A Dead Guy’s Lesson on Obedience

This is the brief story of an old dude named Polycarp, a bishop in the second century, who most likely knew the Apostle John who wrote Revelation.

Persecution of Christians has broken out in the Roman empire somewhere around 150-160 AD. Believers are being dragged out of their homes and places of work before governors and pro-consuls and told that if they swear allegiance to Caesar and denounce Christ they’ll be saved, if they will not they will be executed.  Forms of execution include burning at stake, pulled apart by wild beasts, tortured on racks, etc, and they are done in public, sometimes in arenas. Many brave souls happily face their God appointed fate of martyrdom, but some play the coward and deny Christ to save their earthly lives.  Polycarp is over 85 years of age at this point, so his followers convince him to hide outside of the city so that he won’t have to be killed.  They proceed to move him from farm to farm evading the authorities until a servant under severe torture reveals his whereabouts.  So the Romans drag Polycarp before the pro-consul.

The pro-consul hasn’t previously met Polycarp and is astonished and saddened by the obvious elderly nature of the bishop. Therefore he treats him more kindly and gently than he has the others, begging him to denounce his faith to save his life.  This goes on for some time until Polycarp emphatically pronounces: “For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has never wronged me.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?  Bring forth what thou will.” In response, the crowd demands that a lion be let loose on the aged Polycarp, but due to a legal quirk this was not allowed at that time, so burning at the stake was the chosen method.  They bound and burned him, and Polycarp died.

The Bible makes a big deal out of obedience.  I tend to not talk a ton about it because I neither want to give the impression that Christianity is about dos and don’ts nor that sheer will-power is the key to spiritual maturity.  But it’s not as if obedience can be ignored, we often have to do what we don’t want to do in the moment simply because we know it’s right.

We would all like to say that we’d be able to obey like Polycarp if faced with the same situation.  But how can we know what our response would be?  How strong is our foundation that would allow us to obey in the face of such persecution?

You don’t wake up on a Friday and decide to run a marathon the next day.  No, you train for months, starting with one mile, then two, then three, then six, then twelve, etc.  You see, your ability to run 26.2 miles is predicated upon your ability to discipline yourself in the smaller increments, the smaller moments.  You must build up, your must be prepared, you must be trained.

If you want to be willing to do what Polycarp did, to obey so dramatically then you must obey in the smaller increments and moments on a consistent basis.  You have to obey God and not fudge a little bit on your tax returns, you have to obey God and pull out your bible when you’re tired and have other things you’d rather do, you have to obey God and hold your tongue when a biting or inappropriate comment comes to mind, you have to obey when you’re tempted to covet or be envious of someone’s car, purse, computer, clothes, situation, success.  For it’s in these small moments that we train ourselves to obey in the final sense.

If I won’t obey today in the small things how can I ever expect to obey in the big ones?

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