I have been reading early church history to keep up with my commitment of posting “Wednesdays With Our Fathers” and most recently I came across a long lost book full of source texts, of course a kind Doctor from Princeton has taken it upon himself to translate the Greek to English for me, but nonetheless, I would like to share what I have learned concerning a great saint of old named Polycarp.
The story of Polycarp is quite amazing, it is the oldest written account of a Christian martyr that is not in the New Testament writings. Polycarp’s murder took place around the middle of the second century, that is 150 AD, give or take a few years. At the time of his death, Polycarp was 86 years old, yep that’s right, they murdered a grandpa. Polycarp was also the Bishop of Smyrna at this time. This particular letter was written by Christians who saw the events of Polycarp’s martyrdom unfold, and they wrote it all down to show that “all the preceding events happened in order that the Lord might show us once again a martyrdom that is in accord with the gospel” and the writers go on to say this about all martyrdoms, “Blessed and noble, therefore, are all the martyrdoms that have taken place in accordance with the will of God (for we must reverently assign to God the power over all things).” According to the early church, the murder of Christians was the will of God. I highly doubt that American Christianity could conceive of such a mental paradigm, but I am not writing a social commentary, I am merely conveying the account of Polycarp.
This was a time when Christians were seen as volatile toward the Roman Empire because Christians gave their allegiance to Christ, not to Caesar, and therefore they had to recant or be put to death. So, Polycarp is on the run. One night he has a dream, a vision of his pillow catching on fire and he sees this as a sign from God that he must be burned alive. In fact he says, “It is necessary that I be burned alive.”
The writer of this account makes it quite obvious that the Roman police were being a little zealous in their pursuit of poor old Polycarp, for they mounted their war horses and carried such weapons as though they were chasing after armed rebels. They finally found Polycarp because he quit running, and when they happened upon him said, “May God’s will be done.” Polycarp came downstairs and prdered the servants o fthe house to prepare a feast for his captors! Christian hospitality, if I ever read about it!
Eventually they brought Polycarp to the arena for his trial. All he had to do was recant of Jesus Christ as his Lord, in fact the magistrate says this, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ.” But you know Polycarp by now, he said, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Wow, right? A couple things to note here. Polycarp believes that God sent him a vision foretelling of his death by fire and then he stands before Pagans and says Christ has done him no wrong. Astounding. The early church saw it as an honor to be persecuted for the one who saved their souls, and rightly so. The second thing, the thing that condemned Polycarp, was his choice of words. He called Jesus his “King” when in Rome you gave your allegiance to Caesar alone or else you became an enemy of the state. With these words his death is imminent.
The magistrate threatens Polycarp with death at the stake, death by fire and this is what bold Polycarp says in retort, “You threaten with fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. but why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.” I believe that if I was amid the crowd, Polycarp would have been more threatening than the magistrate. What man, what faith could stand against the Roman Empire, the inevitably of being burned alive, the defacing of his name, and yet claim to the one “in power” that he is ignorant of such judgments! Lord, grant us all faith that stands such ground.
As they were piling the wood and gathering the oil it was customary to nail the prisoner to the beam so he did not run away, but Polycarp refused to be nailed for he believed that God would keep in the flames. The writer of this account says this of Polycarp as the flames were about to be lit, he looked “like a splendid ram chosen from a great flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering prepared and acceptable to God,” and in Polycarp’s prayer we hear this, “I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, so that I might receive a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.”
They lit the pyre, but to everyone’s amazement the flames would not burn his flesh by some miracle protecting him, so they ordered an executioner to stab him, and when the executioner did this blood sprayed out across the fire extinguishing the flames. When Polycarp was certainly dead, the centurion laid his body down and cremated it. The writer concludes with this statement, “For we worship this one, who is the Son of God, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, as they deserve, on account of their matchless devotion to their own King and Teacher. May we also become their partners and fellow disciples!”
Martyrdoms do occur in the world today, in America too. Remember the school shooting of Columbine. Read Mark 13.1-13, from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ:
“1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
3And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”