Two Disciples of John: Polycarp

“Eighty-six years I have been his servant. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” These words were spoken by Polycarp. Polycarp was the bishop at the church at Smyrna. Last week we looked at Ignatius. Ignatius was bishop at Antioch. Both Antioch and Smyrna were significant cities in the New Testament. And there’s another connection. Both Ignatius and Polycarp were the disciples of John. In fact there is this great legend in church history that as Ignatius was John’s disciple, and Polycarp was John’s disciple, then Polycarp was also Ignatius’ disciple. Polycarp would go on to disciple Irenaeus. And Irenaeus would go on—now here’s a great name from the early church—he would go on to disciple Hippolytus. So there we have this great length through the first two centuries of the church’s life back to John.

So here we have Polycarp and his great line. That line comes from the martyrdom of Polycarp. At eighty-six years old he was considered the enemy of the state. And Caesar himself saw to it that Polycarp would be arrested and that he would be martyred. So the arrest warrant was issued and the soldiers were dispatched and they chased down Polycarp. Polycarp fled, and at one moment he hid out, he was hiding in a sort of out-building behind an estate, and you can sort of picture him huddled behind a hay stack, and in come these Roman soldiers. You know, they were told “This guy is the enemy of the state, you need to get him.” And here they burst through the door and there he is, this eighty-six year old man. Well, Polycarp looks at them, they’ve been tracking him for days, likely hadn’t eaten, he sees how hungry they are, and he goes and orders the master of the house to prepare them food. Well they arrest him, they take him back. They day comes for his martyrdom. He is to stand in front of the crowd, and to sort of picture this in your mind you have to sort of see a Roman amphitheatre in front of you so it opens up in sort of a semi-circle in front of you. And behind Polycarp would be the Christians. Now Polycarp was ordered to turn around and say, “Away with the atheists,” as he looked to the Christians. This would be his way of recanting the faith. By saying “Away with the atheists” he would be distancing himself from the Christians. See, this has got to be one of the greatest ironies of all of history. The early Christians were accused of atheism because they denied the gods of the state. And specifically, they refused to take part in emperor worship.

So Polycarp is supposed to look behind him and say, “Away with the atheists.” Instead this is what Polycarp does. He looks at the great crowd that’s in front of him, assembled in the amphitheatre, and with one grand sweeping hand gesture, he reaches all around the crowd and he says, “Away with the atheists.” Now, I can’t help but think, but there’s a little humor in that. But we also have to be impressed by the courage. Not only should we be impressed by the courage that is in Polycarp, but we need to get a sense of his perspective on what matters.

At the very end of the martyrdom of Polycarp, there are two lines that I think we need to pay attention to. One of those lines is simply that it refers to the day of martyrdom not as a martyrdom, but it calls it “a day of victory.” And then there’s this, which actually closes it, and I’ve always found this to be insightful, it says, “Polycarp was arrested by Herod,” and isn’t it interesting that we have this political figure named Herod, and there’s clearly there a connection to the historical Jesus and the Herod that was involved in Jesus’ trial. So, “Polycarp was arrested by Herod when Philip was high priest during the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus. But while Jesus Christ was reigning as King forever.” And then it adds this—”To him be glory, honor, majesty, and the eternal throne, from generation to generation.” See Polycarp knew that Rome and Caesar, those were just the shadows, that the reality is that Jesus Christ is Lord of the Universe. And for that Lord, Polycarp was willing, not only to live for Christ, but willing to give his life for Christ.