The Death of Polycarp

In Blog, Evangelical History by Emily Woodworth

The Death of Polycarp

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…Hebrews 12:1

Historical Figures: Polycarp

by Ryan Couch

To start off our Evangelical History section of the blog, I am going to write a series of posts on important figures in Church history. Progressing in chronological order, we will learn about some of the most exciting, influential people in the history of our faith.

Before we get to our first figure, though, a caution: As we survey these monumental characters, it is important that we do not see them as mythical figures who were detached from the daily struggles of life. Although it is easy to see them as “heroes,” let us remember that these were human beings, very much like ourselves, who struggled with sin and difficulties. In this they are not “heroes” for us to venerate, but “witnesses” from whom we can learn (Heb. 12:1). If we do emulate any part of them, we should emulate their deep love and dependence upon Jesus, the one and true hero of our faith.

The first figure I’ll look at is a man named Polycarp.

Polycarp was born in 69AD and died in 156AD, living in the crucial period just after the first generation of Christians, a time when the Church was wrestling with exactly who they were and what they believed. Tradition tells us that Polycarp was personally mentored by the apostle John, who ordained him as bishop in the city of Smyrna.

As the first recorded martyr of the Church after the New Testament era, Polycarp is actually most famous for his death, and, unlike many famous figures in Church history, he was neither a scholar nor an influential theologian. He was simply a man who loved Jesus and desired to make much of him. In addition to his work as a pastor, he waged many battles against the early heretic Marcion and the aberrant teachings of the Gnostics.

The death of Polycarp picture for The Fellowship at Bend in Oregon

The time that Polycarp lived was also a time of great persecution in the Church, when both the religious leaders and the government were attempting to quiet this “upstart religion.” People like Polycarp were seen as a threat to both of these entities. That said, it is not clear why the Romans waited until he was in his eighties finally to kill him (and simultaneously cement his story in Church history).

When the Roman officials at last came to arrest Polycarp, his friends urged him to flee and hide. Initially, he capitulated to their pleading. But while in hiding, he received a vision that convinced him that he was to give himself up to be burned alive. Of course, the Romans eventually found him and, when he was encouraged to run again, he proclaimed, “God’s will be done!” He was arrested and after an intense interrogation, when it was clear that he would not recant his faith, the soldiers attempted to nail him to the stake (to keep him in place while the fire blazed).

Instead, he cried out, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.”

He prayed aloud for all to hear, the fire was lit, and Polycarp was consumed by the flames. One observer of this event said of his martyrdom, “it was not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.” The death of Polycarp is as grisly as it is dramatic, and his martyrdom was powerfully used by the Lord to both carry the gospel to unbelievers and embolden the Church to continue to stand fast in what they believed.

So how does this relate to us, today? While in Bend, Oregon we may not be arrested or set on fire for our faith, we are faced with myriad opportunities to “die” to ourselves and be a faithful witness for Christ—something that we repeatedly fail to do. When I read stories like this, often I feel guilty about my own apathy and failure to take a stand for Christ in my own life, and if you’re anything like me, then I am not alone in this feeling.

This failure should bring shame, it should cause us to feel guilty and inadequate. But remember: just as quickly as the weight of conviction comes we should turn toward Christ whose death, not Polycarp’s nor anyone else’s, is the only hope in which we can place our trust.

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”

2 Timothy 2:11-13

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