188) The Death of Polycarp

From The Early Christians: In Their Own Words, (Ch. 2; #13); Selected and Edited by Eberhard Arnold (1883-1935); Copyright 2003 by The Bruderhof Foundation, Inc.  Used with permission.  View this book and many others from Plough Publishing at:  http://www.plough.com/

Polycarp (69 – 155), was an early church leader known as a kindly pastor and a defender of orthodox doctrine.  He later served as Bishop of Smyrna.  During a festival in Smyrna in 155 AD, Christians who refused to worship the emperor were threatened with execution.  Officials particularly wanted to arrest the revered Polycarp, hoping he would deny the faith and disgrace the Christian community.  Polycarp’s friends provided a hiding place, but a boy reported his whereabouts to authorities.  Soon the hunt was on, and the old man was discovered, shackled, and brought before authorities.

     We write to you, brothers, concerning that which took place to those of us who gave witness unto death, in particular the blessed Polycarp.  Cut by scourges until the anatomy of the body was visible, even to the veins and arteries, they endured everything.  They proved to all of us that in the hour of their torture the Lord himself stood by them.

     In the same way they endured fearful torment when they were condemned to the wild beasts and were subjected to all kinds of other tortures.  The tyrant hoped to induce them to deny their faith by the prolonged torture, but thanks be to God he was powerless against them all.  The noble Germanicus strengthened the weakness of others by his steadfastness.  He wrestled gallantly with the wild beasts.  When the proconsul tried to persuade him, saying that he had pity on his youth, he forcibly pulled the wild beast towards himself, wishing to be freed more quickly from this godless and unjust life.  Only one man, Quintus, turned coward when he saw the wild beasts; after earnest entreaty the proconsul persuaded him to take the oath and to sacrifice to the gods.  But Polycarp, in contrast, when he first heard of all this, acted admirably by showing no fear.  When they at first did not find Polycarp, they arrested two young slaves, one of whom became a traitor under torture.

     Taking the young slave with them, the constables set out against Polycarp with a squadron of mounted men.  Late in the evening they found him in an upper room of a small cottage.  They were amazed at his great age and his calm dignity.  He immediately ordered food and drink to be served them, as much as they wanted, and he asked them to give him an hour for undisturbed prayer.  When the moment of departure came, they seated him on a donkey and brought him into the city.  When he entered the arena there was such a tremendous uproar that nobody could be understood.

     When he was led forward, the proconsul asked him if he was Polycarp.  This he affirmed.  The proconsul wanted to persuade him to deny his faith, urging him, “Consider your great age.  Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind.  Swear and I will release you!  Curse Christ!”

     And Polycarp answered, “86 years have I served Jesus, and he has never done me any harm.  How could I blaspheme my King and Savior?”

     When the proconsul pressed him further, Polycarp replied, “Hear now my frank confession:  I am a Christian.  If you are willing to learn what Christianity is, set a time at which you can hear me.”

     Thereupon the proconsul declared, “I have wild beasts.  I shall have you thrown before them if you do not change your mind.”  “Let them come,” Polycarp replied.  “It is out of the question for us to change from the better to the worse, but the opposite is worthy of honor:  for you to turn round from evil to justice.”

     The proconsul continued, “If you belittle the beasts and do not change your mind, I shall have you thrown into the fire.”  Polycarp answered him, “You threaten me with a fire that burns but for an hour and goes out after a short time; but you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment for the godless.  Why do you wait?  Bring on whatever you will.”  As Polycarp spoke these words, he was full of courage and joy.  His face shone with inward light.  He was not in the least disconcerted by all these threats.  The proconsul was astounded.  He sent his herald to announce in the arena, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian!”

     No sooner was this announced by the herald, than the whole multitude yelled with uncontrolled anger at the top of their voices, “He is the father of the Christians!  The destroyer of our gods!  He has persuaded many not to sacrifice and not to worship.”  This they shouted, and they demanded that a lion be let loose upon Polycarp.  He explained that he was not allowed to do this.  Then there arose a shout that Polycarp should be burned alive.

     Now everything happened much faster than it can be told.  The mob rushed to collect logs and brushwood.  When the woodpile was ready, Polycarp took off all his outer clothes and opened his belt.  The fuel for the pyre was very quickly piled around him.  When they wanted to fasten him with nails, he refused. “Let me be.  He who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me the strength to remain at the stake unflinching, without the security of your nails.”  When he had spoken the Amen and finished his prayer, the executioners lit the fire.

     Afterwards we were able to take up his bones and lay them to rest in our burying place.  There we will celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom in memory of those who have fought and won the fight before, and for the strengthening and preparation of those who still have to face it.  Such is our report about the blessed Polycarp.  

The Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, recorded Feb. 22, A.D. 156.

English: Saint Polycarp


Revelation 2:10  —  Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

John 15:20  —  (Jesus said), “Remember the words I spoke to you:  No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

Matthew 5:10 — (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Romans 8:18 — I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.


Dear God, I am your child.  You have sent me a cross and suffering and have said to me:  ‘Suffer a little for my sake and I will reward you well.’  Dear God, if it is your will, I shall gladly suffer.  Amen.      –Martin Luther