Polycarp was obviously imbued with the sense that the New Testament Scriptures were the completion, not the replacement, of the Old. In a second-century controversy concerning the proper day to celebrate Easter, Polycarp was a quartodeciman, that is, an advocate of honoring Christ our Passover on the 14th day of Nisan, according to the Jewish calendar. Shortly before his martyrdom, he had journeyed to Rome in an attempt to convince Bishop Anicetus on this point. They agreed to disagree, but the churches in Asia Minor kept what was regarded as the date preferred by the apostle John.
Second, Polycarp testifies that the Christian life demands wisdom, conviction, and what we might call “class.” His wisdom was seen in numerous instances, perhaps chiefly in his initial fleeing of persecution. Second-century martyrs self-consciously rebuked the haughty spirit that would run toward arrest. They cited Jesus’ words, “ ‘When they persecute you in this city,
flee . . . ’ ”; but if you are captured, “ ‘do not fear them’ ” (Matt. 10:23a, 26a). When the guards who were seeking him found him sleeping in a farmhouse, he ordered that food be prepared for them. “You must be hungry,” he said. Then he stood by them and prayed for two hours, “so full of grace that many regretted that they had come after such a godly man.”
Once in the arena, Polycarp showed himself spirituel (witty) as well as spiritual. When the proconsul demanded that Polycarp swear by Caesar and renounce “the atheists”—by which he meant Christians—Polycarp “looked at the crowd of lawless heathen, motioned toward them, and groaned, ‘Away with the atheists.’ ”
Third, Polycarp’s martyrdom is an inescapable testimony to the true character of Christianity’s conflict in this world. J.B. Lightfoot summarizes it as “Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar.” The Caesars had proclaimed in themselves a new and saving day: “Salvation is to be found in none other,” they insisted. Peter and the Christians said it was found in none other than Christ. Conflict was inevitable.
The very word gospel in that world meant “the celebration of the accession, or birth, of a king or emperor.” Thus, the Christian message was essentially political in that it stood against the claims of the would-be savior-state. Christ, not Caesar, is Lord of all. The Caesar cult demanded loyalty and honor; Christians said that such honor was to be rendered only to Christ, the King of kings.