Bishop Polycarp Followed Christ Into the Fire
POLYCARP holds a special place in church history. He was an intermediary between the age of the apostles and the church of the second century, as well as being one of the earliest martyrs about whom we have an eyewitness account. His writings quote from most of the books of the New Testament, confirming their authenticity.
Born around AD 70, Polycarp evidently became a Christian before he was thirty, for he learned the gospel at the feet of the apostle John, who is thought to have survived until the onset of the second century—the last of the original twelve apostles. Polycarp in turn mentored a young man named Irenaeus, who became famous for his writings against heresy. Polycarp’s character reflected John’s. He had the same gentle spirit, yet was inflexible in speaking out against error. Irenaeus later reported that Polycarp would literally run from heretical speech.
When John died, the truths of Christianity lived on with his disciples, of whom Polycarp, by then bishop of Smyrna, became the best-known to posterity, not only because of his frequent appearance in the literature of the early church, but also because of his triumphant death.
In John’s Apocalypse, Christ had warned the church at Smyrna they were about to face persecution and promised a crown of life to those who were faithful unto death. Polycarp undoubtedly encouraged his flock with these words when the Romans hauled several of them off to face death by wild beasts or fire. Polycarp soon had to apply the promise to himself. Not satisfied with the blood of their first victims, the Roman mob called for his death.
Friends persuaded him to hide in a farm-house and later to flee to another. While praying, Polycarp had a vision. He turned and said to those with him, “It must be that I shall be burned alive.” By torturing two slave boys, the authorities learned Polycarp’s whereabouts. They sent men to arrest him. This time Polycarp refused to flee, saying, “the will of God be done.” He ordered food set before the soldiers and asked for an hour to pray. His prayer was so impressive that the soldiers questioned their orders to arrest such a good man. They allowed him two hours with God before leading him back to town.
A magistrate ordered Polycarp to renounce Christ and give obedience to Caesar as Lord. Polycarp answered: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved me? You threaten the fire that burns for an hour and then is quenched; but you know not of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of eternal punishment. Bring what you will.”
On this day, 23 February 155, Polycarp died at the stake. Miracles accompanied his death and the faithful collected his remains as relics. The church of Smyrna recorded all this in a letter they sent to sister churches.
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Watch the video Polycarp
The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church also includes an account of Polycarp.