From the book People Whose Faith Got Them Into Trouble (IVP, 1990)



John W. Cowart

The sound of hooves at midnight -- horsemen galloping into the courtyard -- and the clatter of armor as soldiers surrounded the house woke the old man. Two officers dismount and pound on the wooden door with the butt ends of their spears.

Maids in disheveled nightclothes rush upstairs and urge the white-haired fugitive to hide under the bed, in a closet... anywhere. Instead, he hushes them, drapes a cloak over his frail shoulders, descends the stairs, opens the door and invites the men who have come to arrest him inside.

He instructs the maids, "Quickly, prepare hot food and something to drink. Can't you see these men have ridden hard tonight? They need refreshment; give them the best in the house."

Confused by this unexpected reception, the arresting officers crowd into the room and cluster around a bronze charcoal brazier on the floor.

As they warm their numb hands against the cold night of February 22, 166, Polycarp, elderly bishop of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey) makes every effort to see that his guests are comfortable. He personally serves the officers and soldiers alike from the warm dishes his maids have prepared.

His gentle manner puzzles the soldiers; they expected to find a vile, raging demon instead of a venerable man of peace and prayer. One of the men asked, "Why was so much effort made to capture such a respectable old man?"

Why indeed?

Polycarp was a Christian, and the explanation for his arrest and execution lies in the attitude of the Roman Empire toward this new religion.

Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian who lived from A.D. 55-120 through the reigns of nine emperors from Nero to Trajan, speaks of "a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition (was) thus checked for the moment". He refers to the new religion as an "evil... hideous and shameful" noted for its "hatred against mankind".

The Octavius, a book by Minucius Felix, the earliest Latin apologist for Christianity, describes what the public suspected went on in private Christian meetings: "An infant covered with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites. This infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily -- O Horror -- they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs."

No wonder Pliny the Younger, appointed governor of Bithynia by the Emperor Trajan in about A.D. 111, worried that "many people of all ages and classes and of both sexes are not being enticed into moral peril... This superstition has spread like the plague not only in the cities but in the villages and countryside as well. I feel it must be stopped."

Many wanted Christianity stopped; yet it spread.

Personal contact and example, rather than elaborate missionary machinery, illustrated the faith to the world. Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist writing about the year A.D. 150, said, "Many changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they witnessed in the lives of their Christian neighbors, or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their Christian fellow travelers when defrauded, and by the honesty of those believers with whom they have transacted business."

Business considerations also figured into the persecution of Christians.

People who sold religious relics or animals for sacrifice to idols lost business whenever worshipers left their old pagan ways to follow Christ. When Christianity was discouraged and many people returned to idol worship, business picked up again. In Saint Paul's day the silversmiths had rioted in Ephesus because their trade in souvenir replica idols was jeopardized when so many people became Christians (Acts 19:23ff). Since then and on through history many heathens have found that the suppression of Christianity causes their own financial status to prosper. For instance, after one purge of Christians, Pliny the Younger reported: "Victims for sacrifice are now everywhere on sale for which only an odd buyer could be found a short while ago." Naturally, stockmen supplying animals for use in the temples wanted Christians persecuted; they did not want to see the market drop.

Conflicting information about Christians confused the pagans. One man reportedly exclaimed when his neighbor was led away to the arena for execution, "But he was such a good man; I never would have guessed he was a Christian!"

As official policy, a consistent stream of emperors issued edicts designed to check the sacrilege called by the Name. This created a state of affairs in which, as one ancient historian said, "The persecution of Christians was a standing matter as was that of robbers."

Pagans called the Christians "atheists" because they offered no sacrifices, had no temples, and worshiped no visible god. They seemed antisocial because they refused to participate in public festivals, attend popular sports events such as gladiatorial contests, or even feast along with everyone else on religious holidays. Christians were viewed as disloyal because they refused to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor as represented in his statues in every city. They claimed to pray for the emperor instead of to him, but this fine distinction was to the pagan mind only a subterfuge to avoid the Roman pledge of allegiance, "Caesar is Lord."

Not only that, but some Christians attracted persecution to themselves!

