EARLY CHRISTIANITY: Polycarp of Smyrna – Martyred for His Faith

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The Epistle to the Hebrews PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 160 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The thousands, who surrounded him in the arena, viewed him as a godless man who was causing their countrymen to abandon their worship, believing that this man worked toward the destruction of their gods. The crowd’s stares were of malicious hatred, as they despised his very presence. The governor called him forward; this dignified man of 86 years of age stepped into the open and acknowledged his identity. His name was Polycarp.

  1. But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.” And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. (2) Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.[1] And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the Genius[2] of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!’” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” (3) But when the magistrate persisted and said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant,[3] and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”[4]

You, the reader, are likely asking why this 86-year-old man is on trial? Who exactly was Polycarp? And what was it that brought him to this point in his life, to be standing in a Roman Colosseum facing certain execution, to be burned alive?

The Life of Polycarp

Polycarp was born to Christian parents about 69 C.E. in Asia Minor, at Smyrna. As he grew into a man, he was known for his kindness, self-discipline, compassionate treatment of others, and thorough study of God’s Word. Soon enough, he became an elder in the Christian congregation at Smyrna.

Polycarp was very fortunate to live in a time where he could learn from the apostles themselves. In fact, the apostle John was one of his teachers. Listen to Irenaeus’[5] own words about Polycarp:

Polycarp was not only instructed by apostles and conversant with many who had seen the Lord but was appointed by apostles to serve in Asia as Bishop of Smyrna. I myself saw him in my early years, for he lived a long time and was very old indeed when he laid down his life by a glorious and most splendid martyrdom. At all times, he taught the things which he had learnt from the apostles, which the Church transmits, which alone are true. These facts are attested by all the churches of Asia and the successors of Polycarp to this day—and he was a much more trustworthy and dependable witness to the truth than Valentinus and Marcion and all other wrong–headed persons. In the time of Anicetus he stayed for a while in Rome, where he won over many from the camp of these heretics in the Church of God, proclaiming that the one and only truth he had received from the apostles was the truth transmitted by the Church. And there are people who heard him describe how John, the Lord’s disciple, when at Ephesus went to take a bath, but seeing Cerinthus inside rushed out of the building without taking a bath, crying: “Let us get out of here, for fear the place falls in, now that Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!” Polycarp himself on one occasion came face to face with Marcion, and when Marcion said, “Don’t you recognize me?” he replied: “I do indeed: I recognize the firstborn of Satan!” So careful were the apostles and their disciples to avoid even exchanging words with any falsifier of the truth, in obedience to the Pauline injunction: “If a man remains heretical after more than one warning, have no more to do with him, recognizing that a person of that type is a perverted sinner, self–condemned.[6]

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

A Witness to the Truth

Fortunately, Polycarp received the training that he did from the apostles, especially John. He was entering the beginning of the time period of the foretold apostasy [rebellion, falling away]: 

2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Now we request you, brothers, with regard to the coming[7] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a word or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive[8] you in any way, for it will not come unless the apostasy[9] [rebellion, falling away] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,

1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy [rebellion, falling away] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.

Polycarp was often moved to go out of his way to be there for others. For example, when Ignatius of Antioch, Syria, on the way to his martyrdom in Rome, asked the Philippians to send a letter to his congregation, Polycarp of Smyrna made sure it was delivered.

In Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, we can appreciate the truths he shares with his readers.

  1. I greatly rejoice with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because you welcomed the representations of the true love[10] and, as was proper for you,[11] helped on their way those men confined by chains suitable for saints, which are the diadems of those who are truly chosen by God and our Lord; (2) and because your firmly rooted faith, renowned from the earliest times, still perseveres and bears fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who endured for our sins, facing even death, “whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of Hades.”[12] (3) “Though you have not seen him, you believe in him with an inexpressible and glorious joy”[13] (which many desire to experience), knowing that “by grace you have been saved, not because of works,”[14] but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.
  2. “Therefore prepare for action and serve God in fear”[15] and truth, leaving behind the empty and meaningless talk and the error of the crowd, and “believing in him who raised” our Lord Jesus Christ “from the dead and gave him glory”[16] and a throne at his right hand; to whom all things in heaven and on earth were subjected,[17] whom every breathing creature serves, who is coming as “Judge of the living and the dead,”[18] for whose blood God will hold responsible those who disobey him.[19] (2) But “he who raised him from the dead will raise us also,”[20] if we do his will and follow his commandments and love the things he loved, while avoiding every kind of unrighteousness, greed, love of money, slander and false testimony; “not repaying evil for evil or insult for insult”[21] or blow for blow or curse for curse, (3) but instead remembering what the Lord said as he taught: “Do not judge, that you may not be judged; forgive, and you will be forgiven; show mercy, that you may be shown mercy; with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you”;[22] and “blessed are the poor and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”[23]―Luke 6:20 and Matt. 5:10; cf. Matt. 5:3.
AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

As you can see from the footnotes, Polycarp quoted abundantly from the Scriptures. In his letter to the Philippians, he referred to Matthew, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, to mention just a few. This sets an excellent example for us to follow and should help us to appreciate that the apologist, who lived right after the death of the last apostle, John, used the Scriptures to defend the truth as they understood it.

