Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in Asian Minor. He lived from about AD 70 to 155. He is famous for his martyrdom which is recounted in The Martyrdom of Polycarp and found in Henry Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1967, pp. 9-12). Tensions had risen between the Christians and those who venerated Caesar. The Christians were called atheists because they refused to worship any of the Roman gods and had no images or shrines of their own. At one point, a mob cried out, “Away with the atheists; let search be made of Polycarp.”
At a cottage outside the city, he remained in prayer and did not flee. He had a vision of a burning pillow and said to his companion, “I must needs be burned alive.” The authorities sought him, and he was betrayed to them by one of his servants under torture. He came down from an upper room and talked with his accusers. “All that were present marveled at his age and constancy, and that there was so much ado about the arrest of such an old man” (p. 9). He asked for permission to pray before being taken away. They allowed it and “being so filled with the grace of God that for two hours he could not hold his peace” (p. 10).
In the town, the sheriff met him and took him into his carriage and tried to persuade him to deny Christ, “Now what harm is there in saying ‘Lord Caesar,’ and in offering incense . . . and thus saving thyself?” He answered, “I do not intend to do what you advise.” Angered, they hastened him to the stadium where there was a great tumult.
The proconsul tried again to persuade him to save himself, “Have respect to thine age . . . Swear by the genius of Caesar . . . Repent . . . Say, ‘Away with the atheists! [that is, Christians].” Polycarp turned to the “mob of lawless heathen in the stadium, and he waved his hand at them, and looking up to heaven he groaned and said, ‘Away with the atheists.’” Again the proconsul said, “Swear, and I will release thee; curse the Christ.” To this Polycarp gave his most famous response, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
The proconsul said again, “Swear by the genius of Caesar.” And Polycarp answered, “If thou dost vainly imagine that I would swear by the genius of Caesar, as thou sayest, pretending not to know what I am, hear plainly that I am a Christian.” The proconsul replied, “I have wild beasts; if thou repent not, I will throw thee to them.” To which Polycarp replied, “Send for them. For repentance from better to worse is not a change permitted to us; but to change from cruelty to righteousness is a noble thing” (p. 11).
The proconsul said, “If thou doest despise the wild beasts I will make thee to be consumed by fire, if thou repent not.” Polycarp answered, “Thou threatenest the fire that burns for an hour and in a little while is quenched; for thou knowest not of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of the eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou? Bring what thou wilt.”
The proconsul sent word that it should be proclaimed aloud to the crowd three times, “Polycarp hath confessed himself to be a Christian.” After the crowd found out that there were no beasts available for the task, they cried out for him to be burned alive. The wood was gathered, and as they were about to nail his hands to the timber he said, “Let me be as I am. He that granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved, without being secured with nails.” The fire did not consume him, but an executioner drove a dagger into his body. “And all the multitude marveled at the great difference between the unbelievers and the elect.” (p. 12).
When we are so satisfied in Christ that we are enabled to willingly die for him, we are freed to love the lost as never before, and Christ is shown to be a great Treasure.
Excerpted from a sermon by John Piper on Psalm 71:18 entitled, “Getting Old for the Glory of God“ on September 30, 2007, at the 2007 Desiring God National Conference.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally.