February 23 is the feast day of Polycarp of Smyrna. The following text is an edited and adapted version of a sermon Dr. Timothy George preached at Beeson Divinity School in Fall 2018 on Rev. 2:8-11 and the life of Polycarp.
Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference which took place in the city of Izmir, Turkey. Izmir is a city of about three-and-a-half million people, almost four times as large as Birmingham. It’s the third largest city in Turkey, after Istanbul and Ankara, the capital. Located on the Mediterranean Sea on a beautiful bay, it’s a large and dynamic city of great cultural influence and historic importance. The biblical name for Izmir is Smyrna, and it was to this church at Smyrna that the risen Lord Jesus Christ addressed one of the seven letters that we find in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation.
We remember Smyrna today primarily because of an event that happened there. In the month of February, in the year 155, an 86-year-old bishop, pastor of the church of Smyrna, named Polycarp, was cruelly put to death by fire and sword because he refused to renounce Jesus Christ. Who was this Polycarp?
He was a pastor, bishop, saint and martyr, forever associated with ancient Smyrna. Shortly after his execution and death, somebody—we don’t know who exactly—wrote this story up in a document that is one of the great classic documents of early Christianity called the “Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp.” Written in Greek, it was soon translated into Latin. It began to circulate throughout the early church, east and west. It became kind of a prototype for many other martyr stories that the early church read as a kind of sanctified devotional literature, to build them up in the faith and to remind them of the great sacrifice that men and women of faith had given for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Polycarp was born a slave, according to one tradition, but adopted by a godly woman named Callisto, who taught him to love the Scriptures, to memorize them, to pray and led him to baptism. We know this because Ignatius of Antioch, another martyr in the early church, passed by Smyrna on his way to Rome where he would face execution and death for Christ. He visited with Polycarp in Smyrna and later wrote a letter to Polycarp reminding him of the commitment that young Polycarp had made at his baptism. “Through his baptism,” Ignatius said, “you have enrolled in the militia Christi, the militia of Christ, the army that sheds no blood. So, let your baptism endure as your arms, your faith as your helmet, your love as your spear, and your patience as complete panoply.”
We don’t know exactly when the Christian faith came to Smyrna. Most likely it was during the two-year ministry of Paul in Ephesus. We know that the gospel began to spread from the city into the countryside, because Christianity was initially an urban faith, an urban religion. There were those emissaries—we would call them evangelists, maybe church-planters—who took the gospel from Ephesus, went north and eventually came to Smyrna. Now Polycarp himself never met Paul, but he knew Paul’s writings, quoted them often, and later himself wrote a letter to the church at Philippi, as Paul himself had written the book of Philippians in our New Testament. So, Paul was very important to Polycarp, particularly from his writings. But he did know another great apostle, John. He had a personal relationship with John. How do we know this?
Irenaeus, the great teacher and bishop of Lyon, in what is today France, was also a native son of Smyrna. He grew up there in the very shadow of Polycarp, sitting at his feet just as Polycarp himself had earlier sat at the feet of John. Later, Irenaeus, as an old man, reflects back on these early years in Smyrna, and he remembers something of the visage, the personality, the feel of Polycarp. He tells of remembering Polycarp sitting in a chair, how we would tilt his head, the sound of gravel in his voice when he spoke, and the weight of his hand on his shoulder when he blessed him.
So, Polycarp brings together in a unique way these two great streams of apostolic Christianity, New Testament Christianity: the Pauline and the Johannine. 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 the life and the ministry, and give meaning to the martyrdom, of Polycarp.
We sometimes think of these martyrs as great, heroic figures. They were tremendous, courageous people. But there was also substance in their courage and faith. They were not tilting at windmills. Polycarp becomes himself a kind of witnessing theologian—not, to be sure, on the level of theological sophistication as you find later with the Cappadocian Fathers. The world homoousia is nowhere found in Polycarp, but the substance of that trinitarian faith was there from the beginning. You see it in his opposition to Marcion, the heretic who wanted to rip apart the Old Testament and the New. Marcion preached a gospel with no Christmas. Jesus was not born of Mary. He may have passed through her as water through a pipe, but he had no natural, human birth at all. In modern theology, the doctrine of the virgin birth has become a kind of sign of believing in the supernatural, the deity of Jesus Christ. But in the early church, it arose as a testimony to the humanity of Jesus Christ. He was really born—alethos, Ignatius of Antioch says—truly, really born. Born of the Virgin Mary. Polycarp was a witness to that. According to the best traditions we have, the only time he traveled far away from his hometown of Smyrna is when he went to Rome, and there on the streets of Rome he encountered Marcion. Marcion asked, “Do you know who I am?” That’s always a dangerous question. Do you know who I am? Polycarp replied, “I know you. You are the firstborn of Satan.” No more questions from Marcion.
To proclaim the God of the Bible, the God of both creation and redemption, of what we call the Old and the New Testament, in Polycarp’s world was to invite conflict with the dominant power structures of the day. And so the persecutions came.
We shouldn’t get the wrong idea that these Christians were violent revolutionaries, sons of liberty out to overthrow the government. They wanted to be good citizens, and they repeatedly told those in authority, “We are willing to pay our taxes, we gladly pray for those in authority, including the emperor. We will pray for the emperor, but we will not pray to the emperor, for we are citizens of another realm. We belong to the ‘ecclesia,’ the church. And we worship another king who sits on a different throne.”
This was the context in which the book of Revelation was written, we think under the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. And it wasn’t revolution that the Christians were declaring, not in the usual sense of that word ‘revolutionary.’ But it was subversive. It was a way of saying that Caesar is not everything. There is a divinely appointed distance between the church and the empire. And because the Christians had embraced the Old Testament, 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.” The state is ordained by God, Paul taught in Romans 13, but it is not God. It is not sacred in itself. There was an easy way out in Polycarp’s day, there usually is. There’s always an easy way out.
It was game day in Smyrna, a holiday. Twenty-thousand bloodthirsty fans of torture and violence had turned out to see the shows. This violence was by design. Smyrna was the epicenter of the Roman spectacle. Up in Pergamum, just a few miles to the north, there was a school for training gladiators. The program of the day went like this: In the morning, the wild animals were let loose into the arena, hunted down and killed. Later in the day, the gladiators themselves would fight. But in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, it was time for the execution of the criminals. There were a lot of them: 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.
So the proconsul said to Polycarp, “Take the oath. I will let you go. Just revile Christ.” Polycarp answered, “For eighty and six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. And how can I now blaspheme my king who saved me?” He offered a prayer in the name of the triune God, and then he was bound. The wood was lit. Like Jesus, who was crucified naked, Polycarp entered the flames without his clothes. But when they saw that his body would not be burned by the fire, an executioner was called to stab him with a dagger. And so he was killed by fire and sword.
The believers gathered the charred bones of Polycarp as a reminder of his faithfulness unto death. Every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom, they would gather to pray and to remember, not his death, but his “birthday.” That’s what they called it: his birthday. They did not mourn but rejoiced, for martyrdom is the place where sacrifice and joy become inseparable.
About a generation after Polycarp, another great teacher of the early church, Tertullian, made a famous statement we often remember: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” It was true in Polycarp’s day. It’s true in your day and mine.
You can watch Dr. George's full sermon below: