Book Summary: The Martyrdom of Polycarp

C.S. Lewis gave the following advice about the reading of books: "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones."

Let's follow Lewis' advice and consider an old book. A really old book.

"The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp" is the earliest of the martyrdom accounts emerging from the early church. Most historians date it as being from the middle of the second century as his martyrdom has been dated somewhere during the years 155-156 or 166-167 AD. Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John and was said to have met with numerous people who knew Jesus.  He was held in very high regard among the churches as is indicated by his being titled “holy” Polycarp.  Jerome wrote that the apostle John had ordained Polycarp as a bishop of Smyrna.Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.

This letter came from the Church in Smyrna to the Church in Philomelium written to give an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp.  The church sent the original by a gentleman named Marcus and requested that, once those in Philomelium had read the account, they would send it on to churches at further distances from them that they might be encouraged as well.   Copies were made of the letter and circulated among believers.  The particular copy that we now have was written down by Pionius who had copied it from a copy made by Caius who had copied from a copy owned by Irenaeus who was a disciple of Polycarp.  

The story of Polycarp can be summarized as follows:

Polycarp had heard that the authorities were seeking him out and he was willing to wait at his home for their arrival.  His friends, however, plead with him to flee for his life. Out of his love for them, he took their advice and fled to a home in the countryside.  Three days before his capture, he had a vision that the pillow he laid his head upon was on fire and he told those with whom he stayed that he understood the vision to mean "I must be burned alive." When his pursuers finally discovered the home in which he was hiding, he gave himself up. He requested that, before they took him away, that he would have an hour to spend in prayer while a meal would be prepared for his captors.  After an hour in prayer, they placed him on a donkey and took him into the city.  

The judge of the city met the procession in his chariot and bid Polycarp to join him. Once in the chariot, the judge asked Polycarp to consider declaring Caesar "Lord" and joining in the sacrificial ceremonies so that his life might be spared.  Polycarp refused and the judge responded by throwing him out of his chariot with such force that Polycarp's leg became dislocated.  Polycarp was then led to the stadium. Witnesses claim that, while Polycarp was entering the stadium, a voice from heaven cried out "Be strong and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!"

He was brought before the proconsul who bid him to deny Christ, "swear by the fortune of Caesar, repent, and say 'Away with the athiests'" (a term used for Christians because of their refusal to engage in the religious practices of the Romans).  Polycarp responded by waving his hands towards the stadium crowd which had gathered to witness his martyrdom and declared "Away with the athiests."  The proconsul pressed upon him to "Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ."  Polycarp responded,

"Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury, how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"

Polycarp then declared boldly that he was a Christian and that if the proconsul ever wanted to learn the doctrines of Christianity he would be willing to teach him.  The proconsul replied that Polycarp should persuade the people.  Polycarp explained that, while he was willing to share these with the proconsul, it was because he was instructed in God's Word to give honor to the powers and authorities ordained by God.  The people in the stands, however, were not worthy of hearing an account by him.  

The proconsul threatened Polycarp with wild animals and Polycarp charged him to call them forward.  The proconsul then said that he would burn Polycarp by fire.  Polycarp responded:  

"Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly.  Buy why tarriest thou?  Bring forth what thou wilt."

The wood was prepared and, when the guards were about to affix him to a post in the midst of the pile, Polycarp requested,

"Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile."

 Polycarp lifted his voice up to heaven in prayer thanking God that he was counted worthy to be counted among the martyrs and that his body would be received as an acceptable sacrifice.  Polycarp died, not by the fire, but by being stabbed by a guard when it seemed apparent that he would not burn.  

After his death, his executioners expressed concern that if the Christians were to retrieve Polycarp's body, they would move on from worshipping Christ and would begin to worship Polycarp.  In response, a centurion burned Polycarp's body.   The writers of the account insist that the concern of the executioners had no merit and came "at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched us as we sought to take him out of the fire, being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners) nor to worship any other.  For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples  and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples!"  

The Christians recovered Polycarp's bones and deposited them "in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps."

There are several things in the account that stand out:

1)  The writers indicate that there were 11 martyrs in Smyrna before Polycarp's execution.  They believed each of these to have taken place according to God's will because, after all, He has authority over all things.  This is stated at the beginning of the letter but is driven home near the end when they state:

"He was taken by Herod, Philip the Trallian being high priest, Statius Quadratus being proconsul, but Jesus Christ being King for ever, to whom by glory, honor, majesty, and an everlasting throne, from generation to generation.  Amen."  

