Faithful Unto Death
By Timothy George
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Rev 2:10)
The ancient city of Smyrna, located on the site of today’s Izmir in Turkey, the gateway to Asia and stepping-stone to Europe, is sacred soil because of what happened there one Sunday, around 2:00 in the afternoon, in February of the year 155. On that day, Polycarp, the eighty-six-year-old leader of the Christian church in Smyrna, was cruelly put to death by fire and sword because he refused to renounce Jesus Christ. “For the blood of thy martyrs and saints shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places,” wrote T. S. Eliot. “For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ, there is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it.”
Polycarp was born around the year 69 or 70, shortly after Peter and Paul had been put to death under Nero in Rome. According to one source, he had been born a slave but was adopted as a young boy by a woman of faith named Callisto, who brought him up as her own son. As a young man, he was saturated with the scriptures, powerful in prayer, and known for deeds of mercy to those in need. Later, Ignatius of Antioch would remind young Polycarp of the commitment he had made at his baptism. Through his baptism he had enrolled in the militia Christi, the army of Jesus that sheds no blood. “Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply.”
We do not know exactly when the Christian faith first came to Smyrna. Most likely it was through the preaching of the Apostle Paul during his two-year ministry in Ephesus. Polycarp never knew Paul, but he did know his writings and quoted them often. He certainly knew those who had been won to faith in Christ through the witness of the great apostle. Indeed, Polycarp would later write his own letter to the church at Philippi, the same congregation Paul had addressed from prison. Polycarp confessed that he was not able to follow all the deep wisdom of “the blessed and glorious Paul.” Still, he urged the Philippians to keep on steeping themselves in the apostle’s wisdom, to keep on studying his letters by which “you will be able to build yourselves up into the faith given you.”
Polycarp commended Paul, but he had a personal relationship with the apostle John. We know this through the witness of Irenaeus, the great teacher and bishop of Lyons, who was also a native son of Smyrna. Irenaeus grew up in this city in the very shadow of Polycarp, sitting at his feet just as Polycarp had earlier sat at the feet of John. As an old man remembering something vivid from his youth, Irenaeus tells us how he recalled the very chair where Polycarp sat, how he tilted his head, the sound of gravel in his voice when he spoke, the weight of his hand on his shoulder.
And so in Polycarp these two great streams of New Testament Christianity, the Pauline and the Johannine, converged: Paul’s emphasis on union with Christ, which declares, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27), and “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17), uniting with the distinctive message of John, which says, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And this is what we are! . . . See how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. . . . God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 3:1a; 4:9-10, 16). From Paul, Polycarp heard Jesus say, “Will you follow me?” From John, he heard Jesus say, “Do you love me?” These two questions would shape his life and ministry and give meaning to his martyrdom.
The great challenge facing the Christian church in Polycarp’s day was an ethereal, docetic view of Christ that marked the movement we call Gnosticism—the idea that Jesus only seemed or appeared to have a real physical body but was actually a ghost-like phantom figure. Its main exponent was Marcion, a shipbuilder and the son of a bishop from Pontus on the Black Sea. Marcion liked certain passages from Paul, but not others, and he had no use for John whatsoever. He wanted to brush out of the Christian story anything that smacked of the material, the corporeal, the physical, the tangible, the vulnerable. Jesus, he said, had come to offer an alternative way of salvation, one that bypassed the world of matter, the world of “bugs and mosquitos and crocodiles and vipers.” Marcion preached a gospel with no Christmas: Jesus was not born of Mary. He had no natural, human birth at all. “Away,” he said, “with that poor inn, those mean swaddling clothes, and that rough stable.” Along with his disembodied Christology, he also wanted to rip the Old Testament out of his Bible. “It’s the book of the Jews,” he said. “It’s not our Bible.”
One of the few trips we know Polycarp made outside of Smyrna was a visit to Rome, where he was accosted by Marcion. “Do you know who I am?” Marcion asked. “Yes,” Polycarp replied. “I know you. You are the firstborn of Satan!” The church has never faced a greater turning point, nor had a more acute crisis, than the one Polycarp was involved in refuting. The decision to retain the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, as part of the Christian Bible reaffirmed the coinherence of creation and redemption. It also confessed the full, unvarnished humanity along with the undiminished deity of Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of God. This made possible the full Trinitarian faith in the great councils of the fourth century.
