Martyr’s Mirror: Living the Cross: Polycarp


“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matt. 16:25

The Apostle John died exiled to the island of Patmos, however, he did have a student, a disciple of his own. His name was Polycarp. Polycarp eventually was arrested for his refusal to burn incense to the Roman Emperor, which was the law. This is recorded in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which this reflection paraphrases. All he had to do was the equivalent of what some of us do in order to freshen a room. It seems like an insignificant act, easy to compromise on. But in Polycarp’s eyes, no act of idolatry is too small.

The soldiers came to arrest him at his home. There he waited, knowing they were coming. It says that he told his friends three days prior that he would die by being burned at the stake. When the soldiers came in, he greeted them, “The Lord’s will be done!” and he sat them down at the table, serving them, requesting only that he be given time to pray before they take him away. They soldiers complied, asking themselves, “Why are we arresting this man?”

The text says, ironically, again, Polycarp was let to the execution stadium on a donkey. They led him into the center of the grand stadium. There a woodpile and stake awaited him, along with the Roman Proconsul. The Proconsul looked at Polycarp and begged him to renounce Christ, appealing to his old age. “Don’t invite harm on yourself. Just swear allegiance to Caesar. Give up Christ, and you are free to live out the rest of your life quietly.”

Polycarp refused, “86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The proconsul pointed to the fire, threatening to burn Polycarp alive. Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”

He was undressed, and placed on the pile. As the fire began to burn up the wood, Polycarp prayed,

“I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”

His disciples reported as the fire consumed his body, to everyone’s amazement, instead of the smell of burning flesh, they could smell incense, like Polycarp’s body was burned like an offering. As he resisted incense to the emperor, his body was incense to God.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship,” says Romans 12:1.

Father, thank you for Polycarp’s testimony. Thank-you that he refused to compromised under the temptation of comfort and age. Thank-you that he showed us a heart of love not hate, service not vengeance. We pray for his willingness, his courage, as we confront the corruption of our world that has rejected you. May our lives by a sacrifice to you.



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