The fact that God does at times will the suffering of His people is clearly put forth in Scripture but this is a belief that is rarely found among Christians.  If there is any lesson the church should have learned from our experience with COVID-19, it is that the persecution of the Christian church is not long in coming. Unless we get our theology right, we will not be able to face this coming persecution with the grace, strength, and hope we see exhibited in the early church.

2)  The church saw martyrs as worthy of honor and their martyrdoms as being "consistent with the Gospel of Christ."  The martyrs were loved by the church because they demonstrated their "extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master." The writers of this account declare that they desired to be made "companions and fellow disciples" with the martyrs, while making it clear that they do not commend those who seek martyrdom out when they could have otherwise avoided it "seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do."  This is a good word to those today who seek out persecution thinking it to be a badge of honor.  To paraphrase Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jesus said "blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake" not "blessed are those who are persecuted for being knuckle-heads."  The early church did not shrink back from persecution but they also didn't poke the proverbial bear in an effort to bring persecution about; nor did they run headlong in the flames in an effort to earn God's good pleasure.  

3)  The writers insisted that while they honored and loved the martyrs, this honor and love for them was in no way to be compared to the love and honor due Christ.  He alone is worthy of worship and adoration.

4)  While having just given an account of a martyrdom and declaring their desire to be made companions of those such as Polycarp, the writers close their letter with "We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ..."

It was not expected that this letter announcing yet another death would bring about anxiety or, worse yet, despondency.  Instead, the expectation was joy among God's people.  

Indeed, it is truly striking to modern Western ears that there is no mention of grieving for the martyrs. One can't help but wonder how much our unfamiliarity with persecution plays into this response.  Reading stories of persecution even today, it is a common thing to find that joy, hope, and pride trump sorrow for those who are experiencing it.

5)  In a similar vein, there is no call for justice.  It would have been easy, and maybe expected, for their to be mention of the martyrs gathered before the throne calling for justice.  No such thing appears in this letter.  This does not mean that this thought was not being considered, but it does imply that their focus was elsewhere- perhaps the salvation of their persecutors rather than their demise?    

6)  The letter contains details about the martyrdom which have been dismissed as rhetorical flourishes.  This includes a voice from heaven, Polycarp's body not being burned by the fire but rather, emitting the scent of baking bread, the fire forming an arch around Polycarp's head, and his blood putting out the fire.  While my knee-jerk response is to join in their skepticism a couple of things give me pause:  A) these accounts were recounted by several witnesses; B) the authors of the letter found them to be credible; C) Pionius, in copying and passing on the letter to the church did not shy away from these accounts but presumably, likewise, found them credible; D) Polycarp would have not been the first to have been put in fire for refusing to worship a heathen leader and found to have been impervious to that fire.    

According to the account, he was martyred on either the 25th of March or the 25th of April (historians are divided on their interpretation of the chronology laid out by the authors) on the Sabbath before Passover at either 8 AM or 2 PM. While there were other martyrs, the writers claim that Polycarp's martyrdom deserved a special accounting because his name had come to be recognized and spoken of even among the heathen and his martyrdom was worthy of imitation as it was consistent with "the Gospel of Christ."

The letter provides an account of the brutality that Christians faced which included scourges which laid open "the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries," being given over to the attacks of wild beasts, being stretched out upon beds of spikes, fire, and "various other kinds of torments."  What amazed those who looked on was the calmness of those who endured such tortures.  

The composure of those who faced such tortures led the church to conclude that the Lord stood with them in their moment of need and communed with them.  Being in the presence of His grace, the torments seemed as nothing to them.

Most Christians do not read and those who do, do not tend to read deeply. The best seller lists of Christian works reveals a potpourri of self-help books, promises of prosperity and wealth, and stories of those living a version of the Christian faith that would be unrecognizable to those we read of in the pages of the Scriptures. When is the last time you have read something that the New York Times, or Christianity Today for that matter, has long ago forgotten? 

Those of us in the Reformed tradition tend to be a little better read than the average Christian but, even then, our reading isn't as broad as it could be. Might it enrich your faith to go back earlier than R.C. Sproul, earlier than Martyn Lloyd-Jones, even earlier than Calvin and read the writings that emerge from the years of the early church?

If this letter is any indication, the answer is a resounding "yes!" Polycarp was among those who built upon the teachings of the apostles to help lay the foundations of Christianity and he did it at great cost to himself- even his life. The day is coming in which more Polycarps will be needed to carry the hope of the gospel forward to a generation that will be hostile to the church. Reading these stories will help us to be ready.

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