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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Polycarp: Martyr of Smyrna

Dean Robinson

Compiled from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe; Memorials of Baptist Martyrs by Thieleman J. Van Braght; and A History of the Baptists by Thomas Armitage.

In the year of 156 A.D., an old Baptist preacher was put to death with fire and sword for his faith in the Son of God. His name was Polycarp.

Polycarp was at one time a student and disciple of the apostle John. He was pastor of a Baptist church in the city of Smyrna. Historians considered Smyrna the most beautiful city the Greeks ever built. Some called Smyrna the "glory of Asia." It was here in this city that Caesar-worship was established and located for all of the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

According to the Bible and history, this church in Smyrna of which Polycarp was pastor suffered tremendous persecution. The church was despised and disdained because of its supposed insignificance in the eyes of unbelievers. While most people were worshipping idols in huge impressive shrines and in towering temples, the Christians were huddled in homes where they simply and quietly worshiped the Lord. The pagan Jews and Greeks of the city literally hated these early Christians.

The greatest reason for the persecution of the Christians in Smyrna was in the fact of in whom they worshiped. By the time the book of Revelation was written, emperor-worship was mandatory. Since the Christians refused to declare Caesar as Lord and burn a pinch of incense in the temple dedicated to the emperor, they were considered disloyal to the government.

They were looked upon by others as traitors to their country, therefore their persecution was as much for political reason as well as for religious reason. As a result, Christians were being tortured and killed. Some were burned in boiling oil or burned at the stake; others were crucified; many were thrown to the lions in the coliseum. Obviously, to live in Smyrna as a Christian was to live in jeopardy every day.

The story is told that Polycarp lived out in the country side. When those who sought to capture him kept getting close, his friends would try to hide him from place to place. One day when his captors entered the house in which he was hiding, Polycarp, instead of running again, was heard to say: "The will of the Lord be done."

As he came down the stairs Polycarp met his persecutors with a kind and friendly greeting. In fact, before they were to go, he prepared for them a meal and offered the best of food that he had. While they were eating, he requested that he be allowed one hour to pray alone in peace and quiet. when the hour was up, they set him on a donkey and headed for the city.

As they approached near Smyrna, Polycarp was met on the outskirts of the city by the chief magistrate who took him into his chariot and asked him one simple question (in order to tempt him to denounce the Lord Jesus Christ): "What harm is it to say Lord Caesar?"

Polycarp was promised his freedom if he would swear by Caesar and revile and deny Christ. He answered with these words: "Eighty and six years have I served Him and He never did me any harm; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour, who hath saved me?" (He was kicked out of the chariot and in the process of falling he severely injured one of his legs.)

As soon as Polycarp had entered the stadium where he was to be executed, the uproar and noise of the cheering crowd of people was so loud that very few could actually hear what was being said. Polycarp was given another chance to deny Christ and was threatened to be torn to shreds and devoured by wild, savage lions to which he answered and said: "Let them come, for my purpose is unchangeable."

When he could not be moved to blaspheme the Lord by being threatened to be fed to hungry lions, the ruling authorities further threatened Polycarp by having him burned at the stake. Polycarp replied: "Thou threatenest me with a fire which will perhaps burn for an hour and then soon go out; but thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment of God which is prepared and reserved for the everlasting punishment and torment of the ungodly. But why do you delay? Bring on the beasts, or the fire, or whatever thou mayest choose: thou shalt not, by either of them, move me to deny Christ, my Lord and Saviour."

A messenger was sent to the middle of this great amphitheater to declare three times the saying: "Polycarp has confessed to be a Christian." Upon hearing the confession, the multitude began to demand his death by crying out in fury to let the lions loose. But the magistrate said: "Let him be burned."

The people immediately began to gather up wood and anything else that would burn and piled it up at the feet of Polycarp. As the guards were about to nail him to the stake, he said: "Leave me as I am. He who gives me strength to bear the fire will hold me to the pile."

