In this episode of Tidbits from Church History we consider Polycarp’s Martyrdom and find in the account of his faithfulness unto death real encouragement. Though we may not know the persecution that those in the first centuries experienced, we nevertheless need to be strengthened to stand against the modern opposition to our faith. Even a brief glance at the final moments of Polycarp’s life will help us here. It is one thing to die, everyone dies. It is another altogether to die well, to die in faith, and to die in hope of a resurrection.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
More on Polycarp’s Martyrdom
We are referring to the first half or so of the second century, and proof of the difficulty that the early church faced is readily seen when we consider Polycarp, perhaps the most famous martyr of the immediate post-Apostolic period. Polycarp served as bishop of the city of Smyrna, and he enjoyed the respect of many laypeople and fellow bishops for two reasons. First, Polycarp was renowned for his compassion and his pastoral care. Second, when Polycarp was young, he knew the Apostle John personally. In addition, Polycarp was friends with Ignatius of Antioch, an important early church leader who himself was martyred early in the second century. Polycarp also taught an important early church father named Irenaeus, who led the fight against the Gnostic heresy.
Much of what we know about Polycarp’s martyrdom comes from the second-century work titled the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This work offers an eyewitness account of the bishop’s death at the hands of the Romans, and it is something of a guide as to how Christians are to face martyrdom should that be their end. Unlike heretics of the time or many of the later Crusaders who believed that death during a crusade would guarantee salvation, Polycarp did not seek out martyrdom. He did not hold to the assumption that says dying as a martyr automatically gives one a ticket to heaven, which is merely an extreme form of works-righteousness.
Even though Polycarp said that Christians should not go looking for martyrdom, his example does show us that martyrdom must be embraced when the only alternative is to deny the faith once delivered to the saints. When the Romans arrested Polycarp and took him to an arena for public execution, they offered to spare the elderly bishop if he would renounce his faith and worship Caesar. Polycarp refused, for he treasured Jesus more than his own life. Thus, he was put to death by fire and sword.
~ from Ligonier Ministries