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Would You Stand With Polycarp?

by Darris McNeely Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Posted on 1-Mar-2023
A long-time elder who remained faithful to apostolic teaching and practice, including God’s festivals, is brought to the arena to reject Christ or die. Would you choose as he did?

The chants of the crowd in the Roman theater at Smyrna grew louder, demanding the deaths of more Christians. “Away with the atheists!” they cried, in reference to these deniers of the Roman gods. Many Christians had already been killed in the arena throughout this period of violent games.

“Let search be made for Polycarp!” they shouted, this man being, as they later called him, “the puller down of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice nor worship.”

After a few days, Polycarp was found and brought before the Roman magistrate in the theater. With the crowd calling for his blood, the proconsul pressed him to swear by Caesar’s spirit and curse Christ, effectively telling him, “Deny your faith, and I will set you free.”

Polycarp refused, saying: “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The pressuring intensified, the magistrate threatening death by wild beasts or fire and again promising release if Polycarp would recant his faith.

Here was a moment of supreme testing for this aged man who was a leading elder of the Church of God in the province of Asia (now western Turkey) during the second century A.D. Taught directly by the apostle John, he had held the church in his region to the teachings of Christ and stood firm at a time when others were compromising. A dedicated pastor, Polycarp had known this moment of trial and testing of his faith would come.

Let’s take a further look at this man and his setting, then return to what happened on that day—considering his final answer and what our own resolve must be.

A time of testing

Polycarp lived in the period after the age of the original apostles—when the teachings and practices Jesus delivered to the original Church were being distorted and changed. It was a time of great internal stress for the Church.

It was also an age of martyrs, with severe pressure from outside the Church. Roman authorities were clamping down on these subversives who refused even token participation in emperor worship, a symbol of state loyalty.

Decades prior, Jesus had directed the apostle John in the book of Revelation to write a series of messages to the seven churches of Asia, including Smyrna, each fitting the locale and spiritual condition of the recipients (though also meant for the Church through the ages).

Christ’s message for members in Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop, is found in Revelation 2:8-11. It was intended to help them face a time of intense trial and martyrdom. In referring to Himself here as “the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life,” Jesus was assuring His followers that He is in control of history from beginning to end, and that His dominion extends even over death and life. As He suffered and died and was raised to eternal life, so would it be with His followers.

The message mentions opposition from those claiming to be Jews but who really weren’t. This likely applied on multiple levels—not merely to Jewish resistance, some even partnered with Roman authorities, but to false Christians (Paul having referred to true Christians as “Jews inwardly” or spiritually in Romans 2:29).

The first disciples were Jews, but their belief in the resurrected Christ brought a clash with the mainstream Jewish faith. The addition of gentiles to the Church made relations worse. As the divide with Judaism widened, Christians encountered increased animosity from those with whom they had much in common. Some of the Jews of Smyrna were among those calling for Polycarp’s death.

Meanwhile, due to persecution, a growing number among the Christians were beginning to abandon all things “Jewish.” The early Church kept God’s seventh-day Sabbath. Its members observed the Passover and other festivals God gave to Israel. Polycarp was keeping the Passover and other biblical festivals. He taught the churches of Asia to do the same. Yet heretical teachings were gaining ground, being embraced by more and more Christians in the Roman world.

Jesus says in His message that the attacks of those who claimed to be the true covenant people of God were effectively of a different fellowship—the synagogue or assembly of Satan.

Persecution for the Church can come from without and within. The true source is identified here. It is Satan. The Church always contends against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). Jesus wants His followers to remember that. He overcame Satan, and through Him we also can defeat the attacks Satan engineers against those who follow biblical truth.

The Quartodeciman Controversy

One of the great controversies among Christians at that time was the continuing observance by Polycarp and others of the Passover on the biblical date of the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan in the spring in the northern hemisphere. The church of Rome and other western congregations had shifted to the observance of what would later be called Easter Sunday.

Polycarp traveled to Rome to discuss the matter with the Roman bishop Anicetus, but the contention remained unresolved:

“For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance {in his own way}, inasmuch as these things had been always {so} observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep {the observance in his way}, for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters [or elders] who preceded him [in Rome]” (Irenaeus, Fragments 3, Ante-Nicene Fathers, newadvent.org).

While they sought peace among congregations, the rift continued to grow. The matter became more heated a few decades later, when a Roman bishop sought to excommunicate the eastern churches over this.

History labels those who kept the Passover observance and Festival of Unleavened Bread according to the teaching handed down from the apostolic era as Quartodecimans (or “Fourteeners,” for the 14th of Nisan). Church historian Henry Chadwick writes: “There can be little doubt that the Quartodecimans were right in thinking that they had preserved the most ancient and apostolic custom. They had become heretics simply by being behind the times” (The Early Church, 1967, p. 85).

Christians who keep these festivals today can be assured that they are holding firm to observances God instructed through Israel and the apostles.

A story for the ages

With that background, we return to Polycarp before the Roman proconsul being pressed to renounce his Christian faith under threats of execution.

This story of faith is recorded for us in greater detail in an early letter from the Smyrna congregation known as “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (also reproduced in Eusebius’ History of the Church, both of which you can find online).

Faced with being burned alive, Polycarp said: “You threaten with fire that burns for a bit and after a little while is quenched, for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”

He thus stood firm in his convictions. Wood was quickly gathered, and Polycarp was tied up on the pyre. With his final prayer looking ahead to his resurrection, the fire was lit. But remarkably it billowed up around him without burning him. So an order was given to stab him through the flames, whereupon he bled to death, the fire strangely ceasing. At some agitators’ insistence, his dead body was then burned, successfully this time.

The story of Polycarp is one for the ages. It speaks of faith from a time when people of faith were under fire—literally.

And there are lessons for us today. Faith in the Bible is under attack from many quarters. A rising tide of secular hostility to the Bible continues to mount. And it’s even harder for those who seek authentic, biblical Christianity.

Would you stand up for your faith against attack, to the point of death, as Polycarp and others did? It was not just the pagan Romans who stood against them but those they shared some commonality with, the Jewish community. And over time, the rising heresies among the Church grew to overwhelm and persecute the few who persisted in the truth.

What does it take to stand with a man of faith like Polycarp? It takes faith based on truth revealing God’s great plan for human salvation. The festivals of God, the same that Polycarp held to, commemorate the steps in that plan. This understanding provides something worth standing for, and worth dying for, as did Polycarp and those who stood with him!

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