The Martyrdom of Polycarp: How Christians Should Respond to Opposition Against Their Faith

polycarp-martyrdomOne of the earliest martyrdoms recorded by the early church was that of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smryna, in the mid second century.  According to multiple sources, Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John.  Polycarp was killed by government authorities because he refused to burn incense to Caesar and make the required statement, “Caesar is Lord.”

The “persecution” and “suffering” we face in the West for our faith in Christ dims in comparison to the suffering Polycarp faced or to the struggles Christians endure today in countries where there is no freedom of religion.  And yet, all who genuinely follow Christ will encounter friction of some degree with the world. It is inevitable when one lives for God who is perfectly pure in a world that is fallen and cursed by sin.  Jesus told his followers this would be case- “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19).

When we face trouble with the world because of our faith in Christ and belief in the Bible, may our response be as that of Polycarp.  May we stand fast in our faith and serve as a faithful witness while never retaliating in anger to our tormentors.  Below is the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom:

Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.  And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Swear by the Genius of Caesar.”  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, and he has done me no wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

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…”

So the proconsul said, “I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.”  But he said; “Call for them!  For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness.”  Then he said to him again; “I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.”  But Polycarp said, “You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.  But why do you delay?  Come, do what you wish.”

As he spoke these and many other words, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was filled with grace, so that not only did he not collapse in fright at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astonished, and sent his own herald into the midst of the stadium to proclaim three times; “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”*

According to the church fathers, Polycarp was tied to a stake and the kindling beneath it was lit, but the flames didn’t touch him.  So the authorities stabbed him to death.

May this powerful example of faithfulness even in the face of death always be true of us when we face opposition for following Christ.  May we always stand for God’s Truth and do so in a loving way that exemplifies the Master we serve.

*“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” translated by Michael Holmes in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations


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