It was early in the year 156 A.D. that the smoldering embers of persecution burst into flame. The place was Smyrna , (now called Ismir), a fabulously beautiful city on the banks of the Aegean Sea and overlooking the Dardanelles entrance to the Black Sea .
The heathen mob, goaded into murderous anger by fanatical Jews, had grabbed some unsuspecting Christians and dragged them to the arena where the games were going on.
Their trial before the Roman proconsul was over in seconds, a s he said to each in turn, "Do you curse Christ? Will you sacrifice to Caesar?" "No," they answered.
He waved his hand. First one and then another was hurried into the arena. Death was quick and terrible as they were ravaged by the raging lions, the crowd screamed in frenzy.
Several of the prisoners backed down and renounced Christ when they faced the awful ordeal, and these were led off to make their sacrifice amid the jeers of the crowd. They might as well have been dead, for they no longer belonged with the Christians, and they would be outcast among the heathen because of their cowardice.
The cry was quickly taken up until it became a roar. Christians went quickly to Polycarp with the word that his life was in danger.
They found the old man at prayer. At least eighty-six years old, he had been pastor at Smyrna for longer than anybody could remember; and in his youth he had been a disciple of the Apostle John at Ephesus only a few miles away. He barely looked up at his friends in spite of the urgency in their voices.
"Pastor, you must flee. The soldiers will be coming."
The old man snorted, as if danger were of no consequence.
"Not for yourself," they said. "For the Church. You are the shepherd. Consider the sheep."
He sighed. "God's will be done," he said; and he let them lead him away. He was taken to a farmhouse not far away from the city.
Meanwhile the proconsul had closed the games, but the order for the arrest of Polycarp had gone out. Search parties were sent out under the personal direction of the chief-of-police, a man named Herod, who regarded this as the opportunity of a lifetime.
All the while Polycarp showed no signs of alarm. Most of his day was spent in praying for each church by name all around the world.
That night he had a dream in which his pillow burst into flames. Telling his attendants about it, he said, "I think the Lord is trying to tell me that I must be burned alive for the faith."
The elders of the church felt that the only chance for his safety was to keep him moving, and by night they shifted him to another farm and hid him in an attic. By then Herod's men had traced him to his previous hiding place. Torturing a slave, they discovered where Polycarp was.
They waited until late at night before they swooped down on the farmhouse. Polycarp was in bed. His attendants saw the enemy coming and cried to hurry him away. But Polycarp would not go. "It's no use," he said. "God's will be done."
He was waiting in the living room when the soldiers burst in . Something about the old man stopped them dead in their tracks.
"Come in friends," he said gently. "I will not try to escape. Sit down and eat some food. I would ask that you allow me an hour for prayer."
"Certainly, sir," the sergeant said, amazed at the calmness of the old man.
Polycarp went to a corner and began to pray. His soft tones reached the soldiers, who marveled that he never mentioned himself, pleading only for his fellow Christians.
"What's the empire coming to when we have to arrest a good old man like that?" the sergeant muttered.
Following his prayer, Polycarp was arrested and transferred to the city on a donkey. At the outskirts he was met by Herod and Herod's father, in a carriage. They courteously invited him in. The morning by now was well advanced.
"There is no need for you to die you know," Herod said. "After all, what harm is there in saying, 'Caesar is Lord,' and offering incense. Frankly, many of us don't believe it either, but it doesn't cost us anything to oblige."
The old man didn't even bother to answer.
"Come, now, Polycarp," Herod pleaded, "you are too valuable a man to die."
Polycarp shook his head, "I will not do as you advise," he said flatly.
When they saw that it was useless to try to persuade him, their masks of friendliness fell off. He was brutally shoved out, even before the carriage had stopped, badly bruising his shin.
Limping, he was brought before the proconsul. The crowds were milling around.
"You are Polycarp?" asked the Roman.
"You know the law on this matter?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"Then have respect for your age and do what the law requires."
"Come, change your mind. Swear by Caesar. Denounce these Christians. Say 'Away with these atheists'."
Polycarp looked up to the jeering crowds. He gestured towards them. "Away with the atheists," he said.
"Don't mock me, old man. Take the oath. Curse Christ."
"Curse Him?" said Polycarp. "Oh, no. Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"
"Nonsense, curse Christ."
"I am a Christian."
"Persuade them to let you go ," said the proconsul derisively, pointing to the crowd.
"You are the representation of Caesar, and as such I honor you, but to them I own nothing."
"I have wild beasts."
The old man never wavered, he looked the governor in the eye, "Call them," he said softly.
"So you disdain my lions! Then I'll go one better. I'll have you burned alive. So now, my brave Christian, does that change your mind?"
"No. Your fire is but for an hour, and then it is over. Unless you repent, the fires of hell will burn you forever. God's will be done."
The proconsul tried to think of some answer, but he was speechless, he had never met anyone before so totally unafraid of death. After a moment he turned to the crowd.
"Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian," he said, "execution will be by fire and will take place forthwith."
The crowd shouted its triumph. Quickly they laid the fagots. The soldiers took Polycarp to the stake, there making him divest himself of his clothes. They were going to nail him to the post, but he stopped them sharply.
"Leave me as I am. For He who wants me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre unmoved. Just let me pray."
Everyone watched him, amazed. Although he was the captive, he was in complete control. Ignoring everyone he prayed aloud for a few seconds, thanking God for the privilege of dying for Christ. Then somebody put the torch to the wood. The flames leapt up, surrounded him, but then billowed away as if compelled by some strange force. The crowd began to back up in fear.
The proconsul uttered an oath. This Christian would do more harm in his death than in his life. "Kill him," he yelled.
A knife flashed through the wall of flame, and it was all over.
The crowd slunk away subdued, silent, wondering. Quickly the news of the old pastor's heroism spread around the known world. The Christians wept, but there was courage in their tears. The future might be dark, but they need not fear. Polycarp had shown them the way.
"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."
- By James H. Jauncey