Polycarp was a second generation Christian and believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle John, and to have been appointed Bishop of Smyrna by a group of the original Apostles.
In reading about his life, there is often surprise that he lived so long, 86, because so many other Christians were being put to death by the Romans. The question comes up, why did they let him live? To this we can only answer, God had his purposes. It definitely appears to be a case of the upper story versus the lower story that we hear about on Sunday mornings.
In his work as a Bishop he served as an opponent of the heretic Marcion, who rejected the God of the Old Testament as an evil god. Polycarp did not mince words with him when he referred to Marcion as “the first born of Satan.” However, perhaps his greatest lesson that we have comes to us from his martyrdom. It is a lesson of endurance.
When he learned that he was to be arrested, his friends urged him to run. He resisted at first, but eventually gave in. However, soon afterwards, he had a dream or vision and told his supporters, “I must be burned alive.” His arrest came shortly there after and he was hauled before the Roman proconsul. The proconsul threatened him with being savaged by wild beast, burning alive, and other tortures if he did not renounce Christ. He responded, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Polycarp then told him that he would rather endure being burned alive than burning in the fires of judgment for eternity. Apparently tiring of the discussion, he said to the proconsul, “But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”
The soldiers grabbed him, took him out, laid him on the pyre, and made ready to nail him to it (this was to keep the person being burned from jumping off when the fire was lit), but Polycarp said to them, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” He prayed aloud before he was burned, thanking God that he would be among the martyrs, saying, “For this reason and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal heavenly high priest Jesus Christ.” A witness said that the aroma of the smoke was “not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.”
The other day, I got stuck behind a slow driver and did not handle it as well as Polycarp endured his own death by burning.
My friend Thomas à Kempis writes the words Jesus speaks to him, “What you do, do well. Work faithfully in My vineyard. I will be your reward. Write, read, sing, mourn, keep silence, pray, and bear hardships like a man. Eternal life is worth all these and greater battles. Peace will come on a day which is known to the Lord, and then there shall be no day or night as at present but perpetual light, infinite brightness, lasting peace, and safe repose. Then you will not say: ‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ nor will you cry: ‘Woe is me, because my sojourn is prolonged.’ For then death will be banished, and there will be health unfailing. There will be no anxiety then, but blessed joy and sweet, noble companionship. (Imitation of Christ, III.47)
I pray that as we consider the life and example of Polycarp, we will all learn that we can endure the fires of this world, both great and small, and praise our God even when we experience the burning.