Shortly before His death on the cross, the Lord Jesus had said: “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but fear not: I have overcome the world.”
Not too many years later these words were fulfilled. Shortly after Pentecost persecution broke out in Jerusalem with the martyrdom of Stephen and under the leadership of him who was later to become Paul the apostle. It continued sporadically in Jerusalem not only, but also in other parts of the Roman Empire where the Church had been established. Paul himself was often to feel its sting.
But this early persecution was usually instigated by the Jews who proved to be the bitterest enemies of the gospel.
In the year 64 A.D., six years before the destruction of Jerusalem, persecution took an ominous turn. The Church had by this time, spread throughout the entire Roman Empire. The Church had even been established in the capital of the Empire, Rome, where it had grown rapidly. In this year (64 A.D.) the Roman emperor began persecution as a means to curb the growing influence of the Church and destroy it if possible. Nero, that beast of iniquity, whose name has become synonymous with evil, made persecution of the Christian official imperial policy. It was shortly after the burning of Rome that Nero blamed this catastrophe to the Christians and began systematic extermination of the Church. Some Christians were fed to wild beast in Rome’s arena; some were burned on crosses to light Nero’s gardens while he banqueted in their eerie, flickering shadows; some were boiled in oil. Yet his persecution was but the beginning of a long period of persecution which did not finally come to an end until the year 323 when Constantine the Great came to the throne of the Roman Empire.
Hence, for better than 250 years the people of God were officially condemned as enemies of the state, destroyers of the true religion and worthy objects of torture and murder.
The early part of this period of persecution was the age of the earliest of the church fathers. There were some seven or eight of these men whose names have come down to us and who, outside the apostolic age, were the first of the New Testament heroes of faith. These men, whose names we know, were not by any means the only ones who died for their faith. They were but representatives of thousands who bravely and courageously faced the fiery tortures and exquisite sufferings of persecution for the cause of Christ.
These men were men who themselves had known the apostles. They had been taught that the feet of the apostles and had taken over the leadership of the Church as the apostolic era came to its close. They were men who carried on the tradition of the apostles in the Churches when the Holy Scriptures were not yet generally circulated and in the possession of only very few.
They were not men who made large contributions to the development of the truth. This was not their place in the Church. In fact, from what is known of them, they did very little to develop the truth in any systematic form. But they were men of extraordinary piety and strong spiritual strength. They were fearless in the face of death, given to the Church to strengthen the saints so that they could face with courage of peace the persecutions hurled against them. Their own lives were shining examples of such courage.
These early fathers are the ones who tell us that Paul was martyred by Nero; that soon after Nero Domitian ascended the throne of Rome—Domitian who was responsible for the exiling of the apostle John to the island of Patmos; who killed the apostle Andrew, John Mark, Onesimus the slave of Philemon and Dionysius a convert from Athens.
It is to Polycarp however, that we turn in this article.
Of his early life we are told nothing. He was born, most likely, in the year 69 and suffered martyrdom in 155 A.D. He was converted to faith in Christ early n life according to his own word; but we do not meet him until he became presbyter (elder) in the Church of Smyrna. He was well acquainted with the apostles, but particularly with John who spent many years in Ephesus for Smyrna was near to Ephesus in the Western part of Asia Minor. Already when John, from Patmos, wrote the letter recorded in Revelation to Smyrna, the Church there was being persecuted.
There are only a few things about the life of Polycarp which are preserved from these ancient times.
He became the teaching elder in Smyrna, her pastor, called already at this time “Bishop.” He made one trip to Rome on a matter of ecclesiastical business. There was some dispute in the church (a dispute later to break out into bitter controversy) about the times of the celebration of Christ’s death. The Churches in Asia Minor commemorated this day on the 14th of Nisan, the same day as the Jewish Passover and, according to these early fathers, the day of the Lord’s crucifixion. This day could fall on any day of the week. The Church in Rome however, commemorated the Lord’s death of Friday—the first Friday after the March full moon, insisting that the day commemoration should be the same as the day being commemorated—although the date then varied. Because this was a point of dispute in the church, Polycarp travelled to Rome to meet with Anicetus, bishop of Rome, to try to resolve the matter. His efforts were unsuccessful, although the two parted as friends. Only after the bishop of Rome began to seize greater authority than other bishops in the Church many years later was the issue finally resolved in favor of Rome’s position.
Polycarp also wrote a letter to the church at Philippi which is striking in that, in it, he insists that his position in the church (and consequently also his letter) is not to be considered on a par with the apostles. This was clear evidence of the fact that already this early the Church recognized that the writings of the apostles were inspired Scriptures.
