Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

This is the conclusion of my series on Polycarp's letter to the Philippian church. If you are unfamiliar with Polycarp or his letter to the Philippians, you may want to first read the introduction to this series.

Following the death of Polycarp, a letter was circulated among  the churches detailing his death and the glory and grace of God that was displayed as he died. This eyewitness account details some of the miraculous signs that were performed by God on behalf of His servant Polycarp. I offer a brief synopses of this letter as a tribute to the man who was loved throughout the early church. I hope is is a blessing to you and an honor to God.

Philip Schaff, who translated this letter from Polycarp in the late seventeenth century, comments that, "Martyrdom was the habitual end of Christ’s soldiers" and Polycarp was no exception. The persecution of Christians was burning throughout the Roman empire and, with each new death, the blood lust of the Romans grew hotter and hotter. After the death of Germanicus, the people rose up and shouted for more.
"But upon this the whole multitude, marvelling at the nobility of mind displayed by the devout and godly race of Christians, cried out, 'Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!' " (Martyrdom 3)
However, Polycarp was undisturbed and continued to remain in the city where he was. One night he had a dream that he believed to be a prophetic dream indicating that he too would one day be among the martyrs.

"There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, 'I must be burntalive.' " (Martyrdom 5)
It wasn't long before Polycarp was betrayed by a servant and his location found out. However, even when he knew that his time had come, he remained calm and at peace and even offered his captors a meal as he finished his prayers before continuing on to his death.
"So when he heard that they were come, he went down and spake with them. And as those that were present marvelled at his age and constancy, some of them said. 'Was so much effort made to capture such a venerable man?' Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he besought them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And on their giving him leave, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for two full hours, to the astonishment of them that heard him, insomuch thatmany began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man." (Martyrdom 7)
It is hard for me to imagine what I might do if I were in Polycarp's place. However, it is often said that grace is given in the time it is needed. So it was with Polycarp. As he entered the stadium  the God he loved spoke to him from heaven.
"Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, 'Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp!' No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice." (Martyrdom 9)
Polycarp was given many opportunities to renounce his Lord and to save himself, but he could not be dissuaded from his belief, loyalty, and love for God.
"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?'" (Martyrdom 9)
For eighty six years Polycarp had walked with and served his Lord. It was now his honor to die for Him. Polycarp ensured then that there was no need for them to secure him to the post with nails as his God would give him strength to endure the flames.
"But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, '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.' " (Martyrdom 13)
The fire was lit and the people were amazed. In stead of burning, he was being baked; he was as gold glowing in a furnace. More than that, the smell of incense filled the stadium. He was truly an offering, a sweet smelling fragrance, to the Lord.
"For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there." (Martyrdom 15)
To the astonishment of his executioners, the flames could not harm him. However, instead of realizing that this was from God and repenting of their actions, they simply tried harder to dispatch this one called Polycarp.
"At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth ... a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished." (Martyrdom 16)
What quantity of life and love poured forth from his body, enough to vanquish the flames lit against him. What glory was given to God as the people saw the difference between their own lives and the lives of those that had been lived in submission to God; God making a difference between the believer and the unbeliever as he had also done so long ago between the Egyptians and the Land of Goshen.

The writer of this account of Polycarp's martyrdom concludes with this tribute to the  beloved Polycarp,
"He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world." (Martyrdom 19)
May the life of Polycarp encourage us in our daily walk with God.

David Robison

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