Worldwide, three hundred and twenty-two Christians die for their faith every month, according to the group Open Doors. Their courage mirrors the faith-filled witness of early Christian martyrs such as Polycarp.
Refusing to bow to the gods of Rome, second-century Christians in the Greek city of Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey) were deemed “atheists.” In an outbreak of persecution in AD 155, officials dragged Christians into the arena and brutally executed them for public entertainment. Although many were beaten until “the anatomy of the body was visible, even to the veins and arteries,” then ripped apart by wild animals or burned alive, they met these trials with such “strength of soul that not one of them uttered a cry or groan.”
Disappointed, the mob of spectators called wildly for the blood of a venerable old man named Polycarp, bishop of the church in Asia Minor. Polycarp’s exact age at the time is debated, but reports say he had been a Christian for eighty-six years when he heard the news of his impending arrest.
As a young man, Polycarp had been a disciple of the apostle John, and was one of the few remaining who had learned firsthand from those who walked with Jesus. John appointed him to leadership, and in his old age Polycarp was highly esteemed. As Christianity entered its second generation, Polycarp aggressively challenged heresies that threatened to pollute the integrity of its original message. His simple instruction always reflected the clarity of Christ and the apostles.
When the soldiers arrived at his house, Polycarp welcomed them in and prepared them a meal, asking only for an hour to pray. His captors watched as one hour stretched to two, not wishing to interrupt his ardent intercessions for the global church. Then Polycarp was placed on a donkey and led away.
In Smyrna he was hurried to the captain of the local forces, a man named Herod. Inviting Polycarp into his carriage, Herod offered him a chance to survive: “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense?” When Polycarp remained immovable in his faith, Herod angrily threw him from the carriage.
Without looking back, Polycarp got up and marched toward the arena. Over the deafening din inside, he heard a voice speak to him: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” This account, based on the reports of eyewitnesses, gives us the rest:
When he was led forward, the proconsul asked him if he was Polycarp. This he affirmed. The proconsul wanted to persuade him to deny his faith, urging him, “Consider your great age,” and all the other things they usually say in such cases. “Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind. Say, ‘Away with the atheists.’”
Polycarp, however, looked with a serious expression upon the whole mob assembled in the arena. He waved his hand over them, sighed deeply, looked up to heaven, and said, “Away with the atheists.”
But the proconsul pressed him further, and said to him, “Swear and I will release you! Curse Christ!”
Polycarp answered, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has never done me any harm. How could I blaspheme my King and Savior?”
When the proconsul still pressed him, saying, “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he replied, “If you desire the empty triumph of making me swear by the genius of Caesar according to your intention, and if you pretend that you do not know who I am, hear my frank confession: I am a Christian. If you are willing to learn what Christianity is, set a time at which you can hear me.”
The proconsul replied, “Try to persuade the people.” Polycarp answered him, “You I consider worthy that I should give an explanation, for we have been taught to pay respect to governments and authorities appointed by God as long as it does us no harm. But as to that crowd, I do not consider them worthy of my defense.”
Thereupon the proconsul declared, “I have wild beasts. I shall have you thrown before them if you do not change your mind.”
“Let them come,” he replied. “It is out of the question for us to change from the better to the worse, but the opposite is worthy of honor: to turn round from evil to justice.”
The proconsul continued, “If you belittle the beasts and do not change your mind, I shall have you thrown into the fire.” Polycarp answered him, “You threaten me with a fire that burns but for an hour and goes out after a short time, for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment for the godless. Why do you wait? Bring on whatever you will.”
Polycarp’s face shone with inward light. He was not in the least disconcerted.
As Polycarp spoke these and similar words, he was full of courage and joy. His face shone with inward light. He was not in the least disconcerted by all these threats. The proconsul was astounded. Three times he sent his herald to announce in the midst of the arena, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian!”
No sooner was this announced by the herald than the whole multitude, both pagans and Jews, the entire population of Smyrna, yelled with uncontrolled anger at the top of their voices, “He is the teacher of Asia! The father of the Christians! The destroyer of our gods! He has persuaded many not to sacrifice and not to worship.” There arose a unanimous shout that Polycarp should be burned alive.
Now everything happened much faster than it can be told. The mob rushed to collect logs and brushwood from the workshops and the public baths. When the woodpile was ready, Polycarp took off his clothes, removed his belt, and tried to undo his shoes….
The fuel for the pyre was very quickly piled around him. When they wanted to fasten him with nails, he refused. “Let me be. He who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me the strength to remain at the stake unflinching, without the security of your nails.”
As the fire blazed up around him he prayed one final time: “May I be accepted among their ranks today in thy sight as a rich sacrifice giving thee joy, as a sacrifice which thou hast prepared and revealed beforehand and hast now fulfilled! Thou art the true God in whom there is no falsehood! For everything, therefore, I praise thee. I praise thee; I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved servant. Through him honor is due to thee and to him and to the Holy Spirit, both now and in all the ages to come. Amen.”
Source: The Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, ca. AD 156. Translation from Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians: In Their Own Words (Plough, 1997).