Provided by
D.A. LaGue


In 155 A.D., an eighty-six year old man was brought out to the jeers of a crowded Roman arena.  As he was about to be nailed to a pyre and burned at the stake, he told the soldiers, ‘Leave me as I am.  The one who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.’

Polycarp was born around 69 A.D. and was sold as a slave in his childhood to a wealthy woman named Calisto who reared him as a son.  A personal disciple of the Apostle John, he became a leader in the church at Smyrna.

Persecution against Christians broke out under Emperor Marcus Aurelius and being the bishop of the church, Polycarp was singled out by the Roman authorities for arrest.  He was persuaded by friends to leave the city and hide in a local farm-house.  While spending time in prayer, he received a vision of his pillow burning with fire.  He turned and said to those that were with him, ‘it must be that I shall be burned alive.’

As the Roman guard approached, Polycarp was moved to another location.  When his pursuers found him gone they put two slave boys to torture, with one of them confessing where Polycarp had fled.  Escape was still possible, but the old man refused to flee again saying, ‘the will of God be done.’ Polycarp then welcomed his captors as if they were friends, talked with them and ordered that food and drink be served.  He made only one request, an one hour to pray before they took him away.

An account written by the Church of Smyrna states that as Polycarp was being led to the Arena, he and his followers heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Be Strong Polycarp and play the man.’  In the arena the proconsul urged him to save his life by saying, ‘Curse Christ and I will release you.’ Polycarp’s reply was, ‘Eighty-six years I have served Him.  He has never done me wrong.  How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?’  Again the proconsul threatened him with sending out wild beasts into the arena .  ‘Bring them forth,’ Polycarp responded, ‘I would change my mind if it meant going from the worse to the better, but not to change from the right to the wrong.’

Finally the proconsul shouted, ‘I will have you burned alive!’  Again Polycarp calmly responded, ‘You threaten fire that burns for an hour and is over. But the judgment on the ungodly is forever.’  After uttering a prayer of dedication the fires were lit.  His followers reported that the flames seemed to form a glowing circle around him.  Finally, Polycarp was finished off with the stab of a sword from a Roman soldier.

Revelations 12:11 gives a picture of Christians who, under the attack of the enemy, were nevertheless triumphant as, ‘they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death.’

Throughout the history of the Christian church, millions have given up their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ.  It has been estimated that there have been over 70 million martyrs over the past two thousand years of Christian history.  Amazingly, approximately 45 million or two-thirds of all Christian martyrs, died in the twentieth century.

Many of the martyrs died in places like the former Soviet Union.  But there are lesser known places where Christians were killed for their faith.  Like Turkey, where 1.5 million Armenian Christians were murdered.  And the killing of Christians continues.  It has been estimated that an average of 160,000 Christians have been killed every year since 1990 in places like Algeria, Nigeria and the Sudan.  One reporter noted that, ‘the global persecution of Christianity is still in progress but in most cases is ignored by the mass media and Christians in the west.’

As part of the global body of Christ, we are called to labor in prayer for our persecuted brethren around the world who are being beaten, tortured and often times killed, simply for professing faith in Jesus Christ.  Polycarp left the early church a sterling example of the consummate Christian martyr – that when confronted with death for being a Christian, rather than a tragedy, it is the Christians ultimate triumph.


Polycarp’s Prayer of Martyrdom: “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”

Hoole, Charles H., The Martyrdom of Polycarp.
Bacchus, F. J., Polycarp. The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Colson, Chuck, A New Century of Martyrs: Anti-Christian Intolerance.
Kiefer, James, Ancient Christian Writers.
Patron Saint Index
Severance, Diane, Polycarp: Christian History Story

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