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Modern Christians narrow the gospel. “It’s just four spiritual laws, isn’t it?” Well, no; it’s a great deal more. But shrunken conceptions of the gospel yield shrunken notions of what it means to be a witness to it. If preaching the gospel means just getting people to assent to four propositions and a prayer, then it is no wonder “witnessing” has lost its connection to life and has become a matter of mere salesmanship and devices.

A brief consideration of the life and death of Polycarp (c. A.D. 69–155) could revive in us an appreciation of the scope of the gospel, and the breadth and depth of what it means to be a witness to it. The Greek word martyr can be translated “witness.” Martyrs were called such because their deaths were a concentrated testimony to the truths of the Christian faith. But their lives were also testimonies. Let’s consider several things to which Polycarp bore witness in his life and death.

First, as a disciple of John, and as the discipler of Irenaeus, Polycarp was a link bridging the apostolic and patristic ages of the church. The continuity of the one true faith is visible in Polycarp’s life and death. We learn about these from two principal sources: a letter by him (To the Philippians) and a letter about him, written by his church (The Martyrdom of Polycarp).

He served as a living link in other capacities. His letter to the Philippians contains numerous citations from Old and New Testament books, proving their early dates and normativity in the churches. He quotes Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Timothy, and others. Hence, Polycarp testifies to the continuity of the faith as it was recorded for us in God’s Word. Remember, he was said to have personally known John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Our confidence in Scripture is justified, Polycarp tells us.

Polycarp testifies to the continuity of the faith as it was recorded for us in God’s Word.

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.

Polycarp’s martyrdom is an inescapable testimony to the true character of Christianity’s conflict in this world.

That is why the proconsul commanded Polycarp: “Swear by Caesar and revile Christ. Then I will release you.” Polycarp replied: “For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He then offered to personally instruct the proconsul in the Christian faith. That’s class, kingdom class.

Abel was murdered by his brother, who built the prototypical City of Man. Since then, this world has been a battleground for crown rights. Shall it be ordered according to the Word of Him who created it or according to the word of man?

This is the character of the struggle we face today. Christians are asked, most often in the name of political correctness, to “revile Christ” and affirm a savior state. But the expansive testimony of the martyrs joins Polycarp’s in bidding us to reply: “Do what you wish. We do not change from good to evil. Here we stand.”

The story has it that the flames failed to consume Polycarp, but only caused his flesh to give off the fragrance of incense. He was put to death by a spear. He witnessed to the truth in his life and sealed that testimony in his martyr death. The account written shortly afterward says, “He is spoken of everywhere, even by pagans.”

If we would have our faith spoken of, and embraced, we’d do well to learn from Polycarp just what that faith is. May his memory be blessed. May our testimonies be as fragrant.

Identity Crisis

Tearing Down Strongholds

Keep Reading The Church Takes Shape: The Acts of Christ in the Second Century

From the July 2002 Issue
Jul 2002 Issue