Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Polycarp –
We ended up last time in the city of Rome, traveling alongside Ignatius of Antioch from his residence in Syria to Rome where he was martyred for being a Christ-follower. Let’s retrace our steps a little bit and follow Ignatius’s letter to a place called Smyrna and observe the life, ministry, and martyrdom of a friend of Ignatius named Polycarp.
“Be safe” (Latin: Incolumes estate). Polycarp wished for this to be true for the people of Philippi, the city to which he wrote in the early 2nd century. What’s so intriguing about this phrase? Polycarp died as a martyr, in fact his martyrdom is the first “martyrology” (writing about a martyr) that we have recorded from church history post-New Testament times. He was not safe…or was he? You see, I only quoted part of Polycarp’s concluding remarks to the Philippian believers. He stated, “Be safe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Ultimately, Polycarp was not safe, and yet he was – in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I find Polycarp to be one of the easiest early Christians to understand (regarding what he wrote) and at the same time, one of the most intriguing and unwavering. If only more extant information on Polycarp such as his early and young adult life were available. Fortunately, there is some data. (1) The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (2) The Martyrdom of Polycarp. His epistle is enormously practical, filled with a plethora of New Testament quotations and allusions (in the 2nd century even!). And his inspiring martyrdom, written by the church of Smyrna to the church in Philomelium, is quite captivating. He lived to be a man of fairly old age, at least 86, marking his death to be approximately A.D. 155/156. Far too little is known. But for what we do know, we can turn to the two major writings pertaining to Polycarp.
The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
The church at Philippi was actually doing quite well. He applauds their spiritual maturity, evidenced by their fruits, but still exhorts them to holy living (chapters 1-2; 4). Meanwhile, he also notes that there is a major difference between him and the Apostle Paul: “These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to do so. For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and [glorious] Paul” (find full translation here). I think it’s clear to say that Polycarp was not an apostle, nor claimed some type of infallible apostolic successional authority; he was simply encouraging a fellow church as a brother-in-Christ.
He moves on to write about reminders on church life: presbyters (elders), deacons, youth, and singles (lit. “virgins”). Next, he warns of two specific things, common in other Christian writings of the time: false teaching and perseverance through persecution. But there’s also one valuable insight into early church ministry, more specifically, church discipline. Unfortunately, there was a man named Valens who, a former presbyter even, was put under church discipline. It is implied that this man did not meet the pastoral qualifications and was rightly removed (possibly over matters of covetousness – see chapter 11). Whatever the case, observe the restorative attitude of Polycarp’s heart towards Valens and his wife: “I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and do not count such as enemies, but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves.” In modern-day American Christianity, church discipline is oftentimes taboo; the worry is that following Scriptural guidelines will kill a church. Polycarp, on the other hand, says it’s the only way to save it.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
What would you do if you knew you were being sought after by the authorities? Or perhaps more appropriate, what would other believers write about your life if you were put into the position of Polycarp of Smyrna? Polycarp is presented in this entire “martyrology” (the first we have recorded post-New Testament) as a steadfast Christian who “was in no measure disturbed [by being sought for persecution], but resolved to continue in the city” (ch. 5). By the encouragement of some friends, he decided to escape the city to a nearby country house. There he “engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom” (ch. 5). But continuous peace for Polycarp was not meant to be.
Three days before being taken away, while praying, he had a vision of his pillow underneath his head being on fire. He explained to his friends, “I must be burnt alive.” The authorities were coming not long afterward, so he fled to another house. But Polycarp could not remain hidden, for his pursuers soon caught up to him. Two youths from his own household were then seized. Being subjected to possible torture, one confessed of their doings and led the pursuers to the place of Polycarp’s hiding. Rather than escape once again (which was possible for him to do), he refused, wishing that the will of the Lord would be done.
His moment of capture is truly interesting. Upon hearing of his captors’ arrival, he voluntarily came to meet them. The men were perplexed that a man of his age was so hard to find. But what happens next is simply incredible. “Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them [he fed his persecutors a meal!], as much indeed as they cared for, while he besought them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance [his hospitality granted him time for prayer]. And on their giving him leave, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for two full hours, to the astonishment of those who heard him, insomuch that many began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man [Polycarp’s testimony was quite moving].”
After praying, the men led Polycarp back into the city. He was confronted by the Irenarch Herod and his father Nicetes, trying to persuade him to call Caesar “Lord” and to offer him sacrifice. Polycarp wouldn’t budge, so they proceeded in taking him to the stadium. While entering the stadium, eyewitnesses heard a voice from heaven saying, “Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp!” The proconsul gave Polycarp another chance to change his mind, offering the following guidelines: “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists [that is, “Christians,” since believers don’t worship visible gods like the Romans].” Polycarp, in a rather striking way, responded like so: “But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, Away with the Atheists.” Again, the proconsul urged Polycarp to simply denounce Christ as Lord, and he would set him free. Polycarp’s response is worth pondering for not a short time: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
Relentless, the proconsul tries again and again to persuade Polycarp to succumb to a Christ-dishonoring response, but to no avail. The crowd called for a lion to come out and consume Polycarp, but it was not lawful since their “show” had already finished earlier that day. They would settle for burning him to death, something that Polycarp was expecting as a fulfillment of his vision. Rather than nailing him to the wood, they simply bound him there. He looked up to heaven and prayed: “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”
The fire was started, but something rather miraculous happened: “For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.” Seeing that the fire didn’t seem to “work,” an executioner pierced Polycarp with a dagger. It is said that when he was struck, so much blood was expelled that the fire was extinguished. Much of what was recorded about Polycarp’s final days were similar to the passion of Jesus Christ. Polycarp waited in an upper room, he shared a meal with friends, he prayed before his arrest, he was apprehended by a “Herod,” he was taken into a city, was opposed by the Jews, prayed at his death, and was stabbed so that he bled (though he was not nailed) [from class notes of “Church History 1,” Dr. Paul Hartog, Piedmont International University, Spring 2014].
The influence of Polycarp lived on well past his death in 155/156. To close this biographical study, the following words seem appropriate and were once spoken of by his earliest of followers: “This, then, is the account of the blessed Polycarp, who, being the twelfth that was martyred in Smyrna (reckoning those also of Philadelphia), yet occupies a place of his own in the memory of all men, insomuch that he is everywhere spoken of by the heathen themselves. He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous, rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the catholic church throughout the world.”
Church History Tip: History tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John! Polycarp was rather young in his association with John (first Youth Pastor?? – just kidding). So, in trying to keep chronology in your mind when studying church history, consider how John was author of multiple somewhat late books in the New Testament (the Gospel of John, I-II-III John, and Revelation) – late 1st century. John was from Smyrna and passed down the Christian faith to Polycarp there in Asia Minor. Hence, I think it helps to keep the association between John and Polycarp for connecting the dots of church history.