An elderly man in his eighties sitting at a table eating dinner, Polycarp knew his life was in danger. A group of Christians had just been executed in the arena on account of their faith. But Polycarp refused to leave Rome. The Romans were executing any self-proclaimed Christians, and pagans were betraying those they knew to be followers of the Way. After the recent executions, the crowd in the arena had chanted for Polycarp’s death.

A renowned follower of Christ and bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp had
become a Christian under the tutelage of John the apostle. Recently,
the Roman proconsul had been looking for him for days. After arresting and torturing one of Polycarp’s servants, they finally learned where
he was staying. The soldiers came into the house, but instead of fleeing,
Polycarp calmly stated, “God’s will be done.”

Polycarp asked that food be brought for the soldiers, and he
requested an hour for prayer. Amazed by Polycarp’s fearlessness, especially for a man his age, the hardened Roman soldiers granted his
request. He prayed for two hours for all the Christians he knew and for
the universal church, and the soldiers let him.

As Polycarp entered the stadium, several Christians present heard a
voice from Heaven say, “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.”
Because of his age, the Roman proconsul gave Polycarp a final chance
to live. He just had to swear by Caesar and say, “Take away the atheists”
(at that time Christians were called atheists for refusing to worship the
Greek and Roman gods). Polycarp looked at the roaring crowds, gestured
to them, and proclaimed, “Take away the atheists!”

The proconsul continued, “Swear, and I will let you go. Reproach Christ!”
Polycarp turned to the proconsul and boldly declared, “Eighty-six
years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I
blaspheme my King Who saved me?”

The proconsul urged him again, “Swear by the Fortune of Caesar.”
But Polycarp replied, “Since you vainly think that I will swear by the
Fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend not to know who I am, listen
carefully: I am a Christian!” The proconsul threatened, “I have wild beasts. I will throw you to them, if you do not repent.”

Polycarp replied, “Call them! For we cannot ‘repent’ from what is better to what is worse; but it is noble to turn from what is evil to what is righteous.”

Then the proconsul threatened Polycarp with fire, but he responded:
“You threaten me with a fire that burns an hour and is soon quenched,
for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment stored up for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Do what you want.”

Finally, the proconsul sent a herald to the middle of the stadium to
announce that Polycarp was confessing his faith as a Christian. The crowd
shouted for Philip the Asiarch to send a lion against Polycarp, but he
refused. Then they shouted for Polycarp to be burned. They moved him
to the marketplace and prepared the pyre. Polycarp undressed and climbed up. But when they were going to nail him to the pyre, he told them, “Leave me like this. He who gives me to endure the fire will also give me to remain on the pyre without your security from the nails.” So they did not nail him but tied him up. Bravely, Polycarp prayed as the soldiers prepared the wood:

O Lord God almighty, Father of Your beloved and blessed
Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge
of You, God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the
whole race of the righteous who live before You, I bless You
that You considered me worthy of this day and hour, to
receive a part in the number of the martyrs in the cup of Your
Christ, for the resurrection to eternal life both of soul and of
body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. Among them
may I be welcomed before You today by a fat and acceptable
sacrifice, just as you previously prepared and made known and You fulfilled, the deceitless and true God. Because of this,
and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You,
through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ,
Your beloved Son, through whom be glory to You with Him
and the Holy Spirit both now and for ages to come. Amen.

The Romans had threatened Polycarp with beasts and with fire, but
nothing would make him turn against Christ. After his prayer, the men
lit the pyre, which sprang up quickly. But even the fire wouldn’t touch
him as it formed an arch around Polycarp’s body. The Romans didn’t
know what to make of this. In the end, the Romans commanded an
executioner to stab him. A great quantity of blood put out the remaining
fire, and Polycarp bled to death.

“So that the tested genuineness
of your faith—more precious
than gold that perishes though
it is tested by fire—may be found
to result in praise and glory
and honor at the revelation
of Jesus Christ.”
1 Peter 1:7

Stories of Christian Martyrs: Polycarp of Smyrna
Categories: Foxe: Voices of the Martyrs
Book cover of Foxe: Voices of the Martyrs

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