We don’t know many names of people who were pastors of churches in the time of the Apostles. But we do know who the pastor of the church in Smyrna was. He was a man named Polycarp. Pastor Polycarp. He was born in about 70 AD, in the days of the Apostles, and studied under the apostle John, probably in Ephesus. When Jesus addresses this letter to the “angel of the church in Smyrna”, he is most likely addressing it to Pastor Polycarp.
In the year 155 AD, when pastor Polycarp was 86 years old, he went to visit Rome and when he came back to his church in Smyrna, he had the misfortune of returning during the time of a great festival that was attended by the proconsul. Part of the festival was to be a series of great sporting events in the arena – including the spectacle of watching Christians being torn apart by lions for the entertainment of the crowd.
Eleven Christians had already been put to death in the arena, but bloodlust of the crowd was so high that they longed for a fresh kill. The cry was raised out, “Let us search for Polycarp!” As pastor of the church, he was well known to the community and they wanted to see what would happen if he were to face the lions.
Polycarp, at first, was persuaded by his friends to hide from the pursuing soldiers at a local farm-house, but in their search the soldiers tortured two of the farm boys until they gave up Polycarp’s location. Escape was still possible, but after seeing the suffering his pursuit was causing, the old man refused to run away. He walked out to the soldiers and asked them to wait while he had a short time of prayer. They allowed it, and Pastor Polycarp actually ordered food for the men while they waited.
When he was brought to the arena, surrounded by thousands of spectators, the Proconsul actually tried to spare Polycarp’s life. He made it as simple as possible and said to the old pastor, “All you must say is, ‘Caesar is lord’ and ‘Away with the atheists’. And you will be spared. (Ironically, one of the accusations against Christians was that they were atheists because they wouldn’t worship the emperor or in the temples of Rome.) The charge brought against pastor Polycarp was treason.
Polycarp smiled and said, “Well, if that’s all you want me to say, I can say that.” He looked at the stands where the throngs of citizens and representatives of the Romans state and pagan religions were seated, raised his hands towards them and said yelled, “Away with the athiests!”
This isn’t what the Proconsul had in mind, but he tried again to get Polycarp to deny Jesus Christ to save his life. He said, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar. Take the oath and I will release you. Curse Chris and live!”
Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years I have served the Lord Jesus Christ, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
Hearing this, that Jesus was Lord and King and not Caesar, the onlookers in the arena demanded that the lions be loosed on him then and there. There was nothing more treasonous!
“Swear by the fortune of Caesar”, the Procunsul insisted.
Polycarp stood firm. “If you vainly imagine that I will swear by Caesar, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian.”, came the reply.
“I have wild beasts”, the proconsul warned. “If you do not repent, I will have you thrown to them!”
“Let them come, for my purpose is unchangeable”, Polycarp said.
“If the wild beasts do not scare you, then I will order you to be burned alive!”, the Proconsul shouted.
“You threaten me with a fire which will burn for an hour and then go out, but you are unaware of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of eternal punishment which is kept for the ungodly. Why do you delay? Bring on the beasts, or the fire, or whatever you choose; you shall not move me to deny Christ, my Lord and Saviour.”
When the Proconsul saw that Polycarp would not recant, he sent the herald to proclaim three times in the middle of the stadium, “Polycarp has professed himself a Christian.”
As soon as they heard these words, the whole multitude of Romans and Jews furiously demanded that he be burned alive. Though it was Saturday, even the Jews ran out of the arena to gather timber and scraps of wood, breaking their laws of the Sabbath, so they could watch the Christian burn alive.
Polycarp was bound and placed on top of the pyre. “This is the teacher of Asia,” the it was announced. “This is the father of the Christians, this is the destroyer of our gods, this is the man who has taught so many no longer to sacrifice, and no longer to pray to the gods.”
The old pastor looked up to heaven and prayed, “O Father, I thank you that You have called me to this day and this hour and have counted me worthy to receive my place among the number of the holy martyrs. Amen.”
As soon as he had said the word “Amen” the officers lit the fire. The fire burned around him, rising high above his body, but burned away from him. Then someone called for a soldier to finish him off quickly with a dagger, and Polycarp was stabbed to death and left to burn.
Polycarp was charged with treason and his punishment was a terrible one. Why wouldn’t he just relent? Why not just tell them what they wanted to hear and then ask God’s forgiveness later? Why not simply sidestep the persecution and then go on with his life? Because there was a greater treason, far greater than treason against Rome or Caesar.
