Along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is one of the three chief apostolic fathers. These were early church leaders from the latter half of the first century and the first half of the second century who are credited with keeping the Christian faith alive in a time of persecution. They were each personally acquainted with one or more of the apostles. Polycarp was at least for a time a disciple of the apostle John. Polycarp’s pupil, Irenaeus, was an early proponent of the tradition holding that the apostle John was in fact the author of the fourth Gospel that today carries his name. Irenaeus wrote that Polycarp had been personally converted to Christianity by some of the apostles.
Polycarp became bishop of Smyrna, an important congregation in an area where the apostles had labored. As they matured, and with the apostles no longer alive to personally keep Christian teaching on an orthodox path, Polycarp and other church leaders were inevitably confronted with various novel and heretical teachings. Polycarp is particularly credited as an important voice against the ideas of Valentinus, an early Gnostic, and those of Marcion, who taught that Jesus was not the son of the “bad” God of the Jews, but rather the son of another, “good” God.
A contemporaneous description of Polycarp’s martyrdom was written by the church of Smyrna in a letter to the church of Philomelium. It is historically an important account because its authenticity is unquestioned and it paints a vivid picture of the persecution of early Christians in Rome.
Because Christians refused to worship the emperor, they were considered criminals. The practice when a Christian was captured was to demand his public apostasy, to release him if he did, and to punish him with death if he refused. Polycarp had been in Rome converting heretics when a particularly fervent wave of persecution arose. He was urged by his friends to leave the city and go into hiding. He went to a farmhouse where he spent three days in prayer and fell into a trance in which he saw his pillow burning. He told his companions that it was necessary for him to die by fire. A body of men came to arrest him, and though escape was possible, he refused. He came down to meet his pursuers, talked with them affably, and even served them dinner. While they ate he prayed for them and for the church. After dinner, he was led away.
The captain of those who captured Polycarp attempted to persuade him to save his life, but he refused. He was led into a stadium in Rome, where a great crowd had assembled. As he entered, a voice from heaven said, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Other Christians present in the crowd attested to hearing the voice but not seeing the speaker. The proconsul was present in the stadium, and urged Polycarp to curse Christ. His famous reply was: “Fourscore and six years have I served Him, and he has done me no harm. How then can I curse my King that saved me?”
It was decided that Polycarp should be burned alive. The fire was said to have made a wall around his body, but Polycarp was unscathed. The executioner was then ordered to stab him to death, and the Smyrnian account is that this resulted in so much blood that the fire was extinguished. His body was then burned. The likely date of his death was February 23, 155.
Spend time today giving thanks to God for the witness of Polycarp. We could not be Christians today if it were not for these early church fathers who so willingly gave up their lives to Christ.