In our “Final Moments in Ministry” series, we are celebrating preachers and pastors before us who faithfully endured to the end. This week’s post is about the martyrdom of Polycarp, an early church father who pastored a church in Smyrna (modern day Turkey). This recollection of Polycarp’s death reveals Polycarp’s otherworldly reliance on God until his dying breath in AD 155.
Three days before his arrest, Polycarp fell into a deep trance. On regaining consciousness, he declared that he had received a vision. He had seen his pillow bursting into flame around his head. Polycarp had no question what the vision meant. Turning to his companions, he said, “I am going to be burned alive.”
Polycarp prayed so earnestly that one hour became two, and several of the soldiers regretted their role in his arrest.
Not long after, the Roman authorities captured two slaves. One of them broke down under torture and revealed the location of the farm where Polycarp was staying. When soldiers arrived on horseback to seize him, Polycarp refused to run. Instead, he offered his captors hospitality and food, requesting only that he be allowed an hour for prayer. When they agreed, Polycarp prayed so earnestly that one hour became two, and several of the soldiers regretted their role in the arrest of such a venerable old man.
They then put Polycarp on a donkey and led him back into the city. Upon arrival, his captors ushered him into the carriage of a man named Herod, the captain of the local troops. Herod tried to convince Polycarp to save himself. “Why, what harm is there is saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense?” When Polycarp refused the very suggestion of renouncing Christ, the official grew threatening and forced him out of the carriage so roughly that he injured his shin.
Without even turning, Polycarp marched on quickly as they escorted him to the stadium, where a deafening roar arose from the throngs of spectators. As he entered, his Christian companions heard a voice from above say, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” He was brought before the proconsul, who urged him to deny his faith and bow before the emperor: “Swear by the spirit of Caesar! Repent, and say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”
Turning with a grim look toward the crowd calling for his death, Polycarp gestured at them. “Away with the atheists,” he said dryly.
Undeterred, the proconsul pressed him further to deny Christ. Polycarp declared, “Eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
“We are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.”
Once more the proconsul urged Polycarp to swear by Caesar. This time Polycarp replied, “Since you pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn more about Christianity, I will be happy to make an appointment.”
Furious, the proconsul said, “Don’t you know I have wild beasts waiting? I’ll throw you to them unless you repent.”
Polycarp answered, “Bring them on, then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.”
Next the proconsul threatened to burn him alive. To this Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for a little while and is soon extinguished. You do not know the coming fire of judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. What are you waiting for? Do what you wish.”
The fire formed a circle around him, but his body did not burn.
The proconsul sent his herald out into the arena to announce that Polycarp had confessed to being a Christian. At this, the assembled crowd seethed with uncontrolled fury and called for Polycarp to be burned alive. Quickly, they assembled a pyre, gathering wood from workshops and the public baths. Polycarp removed his clothes and tried to take off his shoes, though his advanced age made it difficult. His guards prepared to nail him to the stake, but he told them calmly, “Leave me as I am, for the one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to remain at the stake unmoved without being secured by nails.” They bound his hands behind him. Polycarp offered a psalm of praise and thanksgiving to God. His captors ignited the wood.
According to observers, as the flames grew, they did not consume Polycarp as expected. The fire formed a circle around him, but his body did not burn. Since the fire did not have its intended effect on Polycarp’s body, an executioner was ordered to stab him to death with a dagger. His blood extinguished the flames.
Originally published in Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship (eds. Charles E. Moore and Timothy Keiderling).
Even in our easy-church culture, stories of persecution—especially physical persecution—warn us about getting too comfortable. But fear not! Scripture promises that even persecution will not separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). As Polycarp’s death reminds us, the Spirit empowers us to stand firm till the end. Pastor, when overcome by the temptation to burn out, remember the words of Polycarp: “Leave me as I am, for the one who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to remain at the stake unmoved.”