Firing on All Cylinders: Witness of Early Christians

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The following was a college essay written by Katherine Stoeckl. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Katherine Stoeckl, Texas A&M

A disciple of John the Evangelist, St. Polycarp received the teachings of Jesus from eyewitnesses and in the paraenetic Letter to the Philippians, he details the teachings on morality of St. Paul who had previously visited Philippi. Polycarp looks at reality through the lens of life and death and acknowledges that everyone will die so the only choice that remains is to live well or to not. His main concern is that the Philippians live well and respond appropriately to the gift of justification from God by being imitators of Christ. The emphasis on action demonstrates that the importance of the Christian Faith and knowing if one was “truly chosen by God”[1] or if one was Christian in name only.

Polycarp’s principal concern in writing this letter was instructing the Philippians to persevere in their fidelity to God by living the Faith handed on to them according to God’s commandments and glory. Proclaiming that they had been saved “by grace…, not by works,”[2] Polycarp’s reading of Paul, with whom he had a personal relationship, speaks of the beginning of justification wherein God takes the initiative in aligning man with His will and not the later proclamation that man is saved by grace or faith alone. God’s initial step was to make man in His image and capable of being divinized. Polycarp echoes other New Testament writings, and with respect to righteousness, his “reason for writing,” 2 Peter 1:10 gives authority to Polycarp’s exhortation to the Philippians to make their election, their being chosen by God, permanent. To make their elections permanent, the Philippians needed to live a certain way which contrasted the way of the world. Polycarp speaks of the chains of worldly imprisonment as diadems of the elect.[3] The martyrs are imitating Christ in a special way and make their suffering an offering to God based on the pattern of Christ’s love where death is the beginning of life, a contradiction which echoes the Beatitudes.

For the early Christians, the Faith was not simply a philosophy over which to argue, but rather a matter of living out the walk which had been lived by Jesus and the apostles and had been observed and learned by the apostolic fathers from the apostles, such as in the case of  Polycarp who sat at the feet of John, the beloved disciple. Amid gnostic heresies, it was important for the Philippians to “confess Christ”[4] human and divine and live with their sights on the resurrection of the “body in its eternity.”[5] The Philippians lived out their faith with their bodies through right relationship with others, but sought to avoid the security offered by money so as to place their trust in God and not themselves.[6]

This way of life that reflects God thrived within the Church with the help of her internal structure. The Philippians themselves in the way they lived their life represented true love and strived, with Ignatius, to be “living words of the Word, not merely voices.” More than their healing, God wanted to elevate them to be sharers in His divine life.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] Letter to the Philippians, 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 7.

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Ibid, 4.

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