Polycarp, A Disciple Of The Apostle John, And Bishop Of The Church At Smyrna, Put To Death With Fire And Sword, For His Faith In The Son Of God, A. D. 168
We read in the Revelation of John, that the Lord commanded His servant John, that he should write a few things to the angel (that is, the bishop or teacher) of the church at Smyrna, for the admonition of the teacher as well as for the service of the church, saying: “Unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These tilings saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty…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” (Rev. 2:8-10). These words of the Lord Jesus indicate that the believers at Smyrna, and their teacher, were in tribulation and poverty, and that still more suffering was approaching them; whereupon he exhorted them to constancy, and promised to give them the crown of life.
As regards the teacher of this church, most of the ancient writers call him Polycarp, and say, that he was a disciple of the apostle John, inasmuch as he had heard John preach the Word of God, and had associated with those who had known the Lord Jesus Christ personally, and had had intercourse with him; and that John had appointed him bishop or overseer of the church at Smyrna.
Touching the sufferings which the Lord said would befall him and the church of which he was teacher, this began some time afterwards; in such manner that this good shepherd preceded, and many of the sheep of his flock faithfully followed him. However, we intend to speak here only of the shepherd, Polycarp.
It is stated, that three days before he was apprehended and sentenced to death, he was suddenly overcome by sleep, in the midst of his prayer, and while dreaming, had a vision, in which he saw the pillow on which he lay with his head, suddenly taking fire and was consumed. Instantly awakened thereby, he concluded that he was to be burnt for the name of Christ.
When those who sought to apprehend him, had approached very close, his friends endeavored to conceal him, and, therefore, brought him to another country-seat, where he was nevertheless shortly afterwards discovered by his persecutors. For they had seized two lads, whom they, by scourging them, compelled to say where Polycarp was; and although, from the chamber in which he was, he might easily have made his escape into another house near by, he would not do it, but said: “The will of the Lord be done.” He therefore descended the stairs, to meet his persecutors, whom he received so kindly, that those who had not known him before, regretfully said, “What need had we to make so great haste, to apprehend such an old man.”
Polycarp immediately had a table spread for his captors, and affectionately urged them to eat; begging of them to allow him an hour’s time in which to pray undisturbedly in quiet, while they were eating; which they granted him. When he had finished his prayer, and the hour was up, in which he had reflected upon his life, and commended the church of which he was teacher, unto God and his Saviour, the bailiffs placed him upon an ass, and
led him to the city, on the Sabbath of the great feast.
Nicetes and his son Herod, called the prince of peace, rode out to meet him, took him from the ass, and made him sit with them in their carriage, seeking in this manner to induce him to apostatize from Christ, saying: “What matters it for you to say, Lord Emperor, and to offer sacrifice or incense before him, to save your life.” At first, Polycarp made no reply at all, but when they persisted in asking him, and demanded an answer, he finally said: “I shall never do what you request and counsel me to do.” When they saw that he was immovable in his faith, they commenced to revile him, and, at the same time, thrust him out of the carriage, so that in falling he severely injured his leg. He never showed, however, that he had been injured by the fall, but, as soon as he had risen, willingly surrendered himself again into the hands of the bailiffs, to be led further to the place of execution, walking as rapidly as though nothing hindered him.
As soon as Polycarp had entered the circus or amphitheatre, where he was to be executed, a voice came to him from heaven, saying, “Be strong, O Polycarp! and valiant in thy confession, and in the suffering which awaits thee.” No person saw the one from whom this voice proceeded, but many of the Christians that stood around heard it; however, on account of the great commotion, the greater part of the people could not hear it. It nevertheless tended to strengthen Polycarp and those who had heard it.
The Stadtholder admonished him to have compassion for his great age, and, by swearing by the Emperor’s fortune, to deny Christ. Thereupon Polycarp gave the following candid reply, “I have now served my Lord Christ Jesus eighty-six years, and He has never done me any harm. How can I deny my King, who hath hitherto preserved me from all evil, and so faithfully redeemed me?”
Thereupon the Stadtholder threatened to have him torn by wild beasts, if he would not desist from his purpose, saying: “I have the beasts ready, before whom I shall cast thee, unless thou become converted betimes.” Polycarp answered unterrified: “Let them come, for my purpose is unchangeable. We cannot be converted or perverted from good to evil by affliction; but it would be better, if they (the evildoers) who persist in their wickedness would become converted to that which is good.” The Stadtholder replied: “If thou art not yet sorry, and despisest the wild beasts, I shall have thee burned with fire.” Once more Polycarp answered, saying: “Thou threatenest me with a fire, which will perhaps burn for an hour, and then soon go out; but thou knowest not the fire of the future judgment of God, which is prepared and reserved for the everlasting punishment and torment of the ungodly. But why delayest thou? 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.”
Finally, when the people demanded his death, he was delivered by the Stadtholder to be burned. Instantly there was brought together a great heap of wood, fagots, and shavings. When Polycarp saw this, he undressed himself, and took off his shoes, in order to be laid on the wood without any clothes. This being done, the executioners were about to lay their hands on him, to nail him on the wood; but he said: “Let it be so; He that hath given me strength to endure the pain of the fire, will also strengthen me to remain still in the fire, though you nail me not to the firewood. They, accordingly, did not fasten him with nails, but simply with a rope, tied his hands behind his back. Thus, prepared for a burnt offering, and placed upon the wood like a sacrificial lamb, he prayed to God, saying, “O Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the saving knowledge of Thy holy name; God of angels and powers, and of all creatures, but especially of all the righteous who live in Thy sight, 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, and in the cup of the suffering of Christ, so I suffer with Him, and thus partake of His pains. I pray Thee, O Lord, that Thou wouldst this day receive me, as a fat offering among the number of Thy holy martyrs, even as Thou alone, O God of truth, who canst not lie, didst prepare me thereto, and didst make it known unto me, yea, hast now ultimately fulfilled it. Therefore I thank and praise Thee, above other men, and honour Thy holy name, through Jesus Christ, Thy well-beloved Son, the eternal High Priest, unto whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, by the glory, now and forever. Amen.”
As soon as he had uttered the last word of his prayer (the word “Amen”), the executioners ignited the wood upon which he was placed; and when the flames circled high above the body of Polycarp, it was found, to the astonishment of everyone that the fire injured him but little, or not at all. The executioner was therefore commanded to pierce him with a sword, which was instantly done, so that the blood, either through the heat of the fire, or from some other reason, issued so copiously from the wound that the fire was almost extinguished thereby; and thus this faithful witness of Jesus Christ, having died both by fire and the sword, entered into the rest of the saints, about A. D. 168. Compare Eitseb., 4th book, 15 chap., printed A. D. 1588, page 66-70 with Abr. MelL, 1st book of the Hist., fol. 40, 41, col. 1-4, from Iren., lib. 3, cap. 3. Hares. Hieron. Catal. in Polycarp, Eitseb., lib. 4, cap. 13, and lib. 5, cap. 19. Also, Joh. Gysii Hist. Mart, for the year 168, fol. 17, col. 2. Also, P. J. Tzuisckj Chron. 2d book, A. D. 168, page 45, col. 2.
Thieleman J. Van Braght (1625-1664) was an Anabaptist who is best known for writing a history of the Christian witness throughout the centuries entitled “The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660” (1660).