Polycarp, the Martyr


“…Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.” Hebrews 11:35 ESV

Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John and ordained by him as bishop of Smyrna. He was martyred at the age of 86.

When the cry went out, “Let search be made for Polycarp”, among those who hated the Christians, his friends begged him to go into hiding. He complied with their wishes for a short time, but when he had a dream of his pillow in flames, he said, “The will of God be done”, for he understood that it was God’s will that he die a martyr.

When the search party arrived at his house, he invited them to a meal and requested two hours to set things in order and pray. In his prayer, he lifted before God the whole church, everyone he ever knew or had crossed his path. After he had finished, he set out with his captors who reminded him of his age and entreated him saying, “What harm is there in saying Caesar is god and burning incense to save yourself?” He replied, “I will not do as you say.”

When he entered the stadium, a voice called from heaven, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”

The magistrate and proconsul also tried to persuade him to recant. “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ.”

Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Seeing that Polycarp remained unmoved, the proconsul tried threats, “I have wild beasts here and I will throw you to them, except you repent.” But he said, “Call for them, for the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is improper to righteousness.”

Then he said to him again, “… I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent.” But Polycarp said: “You threaten that fire which burns for a season… for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”

 The proconsul was astounded and sent his herald to proclaim three times in the middle of the stadium, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.”

The crowd began to gather wood and sticks, and finally a huge pile was made ready, for his execution. He was bound to a stake and looking up to heaven prayed:

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You…

“I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion among the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ for resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice… You are the faithful and true God.

”For this… and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You…”

When he had finished, the fire was lit, but something strange happened:

“The fire, making the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round about the body of the martyr; and it was… not like flesh burning, but like a loaf in the oven… For we perceived such a fragrant smell…”

His executioners seeing that his body was not consumed, stabbed him with a dagger and drew much blood, and so Polycarp breathed his last. Then his friends requested the proconsul to give them his mortal remains for burial; but their enemies suggested that they wanted to worship Polycarp and should not be allowed to do so. At this they replied:

For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher. May it be our lot also to be found partakers and fellow-disciples with them.

The proconsul however yielded to the wishes of his persecutor and Polycarp’s body was burned and only his bones were buried.

What a great example to us all!

“They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them…” Hebrews 11:37-38 ESV

“Father, we praise You for Your keeping power. Help us to remain on Your side all the days of our lives. Let us never give in to temptation or fear. Grant us steadfast spirits. We believe that You are able to keep us from falling and to present us blameless before Your Son. Thank you for the example of the martyrs, who have proven Your word and Your faithfulness.”


This account is drawn from the ‘Martyrdom of Polycarp’ as translated by J.B. Lightfoot and revised into modern English by Richard Neil Shrout. The words quoted exactly from the translation are given in red italics.


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