About half a century after John wrote the book of Revelation, including the letter to the church in Smyrna, a man named Polycarp was led before Roman officials. Polycarp was quite old, and had served as bishop of the church in Smyrna for decades. He also was guilty of a crime: Polycarp refused to declare the Roman emperor to be lord, to burn incense in the emperor’s honor, or to deny Christ.
When soldiers were sent to arrest Polycarp, he offered them dinner and asked them to allow him an hour to pray before being taken away. As Polycarp was being brought to the city’s arena, officials over the region attempted to persuade him to simply follow their custom. The following is from a second century letter that tells Polycarp’s story:
And the Irenarch Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a chariot), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated themselves beside him, and endeavoured to persuade him, saying, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”But he at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said, “I shall not do as you advise me.”
Eventually Polycarp entered the arena and was brought before the proconsul, who urged him to simply give in. The official pointed out to Polycarp that he was a venerable old man and that he need not suffer what was before him. All the proconsul was asking Polycarp to do was to perform one simple act of obeisance to Caesar. All he wanted Polycarp to do was deny Christ, just once. All he asked was that Polycarp give in, and his old life would be spared.
Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ; “Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
The proconsul then began to threaten Polycarp, but to no avail:
The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
After this, Polycarp carried himself with dignity and courage as his enemies rushed to gather wood for his execution. Polycarp was bound, and the flames were lit. Legend tells us that, for some inexplicable reason, the flames arched around Polycarp’s body, refusing to burn him, and that Polycarp only died after a soldier stabbed him with a dagger.
What gives a man like Polycarp the courage to hold up in the face of torment? What gives a church like the tiny congregation in Smyrna the courage to keep going when enemies surround them? Polycarp was not the only one persecuted. Many died before him. Many would die after him. How could they stand it?
The answer is that our Lord is with us. We stand strong and survive when we, like Polycarp, trust completely in Christ and in the eternity that he has prepared for his children. Yes, we may suffer in this life, but we will not eternally suffer if our hope is fully placed in the Son of God.