Polycarp of Smyrna

Today during this Christmas season I want to conclude a two-part series from Christian history on two of the earliest heroes in the post-apostolic church. It’s terribly important for us to know something of those who came before us and how the Gospel was handed down to us. There’s an enormous amount of illiteracy in the pews about church history, and so from time to time I want to address that on my podcast and blog.

Last week we looked at Ignatius of Antioch. If you missed that episode, you might want to go back and give it a listen. Today our second and last hero for this brief series is Polycarp of Smyrna. The two men knew each other and both served as leaders in the church in the waning days of the apostle John.

Today I want to introduce you to someone you should most certainly know—a man who lived 1900 years ago named Polycarp. Let’s begin our study in Revelation 2 and verse 8, which is a message from Jesus to the church of Smyrna. Today the city of Smyrna is called Izmir, just a few miles—about 50 miles or so—from Ephesus. I once flew into the airport in Izmir to visit both Ephesus and the ruins of ancient Smyrna. The apostle John was the bishop of the network of house churches in Ephesus and all of Asia, and at some point late in his life he personally appointed his disciple Polycarp to have a similar role fifty miles away in Smyrna.

Polycarp was probably already in place as bishop when the church there received the book of Revelation, written by John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. In Revelation, the aged apostle John received information from the Lord about the last days, and we have that material as the last book of the Bible. Chapters 2 and 3 are miniature epistles or messages to seven churches in Asia Minor, including a message to the church in Smyrna. It’s likely that the pastor or bishop there, who would have received and read this letter and, in fact, been one of the first people in history to read the book of Revelation, was Polycarp.

You may be thinking he has a funny name—Polycarp. What does it mean? It sounds like it means “Many Fish.” Poly-Carp. Well, you’re close. In the Greek polycarpos means many fruit, or much fruit. 

Now, here’s something interesting. When the apostle John wrote his Gospel, he quoted Jesus as saying in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

In the Greek, John wrote the phrase Karpon Polun – the same two Greek terms: Much Fruit. And it makes me wonder if Polycarp was this man’s original name, or if John, at the man’s baptism or at his ordination into the ministry, give him this verse from the lips of Jesus and designated him as Polycarp—a man who would bear much fruit for the Master. 

When John appointed him as head of the church in Smyrna, the population of that city was probably about 100,000. It was a city of tremendous wealth and beauty and architecture. We know there were the typical Roman places—a gymnasium, a stadium, a theater, and several temples dedicated to Roman gods and to the emperors. It had a harbor on the Aegean, and a massive agora, or marketplace. 

Apparently the church was made up of the poorest people, and they were facing the prospect of persecution. The Lord Jesus had only commendation for the church in Smyrna. There is no criticism of the church under Polycarp’s leadership; only encouragement. 

Let’s read Revelation 2:8-11:

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Those words were written to the church where Polycarp was the leader.

We know quite a bit more about Polycarp. He was born shortly after Peter and Paul were executed in Rome. As a young man, he heard the apostle John and was converted to Christ and mentored through the ministries of those who, like John, were eyewitnesses of our Lord and were still alive. 

We have an interesting description of Polycarp’s ministry from an eyewitness named Irenaeus. It’s truly amazing we actually have a description of someone who lived at the very beginning of Christian history. Irenaeus wrote:

When I was a boy, I saw you in lower Asia with Polycarp. I recall the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For the things you learn in childhood grow in the soul and are united with it.

I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he preached and taught, his goings and his comings, the character of his life, his physical appearance, his speeches to the multitudes, and the accounts which he gave of his interactions with John and with the others who had seen the Lord.

I also recall when he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, concerning his miracles and teaching. What Polycarp received then from eyewitnesses of the Word of life, he related in its entirety in harmony with the Scriptures. By the mercy of God, I listened to these things attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. By the grace of God, I always recall them faithfully.

After the death of John, Polycarp continued in Smyrna, and he was probably between thirty and forty years old when Ignatius of Antioch, whom I told you about last week, passed through Smyrna on his way to Rome to be executed. One of his letters, as you may recall, was to Polycarp.

From another source, we have a bit more information. In the early church, there began to be divisions between the church in Asia and the one in Europe. One of those differences involved the date of Easter. Should it be a fixed day or a moveable day? If you think about this, this was a real issue.

Let me give you an example. I was born on Thursday, May 29, 1952. Every year I celebrate my birthday on May 29, but it doesn’t always land on a Thursday. This coming year it will be on a Sunday. Jesus rose from the Dead during the Passover weekend on the Jewish calendar, and He rose on a Sunday—the Lord’s Day, the first Day of the week. But the anniversary of His resurrection doesn’t always fall on a Sunday, so when should it be commemorated? The issue was more involved than this, but you get the idea.

Polycarp went to Rome to discuss such matters with his counterpart in Rome, Bishop Anicetus. Here’s what we read from the historian Eusebius:

When the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John, the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he associated…. Neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it.

They agreed to disagree on this issue. It wasn’t a major doctrine; it was an area where Christians could disagree. 

In essential areas, however, Polycarp was determined to maintain purity of doctrine. According to Eusebius, Polycarp once met a false teacher on the street, the heretic Marcion. Marcion asked him, “Don’t you recognize me?” “Polycarp answered, “I do indeed; I recognize the firstborn of Satan!” 

