It's been a long time since I've read
any of the accounts of the early martyrs.
I'm sure you can understand why. But
since I've decided to post articles
for the persecuted church, today's
suggestion was to write about a martyr.
I have chosen Polycarp. After reading
this, I felt not horrified but inspired.
I hope you will, too. If we have to die
a martyr's death, may it be as worthy a
one as Polycarp's!
Tradition has it that Polycarp was a
disciple of the apostle John and lived
during the time that the first generation
of believers, the original apostles, etc,
were dying out. He was converted as child,
and was appointed Bishop of Smyrna in
Turkey by some of the original apostles.
Humility, unpretentiousness, and the ability
to speak directly coupled with a great sense
of humor were his traits. He tried to mediate
disputes about the correct date to celebrate
Easter and had a ministry to those who were
being lured toward gnosticism. We could have
used his ministry when the Da Vinci Code was
recently released. I trust he was notified
of our problem and was interceding.
At the ripe old age of 86 he found that Roman
officials headed to arrest him. Friends urged
him to hide, but Polycarp had apparently been
warned in a dream by God that he would be
burned at the stake. He did, at the requests
of friends, go outside the town into the
countryside to stay. Eventually, the Roman
soldiers found him. He offered no resistance
when he opened the door to them. "God's will
be done," he said.
He was interrogated by the proconsul, who at
first tried to get him to placate the
governmental charges by saying a few niceties
about the Roman leadership which would still
amount to blasphemy. Not. Below is an abridged
record of what happened from the second century
source "The Martyrdom of Polycarp":
..."Those who looked on marveled at his age
and constancy, and at how there should be such
zeal over the arrest of so old a man. ...He asked
them to give him an hour so that he might pray
undisturbed. And when they consented, he stood
and prayed—being so filled with the grace of God
that for two hours he could not hold his peace,
to the amazement of those who heard. And many
repented that they had come to get such a devout
When at last he had finished his prayer, in which
he remembered all who had met with him at any time,
they... brought him into the city. And there the
chief of the police, Herod, and his father, Nicetas,
met him and transferred him to their carriage, and
tried to persuade him, saying, "What harm is there
to say `Lord Caesar,' and to offer incense and all
that sort of thing, and to save yourself?"
At first he did not answer them. But when they
persisted, he said, "I am not going to do what
you advise me."
Then when they failed to persuade him, they uttered
dire threats and made him get out. He proceeded
swiftly, and was led into the arena, there being
such a tumult in the arena that no one could be
heard. But as Polycarp was entering the arena,
a voice from heaven came to him, saying, "Be
strong, Polycarp, and play the man." No one saw
the one speaking, but those of our people who
were present heard the voice.
And when finally he was brought up, there was
a great tumult on hearing that Polycarp had
been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought
before him, the proconsul asked him if he were
Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was,
he tried to persuade him to deny [the faith],
saying, "Have respect to your age"—and other
things that customarily follow this, such as,
"Swear by the fortune of Caesar;change your mind!"
But Polycarp looked with earnest face at the
whole crowd of lawless heathen in the arena,
and motioned to them with his hand. Then,
groaning and looking up to heaven, he said,
"Away with the atheists!"
But the proconsul was insistent and said:
"Take the oath, and I shall release you.
Polycarp said: "Eighty-six years I have
served him, and he never did me any wrong.
How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"
And upon his persisting still and saying,
"Swear by the fortune of Caesar," he answered,
"If you vainly suppose that I shall swear by
the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend
that you do not know who I am, listen plainly:
I am a Christian. But if you desire to learn
the teaching of Christianity, appoint a day
and give me a hearing."...
But the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts.
I shall throw you to them, if you do not
change your mind."
But he said: "Call them. For repentance from
the better to the worse is not permitted us;
but it is noble to change from what is evil
to what is righteous."
And again [he said] to him, "I shall have you
consumed with fire, if you despise the wild
beasts, unless you change your mind."
But Polycarp said: "The fire you threaten
burns but an hour and is quenched after a
little; for you do not know the fire of the
coming judgment and everlasting punishment
that is laid up for the impious. But why do
you delay? Come, do what you will."
And when he had said these things and many
more besides he was inspired with courage
and joy, and his face was full of grace, so
that not only did it not fall with dismay at
the things said to him, but on the contrary,
the proconsul was astonished, and sent his
own herald into the midst of the arena to
proclaim three times: "Polycarp has confessed
himself to be a Christian."
When this was said by the herald, the entire
crowd of heathen and Jews who lived in Smyrna
shouted with uncontrollable anger and a great
cry: "This one is the teacher of Asia, the
father of the Christians, the destroyer
of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice
nor to worship."
Then they decided to shout with one accord
that he burn Polycarp alive. For it was
necessary that the vision...should be
fulfilled, when he saw it burning while
he was praying, and turning around had
said prophetically to the faithful who
were with him, "I must be burned alive."
The fire was quickly prepared... And when
they were about to nail him also, he said:
"Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to
endure the fire will enable me also to
remain on the pyre unmoved, without the
security you desire from the nails."
So they did not nail him, but tied him.
And with his hands put behind him and tied,
like a noble ram out of a great flock ready
for sacrifice, a burnt offering ready and
acceptable to God, he looked up to heaven
"Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved
and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through
whom we have received full knowledge of
thee, 'the God of angels and powers and
all creation' and of the whole race of
the righteous who live in thy presence:
I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me
worthy of this day and hour,to take my part
in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of
thy Christ, for 'resurrection to eternal
life', of soul and body in the immortality
of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be
received in thy presence this day as a rich
and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou hast
prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled,
thou that art the true God without any
falsehood. For this and for everything I
praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee,
through the eternal and heavenly High Priest,
Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through
whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit
both now and unto the ages to come. Amen."
And when he had concluded the Amen and
finished his prayer, the men attending to
the fire lighted it. And when the flame
flashed forth, we saw a miracle, we to
whom it was given to see. And we are
preserved in order to relate to the rest
what happened. For the fire made the shape
of a vaulted chamber, like a ship's sail
filled by the wind, and made a wall around
the body of the martyr. And he was in the
midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread
baking or as gold and silver refined in a
furnace. And we perceived such a sweet aroma
as the breath of incense or some other
At length, when the lawless men saw that
his body could not be consumed by the fire,
they commanded an executioner to go to him
and stab him with a dagger. And when he did
this a great quantity of blood came forth,
so that the fire was quenched and the whole
crowd marveled that there should be such a
difference between the unbelievers and the
May God be glorified in the death of His saints!
Martyrdom of Polycarp,
Persecution of Christians,
The Early Church,