Quick Question: Who is your favorite pastor or priest?
Though we established the biblical foundations for the idea of Saints in a recent post—that should be read first if you are a Protestant Evangelical—it really doesn’t explain the explosion in the practice of thinking of people as Saints during the time of the Early Church. Though the Bible opens the door to a discussion on Saints, it does little more than leave us with further questions on the matter.
I think that we can also (mostly) agree that 2,000 years of church history has further muddied the water. Today,
Most Christians find themselves in one polar corner or the other: Saint-lover or Tee-teetotaler.
This post is for those in the latter group… those with an uneasy relationship with the church’s history on the subject of sainthood.
And let’s be honest, saints have been a part of the story of Christianity since, well, the beginning. If you aren’t sure, then go back and actually read that post I linked above! 🙂 But maybe the next question to tackle is: When did the idea of Saints move from a group of Christ-followers to specific individuals? Like many things, it happened gradually. But that said, there was one moment that solidified the change.
A pastor by the name of Polycarp is the hinge. He was born in 69 AD, before the death of many of the Apostles. In fact, the Apostle John himself was a mentor to a young Polycarp and it was John who physically ordained Polycarp into ministry. That probably looked very good on Polycarp’s resume!
Did you think of your favorite minister of the Church? Keep it in mind…
He lived a long life (86 years) but died a horrible death. It is likely that by his death in 155 AD that he was the last surviving person to have actually known one of the Apostles. But like many in the Early Church, Polycarp suffered under tremendous persecution. The hate that had begun to form against Christians even before the close of the New Testament (read 2 Peter) was now raging. Polycarp, as a leading bishop, was very much a target.
Polycarp was a destined to be one of the first martyrs of the church. Though other Christians were being fed to lions down the road at the Colosseum, Polycarp had a different fate awaiting him: to be burned at the stake for his faith. But it wouldn’t be that simple. The record of Polycarp’s execution (look it up, The Martyrdom of Polycarp) tells us that the fire couldn’t… or wouldn’t… do the job, so the executioners had to resort to the sword.
The death of such an important and revered bishop sent shock waves through the oppressed church. The Church vowed to never forget Polycarp’ sacrifice.
Here is an excerpt from the Martyrdom of Polycarp:
“And so we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.”1
The date of Polycarp’s death was seen as also being the date of his birth into Heaven. As such, the Early Church began celebrating his “birth day” (into the presence of God) each year on the anniversary of his death.To the oppressed, the strength and faith of a martyr was encouragement embodied. Click To Tweet
These men and women of faith paid the highest sacrifice for their belief. They gave their life, believing that the glory that awaited them was more desirable than a life spent in earthly regret for denying their Savior. To the common Christ-follower, their heroism in the face of persecution made them an example.
And, in the end, that is what it has always meant to be a Saint: an example worthy to be emulated.
PRACTICE: Identify a person in your life of strong faith who has already experienced their “birth day.” Would you consider them worthy of the title of saint (an example worthy of being emulated)?