The church was yet young. The day had come of which Jesus had spoken in Matthew 10:

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. (Matthew 10:16-20).

That time had come. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was on the throne. These were the days when Christians were fed to the lions in the Arena at Rome, the days when the catacombs were full of earnest believers who met together to strengthen and encourage one another for the trials of life. Throughout the Empire, Christianity was spreading at an alarming rate for the Roman emperors. In spite of fire, sword, and beastly fury, Roman officers and even high government officials were being converted from paganism to serve the true and living God of Heaven.

In a somewhat obscure city in Asia Minor, in present day Turkey, far from the seat of Imperial power in Rome, there lived an elderly pastor who had long escaped the fury of the power of Rome. He was well into his eighties, and for many years he had pastored his church. In fact, he was so old, that as a young boy he could have been a contemporary of the Apostle John.

The year was 162 A.D. The place was none other than the city of Smyrna, for that is where this elderly pastor shepherded his congregation. Christ himself had written a letter to this church. The words of our Lord to the church of Smyrna contained not a single rebuke, and they glow with warmth.

And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death. (Revelation 2:8-11)

Perhaps our elderly hero, as the pastor of this church, treasured these words in his bosom, and carried them with him wherever he went. For over 80 years, he lived in relative peace. Persecution did rage in the city, and the enemies of the gospel had sought his life, but he himself had always been able to escape martyrdom.

But one day, he was betrayed and the place of his residence was discovered. The soldiers rushed into his chamber and demanded that he follow them. The venerable old man asked the young soldiers to give him a season of prayer before he left. Stunned and bewildered by this strange request, the young soldiers saw no reason to deny the man this simple request. Many of these young soldiers were so touched by the fervency and tenderness of his prayers that they later repented.

The elderly man was brought before the Roman proconsul of the province and was condemned to be burned alive in the market place. Perhaps the words of Christ came back to him, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer . . . be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”

The appointed day arrived. The old man was led to his place in the open agora, the market place where public executions were held. A stake awaited him. It was usual practice in Roman times to nail victims to the stake. But the old man had given his word of honor that he would not require the nails. He would stand immovable.

As the elderly hero took his position at the stake, the proconsul, knowing the frailty of the old man’s frame, took pity upon his victim and gave him an opportunity to recant. “Swear, and I will release thee – reproach Christ.”

The answer of the venerable man has gone down in history as among the most famous “last words” of a dying martyr. A hushed silence from the assembled throng awaited his reply. Fixing his aged eyes upon the proconsul, the old man gave his answer, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who has saved me?”

The order was given. The torch was applied to the fagots, and the flames leaped upward. But to the astonishment of the crowd, the flames curled upward and around the elderly martyr, leaving him in the middle of the flames, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, untouched by the flames. It was as if the flames themselves were protesting the execution and refusing to touch this elderly servant of God.

A dramatization of the death of Polycarp
A dramatization of the death of Polycarp

The entire assembly had the opportunity to observe this singular miracle. Finally, the executioner was ordered to run the old man through with a sword, which he did. But upon this act, such a quantity of blood flowed out, that the fire was extinguished. The old man soon died, and his dead body was burned to ashes, but his spirit had long risen to the God who gave it, and we can be sure that the Lord Jesus Christ advanced to the portals of heaven to welcome His faithful servant into His presence, and to give him the promised reward, “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”

The man’s name was Polycarp of Smyrna. Many have at least heard the name, but few know the details of his martyrdom. His life and testimony set the pattern for the long train of men, boys, matrons, and maids that would follow his example and lay down their lives for the sake of the Gospel throughout Christian history.

Selected Bibliography

This article was drawn from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.