Though martyrdom is not something we should try to achieve, Polycarp shows us that if it comes, it is to be embraced.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”- Matthew 16:25.
The original audience of the Hebrews was called to imitate the faith of these old covenant saints who died before receiving the new covenant promises.
As we wait for the promises of a new heaven and a new earth to become reality, we too are called to imitate the persevering faith of these old covenant saints. However, while these biblical examples are sufficient for us as we wait for Jesus to return, God has continued to provide examples of faithfulness for us in the providential outworking of history.
Polycarp is one of the most famous martyrs in the early church. He was bishop of Smyrna in the middle of the second century A.D., and was widely admired for the pastoral care and compassion that he demonstrated to his flock. He had strong ties with both the apostles and the early church fathers. Polycarp had actually known the apostle John during his childhood. He was friends with Ignatius, one of the most important leaders of the early church. Polycarp was also one of the teachers of Irenaeus, one of the most influential theologians and apologists of the second century.
Polycarp is well-known for his martyrdom at the hands of the Romans, but his death was not something that he sought out. During his lifetime, many teachers of Christian heresies advocated that their disciples look for ways to be martyrs for their beliefs. This idea reflected a works-righteousness mentality whereby a person can earn his way into heaven by seeking his own death.
Polycarp said that we should not go looking for martyrdom. However, this does not mean that he was unwilling to die for his faith. Though martyrdom is not something we should try to achieve, Polycarp shows us that if it comes, it is to be embraced. He was eventually arrested for the Roman authorities and brought to an arena for execution. Polycarp could have avoided death by recanting of his faith and worshiping the Caesar. However, he refused to do so and suffered death by fire and the sword for his confession.
Whoever values his own life more than Jesus will actually lose it (Matt. 16:25). Martyrdom seems foreign to us in the United States, but it is a daily reality for many in this world. Pray that suffering believers would stand firm for Christ and that you would be willing to die for Him if such persecution becomes a reality where you are.
Passages for Further Study
- Gen. 4:8
2 Chron. 24:20–22