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and read together: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
In this section, the Apostle Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is making a very clear point: idolatry is a big deal. We talked a little about this last week, but I want you to remember the context. Throughout all of chapters 8-10 Paul has been answering the question: What about food offered to idols? The situation in the church was that some people were still buying and eating the foods that were being offered as sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome. If you recall, the temples were like a mix of churches, grocery stores, restaurants, and meeting halls, and it was common practice to buy and eat the food that was leftover from the rituals.
The Christians were torn on this issue. Part of the church thought this was no big deal. Paul said as much throughout and again here when he says, “That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No…”. That was one side of the argument, that it was no big deal because it’s just meat, just drink, just food, and as long as you know that who cares.
The other part of the church thought it was a HUGE deal. They didn’t want to go anywhere near the pagan temples and sacrifices! Every time they did their conscience started freaking out. And this created a rift in the church because both of them had a really good point.
It really was just meat and any Christian could eat it with no problems. But it is also unwise to go against your conscience or put yourself in a place where you will be tempted to sin. It’s similar to the conversations that Christians still have about going to the movies, or to a bar, or reading certain books, or playing certain video games. Half the church says it’s totally fine and the other half is waving the big, red warning flag. Which is right?
We’ve talked for a long time about that, so I’m not going to retread it here. It’s also continuing from last week where Paul is giving warnings about how serious this is. He says, flat out, that the meat is just meat, the idols are just statues, and the pagan gods aren’t real gods, but demons – but then wants to impress the church with just how serious the situation is.
Remember last week we talked about how someone in the church can think they are a Christian because they hang around other Christians, but not actually be saved? Paul drives that point telling them to really, really check their heart about this. Are they going to the pagan temple as a mature Christian, with a good conscience, or are they just people who take communion on Sundays and then do whatever they want during the week, assuming that they are going to be saved by their religious Christian actions. There’s a big, big difference between participating in the Christian religion and actually being a follower of Jesus, so he gives the warning via the example of the Israelites who left Egypt under Moses. They all thought they were saved, but in truth their hearts were far from God. They weren’t followers of God, but sexually immoral idolaters and grumblers who didn’t trust God at all. And they were banned from the Promised Land because of it. We talked about that last week.
And so here, God, through Paul, wants to make abundantly clear that going to the pagan temples and participating in their events has huge, spiritual consequences. It needs great consideration. So he gives the direct warning, again, in verse 10, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” and then gets into the spiritual reality going on around them. He says in verse 16-18, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?”
He’s talking about the Lord’s Supper, or what we call Communion. He says that when we participate in Lord’s Supper we are doing something extremely special and it’s all wrapped around that word “Participation”, which is the Greek word KOINONIA or “fellowship”. This word is used all over the New Testament.
It’s used in Acts 2:42 when it talks about the very first Christian church formed after Pentecost. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (KOINONIA), to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” We have fellowship, unity, sharing, participation with each other as the church, the body of Christ.
It’s used in Philippians 2:1-2 which says, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship (KOINONIA) with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” We have fellowship, unity, sharing, participation with the Holy Spirit who binds us all together.
The Apostle John, in 1 John 1, says that the proclamation of the gospel was “so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (vs 3) KOINONIA is a big, biblical concept.
God created man to be in fellowship and participation, KOINONIA with Him. But we sinned and broke that bond. God cannot be associated with sin and our sin made it so we could no longer be with Him, and became, in fact, His enemies. He is life, sin brought death. He is good, sin brought evil. We were created to be rulers and stewards of His Kingdom of light, sin made it so we would be bound as slaves to Satan, the prince of darkness. God created KOINONIA, our sin brought division.
The gospel is that Jesus came and saved those who had been made dark, dead, enemies of God. He entered the world that he might save sinners and restore the KOINONIA between God and man, for anyone who would believe.
One picture God gave us to remind us of all this is the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. We show all these truths every time we celebrate it together. We take one loaf and break it. We take one bottle and pour it. Then we take our own little cup and our own little piece of the bread and we recognize them as symbols of our KOINONIA with God and our fellow Christians. When we drink and eat together the symbols representing the body and blood of Jesus, we are eating and drinking in memory of Him and all he has done to bring us back into KOINONIA with Him and each other. We once participated or fellowshipped or shared in Adam’s sin (Rom 5) and Satan’s rebellion (Eph 2), but now we participate or fellowship or share with Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, his holiness, sufferings, and glory.