We have all of this about Polycarp… but do we have anything by him. Do any of his writings still exist? Yes. We have one letter he wrote to the church of the Philippians, which had been started by the apostle Paul perhaps a half-century earlier. Let me read some of his letter to you:

Polycarp and the presbyters with him write to the church of God at Philippi. May mercy and peace from God Almighty and from Jesus Christ the Savior be multiplied to you…. I rejoice because the firm root of your faith, proclaimed from ancient times, remains even now, and is bearing fruit for our Lord Jesus Christ. He patiently endured for our sins even to the point of death. It was He that God raised from the dead having undone the pangs of hell. Even though you do not see him, you believe with an ineffable joy that is full of glory.

Here is he quoting from 2 Peter. A bit later, Polycarp quoted the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, and he also quoted Paul, showing us that he had access to all these New Testament writings. Polycarp continued:

Neither I nor anyone like me is able to emulate the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who, when he came among you in person, taught the message of truth accurately and firmly. When absent, he wrote you letters by which, if you studied closely, you can be built up further in the faith given you.

He also quoted his mentor, John, from John’s first epistle, saying:

Everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh in an antichrist.

He continued:

The love of money is a root of every kind of evil. Therefore, since we know that just as we brought nothing into this world, so we can carry nothing out, let us arm ourselves with the armor of righteousness.

If we please him in this present world, we will also receive the future world. After all, he has promised us that he will raise us from the dead and that if we live worthy of him, we will also reign with him—provided only that we believe.

Let the young men be blameless in everything. Let them be especially careful to preserve purity and rein themselves in, as though they had a bridle, from every kind of evil. For it is good that they should be removed from the lusts that are in the world, since every lust wars against the spirit. Neither the sexually immoral, the effeminate, nor homosexuals shall inherit the kingdom of God. Nor shall those who do inconsistent and inappropriate things….

I exhort you all to yield obedience to the word of righteousness and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen before your eyes not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, Zosimus, Rufus, and also among yourselves, but also in Paul himself and the rest of the apostles. We are assured that these all have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom they also suffered. For they did not love this present world, but him who died for us and for our sakes and was raised again by God from the dead.

He concluded:

May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God and our everlasting High Priest, build you up in faith, truth, meekness, gentleness, patience, endurance, forbearance, and purity. 

And we have even more information about Polycarp. We know how he died. We have a text dating from about A.D. 160 called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. 

Polycarp was 86 years old and was probably the last surviving person to have seen the apostle John in the flesh. Here are some sections of this ancient document. The writer began by describing the kinds of persecutions that were taking place. 

All the martyrdoms which God allowed to happen were blessed and noble. Who could not admire their honor, their patience, their love for the Lord? They were whipped to shreds till their veins and arteries were exposed, and still endured patiently, while even those that stood by cried for them. They had such courage that none of them let out a sigh or a groan, proving when they suffered such torments they were absent from their bodies – or rather that the Lord then stood by them and talked with them.

In the same way, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful torture. Some were stretched out on beds of spikes. Others were subjected to all kinds of torments, all in the Devil’s attempt to make them deny Christ.

The writer goes on to describe what happened to Polycarp when Roman soldiers descended on the city to persecute the believers.

The redoubtable Polycarp was not in the least upset, and was happy to stay in the city, but eventually he was persuaded to leave. He went to friends in the nearby country…

Those who were looking for him were coming near, so he left for another house. They immediately followed him, and when they could not find him, they seized two young men from his own household and tortured them into confession.

The police and horsemen found him lying down in the upper room of a cottage. He could have escaped but he refused saying, “God’s will be done.” When he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them. They were amazed at his age and steadfastness, and some of them said. “Why did we go to so much trouble to capture a man like this?” Immediately he called for food and drink for them, and asked for an hour to pray uninterrupted. They agreed, and he stood and prayed, so full of the grace of God, that he could not stop for two hours. The men were astounded and many of them regretted coming to arrest such a godly and venerable old man.

When he finished praying… they put him on a donkey, and took him into the city….

When the crowd heard that Polycarp had been captured, there was an uproar. The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatize, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”

“Eighty-six years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” 

“I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.” “Call them,” Polycarp replied. “ 

“If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.” 

“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”

It was all done in the time it takes to tell. The crowd collected wood and bundles of sticks from the shops and public baths. When the pile was ready, Polycarp took off his outer clothes, undid his belt, and tried to take off his sandals.

They bound him with his hands behind him like a distinguished ram chosen from a great flock for sacrifice. He looked up to heaven and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ… I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. 

May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice. I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”

Then the fire was lit, and the flame blazed furiously. We who were privileged to witness it saw a great miracle, and this is why we have been preserved, to tell the story. The fire shaped itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, and formed a circle around the body of the martyr. Inside it, he looked not like flesh that is burnt, but like bread that is baked, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. And we smelt a sweet scent, like frankincense or some such precious spices.

Later, we collected his bones, more precious than jewels and better purified than gold, and put them in an appropriate place where, the Lord willing, we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom each year with joy and rejoicing, both to remember those who have run their race and to prepare those yet to walk in their steps.

He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose death all desire to imitate, being altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. Having overcome the unjust governor with patience and acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous, glorifies God the Father with joy, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. From time to time, Lord willing, I want to dip into the fascinating story of the history of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ on this earth.

For a daily story from Christian history, go to the homepage of my website, RobertJMorgan.com, and scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll see a sign-up link that says: “Daily Devotions from Christian History.” You can sign up for a free daily email from my book, On This Day in Christian History.