Many acted clannish and better than other people. Others divided mankind into the saved, those who could potentially be saved, and those who were so degenerate that they would never be saved. Naturally, those lumped into that last category were annoyed. Some Christians antagonized their families and neighbors by pointing out the wickedness of others without charity or humility.

And Christians sometimes rejoiced over calamities saying that fires, floods, plagues, earthquakes and such were a punishment falling on sinners who deserved no better at the hands of an angry god.

This attitude boomeranged on the Christians.

The pagans agreed that calamity came as a result of the gods being angry. But... what were they angry about?

Christians! That's what!

The pagans reasoned that the very existence of Christians drew the wrath of the gods. Tertullian, a writer from Carthage who became a Christian about A.D. 190 and went on to become know as the father of Christian literature, wrote, "If the Tiber rises, if the Nile does not rise, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is 'Christianos ad Leones' -- Christians to the lions!"

To the pagan mind, the only way to appease the gods was to restore the person to pagan worship through sacrifice to the gods, even if that person had to be tortured or exterminated.

Even the way Christians died in the arenas drew varied interpretations from observers. Their deaths inspired some pagans to confess the Name of Christ also. On the other hand, many pagans felt that the gods were so angry with these Christians that the deities caused them to linger on and on under torture rather than letting them find quick escape in death. As Jesus said,"... A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God" (John 16:2).

Christians caused trouble.

And Polycarp was per-eminent among the Christians. The whole population of Smyrna acknowledged, "This is the great teacher of Asia; the Father of the Christians."

Polycarp deserved this reputation. He was the living link between the apostles and the church of his day. John, the beloved disciple, had brought Polycarp to faith in Christ and they spent much time together when Polycarp was young. Before John's exile to Patmos he appointed Polycarp as bishop of Smyrna. At the time of his arrest, the aged Polycarp was one of the few persons still living who had actually known an apostle.

"He would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and the rest of those who had seen the Lord... He would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp, having thus received information from eyewitnesses of the Word of Life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scripture," said Irenaeus, Polycarp's pupil whom he sent to Gaul as a missionary.

Polycarp did not boast of his own association with the apostles. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he said, "I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because ye have invited me to do so. For neither I nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the Word of Truth in the presence of those who were then alive."

Polycarp taught Irenaeus that "the business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death." He insisted that Christians are to "walk in His commandments and to love what He loved... not rendering evil for evil or railing for railing or blows for blows, or cursing for cursing; but being mindful of what the Lord said in his teaching." Polycarp said, "Let us be imitators of Christ's patience and if we suffer for His Name's sake, let us glorify Him. For He has set us this example in Himself."

Such meekness was not only to be exhibited in the face of imminent death but also in the affairs of daily life. Polycarp's visit to the bishop of Rome to discuss the Easter controversy illustrates this facet of his character.

The churches of Asia observed the raising of Christ from the dead on the fourteenth day of the vernal equinoctial moon, like the Jewish Passover, regardless of which day of the week it fell on; the Western churches observed Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Thus some Christians fasted while others feasted. Neither group wished to change their custom, and feeling ran high.

Polycarp did not resolve this conflict of dates, but he did reconcile the people involved. He explained that the Scripture says we should not judge anyone with respect to meat or drink or in regard to feast days of the new moon. What good is a feast leavened with malice and contention? Why should Christians observe any exterior custom which undermines faith and love between brothers? That is more important than either the feasting of the fasting. He urged, "Loving the brotherhood and being attached to one another, joined together in truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another and despising no one" is of the utmost importance. His attitude healed this serious breach between Eastern and Western churches for over a generation.

His long-cultivated humility was again demonstrated on the day of his execution.

The soldiers bundled Polycarp up in robes to protect him from the cold and mounted him on a donkey to lead him to the city stadium where the festival of Commune Asiae, a major occasion of Emperor worship and commemorative games, was being celebrated in Smyrna.

A recent plague and earthquake had convinced the people that the gods were angry about Christians existing in the city. Therefore, a number of Christians were being given the opportunity to declare "Caesar is Lord" and sacrifice to his image -- or else be tortured to death.