But it is Polycarp’s martyrdom which is of chief interest to us, for we have chosen him as an example of the faithfulness of the Church in persecution.
Antonius Pius was emperor of Rome; the proconsul of Asia Minor was not himself very hostile towards the Christians. But the heathen people, incited often by Jews, were constantly rioting and calling upon the magistrates to do away with the Christians.
Under the pressures of these mobs, Asia’s proconsul sought also to suppress Christianity within his province. Persecution began. But the Church endured these sufferings patiently. In agonizing torments they were composed and tranquil so that their enemies often marveled. We have this amazing confession given us from their fellow saints:
“They made it evident to us all that in the midst of those sufferings, they were absent from the body: or rather that the Lord stood by them and walked in the midst of them; and, staying themselves on the grace of Christ, they bid defiance to the torments of the world.”
Polycarp was 90 years old when these persecutions broke loose. Most of his life was now behind him. But the crowds who were thirsting for the blood of the Christians soon began also to shout for his blood and force the authorities to turn their attention to Smyrna’s aged pastor. He was advised by the Church to flee for safety; and, although he was not inclined to do this preferring to await the will of his God, nevertheless, the saints prevailed upon him to take refuge in a neighboring villa. Here he spent a few days, mostly in prayer; but this hiding place was not long safe. He moved to another villa, but this place of refuge was revealed by men whose confidence he had trusted and who had feigned loyalty to him. However, by the time the police arrived, Polycarp was hidden upon the roof of another villa. The police only learned of this hiding place by torturing some slaves whom they caught. Still Polycarp could have fled over the roofs of the houses and most probably escaped; but he knew he was too old to be hunted indefinitely, and he chose to surrender. He entered the room where the officers had gathered and ordered food and drink to be set before them while he requested permission to retire for an hour to pray.
When he was at last taken to the court of the proconsul, he rode in the chariot with the chief officer of the police. This officer tried to persuade him to escape death by asking him in a kindly manner where there was really so much harm in saying “the emperor, our Lord” and in sacrificing to him. Polycarp remained silent until he was urged to answer: his answer was short: “I shall not do as you advise me.” The officer soon saw that he could not move this aged man, and, in anger, hurled him from the chariot so that Polycarp’s leg was injured. But he was content to walk cheerfully towards his destination under the guard of the police.
Arriving at the proconsul, he was once again put under pressure to renounce his faith. The proconsul, thinking to scare him, reminded him of the shouts of the people who had gathered outside the court and who were thirsting for his blood. He described the tortures of death and begged Polycarp to remember his old age and the infirmities of his years. He pleaded with Polycarp to curse Christ and gain his freedom. But the answer he received was simply: “Six and eighty years have I served him, and he has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse him, my Lord and Savior!” When the proconsul persisted, Polycarp answered: “Well, if you would know what I am, I tell you frankly, I am a Christian. Would you know what the doctrine of Christianity is, appoint me an hour and hear me.”
At last, in exasperation and growing anger, the proconsul announced to the shouting throng that Polycarp had declared himself to be a Christian and had been sentenced to die at the stake. The populace, by now beyond patience, scattered to gather wood from nearby shops to aid the officers assigned to his execution.
The devilish work was soon done. When the officers were about to nail Smyrna’s aged and beloved pastor to the stake he told them: “Leave me thus; he who has strengthened me to encounter the flames will also enable me to stand firm at the stake.” Before the flames were lit, he prayed: “Lord, Almighty God, Father of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, God of angels, and of the whole creation; of the human race, and of the just that live in thy presence; I praise thee that thou hast judged me worthy of this day and of this hour, to take part in the number of thy witnesses, in the cup of thy Christ.”
With that, the fires were lit and this venerable and faithful father perished in the leaping flames.
He was but one of many martyrs for their faith who stood fast in the face of the fiercest tortures known then to man. In the strength of their Lord, with conviction of faith, in the hope of being presently in the company of saints made perfect, with prayers and psalms on their lips, they died shedding their blood for the cause of the gospel.
But it was true, as one of these fathers said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Persecution continued, but the fury of the world could not destroy the Church of Christ. The entire might of the Roman empire was hurled against the Church; the gates of hell rushed to defeat the cause of Christ. But the Church was built upon Christ. And, in spite of all this fiery persecution, the Church grew and spread. And at last, when the fires of persecution died and the Roman Empire crumbled into dust, the Church remained standing towering above the ruins of time.
These men are also our spiritual fathers. Again, presently, persecution shall break forth upon the Church. The Lord Himself assures us of this. May their fearlessness, devotion and faithfulness make us too faithful unto death, for no one can take our crown.