Polycarp – Martyr of The Early Church

I have been studying the Early Chuch for the past couple weeks and the hundreds of stories of martyrs has been awe inspiring and, if I’m honest, quite terrifying. Growing up I thought of myself as part of the Revival Generation, a fantastical and humble title we gave ourselves. There was much talk about martyrdom at this point of my life. Whether I was attending national revival conferences, having a prayer time in a friends basement or just having a regular Wednesday afternoon conversation with a friend.

I’m not sure if you read this and think, that’s ridiculous for 12-14 year old  Canadian kids who know nothing of persecution to be talking about their willingness, desire or possibly even hope for martyrdom some day, but if you are thinking that you’d probably be right. It was easy for us to say as empassioned, curious teenagers that longed to give ‘everything’ for Jesus. I still don’t think the desire is wrong, maybe presumptuous, but not wrong. We loved Jesus and for a small town Saskatchewan kid the thought of having to die for our faith was crazy. Being a Christian was acceptable and probably even encouraged by some members of our towns and families. This was not the case for the early church though. As I read about these martyrdom stories I was astonished at the honest and terrifying truth. Martyrdom does not feel good. It is not fancy nor is it exciting. Just as we had seen it wrong in the basement of my friends home many years ago, so too did some of the early Christians.

There are two stories that stood out to me. The first and possibly the most famous within the early church was that of Polycarp. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna and was believed to be a disciple of John the Apostle. He was a friend of Ignatius of Antoich, one of the most famous and well known Early Church Father. While Ignatius was on the road to his own martyrdom he wrote a series of letters. One of these letters was to Polycarp. This must have been some kind of friendship.

Many years after Ignatius’ death there was a persecution that had arisen against the Christians. They were not to be hunted but if accusation had come against them they would suffer jail time or execution. Rome did not give Christians much of a leash. The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom really begins with the execution of a group of Christians that had been found guilty of the crime of atheism.

Yes, that’s right atheism.

The reason for this is that the Christians would not offer sacrifice to the God’s in the pantheon or the emperor, which was required by Roman law. Upon their refusal to offer these sacrifices the accusation of atheist went out. During their trial the crowd was enraged over the discussion of an elderly Christian and the judge. As they cried for this elderly man’s death they also began to cry out “bring us Polycarp!” and Rome agreed sending soldiers out to find him.

The Church of Smyrna heard of this and cried out for Polycarp to hide himself away. Reluctantly he agreed to hide for his churches sake. The soldiers found him but before being captured he was whisked him away to another hiding spot. This happened three times until Polycarp said that he would hide no longer because it was obviously the will of God that he be martyred. Standing in front of his judge Polycarp refused to renounce his faith. They appealed to his age saying that they did not want an old man to have to endure torture but this did nothing to sway him. The threats began to intensify but Polycarp would not bend. Finally, there was a decision. Polycarp would die by fire.

Being taken by the guards and tied to a stake Polycarp prayed this prayer.

“Lord Sovereign God… I thank you that you have deemed me worthy of this moment, so that , jointly with your martyrs, I may have a share in the cup of Christ… For this… I bless and glorify you. Amen.”

Wow.

What happens next is believed by historians to be myth. A work of Christians to increase support over supernatural happenings. That may be true but, as a charismatic kid at heart, part of me wonders if the stories are true.

As the guards step back from the fire they’ve just lit they see that the fires will not touch him. The fires rage but burn around him leaving his flesh free from its scorching heat. They are ordered then to stab him since the flames will not do. One of the guards walks forward and plunges his knife into Polycarp’s chest. As he does Polycarp’s chest caves in and so much blood runs out that it puts out the flames below. Once the fire is out a dove flies from his chest, disappearing in the sky and Polycarp is dead.

As I said earlier Polycarp’s martyrdom was held in high esteem by the church. Possibly being the most famous of the martyrdom accounts. It was not because of the amazing and potentially mythical story at the end though. Instead, it was the faith in which Polycarp went to his death that inspired the people. You see the church was under great persecution, many were dying and because of that it had become somewhat of a standard for those of great faith. If you wanted to be considered important you had to experience martyrdom. So why then did Polycarp’s martyrdom not add to that but instead help rectify it? It was because it was held in contrast with another account of a would-be martyr named Quintus.

Quintus was a man well known as a strong and faithful Christian. He persuaded others to come with him to turn themselves in for trial knowing that this would lead to his martyrdom. When he was put in front of the wild beasts he became afraid and agreed to offer sacrifices to the pantheon. The church saw these two events as examples of what martyrdom should and should not be.

When looking at Polycarp we see an elderly man, near the end of his life, tired and weak standing strong in the midst of trial and torture. In reading the whole story it seemed that his strength grew in the midst of the trial. Quintus was quite the opposite. Weakened and unable to take the toll the torture would inflict. The end result was that the church believed that Martyrdom was only meant to be chosen by God, not by us and that when God chooses us for martyrdom he would give the strength needed to stand strong.

This sounds like the gospel to me. That God in his wisdom would call us to something that only he could know we could endure and that this endurance is a gift from God rather than something we can accomplish ourselves. The recent wave of persecution across the world makes this a reality in our day again. Whether it be the murder of helpless babes by guerilla warriors in Africa, the beheading of groups of Christians by ISIS soldiers or a school shooting where the Christians are singled out for execution. The reality of being martyred is not as far from us as we may think and yet as a fourth generation Canadian Christian it isn’t a daily threat as it is for so many brothers and sisters across the globe and definitely not what the early church experienced.

The reality of what it means to give up ‘everything’ for my faith confronts me as I read these two accounts. I am not the naive 13 year old I once was. I have a wife and kids, friends and church that I would be leaving behind. I have grown accustomed to comfort in this life, leaving it all behind has great consequences for many other people and for myself. It’s not just me I need to think about any longer. Yet, reading the stories of the early church martyrs leaves me hoping that if that day ever comes for me, I would look to the heavens with faith as Polycarp did.  It also leads me to earnestly pray for the church under persecution across the world. Something I have not done enough.

Lastly, about the Revival Generation that I so loved being a part of. We used many words that were beyond our understanding, revival being one of them. We knew that to truly be a generation that would bring about revival we had to be willing to lose it all, literally. We were right that it may take persecution and martyrdom to see revival come. What we weren’t able to do is to disciple Christians into this. We thought desire was enough. As if passion was the answer. I think, watching Polycarp and Quintus it would seem that grace is the answer. That passion can be misplaced but grace never is. I think that to truly be the revival generation we must understand that we cannot make or create this, it must be in God’s time and blessed with his grace or we will be led to a slaughter of which we cannot withstand. By the looks of the church today we may have walked a little further in Quintus’ shoes than we’d like to admit.

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  1. Rob! This is great. In learning just a smidge about the early church fathers, I’ve been struck by the opposition that was against them. Probably the most eye-opening was to see what renouncing faith meant. To be honest, I’ve always thought if in the moment, saying “no, I’m not a Christian” would be the key to survival, I might do it. (I also grew up around conversations about our being a Revival Generation…but martyrdom has always been terrifying to me!). However, learning that renunciation of faith involved the worship of demonic powers/pagan gods…well, I. An better understand why that wouldn’t be an option. And why, as you say, being a martyr is wholly dependent on God’s grace, not the believer’s own passion.

    My second response to all this is if being a revival generation is also more about grace than passion. Perhaps passion has held us to our devotion, but the actual pursuit of revival looks far different than imagined. Look at what we’re doing in Via. Certainly much of what we do is from a desire and calling to see the church revived to the glory God desires for her. Maybe the revival we’re part of is different and yet far greater than we’d imagined.

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