The following was preached by the Rev. Dr. Raymond Hartwig, secretary of Synod, on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, at the LCMS International Center. The text for the day was Heb. 4:14-16.  

 

polycarp

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna

On this day on the Church calendar, we remember the Early Church father Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.

Polycarp lived during the first and second centuries after Christ. He may have had, in his younger years, opportunity to spend time with John, the last surviving apostle; he may actually have been a disciple of John and he may have been ordained bishop of Smyrna by none other than John. In any case, he lived to an old age as the bishop of Smyrna, the location of one of the congregations of Asia Minor addressed by Jesus in the Book of the Revelation of St. John, chapter 3. Jesus had this to say to the congregation at Smyrna:

I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried; and you shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.

The congregation at Smyrna did suffer, and so did Polycarp, culminating in him being burned at the stake for not offering incense to the Roman emperor. He is recorded as saying — on the day of his martyrdom — when asked to deny Jesus Christ:

“Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what thou wilt.”

And then there is one other thing: History and tradition also suggest that he may have been involved with assembling the books of the New Testament, one of which is the Book of Hebrews, the source of our text for this morning, the second of our subjects to consider together.

This brings us to our text for our meditation this morning:  Heb. 4:14–16.

 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Could it be that Polycarp was familiar with this text? If so:

  • He certainly would have appreciated its imagery more than we. “Since then we havea great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14a). Even as the high priest in Old Testament times killed the bullock and the goat and delivered their blood through the veil into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle it on the mercy seat to remove the sins of the whole people, so Jesus, the great High Priest, delivered His blood, passing through the heavens to deliver the forgiveness of sins for all people. Polycarp could certainly have said, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”
  • He certainly also would have appreciated, especially when tempted on the day of his martyrdom to deny Christ, the words of verse 15: “For we do not have a high priestwho is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Polycarp was in good company, in company with his Savior and His Savior’s far greater sufferings. He could certainly have said, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.”
  • And he certainly would have found courage in the words of vv. 14b and 16: “Let us hold fast our confession. . . . Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Polycarp found that “grace to help in time of need” and the courage to say, “Bring forth what thou wilt.”

That leaves us to consider the importance of this text also for our day.

Ordinarily texts like this, especially from the Book of Hebrews, might strike us as rather obtuse, not commanding our interest. But in the context of this day on the church calendar and the things going on in the world in which we live, we may see otherwise. Here in this text, first of all, is the heart and core of our Christian faith — that Jesus has become one of us:

  • to face temptations to sin that we often cannot withstand;
  • to suffer far more severely than we ever will;
  • to shed and then deliver to His Father in heaven the only blood that could suffice for our forgiveness of our sins.

Already in its first verses there is plenty in this text to cause us to sit up and take notice.

ISIS

Twenty-one Coptic Christian martyrs

But it is also the encouragements to “hold fast our profession,” to “come boldly” and “find grace to help in time of need” that are taking on greater urgency and significance now every day. How rapidly things are changing for us as the bright conditions that we have been privileged to enjoy most of our lives begins to grow dim. In my childhood, the words “let us hold fast our profession” predominantly meant, “Beware of what they teach in that church down the street from our parochial school.” Or it meant, “Keep the faith while diving under our school desks for the latest nuclear bomb drill.” Now we are beginning to recognize that possibilities for personal suffering we once thought preposterous are no longer so; that we, too, might have to “find grace to help in time of need” because our Christian way of life and faith or even our lives might at some point be direly threatened.

I expect I will never get out of my mind the recent picture of the 21 Coptic Christians, young men dressed in orange, waiting to be martyred on the seashore. I felt I owed it to them, my brothers in Christ, to watch the video disseminated by their executors. I was disgusted, of course, but more so I was amazed — at their calm demeanor as they kneeled with knives at their throats and at the last word on their lips: the name of Jesus. I wondered how they could do that. But they, like Polycarp, had the encouragement of God’s Word. And they clearly had the last word: the name of Jesus clearly the last word on their lips. They are the best commentary of our text this morning: “Let us hold fast our confession,” to which the only thing more for us to say is, “Amen.”