Some of the Christians were beaten with whips until "their bellies popped open exposing their innards". Others were pressed into a bed of spikes till pierced through and left writhing on display around the stadium.

A young Christian noble named Germanicus fought off the wild beasts so heroically that the proconsul, Statius Quadratus, had the animals leased and offered the youth another chance, reasoning, "You are too young to waste the good life ahead of you. If you'll just deny this Christ, you can live."

Germanicus deliberately provoked the lion, seizing its mane and drawing it to him. The cat bit into his shoulder, unsheathed its claws and set its hind legs churning.

In contrast to Germanicus, consider Quintus, a Phrygian, who had approached the Proconsul and voluntarily put himself forward as a Christian.

When he saw the lion enter the arena he cowered. His courage left him. He ran to the Proconsul's box. There he cringed, begging for his life. He denied Christ, swore that Caesar is Lord, publicly sacrificed to the image... and lived.

Their appetites whetted by this triumph of paganism, the crowd in the stands began chanting, "Away with the atheists! Away with the atheists! Let Polycarp be sought out!"

The Irenarch, the district peace officer whose name was Herod, dispatched troops to bring in Polycarp on the night before the final day of the celebration.

Upon hearing the bishop was in custody, the Irenarch and his father hurried to meet the escorting soldiers on the road. They took the aged prisoner into their chariot and tried to reason with him. "What harm is there in just saying Lord Caesar?" they questioned.

"I shall never do what you desire of me," Polycarp insisted. At that, they shoved him out of the moving chariot dislocating his hip.

Perhaps, as he hobbled the rest of the way into the city where the morning crowd was already gathering at the stadium, he recalled the words Christ addressed to the messenger of Smyrna in Revelation 2: 8-10; after all he was the bishop of Smyrna now and John, who had appointed him to that position, recorded these words: "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer... Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life."

The Irenarch hauled Polycarp before the Proconsul, who also tried to reason with him. "Respect your old age," he said. "You've had a good life; why end it like this? Live out your remaining days in peace and security. Swear by the genius of Caesar. If you'll utter just one little word against Christ, I'll release you."

Polycarp straightened up under the weight of his chains, which he called "the only fitting ornament for believers", and clearly announced for all the crowd to hear:

"Eighty and six years have I served Him and He never did me any injury: How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?... Hear my free confession -- I am a Christian!"

His words enraged the mob.

"I have wild beasts," the Proconsul threatened.

"Call for them," Polycarp said. "I am unalterably resolved not to change from good to evil".

"If beasts don't scare you, I have fire."

"Your fire burns only for a short time then flickers out; but you are ignorant of the Judgment to come of everlasting fire prepared for the wicked."

The Proconsul summoned the stadium announcer. Trumpets blew. The announcer proclaimed from the center of the arena three times as prescribed by law, "Polycarp has confessed himself a Christian."

At this proclamation, the mob swarmed out of the stands and into the streets surrounding the stadium. Shoving and trampling each other, they surged through shops, baths and private homes snatching up floorboards, hitching posts, furniture -- anything that would burn.

Back into the arena they rushed, heaping combustible things around the saint who prayed, "I bless Thee for having been pleased in Thy goodness to bring me to this hour."

The executioner threw a torch on the pile. An eyewitness said, "The flame billowed like an arch, like the wind-filled sail of a ship... He appeared within not like flesh which is charred, but as bread that is baked."

The executioner mutilated the corpse. The Proconsul ordered it completely cremated to keep Christians from recovering even calcified bones. still ignorant of the nature of Christian faith, he said that he did this, "lest forsaking him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one instead."

“The pagans did not understand”, said the anonymous Christian eyewitness to these things, "That we can never forsake Christ, nor adore any other, though we love the martyrs as His disciples and imitators, for the great love they bore for their Master and King...

"The martyrdom of holy Polycarp was on the second day of the month of Xanticus, on the seventh day before the Kalends of March, on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour. He was arrested by Herod, in the high-priesthood of Philip of Tralles, in the proconsulate of Statius Quadratus, in the everlasting reign of Jesus Christ."


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