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Not Afraid to Die: Meet Polycarp

by Andrew Menkis posted October 17, 2022

This article is part of our series, “Cloud of Witnesses: Stories from the Church.” Read more from the series here.

King Aegeus stood atop his palace, gazing out at the sea. He was full of fear and anxiety. Too much time had passed since his son Theseus sailed from Athens to the island of Crete. The Athenians had grown tired of giving their sons and daughters up as tribute to the Minatour, a monstrous half-human, half-bull creature that lived in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Cretan king’s palace. Brave Theseus had volunteered himself as a sacrifice; he would try to defeat the monster. As he squinted under the bright sun, Aegeus saw a ship in the distance. He strained his eyes to see the color of the sails. Theseus had left with black sails, promising that if he was victorious, he would change them to white sails upon his return. Aegeus’ heart sank—the sails were black. He was filled with overwhelming grief and, in a moment of anguish, leapt from the parapet into the roiling sea below.

According to Greek legend, this is the tragic way that the Aegean Sea was named. East of Athens, on the far coast of that same sea and north of Ephesus, lay the wealthy city of Smyrna. This city is notable for many reasons, including the fact that it is one of the first places Christianity took root. The book of Acts tells us that before Christ ascended to the right hand of God the Father, he commissioned his disciples to spread the good news of what he had accomplished.[1] They did not waste time in fulfilling this mission and churches began to form all around the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Not long after Christ’s ascension, the Apostle John wrote a letter to several of these churches. One of them was in Smyrna. We know this letter as the last book of the Bible: Revelation. One of the original readers of this letter would have been a man named Polycarp.

Meet Polycarp

If he was not bishop of Smyrna when the letter arrived, John’s disciple Polycarp soon would be. Historian and apologist, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-c. 202), tells us Ignatius and Polycarp learned from John before going to serve as bishops in Antioch and Smyrna, respectively.[2] Knowing this personal relationship existed, it seems fair to assume the book of Revelation would have been deeply significant to Polycarp, especially later in life when he faced martyrdom. In Revelation, John told the church in Smyrna that he knew of the challenges and harsh persecution that they faced. He promised, “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (Rev. 2:10-11). These words would come to be of intense significance to Polycarp later in his life.

Why is Polycarp Important?

Polycarp was a leader in the church at a critical juncture. He was a link between the apostles and the growing Christian movement. Those who had been disciples of Christ or had seen Jesus after his resurrection were passing away. This meant that the people they had taught and discipled needed to carry on the ministry of the gospel. Polycarp did this task in several notable ways which included influencing the canonization of the New Testament, combating false and heretical teachings, and demonstrating how a Christian could faithfully follow Christ, even to the point of death.

The Canon

Polycarp’s work and writings were instrumental in the formation of the New Testament canon. Canon, the Greek word for ruler or measuring stick, refers to the books which Christians recognize as inspired by God and therefore having authority to tell us what to believe and how to live. Put more simply, the canon refers to the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. In his letter to the Philippian church, for example, Polycarp treats 1 Corinthians and Ephesians as authoritative writings for Christians to believe and follow. He provides early evidence for which books the church was recognizing and using as Scripture. This helps show us that the New Testament existed functionally within the church far before it was formally recognized by a council.

Combatting Falsehood 

In his book, Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons tells us that Polycarp was a staunch defender of the Bible and its teaching. We see his passion for truth in his letter to the Philippians:

For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the firstborn of Satan.[3]

Here we see Polycarp defending the core beliefs of orthodox Christianity: Jesus Christ is God in flesh; he died for our sins and rose from the grave so that we too might have eternal life.

This passage from Polycarp’s letter shows us why he is known for his vociferous opposition to a heretical theologian named Marcion.[4] Marcion was teaching that the creator-God of the Old Testament was a distinct and different God from the father-God of the New Testament. The loving God of the New Testament sent sent his Son to earth, but only in appearance. Jesus Christ was not truly human; he only seemed like it (docetism is the official name for this heresy). These claims directly contradict the apostolic teachings which had been handed down to Polycarp. He took his responsibility to defend and proclaim the truth with the utmost seriousness. Today we can be inspired by his example of love for Christ and the truth of the gospel, as well as his courage to defend it.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

In 156 A.D., the church at Philomelium received a letter from their sister church at Smyrna. Polycarp was dead. The letter gave a full and detailed eyewitness account of the days leading up to his martyrdom and his execution. This letter was not only the first recorded Christian martyr outside of the Bible, but it created a template for a new genre: Martyrdom literature.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp should be mandatory reading for all Christians (in this author’s opinion!). If this brief overview of Polycarp does nothing else but encourage believers to read or reread the story of his martyrdom, it will be a great success. Therefore, instead of a summary which might make the reader think they don’t need to read the primary source itself, let us reflect on the final prayer of Polycarp, a prayer which he laid before the throne of God moments before his mortal body was set ablaze, all because he would not renounce Christ:

“O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your presence, I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, so that I might receive a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them in your presence today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you have prepared and revealed beforehand, and have now accomplished, you who are the undeceiving and true God. For this reason, indeed for all things, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be the glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages to come. Amen.”[5]

Polycarp’s Courage

The myth of Aegeus is tragic, not only because he committed suicide, but because his son was not actually dead. Theseus had successfully killed the minotaur and was sailing home in triumph. He simply forgot to change the sails from black to white. As a result, Aegeus was so overcome with grief that he lost the courage to live. Polycarp stands in sharp contrast to this mythical king of Athens. He is so full of hope that he is not afraid to die. He trusts in the Son of the King of Kings—a Son who actually died to defeat the monster of sin and death, then came back to life! It is because of this hope that Polycarp can face his own death with courage and offer up a prayer full of thanksgiving and worship even as he anticipates being burned alive. His courage springs from the fact that he knows the Son of God lives and his execution will only serve as a door which will bring him into the presence of his Savior.

[1] Acts 1:8

[2] Irenaeus also relates  that when he was a young boy he saw Polycarp, Against Heresies 3.3.4

[3] All quotations of Polycarp come from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations Third Edition (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2007). Polycarp, Philippians 7:1, 289.  Here Polycarp sounds very much like his mentor, the Apostle John. See 1 John 4:2-3.

[4] Irenaeus of Lyons purports that when Polycarp met Marcion he said, “Do you know me? I do know you, the first-born of Satan. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm.

[5] All quotations of Polycarp come from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations Third Edition (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2007). Martyrdom of Polycarp, 14:1-3, 323. 

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Andrew Menkis

Andrew Menkis holds a B.A. from the University of Maryland in Philosophy and Classics and an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California. He is a high school Bible teacher whose passion is for teaching the deep things of God in ways that are understandable and accessible to all followers of Christ.

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