.
- Functioning church offices like elders/overseers and deacons.
- Observance of Lord’s Supper and baptism.
- Expectation of Christ’s imminent return.
- Willingness to suffer for the faith.
- Emphasis on holy living and ethics.
While later Christian literature contains more developed theology and ecclesiology, Polycarp exemplifies the simple, practical faith of early believers. His letter breaths with pastoral wisdom and deep reliance on Christ alone. It provides a tangible connection to the apostles themselves, as Polycarp sat at the feet of their disciples if not the apostles themselves.
All in all, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians represents a valuable early Christian document. It provides reassurance of the reliable transmission of apostolic faith and writings in subsequent generations. Polycarp’s words exhort believers in every age to cling to Christ and “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3).