A False Dilemma Between Polycarp And Anicetus

One of the earliest controversies concerning the Holy Days was took place about a hundred years after the time of Christ. Polycarp, following the Bible, kept the Lord’s Supper on the 14th day of the first month, as had been commanded in both Exodus and had been practiced by Jesus Christ and the disciples. Polycarp claimed to be following the traditions passed down to him by the Apostle John. However, Pope Anicetus in Rome kept what he called the Passover on the first day of the week. Eventually, this festival kept by the Roman church was mixed with a lot of pagan elements and became called Easter, a heathen festival whose roots go all the way back to ancient Babylon. But was there a biblical basis to the festival kept by Anicetus and the Western Church that we may be neglecting today? Is it possible that the argument between Polycarp and Anicetus was a false dilemma [1], and that the correct answer was not for either one festival or the other, but for both of them to be kept? Can we find such evidence in the Bible to suggest this?

A Delicate Question

We know from scripture that Jesus Christ was resurrected long before sunrise on the first day of the week after His crucifixion. To give but one example of this evidence that we have, let us look at one visit to the tomb by Peter and John, recorded in John 20:1-8. John 20:1-8 shows clearly that while it was still dark Jesus Christ had been resurrected. It reads: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdelene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed.“

Here we see that while it was still dark Mary Magedelene and the disciples were taking multiple trips to the tomb, the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, and Jesus was already resurrected, since the tomb was empty. Jesus had even folded his grave clothes, but the disciples did not yet know or believe that He had been resurrected. They thought that someone had stolen his body, and it was not until later that they understood His resurrection. But all of this took place on what we would call Saturday night, long before sunrise.

And yet there is a puzzle here. Shortly later, in John 20:15-18, we see that Jesus had not yet ascended and so He did not want Mary Magdelene to cling to Him. And yet later on when he saw Thomas, he invited that disciple to put his hand into his sides and wrist to see the wounds from the crucifixion so that Thomas would believe. Apparently sometime between the two stories Jesus Christ had (at least temporarily) ascended to God and returned, so that He could be touched by others. Let us read the first story about Mary Magdelene now, from John 20:15-18: “Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you seeking?” She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’ “ Mary Magdelene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.”

We have some delicate questions here that are worthy of thought. Why did Jesus Christ tell her that He had to ascend and to tell his disciples that? Did He ascend for a little while before returning to comfort his disciples before ascending again 40 days later? If so, why did He have to ascend at all on the first day of the week after his resurrection? Does the Bible give us any possible clues as to the reasons why this appears to be the case?

The Wave-Sheaf Offering

The Bible does indeed give such clues, but not in the place we would expect. In Leviticus 23:9-14 there is a mostly neglected festival labeled as the Feast of Firstfruits in many Bibles. Let us read what the Bible has to say about this day, which we celebrate today, in Leviticus 23:9-14: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb o the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord. Its grain offering shall be two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the Lord, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”

This law is nearly entirely forgotten today. This day is nearly entirely forgotten today, as well, even by those who claim to keep God’s festivals and Holy Days. Why is this so, and what does this day have to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ? For one, we actually keep this day here at Legacy, and we also offer up our firstfruits to God at the beginning of every harvest, offering a prayer of gratitude to God for the rich harvest we have been blessed with. This day, like the Sabbath and the other festivals of God, was commanded to be kept forever, and wherever there are people of physical and spiritual Israel, they are forbidden to eat any bread and grain from their fields until they have offered the first fruits of their fields to God on this day.

But there is a deeper meaning to this day as well. The harvest of this festival of firstfruits, which begins today and continues for the next seven weeks ends in Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks, where God gave His Holy Spirit to His church. But this harvest is not only of grain, which we in the West eat like you eat rice at every meal, but it is also a harvest of men and women who have been called by God into salvation and eternal life in His kingdom.

Let us see an example of this in John 4:35-41. Here we see how Jesus Christ recognized that the wheat harvest symbolized a spiritual harvest, and how he wanted his disciples to recognize that not only Israelites but even hated Samaritans, who had been foreigners brought into Israel as captives (like the Isan peoples of northeast Thailand who were conquered from Laos by Chakri I as his captives and are still looked down on by Thais two hundred years later, just as the Samaritans were looked down on by the Jews). John 4:35-41 reads: “ “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word.”

What does this mean? All of you have worked in the fields here. On any given day in the garden, some people plant crops, some people water, and some people harvest. And yet you receive wages and food because of your labor. This is true spiritually as it is true physically. We who speak to you in church are spiritual farmers, looking to receive a wage from God of eternal life in His kingdom for our spiritual labor on His behalf as workers in His spiritual field. One minister plants the seed of truth in our minds. It may take years or decades or generations to grow, as it is watered by other servants of God who preach and write about God’s ways, and then another minister harvests that believer into his congregation receiving the fruits, in tithes and offerings and service and fellowship, of the work of the other ministers before him. And yet if they are all ministers of God they all receive the wages of eternal life for their service, whether they plant or water or harvest. The same is true spiritually in God’s kingdom as is true here at our farms and gardens in Legacy.

But again, what does this have to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ? They connect in two ways. For one, Jesus Christ is the Lord of both our physical and our spiritual lives. Just as through Christ, the Word, God created all the heaven and the earth, so that He owns all things, so also God owns the spiritual destiny of all people, so that whether our harvest is physical or spiritual the firstfruits must be given to God and cannot be claimed by us as our property. Who is the firstborn of many brethren from the grave, the first human being to receive eternal life in God’s Kingdom? Jesus Christ. Who was the spiritual wave sheaf offering offered up on this day to God so that the spiritual harvest of the Church could begin? Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

What does this mean? Almost two thousand years ago, two bishops in the early Church of God argued over what day to keep the Passover. Polycarp kept the Lord’s Supper on the 14th day of the first month, as we have done it in footwashing and taking the bread and the wine, symbolic of our attitude of service to others, as well as the body and the blood given by Jesus Christ to pay the price of our sins. The Lord’s Supper is symbolic of the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, an anniversary we keep in memory of His sacrifice year after year until He comes. Polycarp was right to keep that festival of God. Anicetus kept today, the first day of this week, in honor of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death into eternal life. We have seen that this day too is a festival to God, the wave sheaf offering or what is sometimes called the festival of the firstfruits. This day too, like the Lord’s Supper, is commanded to be kept for all time, like the rest of God’s festivals and Holy Days. Anicetus too was right to keep this day.

But what does that mean for us? What lesson should we all learn from the ancient argument between these two mostly forgotten leaders in the early Church of God? The most obvious lesson should be that both the Lord’s Supper and the Wave Sheaf offering are important days to God, and that both of them are commanded to be kept generation after generation. A deeper lesson is that we do not ultimately have to choose between one side and the other in this argument. We do not have to choose between the Lord’s Supper or the Festival of the Firstfruits because both of them are commanded by God. Both of them spring from the practice of the early Church of God through the Law of God. The argument between Polycarp and Anicetus was a false dilemma. We are commanded by God to commemorate both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Both festivals are symbolic and both point to the work of Christ. Whether we obey those commandments is our choice. Let us choose wisely.

[1] Note: Anicetus seems to have no idea that there was actually a legitimate biblical festival on this date, and he seems to have argued from heretical grounds to keep a festival on the first day of the week. This is even more true of his successors, who actually started to use the heathen term Easter. Nonetheless, there was a legitimate biblical festival on the first day of the week after the Passover, proof that even blind heretics can find something approaching biblical truth every once in a while.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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