My pastor recently opened his sermon with the story of Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna. It’s a story I’ve come across many times in my studies, and used in research papers on anything from Early Christian community organisation to evangelism in pagan urban environments. But I’ve never focussed in on the story itself, and it’s a gripping tale of a man standing fast for Christ in the face of persecution. A version of the story is preserved in the eponymous text, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. So this blog is going to be a bit different, focussing in on the story of Polycarp, who he was and what happened to him.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around 160 AD and provides our earliest account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. The text tells the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom: his arrest, trial and death, from the point of view of an eye witness. This witness tells us that he is writing his work so that we might see how Polycarp lived out the Gospel in his death.
So what happened?
Polycarp, an old man well into his 80s, was a key church leader in the Roman city of Smyrna. Though almost none of his teaching survives directly to us, the one letter we have, a missive to the church at Philippi, shows a pastoral man, humble and direct. He was a respected leader, both in his own time, and also in the centuries to come.
Born in AD 69, he was killed in 156.
Polycarp had heard the news that the Roman authorities were coming for him. But he did not run, seeing it better that he submit to the authorities God had placed over him. When friends urged him to flee, he calmly replied “The will of God be done” and waited for the inevitable.
Whilst he was resting in the country house of a good friend a short way out of the city, the soldiers arrived. Having tortured two slave boys for the location of the aged bishop, the soldiers rode out to the house and confronted Polycarp.
His response amazed them. He willingly submitted to them, but in a remarkable show of grace and humility, Polycarp fed and watered his captors, asking that he be given a few hours to pray alone before they took him away. The soldiers relented, giving him his time alone, and we are told that his humble kindness so amazed them that some began “to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”
Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?Polycarp.
After he had prayed, the soldiers led him into the city and took him before the Roman proconsul. Here Polycarp was defiant. The proconsul, a senior Roman figure and the imperial authority in the region, demanded that Polycarp recant his faith. He demanded that Polycarp “swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” He pressed him, offering him his freedom and indeed, his life, if only he would recant his faith.
Polycarp could not. He looked at his captors and he declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
In this act of defiant faithfulness, Polycarp signed his own death warrant. The proconsul continued to press him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records the trial suffered by the old man. After being pressed hard, the old saint would not relent, and eventually, the proconsul sentenced him to death. The charge that was read to the people? “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”
Polycarp was taken to a pyre, put against a stake, and burned to death. The Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how he prays as the flames surround him, and it says the smell was not like burning flesh but the beautiful aroma of a loaf baking. Polycarp was ready to go to His Lord and be forever with Him.
The death of Polycarp was religious persecution. State persecution. The charge was Christian faith, denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The story of Polycarp is a picture of humility, grace and faithfulness. At the end of it all, Polycarp considered his God worth everything he had. Even his very life.