Taking communion is for Christians. Eating the bread and drinking the cup shows that we have changed fellowships, changed teams, and are now totally with Jesus. We are His because He bought us with His blood shed on the cross. He is our Lord, King, Saviour, Master, God and Friend, and we are his people, his body, his church.
This is why it says in verse 18, “Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” The word “Participants” is a form of the word KOINONIA. Remember all he just said about Israel. The altar in the Old Testament was a table on which food was regularly sacrificed to God. The priests ate from the offerings, sharing the table with God, as a representative of the rest of Israel. It was a symbol of their desire for KOINONIA with God. In the same way, Christians also have a table on which food is served as a symbol of our KOINONIA with God – the Lord’s Supper.
And so, he continues in verses 19, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
Why was it such a big deal to simply go into a temple and eat the food there? Because, what is happening in that building, at that table, at that altar, is a reflection of the fellowship, the KOINONIA those people have – not with Apollos or Aphrodite or whatever made up god, but with demons. Just as we are fellowshipping with, united with, participating with, sharing with, bound to, God in the Lord’s Supper, so they are fellowshipping with, united with, participating with, sharing with, bound to, demons.
You can’t have both. Polycarp knew this, which is why he faced lions and the pyre instead of simply uttering those few words, “Caesar is lord.” It would be, as one of my favourite theologians RC Sproul says, “cosmic treason”. This is what Adam committed. Cosmic treason is the ultimate definition of sin.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t play for both teams. You can’t eat from both tables. You can’t have two lords. You must, must, must choose. Jesus promises a separation in the end and we’d better be on the right side of it.
Which is why we read, “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” Or more colloquially, “What are you, nuts? Are you trying to bring God’s discipline upon you? Do you not remember what happened to Israel when they set up idols in their nation or worshipped Baal? Do you want that to happen to you? Do you think you are the one person who can play both sides, acting like a Christian sometimes and playing with demons the rest, and that you won’t get burned? Do you think that you can take God’s plan, His righteousness, His gift, and His concern to protect the truth that He alone is God and the only way of Salvation, and stomp all over it by also worshipping the ‘gods’ of human invention? Do you think that God is going to share praise and worship and his people with demons? If you do, you’re insane! He has promised that those who worship idols will provoke His jealousy and his wrath – just as we saw Israel experience over and over.” Polycarp knew this and had a right fear of God.
Modern Equivalents and Conclusion
Now you may be thinking, “Ok, Pastor Al, I promise that if anyone ever invites me to a Greek temple to worship Apollos, I definitely won’t go, ok? If anyone asks me to come over and eat meat offered to idols, I will definitely decline. Thanks for the warning.” But how often will that kind of thing come up these days?
Let me give you four ways that idolatry still comes up today:
First, there still are pagan religions out there and Christians still often tempted to mix their beliefs and practices with them. The horoscopes and psychics and crystals and chakras and angel worship and other new age stuff we have around us are demonic and some Christians are tempted towards them. Some churches try to incorporate pagan rituals like prayer labyrinths into their spiritual disciplines. Some people try to use God as a good luck charm by going to church and having communion on Sundays, but then try to incorporate Wiccan rituals, Buddhist meditation, Islamic prayer times, and other religious thinking into their relationship with God. God is clear that we can’t do that.
The Second, way is what I’ll call, Blending. This isn’t purely pagan or demonic, but it’s something that Christians need to strongly consider in light of what we have learned here today. Think about how much spiritual blending there is during holiday times like Christmas and Easter – and of course Halloween.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we also have holly, ivy, mistletoe, Christmas trees, yule logs, lights, gift giving, fruitcake, and Dec. 25th, which all have pagan origins! We celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus with bunnies, candy, chicks and coloured eggs. And Halloween is just a mess that I won’t get into now. Even our church has some of this blending. The fact we are meeting in a special church building and called Christians came from pagan origins. The days and months on our calendar are based in ancient pagan mythology. Birthdays also have pagan origins.
