These words were spoken by a humble and faithful pastor named Polycarp as Roman soldiers sought to nail him to a stake in order to burn him to death. Very little is known of this great post-New Testament martyr. When asked by Rome to recant his faith in Christ as God it is reported that Polycarp replied, "Eighty and six years have I now served Christ, and he has never done me the least wrong: How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"
Polycarp was born around 70 AD. He was martyred about 168 AD. The facts are obscure but it seams that he was converted and baptized around 18 years of age. It seems that this dear man of God possibly lived to be around 100 years old.
While a young child Polycarp was sold as a slave to a wealthy woman named Callisto. She actually raised him as her own son. In his early childhood and by the time he was 18 it is reported that he was converted to the Christian religion. The unique thing about Polycarp is later in his life he was able to be discipled by John the Apostle. Polycarp studied from a man who had known Jesus Christ.
Polycarp became very involved in his church in Smyrna. When Callisto died he came into her property and estate. It is reported that he used this new wealth to advance the cause of Jesus Christ and to help believers who had needs. When Bucolos, the pastor of the Smyrna church, it is reported that John and the existing elders appointed Polycarp to be the new pastor. Polycarp served this church faithfully for many years. While Polycarp served this church the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius mercilessly persecuted Christians.
The only known writing that is extant is a letter Polycarp wrote to the church at Phillipi. Irenaeus preserved this letter along with an account of his martyrdom called, The Martyrdom of Polcarp. Other than the Acts of the Apostles which includes the account of Stephens death, this account is one of the earliest genuine accounts of a Christian martyrdom from the actual age of the persecutions. This and other accounts of Polycarp can be found in Irenaues' Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), the letter of Ignatius, a source called Life of Polycarp, and recordings by both Tertullian and Eusebius. Be advised there are some who think this document and the recordings of Tertullian and Eusebius are unreliable.
Somehow, for many years Polycarp was overlooked. Finally, in the last stages of his faithful ministry, persecution finally caught up with Pastor Polycarp. Once, when soldiers came to arrest him, some of his friends successfully hid Polycarp. Polycarp made it very clear that was the last time he would hide. The next time when the Roman soldiers came for him he actually came out to greet them and offered them food. While they were eating he asked if he could pray. It is said that he pray fervently, out loud for over two hours. It is reported that he prayed so fervently that some of the soldiers repented "about coming out against such an old man."
After Polycarp finished praying the soldiers put him on a donkey and took him to be tried as an enemy of authorized religion. He was ordered to state that Caesar was God and to offer a sacrifice to Caesar. His refusal so angered the judges that they had him thrown out the chariot he had been sitting in which caused some type of an injury to his thigh. When Polycarp refused to "recant" the judges began to cry out, "Take away the wicked, take away the wicked!"
One judge ordered Polycarp to "swear by the Genius of Caesar." When Polycarp refused and tried to share his faith, the judge said, "I have wild beasts ready , to those I will cast thee except thou repent." Polycarp responded calmly, "Call for them then: For we Christians are fixed in our minds not to change form good to evil; But for me it will be good to be hanged from Evil, to Good." The judge then said, "Seeing that thou dispiseth (sic) the Wild Beasts, I will cause thee to be devoured by Fire, unless thou shall repent."
Polycarp is said to have answered, "Thou threatened me with Fire which burns for an hour, and so is extinguished; but knowest not the Fire of the Future Judgment, and of that Eternal Punishment, which is reserved for the Ungodly. By why tarriest thou? Bring what you wilt!"
History states that the judge cried out three times, "Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian." The crowd shouted back, "This is the Doctor of Asia; The Father of the Christians' an over thrower of our Gods." The crowd called for his death by lions. Then they cried for Polycarp to be burned at the stake by fire.
This prayer was recorded by Christians who were presented and handed down to us:
"Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy Well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, by whom we have received Knowledge of thee; the God of Angels and Powers, and of every creature, and especially the whole Race of Just Men who live in they presence! I give thee hearty thanks that thou has vouchsafed (allowed) to bring me to this Day, and to this Hour; that I should have a part in the Number of Martyrs, in the Cup of thy Christ, to the Resurrection of Eternal Life, both of Soul and Body, in the Incorruption
It is reported that when Polycarp said "Amen," the executioner lighted the fire. Legend says something very strange happened. As the flames shot up around Polycarp he did not burn. After a time an order was given to run him through with a sword. It is said that so much blood flowed from Polycarp that it actually put out the fire. The executioner had to rekindle and relight the fire and then Polycarp's dead body was burned.
We are not solidly sure of these legendary facts, although all things are possible with our God. However, it seems that this dear shepherd of the church of Smyrna was faithful to the point of death.
Polycarp's importance to the church is:
- He is one of the earliest believers whose writings of Christ and Christianity still survive
- He knew and studied under John the Apostle
- He was an Elder who shepherded an important Asian congregation
- His role in history seems to have been to give witness to the testimony of John and his writings
- He lived during a critical time of transition from the death of John to a generation sans Apostles
- He tried to settle disputes about the date of the Resurrection and its celebration
- He confronted one of the Church's arch nemesis, the Gnostic Marcion
- He converted many from gnosticism