To proclaim the God of the Bible in Polycarp’s world was to invite conflict with the dominant power structures of the day. And so the persecutions came. Later, under the emperors Decius and Diocletian, the persecutions became empire-wide. But mostly they were sporadic and local, often motivated by prejudice against the Christians. Christians were falsely accused and made scapegoats. According to Tertullian, “They consider that the Christians are the cause of every public calamity and every misfortune of the people. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather will not change, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a plague—straightway the cry is heard: ‘Toss the Christians to the lions!’”
But behind such mob violence there was a deeper contest going on, a contest of competing spiritualties. At issue was the requirement for Christians to take part in the religious veneration of the emperor, to place a pinch of incense on the altar of the imperial deity. The emperor cult was especially strong here in Smyrna, where a temple to the emperor Tiberius had been built a generation before Polycarp was born. It reminded everyone that at the head of the Roman Empire stood a man who claimed to be a god and who demanded to be worshiped as though he were God.
It is not as though the Christians were violent revolutionaries bent on the overthrow of the state. No, they wanted to be good citizens. As they repeatedly told those in authority, we willingly pay our taxes, and we gladly pray for those in authority, including the emperor. It is our duty to pray for the emperor, but we cannot pray to him. For we are also citizens of another realm. We belong to the ecclesia, the church, and we worship another King who sits on a different throne.
Around the time the Book of Revelation was written, the emperor Domitian had his likeness stamped on a Roman coin with the words “Dominus et Deus,” “Lord and God.” But the Christians said, “We will not say ‘Dominus et Deus’ to the emperor for, while we are citizens of two realms, our ultimate political loyalty, what Paul calls politeuma in Philippians 3:29, is not to the empires and kingdoms of this world, which rise and fall, and come and go. We will not say ‘Kurios Kaiser,’ for there is another sovereignty we must acknowledge. Jesus alone is Lord, and him we must follow.” To be a baptized Christian was to have made this commitment, and there was no going back.
This was not revolutionary in the usual sense of that word, but it was subversive. For it was a way of saying that Caesar is not everything. There is a divinely appointed distance between church and empire. Because the Christians had embraced the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew the Ten Commandments, especially the first one: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery: you shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2–3). The state is ordained by God, as Paul taught, but it is not God. It is not sacred in itself.
In Polycarp’s day, there was an easy way out of this dilemma. There is always an easy way out. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Richard Rich, who will betray Sir Thomas More, tells him that everyone has a price for which he will sell his soul—if not money or pleasure, then “for titles, women, brick and mortar, there is always something.” For eighty-six-year-old Polycarp, on Sunday, February 23, in the year 155, it was simple: The proconsul offered him a way out. “Just take a pinch of incense and place it on the altar of the imperial deity. A simple gesture. Symbolic, that’s all. Then you can go on worshiping Jesus all you like. We’ll check you off our list.”
It was game day in Smyrna, a holiday, and twenty thousand bloodthirsty fans of torture and violence had turned out to see the shows. Smyrna was the epicenter of Roman spectacles. There was a school for training gladiators at Pergamon, just north of the city. The program of the day went like this: In the morning, wild animals had been set loose in the arena and then systematically hunted down and killed. Later in the day, the gladiators would fight. But in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, it was time for the execution of criminals. They were slaves, war captives, arsonists, murderers, and those, like Polycarp, who had committed sacrilege by refusing to honor the godhead of Caesar and who would not take the easy way out.
The proconsul said to Polycarp: “Take the oath, and I will let you go. Revile Christ.” But Polycarp said: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I now blaspheme my king who saved me?” Polycarp offered a prayer in the name of the triune God, and then he was bound. The faggots were lit. Like Jesus, who was crucified naked, Polycarp entered the flames without his clothes, but when they saw that his body could not be consumed by fire the executioner was ordered to stab him with a dagger. And so the ground of Smyrna was made holy by the blood of the martyr.
The believers gathered the charred bones of Polycarp as a reminder of his faithfulness unto death. And every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom, they would gather to pray and to remember not his death—but his birthday, as they called it. And they did not mourn but rejoiced, for martyrdom is the place where sacrifice and joy become inseparable.
We remember Polycarp and all of the martyrs, for this is not just a Sunday School story from long ago. It is a living part of our Christian witness today. Pope Francis has recently spoken about the ecumenism of blood, reminding us that Christians today all over the world—from many nations and denominations—are still called to be faithful amidst persecution and harassment, faithful even unto death. As of old, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, and so now the blood of today’s martyrs is the seed of the church’s unity.
Published at First Things, 9/22/14
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance. A version of this essay was presented to the Annual Gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Izmir, Turkey, on July 11, 2014.