In our Sunday morning Bible Study at Trinity Lutheran, we have been looking at the history of the Christian Church during her first three centuries. It is a story of sporadic, but very violent, persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Many Christians during those times submitted to torture and death rather to deny their Savior, Jesus Christ.
One such martyr was a man with the unusual name of Polycarp. Polycarp was born around 70 A.D. and knew at least one of the original apostles, John. John, in fact, ordained him as the Bishop of Smyrna, in what is now Turkey. The enemies of the Gospel had Polycarp arrested. He had refused to flee, saying “The will of God be done.” He was given the opportunity to escape death if he would acknowledge the Roman Emperor as Lord and offer incense to him. Polycarp refused to do so.
He was taken to the Coliseum, were Christians were fed to the lions or burned at the stake. When asked to reject Jesus, he responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
He was stripped of his clothing and tied to a post to be burned alive. Polycarp prayed: “…Father of Your beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ…I bless you because you have considered me worthy (to) be numbered among your martyrs in the cup of Christ to the resurrection of eternal life…” The fire was lit. The accounts differ as to whether Polycarp was burned or miraculously remained unharmed. All agree that he did not die from the fire.
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When it became clear that he wasn’t dying, the order was given for him to be stabbed. Some said that his blood poured out in such a stream that it extinguished the fire.
This story is not in the Bible, so we don’t know how much of it is actually true. But the kernel of the story is true: Christians, like Polycarp, chose death rather than to deny Jesus as their Savior.
If you are not a Christian, I hope that Polycarp’s story will lead you to investigate the claims of Christianity and the witness of people so convinced of life after death that they willingly submitted to martyrdom, trusting that they would soon be in heaven with Jesus.
If you are a Christian, I pray that Polycarp’s story will lead you to ask yourself various questions: Am I willing to die for what I believe? If never required to do that, ask yourself: What have I sacrificed and what am I willing to sacrifice, in order that more people may believe in Jesus? Jesus still challenges His people: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).