February 23rd is the Feast Day of St. Polycarp where his life and martyrdom is remembered.
Polycarp was a friend of the Apostle John and of the early Church Father Ignatius. In fact, Polycarp was appointed as the Bishop of Smyrna by John himself. Like Ignatius and Clement of Rome, Polycarp was part of the second generation of Christians who had received the truth from the Apostles directly.
Polycarp was martyred around 155 AD (February 23rd is the traditional date) in the city of Smyrna by the Roman authorities there. The church at Smyrna, where he was bishop, wrote an account of his death called the Martyrdom of Polycarp which was distributed among the other churches. The beginning of the letter describes the horrors that Christians endured during the Roman torture sessions in Smyrna’s stadium:
… [the Christians] when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. … And looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world… For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. … And, in like manner, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful tortures, being stretched out upon beds full of spikes, and subjected to various other kinds of torments, in order that, if it were possible, the tyrant might, by their lingering tortures, lead them to a denial [of Christ].
The Romans considered Christians “atheists,” because they would not sacrifice to the Roman gods or to the emperor. The intent of the Roman tortures was to coerce Christians into denying Christ and sacrificing to the emperor. This was what the Romans intended for Polycarp as well.
The letter continues with a description of the search for Polycarp by the authorities in Smyrna and his subsequent arrest during his stay on a farm outside of the city. One night, the authorities found the house where he was staying, and Polycarp went down to meet them from the attic where he had been in bed. He asked if he could be allowed to pray; upon receiving permission, he then prayed for two hours “… to the astonishment of them that heard him, insomuch that many began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”
The authorities then took Polycarp into town. They tried to persuade him to acknowledge Caesar as God and to offer incense to him, but Polycarp refused, so they began to threaten him. They then led him into the circus where the killing of Christians had been taking place. The crowd roared at his appearance in anticipation of his torture. After Polycarp was brought to him, the Roman proconsul tried to coerce Polycarp into abandoning his beliefs:
And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”
But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”
Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”
Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar,” he answered, “Since thou art vainly urgent that, as thou sayest, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and thou shalt hear them.”
The proconsul replied, “Persuade the people.”
But Polycarp said, “To thee I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these [i.e. the crowd], I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.”
The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.”
But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”
But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.”
But Polycarp said, “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. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
Following this exchange, the proconsul had his crier announce to the crowd Polycarp’s crime:
Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian
This was enough of a charge to have him killed. The crowd then collected wood and kindling in order to burn Polycarp alive as they tied him to a stake in the center of the pyre of wood.
Polycarp prayed as he was being bound:
O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ [cf. Matt. 20:22, Matt. 26:39, Mark 10:38], to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, has foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.
As Polycarp was finishing his prayer, the wood underneath him was lit. As the flames grew, the crowd was amazed that he was not yet dead, so someone stabbed him with a dagger to kill him.
The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom illustrates the level of extreme conviction of belief held by early Christians. Polycarp suffered death at the hands of the Roman authorities for holding to his beliefs in the Triune God revealed to us through Jesus Christ. Polycarp was, however, not alone. Many Christians in the first few centuries submitted to death rather than recant their beliefs and deny Christ. Their martyrdom, and the witness it provides, shows the depth of their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of mankind. Their deaths provide a blood testimony to the truth of God’s gracious actions for us through His Son as proclaimed by the apostles and written down in the Scriptures. Their deaths witness to the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The preceding is adapted from my book On This Rock which uses the Martyrdom of Polycarp as a source for this information. I’m a big fan of St. Polycarp, and he is the namesake for St. Polycarp Academy.
(Image: By Michael Burghers Original uploader was Alekjds at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : The Life of S. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3527400)