Therefore, they did not fasten him with nails but simply used a rope to tie his hands behind his back. As he was about to be offered as a burnt offering to his Lord and Saviour, Polycarp looked up to heaven and began to pray:

"O Father...I thank thee that thou didst call me to this day and hour, and hast counted me worthy that I may have my part and place among the number of the holy martyrs. I pray thee, O Lord, that thou wouldst this day receive me, as a fat offering among the number of thy holy martyrs. I thank and praise thee, above other men and honor thy holy name, through Jesus Christ, thy well-beloved Son, the eternal High Priest, unto whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be the glory, now and forever. Amen."

As soon as he said "amen," the officers lit the fire. The story is told that the flames arched above the body of Polycarp as if the hand of God had built a wall around him. The blood-thirsty mob, believing that his body was not burning fast enough, cried out for a soldier nearby to pierce his body with a sword. When he did so, such a quantity of blood gushed out that the fire was put out or nearly so. To the dismay of the crowd, they still demanded that his dead body be burned to where all that was left was his bones.

Thus did this faithful witness of Jesus Christ, having died both by fire and the sword, entered into the glorious presence of his Saviour, at the ripe old age of 90-years-old.

While Polycarp and the church he pastored were going through this severe time of suffering and persecution, the apostle John, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote a letter of encouragement to this church and her pastor in Revelation 2:8-11:

"And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."

This letter to the church at Smyrna is one of the central passages in the Bible that deals with suffering. As the Lord speaks to this church, He gives His own formula for encouraging those who are going through suffering, sorrow, and pain.

The Lord Jesus Christ describes the suffering of the church in Smyrna with three words: pressure, poverty, and persecution. In verse 9 He says, I know your "tribulation"–this word carries the idea of pressure. It’s like placing a heavy rock on a man’s chest until it crushes him to death. The believers were under this constant, uninterrupted pressure from the pagan society around them. The members of this church were suffering tribulation because they refused to compromise and say "Caesar is Lord."

Then the Lord says in verse 9, I know they "poverty"–means absolute poverty, beggarly, destitute, poor, penniless. It describes someone who is utterly without means, possessing absolutely nothing. In the midst of the wealth of this city, the believers were penniless because of their faith in Christ. Not only were they mobbed, looted, and robbed, but they were boycotted and banned from making a living. Nobody would hire them for work, they couldn’t get a job simply because of their testimony and faith in Jesus Christ.

The third word that describes this church at Smyrna is "persecution." In verse 9 Jesus said: "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." The word "blasphemy" means: slander. This church was surrounded by enemies who were tearing her reputation to pieces. The believers in Smyrna were enduring constant slander and heavy pressure from a group of so-called Jewish converts who were encouraging compromise.

It was to this suffering church that our Lord gives two commands. One is a prohibition: "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer" (verse 10). The other is an encouragement: "be thou faithful unto death" (verse 10).

This is what the Lord requires of us in times of suffering: fearlessness and faithfulness. The word "faithful" (verse 10) comes from a root word that means "to be convinced." The Lord Jesus was not telling His suffering saints to keep a still upper lip or to keep your chin up or keep smiling or grin and bear it. What He’s telling them is to depend on Him, to be convinced of Him, to let Him be the strength and courage of their hearts and lives. He knew they would fail if they merely tried to bear up in their own strength. The important thing was they were to stand true to Christ no matter what the circumstances were, no matter what threatenings were made against them.

In verse 11 Jesus gives us a wonderful promise. The first death is our physical death but the second death is eternal separation from God; it is that awful judgment where all unbelievers, those who know not Christ as their personal Saviour, will spend and eternity in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14; 21:8).

As we think about the life’s story of Polycarp and this passage in Revelation 2, the Lord is reminding us of a tremendous truth–the world lives to die but the believer dies to live. Those who have their faith and trust in Jesus Christ will never experience the second death.

As the end-time pressures increase, persecution will also increase and God’s people need to be ready and prepared to take a stand and face suffering, sorrow, and pain for the cause of Jesus Christ.