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The Martyrdom of Polycarp – Disciple of the Apostle John

October 16, 2023

On either February 22nd or February 23rd of 155 or 166 AD, persecution in the city of Smyrna broke out and Christians were tortured to renounce their faith.

But they held steadfast, even as whips tore their bones and flesh and exposed their veins and arteries. The Roman torturers even brought fire to make the martyrs renounce their faith in Jesus. But the fires felt cold to them and they remembered Jesus’ words about the eternal fire.

From the perspective of the Romans, this was just punishment, because the Christians denied the gods that kept the Romans prosperous and safe, and so were ungrateful rebels and ‘atheists’. But to the Christians, the real enemy was the devil, who was only using the Romans and the Jews to get them to renounce their faith and deny their Lord.

Finally, after a dozen Christians had been slain, the crowds shouted – “away with the atheists”, find Polycarp! (to them, the Christians were atheists because they denied the existence of the Roman gods)

Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of John the Apostle.

Clearly, he was a prominent man in the community. When he heard about the crowds chanting for his arrest and death, he was not bothered. He decided to stay in the city and meet his fate, but his companions forced him to flee.

They hid in a small house in the country where Polycarp did what he usually did – pray. He prayed for the church, and while he did this, he fell into a trance and had a vision, where he saw his pillow burning. Polycarp understood what had been revealed to him. He knew he was going to be burnt alive.

The authorities pursued the bishop like a criminal, while his friends moved him from house to house. Finally, the Romans captured one of his household servants and tortured him until he confessed the location of the bishop.

Polycarp had the opportunity to escape again, but he declined. He knew the time had come for the vision to be fulfilled.

The old bishop came down and talked with his captors. He asked for food and drink to be laid out for them. The authorities were stunned and they could not understand why there was such a desire to kill this harmless & pleasant old man.

Polycarp asked if he could pray for a while, and he was allowed to do so. He prayed for two full hours – for everyone he had ever met and for the church.

As they took him to Smyrna, the captain of the guard tried to convince Polycarp to offer incense and declare Caesar as Lord, which would enable him to be set free. The bishop remained silent.

They continued to persist until he finally responded that he would never declare Caesar as Lord, or offer sacrifice to him, at which point, a guard pushed him out of the carriage and he was injured.

When Polycarp was taken to the stadium for his trial, the angry crowd gathered.

The proconsul saw Polycarp as an old man and tried convincing him to renounce his faith. He told the bishop to respect his age and to swear by the Emperor. He commanded the bishop to reject Christ.

But Polycarp looked at him and responded – “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Finally, the Proconsul gave up and sentenced Polycarp to death by burning.

The crowd gathered the materials for the pyre and when it was ready, the bishop removed his robes and his shoes. He was tied to the wood and the Romans lit the fire.

But something strange happened. The fire arced itself around his body so that it would not burn him. A sweet aroma arose and Polycarp seemed like a beautiful burnt offering to the Lord.

The soldiers rushed to him, and one of them stabbed him, and out of his side gushed blood – so much blood that the fire was nearly extinguished.

Thus, Polycarp died – an old man, faithful to His Lord.

He was eighty-six years old – weak and frail – and they threatened him, and killed him.

Do you, dear Christian, expect to be treated better?

– History of the Early Church podcast

So that the tested genuineness
of your faith—more precious
than gold that perishes though
it is tested by fire—may be found
to result in praise and glory
and honor at the revelation
of Jesus Christ.

- 1 Peter 1:7

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