The Humble and Holy Defiance of Polycarp.
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (II Timothy 1:13-24)
Polycarp was born the same decade Roman authorities executed Peter and Paul, the turbulent ’60s of the first century. Apparently, his parents were among the first generation of believers and taught him the gospel. As a young man, he gained more education about the faith directly from the Apostle John. Assuredly, Polycarp soaked up the eye-witness testimony of the Apostle when it came to Jesus’ teachings, miracles, and work on the Cross. Polycarp is the best extra-biblical example we have of the apostles passing on what they had experienced in Christ himself.
Polycarp became the leader of the Church in Smyrna (usually referred to as the Bishop). He clearly continued the gospel teachings and holy life that the apostles had entrusted to him. His only known written work is an Epistle to the Philippians. (Not to be confused with Paul’s letter to the believers in the same city.) The epistle itself is profound in that it gives an amazing example of what the early church was like. In the epistle, Polycarp references and quotes the letters of Paul, Peter, and John as well as the Gospels. It is clear from reading Polycarp that the early Christians relied on the written teachings of the Apostles as authoritative. While there may not have been on official canon, what would come to be known later as the New Testament was already forged into the mind and heart of Polycarp.
The following quote is a great example of Polycarp’s reliance on the apostle’s writings as Scripture as well as the continuity his doctrine shares with the apostles:
“For I trust that you are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures, and that nothing is hid from you… It is declared in these Scriptures, ‘Be angry, and sin not, and, Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.’ (Ephesians 4:26) Happy is he who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you. But 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 and truth, and in all meekness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, forbearance, and purity; and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints, and on us with you, and on all that are under heaven, who shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Father, who raised Him from the dead. (Galatians 1:1)”(newadvent.org) newadvent.org
While he lived a Christ-centered life, Polycarp is most known for his Caesar-defying death. He lived an unusually long life for his time. He made it to his 80s when the average person lived to his 30s. By this time (155), Roman Persecution, especially in Asia Minor, was intense. Provincial authorities firmly enforced the worship of Caesar by offering incense, prayers, and confessing Caesar as Lord. Polycarp found out that the authorities were hunting him for his defiant teaching that Jesus, not Caesar, was the only Lord of heaven and earth. For a while, he evaded arrest. Eventually, he grew tired of fleeing and told his companions, “I must be burned alive.”
His pursuers came with weapons and a mob stormed a home where the aged man had fled. Before he allowed them to take him away, he fed them a nice meal and prayed for them. Some say this prayer lasted over two hours and led to the repentance of some of his captors.
Soon, Polycarp found himself before the Roman proconsul displayed to a crowd of Romans who wanted to see the traitor’s blood. The proconsul encouraged him to confess the Lordship of Caesar and denounce the group the Romans called the “atheists.” (Romans called Christians “atheists” because they worshiped no visible or physical gods.) The Proconsul demanded: “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” The Elderly Christian looked sternly at the crowd and defiantly turned the phrase on them when he shouted, “Away with the Atheists!” By calling them “atheists” he mocked their worship of any God but the true God of all creation.
The Proconsul still adjured the Bishop to deny Christ or be burned at the stake. His response is epic in its humility and defiance. “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” (newadvent.org)
Finally, Polycarp was set on fire. He died experiencing unspeakable suffering. He awoke in the presence of his Lord. The man became both literally and metaphorically a light to the world. In life and in death he lived the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. He lived the gospel. The name Polycarp means “much fruit.” Through his continuation of the apostle’s teachings and holy defiance in death, we today are the fruit of his witness.
God grant us the humble and holy defiance of Polycarp in a culture increasingly hostile to you. Give us the grace to embrace the Word handed down to us. Use us to pass it down to our children and our community. Lord, ensure that we stand firm in the apostles teachings, the gospel of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.