Finishing Strong – Polycarp, the aged martyr


The martyrdom of Polycarp

Many Christians suffered for their faith in the first few centuries after Christ. One of the best known is Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna (on the site of modern day Izmir, Turkey) during the 2nd Century.  F.F. Bruce writes of him:

‘Polycarp was a venerable figure, forming a last link with those who had seen Christ in the flesh, for he had sat at the feet of John, the beloved disciple.’ (i)

He had a powerful evangelistic ministry and people from all walks of life had been converted as a result of his preaching. His pagan opponents called him ‘the destroyer of our gods’. In A.D. 156 a persecution broke out against the believers in the province of Asia. Civil authorities hunted down many Christians and Polycarp, by now an old man, was sent into hiding. After torturing a servant they learned his whereabouts and captured him.

The intention was not to kill him but to create confusion and discouragement by forcing him to deny Christ and swear allegiance to Caesar. Bruce describes the arresting officer as seeking to save Polycarp from inevitable shame and torture by saying, ‘What harm is there in saying ‘Caesar is Lord’ and offering incense?’ But Polycarp couldn’t compromise.
He was taken to the stadium to either recant publicly or face a humiliating and painful death.  Eusebius writes:
‘Polycarp, with his face set, looked at all the crowd in the stadium and waved his hand toward them, sighed, looked up to heaven, and cried, “Away with the godless!”  The Governor pressed him , “Swear, and I will set you free; execrate [curse or, revile] Christ.”

“For eighty-six years,” replied Polycarp, “I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong.  How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
“I have wild beasts,” said the proconsul, “and if you make light of the wild beasts, I’ll have you destroyed by fire.”

Polycarp answered, “The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished; there is a fire you know nothing about – the fire of the judgement to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly.  But why do you hesitate?  Do what you want.”

The proconsul was amazed and sent the crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian”.

Then a shout went up from every throat that Polycarp must be burnt alive.  The rest followed in less time than it takes to describe:  the crowds rushed to collect logs and faggots from workshops and public baths…when the pyre was ready…Polycarp prayed…and when he had offered up the Amen and completed his prayer, the men in charge lit the fire and a great flame shot up.’ (ii)

To merely say the words, ‘Caesar is Lord!’ may have seemed a small thing to the man who arrested Polycarp, but any Christian would immediately recognise the impossibility of compromise.

Even today, in various parts of the world, Christians are under pressure, sometimes being falsely accused, attacked, seeing their homes destroyed and even being killed. We continue to pray for those who are suffering, and seek to establish freedom of religion with those who are in influence, while trusting God for grace in the midst of persecution.

The short-term result of Polycarp’s bravery in the face of the savagery of the authorities was actually a decline in persecution. F.F. Bruce tells us that ordinary non-Christians were repulsed by the cruelty shown to this dignified man in his senior years, and that the Emperor also issued an instruction to his eastern cities forbidding them to attack the Christians.

Polycarp could have compromised. He could have muffled his voice. He could have saved himself, or sought a different way. But he didn’t. He finished strong.

i. FF Bruce, The Spreading Flame, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, p.174
ii. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Leicester: Penguin, p.81

© 2008 Lex Loizides


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