Does this mean we declare anyone who eats fruitcake or colours eggs or has a birthday party to be anathema from the church? No, that’s not what this is teaching us. What it’s saying is that we need to think about this stuff. There’s a website online called GotQuestions.org that I really like that tries to answer a lot of these questions with biblical wisdom. Just a quick scan of their topics comes up with things like: Should a Christian play Pokemon, use Facebook, go to parties, do jury duty, watch mma, read Harry Potter, practice feng shui, do cosplay, and much more. Christians care about the truth and about what God thinks of things. So we ask, what does the Bible say? What does our conscience say? How does it affect others? We’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth remembering that some of the traditions and practices we hold so dear need to be carefully thought through.
The third I will call, Cultural Corruption. This is a big deal these days as it comes up all the time. There are some churches that are claiming that God has sanctioned things, or is celebrating things, that He does not. They take a biblical teaching, corrupt it, and then invite people to celebrate it. Here’s a couple examples.
The blessing of pets or giving pets communion. Some churches do this as an outreach and invite people to come to make sure their pets get into heaven. This is wrong and a corruption of the Lord’s Supper, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and of the teachings of the Bible, and therefore Christians cannot participate. For us to go to that event would be saying that we agree with what they are doing. Our presence gives our blessing to their sin and error.
The same sort of thing happens with where we give our money or work. Sometimes the groups that are sent to help during a crisis also promote evil practices. For example, there are some organizations that not only fund education and healthcare, but also abortions. A Christian simply cannot willingly give their money to a group that funds abortions. Or consider personal, financial investments in companies that are known to use child or slave labour. There have been Christians who have been put in the position where they would be forced, by their employers, to do something unethical and unbiblical. They refused to compromise their integrity or disobey God, so they have had to quit.
Another example is attending or participating in the wedding of a gay, adulterous, or ungodly couple. In one sense, it’s a good thing to be friends with anyone who cares for you enough to invite you to their wedding. Jesus ministered to and befriended all kinds of people and that’s a good thing you are like Him in that way. And we know that being a Christian doesn’t make us better than anyone else, so it’s not about that. Some Christians think that they should attend any kind of wedding because it’s a celebration of love and even if the couple is in sin, at least they can extend Christ’s love to their friends without judging them. This isn’t true.
As a pastor, I have quite a long marriage policy that covers a lot of ways that I will not marry a couple – and there’s way more on it than just gay marriage. I won’t marry people who aren’t active Christians attending the same, sound, evangelical church. I won’t marry people who don’t have the blessing of their families on their marriage. I won’t marry people who have prenuptial agreements. I won’t marry people who are having sex before marriage. I won’t marry people who refuse to have premarital counselling. I won’t marry some divorced couples if their situation is still unbiblical. Why?
Because marriage is something God has spoken very clearly about. He says in Hebrews 13:4 that “marriage should be honoured by all” because it’s not a human construction, but a divine one. It’s His idea, not ours, and therefore we must do it his way, not ours. And if the couple isn’t going to do it God’s way, then I will not stand before God as the official who tied them together. In the same way, every Christian needs to know that their participation – as in making the cake, taking the pictures, attending, or being in the wedding party, is you saying that, by your presence, you agree with and support this union. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you believe and obey what God says in scripture about marriage and then also celebrate people that are disobeying what God has said.
And finally, the fourth way we do this is simply by being a leading two different lives. Following Jesus and the world. Trying to balance God’s priorities with your own. God’s plan with your own. God’s ways with the world’s. Simply put, this is hypocrisy. It means that out of one side of your mouth you say you believe that Jesus is God and the only one you will worship, while out of the other side of your mouth you worship and prioritize all sorts of other things. It means saying that you believe God answers prayer, but never actually pray. It means you say that God’s word is true, but then disagree with it when it commands you to do something difficult like submit to authority or forgive someone. It means that you say that generosity is important, but then live like a miser. It means that you say you trust God, but then build materialistic walls out around you out of money and stuff and put your faith it them. It means you say that you trust in God’s plan, but then pursue the worldly version of success all week long.
You can’t have it both ways. Jesus says in Luke 16:13, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” He says in Matthew 12:25, “a house divided against itself will not stand.” James 1:6-8 says this person “is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind… a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
I implore you to ask God to reveal the ways that you are trying to stand on both sides of the fence, or play for both teams. The ways you are trying to serve two masters is causing you to be unstable. Ask God’s forgiveness for having these idols and for him to you, restore you back to KOINONIA with Him.