Polycarp (c. 69 – c. 156),1 Bishop of Smyrna, was one of the foremost leaders of the Church in the second century. He studied under the Apostle John and, with Ignatius of Antioch, was one of the vital links between the apostolic and patristic periods. A strong defender of orthodoxy, he opposed such heretical groups as the Marcionites and the Valentinians. When Ignatius was being taken to Rome to be put to death, he wrote of Polycarp being clothed “with the garment of grace.” Polycarp was himself arrested by Roman officials in Smyrna soon after returning from a trip to Rome to discuss the date for Easter and was martyred.
His defense against the Roman proconsul contained a clear and courageous witness to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of fearing “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Polycarp feared God “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28 ESV). Polycarp’s gospel courage sprang from his gospel clarity.
Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?2
Thou threatenest the fire that burns for an hour and in a little while is quenched; for thou knowest not of the fire of the judgement to come, and the fire of the eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou? Bring what thou wilt.3
1 There is some dispute about the date of his death; Eusebius of Caesarea places the year at 167 or 168, meaning it would have fallen in the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
2 “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” c.IX, cited in H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 14.
3 Ibid, c.XI, 15.
Polycarp was a great Bishop of the Catholic Church:
“At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”
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