Heroes of the Faith
Concise stories of significant Christian leaders
© Peter J. Blackburn 1999
Heroes of the Faith
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna
Polycarp is described in the sources as a disciple of the apostle John, as one who had talked with other eyewitnesses of Christ and as a faithful pastor. It is striking that the letter to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2.8-11 speaks of this church as one where trouble was being stirred up by so-called Jews. Suffering would come soon. For some, imprisonment. For others, "Be faithful to me, even if it means death, and I will give you life as your prize of victory."
A very detailed account of Polycarp's martyrdom is preserved in Eusebius' Church History (325) from a letter written within a year of the events. Polycarp found refuge for a short time outside the city limits, but he was betrayed by an unfaithful servant and fell into the hands of his enemies. Calm and dignified, he surrendered himself with the words, "God's will be done." Then, after giving food to his hungry persecutors, he poured out his heart before the Lord, praying for himself, his friends, the church of Smyrna, and also for his enemies.
The usual test applied to Christians was that they must "swear by the genius of Caesar" - in other words, acknowledge him to be divine. Refusal to do so meant the death sentence. The Jews were the only religious group in the Empire exempt from this requirement. At first Christians had protection under the Jewish "umbrella". But as the church came to be predominantly "Gentile" and as Jews increasingly dissociated themselves from the Christians, the latter no longer had that protection.
Not only did Polycarp refuse to swear as requested, but he stated openly that he was a Christian. He was threatened with wild beasts and fire - "swear and I will release you: curse Christ."
To this threat Polycarp replied, "For eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me? You threaten with the fire that burns for a hour and then is quenched; for you do not know of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of the eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why are you delaying? Bring what you will!"
The consul was astonished and sent a herald to announce to the people that Polycarp had confessed himself to be a Christian. When the fire was lit and the flames and smoke encircled him, he prayed, "Lord God, Father of our blessed Saviour, I thank you that I have been counted worthy to receive the crown of martyrdom, and that I may die for you and for your cause."