In Sunday’s Bulletin (Oct. 23), I published a short article about Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, which I have also posted here on the website if you missed it. The following, however, is a more in depth research paper I wrote in school about Polycarp. I hope you enjoy!
In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John writes to the church in the Asian Minor city of Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey), “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer…Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (2:10, MEV) These words were most likely familiar to Polycarp (69-155 AD), a man that was taught by the Apostle John and eventually appointed as the Bishop of Smyrna. These words would also prove to be prophetic to Polycarp as he would be put to death as a martyr. When looking back through the history of the church there are many leaders that stand out as reformers and revivalist who were great catalysts of change, but Polycarp stands out as one who maintained the truth taught to him by those who were originally entrusted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and as one who lived a life of righteousness and integrity before all. He is also set apart in that he trained faithful men to carry on the work and teaching of the Gospel and was committed to the truth, willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. Because of this, Polycarp’s life and death is one worth studying as it is a pattern for Christian leaders to this day who want to be trained to teach and live out the Gospel.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a disciple is, “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another as a convinced adherent of a school or individual.” This definition perfectly describes Polycarp as seen in his own writing and in the writings of others concerning him. One surviving document, a letter written by Polycarp to the Philippians consists of numerous quotes taken from the Gospel accounts and from the writings of the Apostle Paul. In it Polycarp writes, “Neither am I, nor is any other like me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul.” Even at this early stage in church history, Polycarp recognized the authority of Paul and his writings that would later be canonized as scripture. In a more direct way we see Polycarp as a disciple of the Apostle John, among others. Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp, in his work, Against Heresies, says, “Polycarp also was…instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ… having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.” As a disciple, Polycarp was also a faithful teacher allowing the true Gospel to be carried from one generation to the next and much of the way he did this was through a life of love and integrity.
A problem in the modern church is not a lack of charismatic preachers with great personalities and sermons, a problem today is the lack of integrity and character that these leaders can often possess. Polycarp stands in stark contrast to such men. One writer describes him as the, “benign and beloved bishop…Revered for the quality of his life rather than the profundity of his teaching.” This quality of life can be seen in his care for others as a fellow bishop, Ignatius, on his way to Rome to be martyred, stopped in Smyrna where, “Polycarp…sought to minister to his needs” and “befriended him.” The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom records that he had food and drink brought to the arresting officers. These are only a few examples of the compassion and integrity that characterized his life but, perhaps, one of the greatest events of Polycarp’s life to learn from is his death
To claim to be a Christian in the second century Roman Empire and refuse to sacrifice to and worship multiple gods could mean harsh persecution and even martyrdom. Due to Polycarp’s reputation and leadership, he was a prime target and his denial of Christ or death would have been welcomed by the pagan society and government. After his capture, as he was brought into the local arena, the proconsul attempted to get him to deny Christ saying, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar. Take the oath and I will release you. Curse Christ!” Polycarp’s response is perhaps his most famous words saying, “Eighty-six years have I served the Lord Jesus Christ, and He never once wronged me. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” A witness to the truth until the end, Polycarp was to die by being burned at the stake. When the fire was lit something miraculous happened. Eye-witnesses recount, “He was in the midst of the fire, not as burning flesh but as gold and silver refined in a furnace. And we smelled such a sweet aroma as of incense or some other precious spice.” When the fire would not burn him the executioner was ordered to stab him, ending his life.
Looking back through the history of the Church, there are many men, women and movements that have changed the world and yet these would not have been possible except for faithful ones in the beginning who carried the movement that was Christianity beyond the first Apostles. Polycarp was one of these. Through his life of teaching the truth, living with great integrity and love and dying as a martyr, he perpetuated the Gospel to the next generation. These examples and events are only but a few. Much more could be written about his prayer life and his confrontation with a heretic but any study of him will reveal the importance for leaders in the Church today to focus on the life he lived for he, “acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous, glorifies God the Father with joy, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Barker, William P. “Polycarp” from The Portable Seminary, General Editor, David Horton. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2006
- Dc Talk and Voice of the Martyrs. Jesus Freaks, Stories of those who stood for Jesus: The Ultimate Jesus Freaks. Tulsa, OK: Albury Publishing, 1999
- Haykin, Michael A.G. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011
- Hyatt, Eddie L. 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity, Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2002
- Kirby, Peter, ed. St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Early Christian Writings, © 2001-2015 www.earlychristianwritings.com/polycarp.html
- Kirby, Peter, ed. St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Early Christian Writings, © 2001-2015 www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lake.html
- Graves, Dan, ed. #103: Polycarp’s Martyrdom, Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 2015. www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/polycarp/
 Dc Talk, 136; Hyatt,16
 Haykin, 38; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III. 3.4. www.earlychristianwritings.com/polycarp.html
 Dc Talk, 136-138
 Polycarp, Polycarp to the Philippians. www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lake.html
 Hyatt, 16
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies III. 3.4.
 William P. Barker, 438
 Haykin, 38
 Ibid, 39
 See The Martyrdom of Polycarp, section 7. www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/polycarp
 Dc talk, 136
 Ibid, 137
 See The Martyrdom of Polycarp, section 5.
 He calls Marcion, “the first-born of Satan.” See Irenaeus, Against Heresies III 3.4.
 The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Section 19