Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The church of Jesus Christ, while in the world, is always in persecution. It is her lot in this life to suffer for righteousness’ sake. We ought not be surprised by this, for the Scriptures speak of it in countless places; and what Paul told the churches he organized on his first missionary journey is true for all time: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
This incessant persecution has produced a list of heroes of faith, saints, men, women, and sometimes children, who loved not their lives unto death and who sealed their faith with their blood.
Among all these is the ancient Polycarp, elder and minister in the church of Smyrna. He is not the first of the martyrs. He did not suffer more than many others. His death was not necessarily more illustrious than the death of other saints. But he provides for us an example of faithfulness in martyrdom, a testimony to the power of the grace of Christ in great suffering, and an enduring encouragement for Gods saints today who suffer for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
While the date of his birth is about A.D. 69, near the date of Paul’s martyrdom in Rome, Polycarp was not born in a Christian home. In fact, his birthplace is unknown, for he appeared on the scene of the history of the church in a strange and perplexing way, a way that is an evidence of the mysterious ways of God’s providence.
It all started in Smyrna. If you will look at your map, you will find Smyrna less than fifty miles north by northwest of Ephesus on the western coast of the province of Asia in Asia Minor. It was a city in which a church had been established early, perhaps by the apostle Paul during those years when he was laboring in Ephesus when “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:10). The Lord Himself wrote a letter from heaven to the church of Smyrna. He had nothing to reprimand the church about; He had only words of encouragement and comfort in her sufferings at the hands of her persecutors (Revelation 2:8-11). It is possible that Polycarp was minister in the church at the time this-letter arrived in Smyrna and that he read it to his congregation, little knowing that it spoke of his own martyrdom at the hands of the wicked.
At any rate, some years earlier a man named Strataeas, a brother of Timothy, was either elder or minister in the church at Smyrna. A wealthy woman named Callisto, a member of the church and one noted for her works of charity, dreamed that she was to go to the gate of the city called the Ephesian Gate and redeem there a young boy who was a slave of two men. This she did and brought Polycarp to her own house where she gave him a Christian home, taught him the ways of the Lord, provided for his education, and adopted him as her son.
Soon after the boy came into Callisto’s home he gave evidence of the work of the Spirit of Christ in his heart. He was grave and reserved, kind towards those with whom he associated, much given to the study of Scripture, and diligent in witnessing to others of his faith. An outstanding feature of his conduct was his self-denial, something which undoubtedly was used by the Lord to prepare him for future martyrdom. It is difficult to see how self-indulgent, excessively pampered people, who have much too much of this worlds goods and who always crave more can face martyrdom if it should be required of them.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Polycarp’s early manhood is his acquaintance with the apostle John. Twenty years they knew each other, and Polycarp had the privilege of studying at John’s feet. It is easy to envy Polycarp. One can imagine listening to Jesus’ beloved disciple speak of his years with the Lord and teach what Christ had taught him. All this careful training prepared him for work in the church.
The work which the Lord called Polycarp to perform in Smyrna was extensive and important. He was first of all a deacon in the church and labored for the care of the poor. This was an especially important work in the early church, for persecution was the lot of the saints and persecution brought much work to deacons. They had to care for women and children whose husbands and fathers were in prison or had been killed. They had to visit the saints in prison to comfort them and encourage them in faithfulness, while at the same time trying as best they could to ease their sufferings by bringing them food and clothing and salves for their lacerated backs. And they had to gather money from a congregation of people who themselves had very little in this earth’s goods.
Because of his learning, however, Polycarp was soon called to be an elder in the church—a presbyter, as Scripture calls those who held this office. And, upon the death of the minister (then already called the bishop), he became pastor and minister in the congregation. An old tradition has it that John the apostle ordained him to the ministry, which, if not true, could at least mean that John was present to witness the event. His fame and influence extended throughout Asia Minor. Not only was he respected because of his close association with the apostle John, but for his own piety he gained a name among the saints in that part of the world.
There were several interesting: events in these years of labor in the church.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a city quite distant to the east where Paul had begun his labors in Asia Minor on his first missionary journey, came through Smyrna on his way to Rome and martyrdom there. They spent a few pleasant days together in Smyrna, recalling their past friendship when Ignatius also lived in Smyrna and when they had both studied under the apostle John.
Polycarp also traveled to Rome, somewhat later. A dispute over the date of the commemoration of our Lord’s death and resurrection had threatened to tear the church apart. The churches in Asia Minor commemorated these events at the same time of the year as they had taken place; i.e., the commemoration began on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Passover when the Lord ate the last supper with His disciples. This meant, of course, that these events in the Lord’s life were observed each year on different days of the week, and the resurrection was not celebrated on the first day of the week every year. This tradition, according to Polycarp, was apostolic, for both Paul and John had taught these churches this practice. But the other churches, led by Rome, wanted the resurrection of the Lord celebrated on the first day of the week; and so they had instituted the practice of celebrating it on the first Lord’s Day after the first day of Spring. The question was a minor one, of course, but it threatened to split the early church into two factions.
