Polycarp – Bishop and Martyr of Smyrna
Verse: Revelation 2:10
Quote: “For eighty-six years I have served Him. He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
When the apostle John put into words his revelation on the Island of Patmos, he could not have known how precise his prophetic words to the church in Smyrna would be: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death.” Nor could he have imagined those words were prophetically pointed at his own dear disciple, Polycarp.
Polycarp (69 – 155), an early church leader known as a kindly pastor and a defender of orthodox doctrine, later served as Bishop of Smyrna. That the threat of persecution was very real is evident in his letter to the church at Philippi. Here he reminds believers that “Christ endured for our sins even to face death,” and exhorts them to “Pray for emperors, magistrates, rulers, and for those who persecute and hate you.” He also vehemently rejects the claims of Marcion, who, while following the teachings of Paul, dismisses the remainder of Scripture, insisting that the God of the Old Testament is surely no God of Christians. So upset is Polycarp with Marcion’s beliefs that he assails him to his face as “the firstborn of Satan.”
Unlike Ignatius, Polycarp has no hankering for a martyr’s death. But he is considered a prime target. During an athletic festival in Smyrna in AD 155, Christians refusing to worship the emperor are threatened with execution. Officials particularly want the revered Polycarp, hoping he will deny the faith and disgrace the Christian community. Polycarp’s friends provide a hiding place in a hayloft outside the city, but a boy reports his whereabouts to authorities. Soon the hunt is on, and the old man is discovered, shackled, and brought before authorities. The imperial official begs him to cooperate: “What harm is there to say ‘Lord Caesar,’ and to offer incense?”
Polycarp was a beloved bishop. His congregations would have no doubt forgiven the old man any weakness displayed in such desperate circumstances. He might have simply offered incense to the emperor. Did not Jesus say, “Render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s”? But burning incense meant far more in the pagan mind than merely showing respect. Moreover, Proconsul now goes a step further. To spare his life Polycarp must curse Christ and take an oath to Caesar. He is now standing before a sea of people. He understands the consequences. He does not flinch. The crowd hushes to the sound of his voice. “For eighty-six years I have served Him,” he reminds them. “He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Preventing this from turning into a religious rally, the official clarifies the punishment in graphic terms. There will be no trial at all. So it was with Jesus. Polycarp knows the passion story. His own death will not be on a cross, but the pyre is bad enough.
The crowd is growing and becoming restless. It is obvious that this is overkill—the powerful Roman Empire waving its flares in the face of a frail old man. So the official explains again the torture he will endure, pleading with him to just get it over with: Deny Christ, go home, and get on with whatever you do as a Bishop. But Polycarp is not taking the bait. He has one last chance to address the crowd—though his words are aimed at the official: “The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished; there is a fire you know nothing about—the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want.”
Realizing Polycarp will not back down, the official motions for rowdies to get involved—perhaps to shift responsibility away from himself. They grab slats of wood, pile up the pyre, and light the flames—though only after Polycarp has an opportunity to say a final prayer. He dies an unspeakable death, believing that there will literally be hell to pay for anyone who turns away from God should he himself not remain faithful.