It was reported that Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna, was actually a disciple of the Apostle John. He was known for leading an influential congregation and for encouraging the greater church with his writings.
But, without a doubt, his legacy revolves completely around his death.
In the middle of the second century, Polycarp led a congregation in Smyrna, an ancient sea port in modern day Turkey. It was dangerous to be a Christian in those days – in fact, the church had already encountered tremendous persecution at the hands of previous Roman emperors. It was only a matter of time before Polycarp, an easy target because of his leadership position, would experience a similar fate.
When the arresting guards knocked at his door, Polycarp was unsurprised. He ordered a table be set for them, and as they dined, the bishop spoke with them in a cheerful and pleasant manner, encouraging them to eat heartily. On the other hand, his “guests” who had never met him were completely surprised. They couldn’t understand why they were sent to arrest – and kill – such a kind and gentle old man. Before they led him away, Polycarp asked them if he could spend one hour in prayer. The guards allowed it, and after listening to him pray, their hearts were filled with remorse for playing a part in this old man’s death.
When he was finally brought before his accusers, they took one look at his frail, old body and asked if he were the great Polycarp. The bishop acknowledged that he was. The proconsul then encouraged him to, “Consider yourself, and have pity on your own great age. Swear and I will release you. Reproach Christ.”
Polycarp courageously answered, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?”
The proconsul again urged him, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar.”
Polycarp bravely answered, “Since you still vainly strive to make me swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you express it, affecting ignorance of my real character, hear me frankly declaring what I am — I am a Christian – and if you desire to learn the Christian doctrine, assign me a day, and you shall hear.”
To this, the proconsul blurted, “I have wild beasts; and I will release them upon you, unless you repent!”
“Call for them,” replied Polycarp.
“I will tame you with fire since you despise the wild beasts, unless you repent,” threatened his adversary.
Polycarp then sealed his fate. “You threaten me with fire, which burns for an hour, and is soon extinguished; but the fire of the future judgment, and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly, you are ignorant of. But why do you delay? Do whatever you please.”
The judge then had Polycarp’s decision declared in the Coliseum. When the crowd heard that he would not recant of his faith, they furiously shouted, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the destroyer of our gods.” After some debate, they decided that Polycarp should be burned at the stake.
The doomed bishop then prayed, “O Father, I bless you because you’ve counted me worthy to receive my portion among the martyrs.” As soon as he had uttered the word “Amen,” the officers lit the fire. Soon thereafter, because the flames were not burning his body, the judge ordered that a soldier thrust his sword into the bishop’s body. Polycarp’s martyrdom was complete.
Though he could not know it at the time, part of the revelation John received on the island of Patmos referred to the death of Polycarp (and millions of others). In Revelation 12:10-12, John records what he witnessed:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them!
Polycarp knew that his victory had been assured. That’s why he could boldly say, “Go get your lions!”
Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995, Page 37.
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