The Martyrdom of Polycarp
This year for “Yours in Christ” we’re rotating through four topic areas: Christian Community, Christian History, Christian Spirituality, and Christian Doctrine. Last month, we covered four of the great “one another” passages of the New Testament, all centering on the theme “Investing in One Another.” For the next four weeks we’re going to look at four heroes from the first four centuries of Christian history after the resurrection of Christ.
“Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” Those are the words of a man named Polycarp, when the governor told him he could be set free if only he would swear by the fortune of Caesar and reproach the name of Christ. This was sometime in the 150s A.D.; we don’t know the exact date, but we do know that Polycarp was an old man who for many years had been a leading overseer of the Christian church in the city of Smyrna. In fact, we have very good reason to believe that Polycarp personally knew the apostle John.
Christians for the first two hundred years after Jesus lived in a pluralistic society. Many ideas and religions were tolerated in the Roman empire as long you didn’t interfere with the official religion of the state or draw people away from their local religious practices. Christianity, of course, did both. The early Christians sought to be good citizens, but they could not join in with key aspects of social life in their culture that to most people were just routine. This put the early Christians distinctively out of sync with their contemporaries. Their unwillingness to participate in Roman civil religion and their rejection of local practices that formed the bedrock of the culture around them—these were unforgivable offenses. In a pluralistic culture where supposedly “anything goes,” true Christianity never does.
The early persecution of Christians was not always driven by the emperor; there were often local outbreaks of violence from the people Christians lived among. That’s what was happening in Smyrna in the 150s. Polycarp’s death was the culmination of this particular local outbreak, and the memory of his death has endured not only because it marked a generational turning point for the church (historian Philip Schaff calls him “the last witness of the apostolic age”) but especially because of the outstanding courage and composure and heartfelt devotion to Jesus that this old man displayed when he had one last chance to save his own life by simply conforming with the mainstream culture around him.
“I have wild beasts at hand…. I will cause you to be consumed by fire,” the governor said. But Polycarp simply said, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil…. You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour … but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment…. Why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”
Grace-Based Action Point
Take some time to read the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom. At points it may make you scratch your head—the history seems to have been embellished at points. But don’t let that distract you from the bones of Polycarp’s story. Like Polycarp, you and I live in a pluralistic culture where we are increasingly out of sync with the world around us. So often, it is so easy simply to conform to avoid some personal cost. When you feel that pressure, you need the memory of people like Polycarp, who with courage and conviction paid the ultimate price in service to the one who paid the ultimate price for them.
Yours in Christ,