Though Polycarp is not mentioned in the Bible, he was born during the New Testament age, converted early in life, and trained for the ministry by the apostle John himself. Polycarp and John remained friends for 20 years. They worked in churches 20 miles from one another, John in Ephesus and Polycarp at his home church in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey). When John wrote the Revelation, he addressed a portion of it to the believers in Smyrna, and of that church he had no critical words. It may well have been Polycarp who read John’s message to the congregation: I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. … Don’t worry about what you will suffer. … If you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life (Rev 2:9,10).
Though Polycarp devoted most of his time to pastoring the church at Smyrna, he also became well-known elsewhere. We still have a letter he wrote to the Philippian church, and in it he quotes extensively from the New Testament. He traveled to Rome to consult with Bishop Anicletus about theological matters. He battled heresy throughout the empire. All in all, he serves as a vital link between the apostles and the rest of church history.
He faced his greatest test in the mid-second century, during the reign of Antoninus Pius. A persecution broke out against Christians, and several of his church members were killed. On February 23, c. 155 a Roman officer publicly demanded that Polycarp renounce Christ. The old pastor’s famous reply has echoed through history: “Eighty and six years have I served him and he has done me no wrong. Can I revile my King that saved me?”
“I’ll throw you to the beasts!” shouted the Roman. Polycarp told him to bring them on. “Then I’ll have you burned,” the man warned.
Polycarp replied, “You try to frighten me with fire that burns for an hour and you forget the fire of hell that never goes out.”
An hour later his body was ashes, his soul with Christ.
Don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life. If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:10-11a)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 23.
*Picture in Header: By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Agora of Smyrna, built during the Hellenistic era at the base of Pagos Hill and totally rebuilt under Marcus Aurelius after the destructive 178 AD earthquake, Izmir, Turkey, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45906874