Polycarp in Smyrna

Smyrna was an ancient coastal city of Asia Minor, on the Aegean shore of what is now Asiatic Turkey. It was full of activity and a flourishing trading center. It had a temple of Tiberius Caesar and so sponsored emperor worship. In addition, Roman emperors were presented importantly as deities on coins and in inscriptions. Pagan religious philosophies were endorsed by royal authority.

Regardless of the wealth flowing into Smyrna, many of those within the Christian congregation was materially poor. However, in the time of the apostle John (c. 96 C.E.), they were commended for being spiritually rich.

Revelation 2:8-11 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Message to Smyrna

“And to the angel of the congregation in Smyrna write:

These are the things the first and the last says, who was dead and came to life:

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the blasphemy[24] of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the congregations. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK

We can attribute this spiritual maturity among the Christians in Smyrna, to the hard work of the elders, like Polycarp. Throughout the time of Polycarp’s serving as an overseer in the congregation, these ones lived through one difficult religious struggle after another. There was pressure from the Roman government, the fleshly non-Christian Jews, and conflicting creeds and cults. The community they had to go into to spread the gospel was widespread with demonic practices, such as sorcery and astrology, and thus the atmosphere was one of godlessness. The martyrdom of Polycarp took place on February 23, 155 C.E., where extremist Jews apparently helped with the gathering of firewood. They did this even though the execution took place on a great Sabbath day!

The Godless

After withdrawing from the city, Polycarp is hunted by a police captain named Herod and betrayed by young slaves who belong to his own house (6:2). He is arrested late in the evening in an “upper room” by police armed as if advancing against a robber (7:1; cf. Mt. 26:55). He refuses to flee, but like Jesus in Gethsemane says, “the will of God be done.” After a long prayer (7:3) he is taken back to the city riding on an ass on a “great Sabbath day” (8:1). [25]

Back in the arena, Polycarp was standing before the governor and an enormous crowd, looking for blood. The governor continued to push him to profess worshipful honor to Caesar:

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS
  1. But as he continued to insist, saying, “Swear by the Genius of Caesar,” he answered: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the Genius of Caesar, as you request, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.” (2) The proconsul said: “Persuade the people.” But Polycarp said: “You I might have considered worthy of a reply, for we have been taught to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not think they are worthy, that I should have to defend myself before them.”[26]

Just moments later, Polycarp was burned to death because he would not forsake Jesus Christ.

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[1] Polycarp: so gE; m (followed by Lightfoot) omits.

[2] Genius: i.e., the guardian spirit.

[3] have … servant: so g; mE read have served him.

[4] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 315, 317.

[5] Irenaeus was born between 120 C.E. and 140 C.E. in or near the city of Smyrna, who died about 200 C.E. He served as an elder in Gaul. He was an early apologist, who wrote in defense of the Christian truth as he knew it. His principal writing was The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called,” which was commonly referred to as “Against Heresies.”

[6] Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.3.4; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.14.3–8. This translation from edition cited above.

[7] Presence; Coming: (Gr. parousia) The Greek word literally means,” which is derived from para, meaning “with,” and ousia, meaning “being.” It denotes both an “arrival” and a consequent “presence with.” Depending on the context, it can mean “presence,” “arrival,” “appearance,” or “coming.” In some contexts this word is describing the presence of Jesus Christ in the last days, i.e., from his ascension in 33 C.E. up unto his second coming, with the emphasis being on his second coming, the end of the age of Satan’s reign of terror over the earth. We do not know the day nor the hours of this second coming. (Matt 24:36) It covers a marked period of time with the focus on the end of that period.–Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor. 15:23; 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:6-7; 10:10; Php 1:26; 2:12; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:2.

[8] Or seduce

[9] Apostasy: (Gr. apostasia) The term literally means “to stand away from” and is used to refer to ones who ‘stand away from the truth.’ It is abandonment, a rebellion, an apostasy, a refusal to accept or acknowledge true worship. In Scripture, this is used primarily concerning the one who rises up in defiance of the only true God and his people, working in opposition to the truth.–Ac 21:21; 2 Thess. 2:3.

[10] I.e., Ignatius and his companions.

[11] as … you: or possibly as you had opportunity.

[12] Acts 2:24 (Western text).

[13] 1 Pet. 1:8.

[14] Eph. 2:5, 8–9.

[15] 1 Pet. 1:13; cf. Ps. 2:11.

[16] 1 Pet. 1:21.

[17] Cf. 1 Cor. 15:28; Phil. 2:10; 3:21.

[18] Acts 10:42.

[19] Cf. Luke 11:50–51.

[20] Cf. 2 Cor. 4:14.

[21] 1 Pet. 3:9.

[22] Matt. 7:1–2 (cf. Luke 6:36–38); 1 Clem. 13:2.

[23] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 281, 283.

[24] I.e. slander

[25] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 1, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 211.

[26] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2007), 315, 317.

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