The Martyrdom of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna
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A Disciple Of The Apostle John
One of the most notable martyrs of the early Church was the venerable Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, who was martyred on 23rd February 156AD at the age of eighty-six years old in the arena at Smyrna rather than curse Jesus Christ and swear an oath to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. [You can read a full account of what happened by clicking on the heading above.]
Polycarp had been a disciple of the old apostle John before being made Bishop of Smyrna and responsible for the churches in that area of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). When the persecution broke out, friends urged the old man to escape. But he was not afraid and eventually was arrested by the Chief of Police named Herod and brought before the Roman Governor of Smyrna.
They pleaded with Polycarp to just deny Christ and swear an oath to the Emperor to save his life.
"What harm is there to say `Caesar is Lord,' and to offer incense and all that sort of thing, and to save yourself?"
Polycarp In The Arena
But Polycarp refused and he was taken into the arena to face the Roman Governor of Smyrna and a crowd of thousands baying for his death.
As he entered the arena, he heard a voice from heaven, saying,
"Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man."
No one saw the one speaking, but Christians present heard the voice.
Polycarp Before The Roman Covernor
When he was brought before him, the Governor asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he said that he was, he tried to persuade him to deny [the faith], saying,
"Have respect to your age. Swear by the fortune of Caesar; change your mind; say, 'Away with the atheists!'"
Polycarp looked at the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, motioned to them with his hand and, looking up to heaven, said,
"Away with the atheists!"
The Governor was insistent and said:
"Take the oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ."
"Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"
When it was clear that no amount of persuasion would change the old man's mind, not even threats of being thrown to wild beasts, the governor ordered for him to be burned at the stake in the centre of the arena.
When they tried to nail his hands to the pole, Polycarp asked them simply to tie his hands behind his back and to the stake before lighting the fire.
Then he prayed:
"Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, 'the God of angels and powers and all creation' and of the whole race of the righteous who live in thy presence: "
"I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for 'resurrection to eternal life' of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou hast prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, thou that art the true God without any falsehood."
"For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen."
Polycarp's Final Execution
As the flames licked around him, his body seemed to be like a loaf of bread being baked in an oven and had a heavenly glow about it. An executioner was ordered to finish him off with a dagger thrust. Twelve other Christians from the nearby city of Philadelphia were also executed that day along with Polycarp and witnessed to their faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and LORD, even when given the opportunity to save their lives by denying Christ.
Polycarp's name [Greek Polykarpos] means "very fruitful." As Tertullian later wrote: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."
The history of the last two thousand years has demonstrated the truth of this, not least in the extraordinary harvest of born again Christians in China, despite the most vicious persecution under the Communist regime which continues to this day.