Polycarp, in the interests of settling the matter, traveled to Rome to talk with Anicetus, the minister in the congregation there. They discussed the matter at length, but neither could persuade the other. The result was that they decided to allow the churches the liberty of celebrating these events of the Lord’s life on the date they chose without rancor, bitterness, or strife. As a gesture of their friendly parting, Anicetus asked Polycarp to preside at the administration of the Lord’s Supper in the church of Rome, which Polycarp also did. 2
But the threat of persecution always hung over the head of the church in those days. There were times of relative peace and surcease from persecution in its most brutal forms, but there were times when persecution broke out in fury. The church was hated in the Roman Empire, especially by the Jews and pagan Romans. Every natural calamity, whether flood or earthquake or drought, was blamed on the Christians and on their refusal to worship Caesar as God.
There is something striking about this. The Christians were called atheists and were persecuted for being atheists. It reminds me of a remark made to me by a vice-president of the UAW some years ago. He insisted that the union was truly patriotic and truly Christian because the union tried to help the underdog, while our churches were neither patriotic nor Christian because of our opposition to the union.
When Polycarp was an old man, at least 85 years old, a flurry of persecution broke out in Smyrna, brought on by the mobs who were thirsting for the blood of the Christians. Fourteen Christians were seized and dragged to the public arena where they were fed to wild beasts. All but one died gloriously, one even slapping a wild animal that seemed to be too lazy to attack the Christian who was intended to be its dinner.
The crowd was not placated and began to shout for more. Particularly, they began to shout for Polycarp whom they knew to be minister in the church and who was, at the urgings of his flock, in hiding. The police were sent to find him, and finally did find him, after exacting information of his hiding place from a servant, who was subjected to hideous torture.
The crowd and the local magistrate were present in the arena when Polycarp was apprehended. He was brought before the magistrate in the stands of the arena and immediately tried and convicted while the frenzied crowd shouted for his blood. It was a most unusual and illegal trial that went something like this, the magistrate speaking first.
“Swear by the fortune of Caesar! Repent! Declare: Death to the atheists!”
Turning to the mob, with a lift of his head and a wave of his hand, Polycarp shouted, “Death to the atheists!”
But the magistrate knew what Polycarp meant. “Apostatize! Swear, and I will set you free at once! You have but to insult Christ.”
“I have served Him for eighty-six years and He has never done me any wrong. Why then should I blaspheme against my King and my Savior?”
“Swear by Caesar’s fortune!”
“You flatter yourself if you hope to persuade me. In all truth I solemnly declare to you: I am a Christian.”
“I have the lions here, to use as I think fit.”
“Give your orders. As for us Christians, when we change it is not from good to bad: it is splendid to pass through evil into God’s justice.”
“If you do not repent I shall have you burned at the stake, since you are so contemptuous of the lions.”
“You threaten me with a fire that burns for an hour and then dies down. But do you know the eternal fire of the justice that is to come? Do you know the punishment that is to devour the ungodly? Come, don’t delay! Do what you want with me.” 3
The condemnation was proclaimed; the mob rushed from the seats to gather sticks and faggots, with the Jews gleefully helping along. Polycarp told the soldiers in charge of the execution that they need not fasten him to the stake, for he had no intention of fleeing. The flames leaped high, while from the flames could be heard this prayer from the lips of Christ’s faithful servant:
Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the grace of knowing Thee, God of angels and powers, and the whole creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in Thy presence; I bless Thee for deigning me worthy of this day and this hour that I may be among Thy martyrs and drink of the cup of my Lord Jesus Christ. . . . I praise Thee for all Thy mercies; I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom to Thyself and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and forever. Amen. 4
It is an abiding lesson to us that those who died for their faith with prayers and songs of praise on their lips were those who knew what they believed, loved that truth, and were prepared to die for it. Polycarp had made his love for the truth clear in a letter he wrote to the church at Philippi, in which he warned them against heresies already appearing in the church. He said:
Whoever doth not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist, and whoever doth not confess the mystery of the cross, is of the devil; and he, who wrests the words of the Lord according to his own pleasure, and saith, there is no resurrection and judgment, is the first-born of Satan. Therefore would we forsake the empty babbling of this crowd and their false teachings, and turn to the word which hath been given us from the beginning . . . . “
Knowing that persecution soon will be upon the church also today, ought not we take heed to these things?
1. While some of the details of Polycarp’s life are uncertain, the evidence for these facts is rather strong. See McLintock & Strong, Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.
2. The controversy was not settled for a long time and it continued to disturb the church. It became the occasion for later bishops of Rome to attempt to extend their authority over the whole church.
3. This material is mainly from The Church of Apostles and Martyrs by Henri Daniel-Rops.
4. Quoted from The History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff.