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Polycarp of Smyrna: Faithful in Life, Faithful unto Death

3 min

Jesus had warned His disciples: “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9).

That time had come. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was on the throne. Throughout the Empire, Christianity was spreading at an astonishing rate. In spite of fire, sword, and beastly fury, Roman officers and even high government officials were being converted from paganism to serve the true and living God of Heaven. It seemed that no matter how many Christians were fed to the lions in the arena, even more converts renounced paganism and swore allegiance to the Lord Jesus the very next week!

In a somewhat obscure city in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), far from the seat of imperial power in Rome, there lived an esteemed pastor who had long escaped the fury of Roman persecution. He was well into his eighties, and for many years he had pastored his church. In fact, as a young boy, he had been a contemporary of the Apostle John.

The date was A.D. 162. The place was the city of Smyrna, where this elderly pastor shepherded his congregation. Christ had written a letter to this church. The words of our Lord to the church at Smyrna contained not a single rebuke, and the letter delivered this valuable exhortation: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer . . . be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

For many years, this steadfast servant of the Lord named Polycarp had lived and ministered in relative peace. Persecution had raged in the city from time to time, and the enemies of the Gospel had sought his life, but he had always been able to escape martyrdom.

However, one day Polycarp was betrayed into the hands of the pagan authorities. The soldiers rushed into the place where Polycarp resided and demanded that he follow them. The venerable old man asked the young soldiers to allow him a season of prayer before he departed with them. Bewildered by this strange request, the inexperienced company saw no reason to deny the man his simple request. Many of these young soldiers were so touched by the fervency and tenderness of Polycarp’s prayers that they later repented.

The devoted minister was brought before the Roman proconsul of the province. Polycarp was next condemned to be publicly burned alive at the stake. Perhaps the words of Christ came back to him: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

The appointed day of execution arrived. The old man was led to the agora, which was the marketplace where public executions were held. A stake awaited him. The usual practice in Roman times was to nail the victims to the stake. But Polycarp had given his word of honor that he would not require the nails. He would stand immovable.

As the hero took his position at the stake, the proconsul, knowing the frailty of Polycarp’s aging frame, took pity upon him. The Roman proconsul gave the condemned old man an opportunity to recant. “Swear,” the ruler said, “and I will release thee—reproach Christ.

The answer of the venerable man has been recorded in history as among the most famous “last words” of a dying martyr. A hushed silence from the assembled throng awaited his reply. Fixing his eyes upon the proconsul, the old man firmly gave his answer: “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 order was given. The torch was applied to the wood, and the flames leaped upward. But to the astonishment of the crowd, the flames curled upward and around the martyr, leaving him in their midst—unconsumed—just as happened to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who stood untouched in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace! It was as if the flames themselves were protesting the execution and refusing to touch this servant of God.

The entire assembly had the opportunity to observe this miracle. Finally, the executioner was ordered to run the old man through with a sword. As the body of Polycarp was burned to ashes, his spirit returned (Ecclesiastes 12:7) to the God Who promised a crown of life to those who are faithful unto death. For those who are alive in Christ, physical death is nothing to fear. Polycarp could say with the Apostle Paul, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Polycarp of Smyrna gives us an early example of how important it is to keep the first commandment. In the hour of martyrdom, he would have no other gods before the living and true God of Heaven. May we be able always to say with Polycarp, “How shall I blaspheme my King, Who has saved me?”

Sources for Further Reference:

  • Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966, pp. 143–150.
  • Foxe, John. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011, pp. 13–14.
  • Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Volume 2. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006, pp. 51–52.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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