The Truth Changes Everything: The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/07/2013

Here’s a biographical sketch that might encourage and challenge you.

Polycarp, the 86-year-old bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of John the Apostle, was martyred in 156 A.D.   Ironically, Polycarp was charged with atheism because he denied the false gods of Rome.   The phrase “away with the atheist” was meant to be directed at the Christians.  Instead, as you’ll see, Polycarp turned the denunciation on the multitudes of true atheists.  “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (“The Apostolic Fathers,” p. 138-141) is the oldest account of the death of a martyr outside of the New Testament.

When he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.  And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say:  “Swear by the [guardian spirit] of Caesar; repent; say, “Away with the atheists!” [indicating the Christians].  So Polycarp solemnly looked at the wholåe crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!”  But when the magistrate persisted and said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and He has done me no wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

But as he continued to insist, saying, “Swear by the [guardian spirit] of Caesar,” he answered:  “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the [guardian spirit] of Caesar, as you request, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully:  I am a Christian.  Now, if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name the day and give me a hearing....

...“I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.”  But he said:  “Call for them!”....

“I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.”

...“You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.  But, why do you delay?  Come, do what you wish.”

As he spoke these and many other words, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was filled with grace, so that not only did he not collapse in fright at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astonished....The entire crowd, Gentiles as well as Jews living in Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable anger and with a loud shout....

These [next] things then happened with such swiftness, quicker than words could tell, the crowd swiftly collecting wood and kindling from the workshops and the baths....When the pyre was prepared, he took off all his clothes and removed his belt....The materials...were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails.”;  So they did not nail him, but they tied him instead.

[Then he prayed.]  When he had...finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire.  And as a mighty flame blazed up, we saw a miracle....The fire...completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning, but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace.  For we also perceived a very fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

When the lawless men eventually realized his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to...stab him with a dagger.  And when he did this, there came out a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.

How could a man do this?  How could Polycarp go to his redemption with eagerness.  Because he understood the truth.  And the truth changed everything.