After the Apostle John’s death near the end of the first century AD, the church continued to grow numerically, but there was a period of little theological development. Many of the earliest post-Apostolic writings lack the biblical insight and theological depth that we find in the works of later church fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Augustine. Early church leaders were occupied with the task of helping the church survive in an increasingly hostile Roman Empire, and they did not have the time or resources for plumbing the depths of Scripture as did those who lived only a few decades later.
We are referring to the first half or so of the second century, and proof of the difficulty that the early church faced is readily seen when we consider Polycarp, perhaps the most famous martyr of the immediate post-Apostolic period. Polycarp served as bishop of the city of Smyrna, and he enjoyed the respect of many laypeople and fellow bishops for two reasons. First, Polycarp was renowned for his compassion and his pastoral care. Second, when Polycarp was young, he knew the Apostle John personally. In addition, Polycarp was friends with Ignatius of Antioch, an important early church leader who himself was martyred early in the second century. Polycarp also taught an important early church father named Irenaeus, who led the fight against the Gnostic heresy.
Much of what we know about Polycarp’s death comes from the second-century work titled the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This work offers an eyewitness account of the bishop’s death at the hands of the Romans, and it is something of a guide as to how Christians are to face martyrdom should that be their end. Unlike heretics of the time or many of the later Crusaders who believed that death during a crusade would guarantee salvation, Polycarp did not seek out martyrdom. He did not hold to the assumption that says dying as a martyr automatically gives one a ticket to heaven, which is merely an extreme form of works-righteousness.
Even though Polycarp said that Christians should not go looking for martyrdom, his example does show us that martyrdom must be embraced when the only alternative is to deny the faith once delivered to the saints. When the Romans arrested Polycarp and took him to an arena for public execution, they offered to spare the elderly bishop if he would renounce his faith and worship Caesar. Polycarp refused, for he treasured Jesus more than his own life. Thus, he was put to death by fire and sword.