of Revelation together. John writes to the seven churches mentioned in chapters one through three (and located in what is now present day Turkey), in part, to encourage them in the midst of the terrible persecution unleashed by the evil Emperor Domitian.
History tells us some of what they went through. One particularly moving story is that of the martyrdom of the beloved and aged pastor of the church at Smyrna. His name was Polycarp. He was a disciple of the Apostle John.
We are told that one could tell it immediately because he possessed the same tenderness and compassion as his mentor. Can you imagine what it must have been like for his congregation as they were forced to watch him burn at the stake?
Records tell us that persecution broke out in Smyrna. As a result, many Christians were fed to the wild beasts in the arena. Never satisfied, the Godless and bloodthirsty crowd called for the carcass of the leader – Polycarp himself.
The authorities sent a search party to find him. He had been taken into hiding by the Christians. However, the Roman authorities tortured two young believers until they finally disclosed his location. When the authorities’ arrival was announced, there was still time to whisk Polycarp away; but he refused to go, saying, “God’s will be done.”
In one of the most touching instances of Christian grace imaginable, Polycarp welcomed his captors as if they were friends. He talked with them and insisted they eat a meal. He made only one request before being taken away – he asked for one hour to pray.
The Roman soldiers listened to his prayer. Their hearts melted and they gave him two hours to pray. They had second thoughts as well; and were overheard asking each other why they were ever sent to arrest him.
Other authorities also experienced a warmed heart when Polycarp arrived. The Proconsul himself tried to find a way to release him. “Curse God and I will let you go!” he pleaded.
Polycarp’s reply was, “For eighty-six years I have served Him. He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King when He has saved me?”
The Proconsul again looked for a way out: “Then do this, old man; just swear by the spirit of the Emperor; and that will be sufficient.” Polycarp’s reply was, “If you imagine for a moment that I would do that, then I think you pretend that you don’t know who I am. So hear it plainly. I am a Christian.”
More entreaties by the Proconsul followed. But Polycarp stood firm. The Proconsul then threatened him with the wild beasts. Polycarp’s reply was, “Bring them forth. I would change my mind if it meant going from worst to best, but not to change from right to wrong.”
The Proconsul threatened him further, “Then I will burn you alive!” Polycarp’s reply was simply, “You threaten with fire that burns for an hour and is over; but the judgment on the ungodly is forever.”
Thus did the fires engulf him. But the witnesses noticed his faith and joy. He was finished off with a dagger. He was then buried for the cause of Christ - 1,856 years ago, this week, on February 22, 155 A.D. And that day has been seen ever since as much a day of victory as it was a day of tragedy.
Polycarp illustrated the power of knowing Jesus intimately - intimately enough to follow Him into the flames. As Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Amen.