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The Martyrdom of Polycarp



Persecution in the church

Persecution in the early church began soon after Pentecost. In the book of Acts, the church was being persecuted by the Jews. Acts 5:17, 27-33

Martyrdom of Stephen Acts 7:54-8:8

The result of the early persecutions was that church members were scattered.  Everywhere they went the preached the good news about Jesus. The Christian church spread as a result of the persecution in Jerusalem.  Other Jewish persecution occurred.

Persecution by the Roman Empire.

The Church did not face persecution by the Jews alone.  Persecution by the state authorities began early – Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire at Rome and had many of them arrested and burned – using their blazing bodies as illumination for the streets. State persecution continued in waves.  The rumour spread by anti-Christian elements in Nero’s time, was ‘hatred of the human race’ but more generally, as time went on, one of the main charges that were levelled against the Christians was…


The Roman Emperors (Caesars) didn’t regard themselves as ‘gods’ as such, but from the time of Julius Caesar they encouraged people to pay religious homage to their ‘genus.’  Their embodiment of the Roman ideals, and the blessings of the Roman State was to be the object of worship.  Everyone was expected to pay homage to the emperor. Most just did it, even though they knew Caesar was no more divine than they were.  Whatever ‘god’ they believed in, they worshipped the emperor as a matter of state duty.

Christians can only worship the One true God, through Jesus.


Roman Emperors:

Trajan. 98-117. A great soldier who don’t like Christians because they didn’t want to fight.  He was also deeply suspicious of ‘secret societies’ (Wouldn’t even allow a fire brigade, in case they plotted against him.) During his reign, Pliny the Younger tortured some Christians to find out what went on at their meetings – his report to Trajan can still be read, and gives some insight into the worship practices of the primitive church, and as a result of these enquiries, Trajan introduced the test of offering worship to ‘our gods’ as a form of recanting from Christianity, and banned prosecution solely on the basis of anonymous accusations.  During his reign two notable Christians were martyred: Simeon, who succeeded James as church pastor at Jerusalem, and St Ignatius of Antioch.

Hadrian, 117-138. Destroyed Jerusalem after a rebellion, and banned Jews from entering the new city he built there.  Milder in nature than some other emperors he was worried that ‘good pagans’ might be mistaken for Christians and tortured, – so although the persecution was milder, it was still evident, – Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome was martyred.  During his reign a new form of Christian literature developed, as Christians wrote lengthy dissertations addressed to the emperor, defending the Christian faith.

Antoninus Pius, 138-161. He continued the policies of Trajan and Hadrian, but during his reign three important martyrdoms happened (Among other lessor known martyrs): Ptolemy, Livius, Polycarp of Smyrna.


An eyewitness account of Martyrdom.

We know about the circumstances of Polycarp’s death because of a letter that was circulated throughout the church by an eyewitness.  It is the first eyewitness account of a martyrdom after the biblical accounts.


Polycarp was a Christian pastor in the early church serving in the city of Smyrna in modern Turkey.  He has studied theology under the apostle John. This was how the church trained its pastors.  Polycarp’s own student was Ireneus of Lyon, who was one of the early Christian apologists and writers.  Polycarp lived to old age, probably around 86 when he was martyred and had been an exemplary Christian. We know about Polycarp’s death from the eyewitness account of a contemporary writer.  Before the event, Polycarp had experienced a premonition that he would be martyred.  He dreamed that his pillow was afire, and had awakened to declare, ‘I will be burned…’

Hearing that soldiers were coming to arrest him, Polycarp had moved to another house.  The early church didn’t believe in voluntary martyrdom, (some so called Christians had offered themselves to be martyred – only to recant of their ‘faith’ when faced with torture). When the soldiers arrived and found Polycarp was not at home, they tortured two young men, who under duress revealed where his was staying.


It was a Friday evening when the soldiers, armed as if to arrest a dangerous criminal, arrived at the cottage where Polycarp was living, and they found that he had retired to bed.  Their coming was noisy and Polycarp could have attempted to escape, but he said instead that God’s will should prevail.  He came downstairs, and called for food to be brought, so that the soldiers could be fed after their journey, and asked for just an hour for himself, to spend time in prayer.  It is written that many of the soldiers were embarrassed at having to arrest such a kindly old man.


Polycarp was placed on a donkey and taken to the city, where a great crowd was already awaiting in the arena, all of them baying for blood.  The eyewitness reports:

The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatise, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’” Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Down with the Atheists!” “Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” “86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

The proconsul tried again, – ‘I have wild beasts…’  Still Polycarp refused to deny Christ.  The crowd, assisted by the Jews, raced to get wood and built a fire.  Polycarp removed his outer clothing and shoes, and the executioners placed him at the stake.  He asked not to be nailed to it, pleading that God would give him the strength to stand.  Nevertheless they bond his hands with rope and lived the wood around him.  The fire was lit but it failed to kill him, and one of the soldiers was ordered to stab him with a spear.  Polycarp bled out so profusely that the burning embers of the fire were extinguished.


Polycarp’s dying prayer:

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”


Across the modern world, Christians are still persecuted. WE SHOULD PRAY FOR THE PERSECUTED CHURCH. And prepare for persecution ourselves. 

1 Timothy 3:12:  Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.

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