Thursday, February 23, 2017

How I Came to Know and Love St. Polycarp - His Life and Martyrdom

First of all, what a name! Polycarp can literally be translated as "many fish" (as poly means “many” and carp means “fish”). Perhaps Polycarp obtained this name because of his great desire to be a "fisher of men" in order to save many souls. 

On this feast of St. Polycarp, I wanted to share with you a little about this amazing man and how I came to know and love St. Polycarp through my study of St. John the Apostle. 

 (I wrote my Master’s thesis in defense of St. John as the Beloved Disciple. I wrote this defense in response to the modern historical critics who have tried not only to discredit St. John’s designation as Jesus’ Beloved Disciple and so subsequently, all history pertaining to the same -- which, if their faulty reasoning and scholarship is accepted, effectively erases St. John’s place in the history of the early Church, and ultimately casts doubt on the authenticity and authority of his Gospel, Epistles and the Book of Revelation.)

In my study, I found a treasure in the early Church Fathers, one of whom was St. Polycarp. I came to cherish these men who fell so in love with Christ that they devoted their entire lives to Him.  Although never knowing Christ personally, they came to know and love Jesus through the eyewitness testimonies of the apostles.

In doing my research, I came across accounts and writings of St. Polycarp who was taught by St. John the Apostle, the Evangelist and Beloved Disciple himself.

St. Irenaeus wrote about being a disciple of Polycarp, sharing that as a boy he would listen at his feet, as he:

gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' (1 John 1:1) Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.
These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God's grace, I recall them faithfully. (E.H.5.20.6 emphasis mine)

Several decades into the second century, what an extraordinary grace for believers in Christ, to be able to sit and listen at the feet of someone who was taught by and knew the apostles! If you were to read the whole letter written above by St. Irenaeus, you would hear him speak of the honor it was to be able to listen at the feet of a disciple of “John and others who had seen the Lord”. So much so, that he was surrounded by people who “attentively listened” and carefully kept his teachings in their hearts.

St. Irenaeus further writes of Polycarp:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. (A.H. 3.3.4)

We are blessed to have an eyewitness account of this martyrdom, which was truly amazing! The account is worth reading in its entirety.  But, because of its length, I'll share some highlights:

Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying,
“Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp!”
No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice.
… [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to your old age… “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ.”

Polycarp declared,
“Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

...Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.”

While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace …when they were about also to fix him with nails [to consume him in the fire], he said,
“Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.”

They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”

When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.

At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.

O God of wonders, you never cease to astound me!  Help me to witness to you in this age in which so many of your children no longer believe in you. In this time of widespread deception, may the Truth that St. Polycarp's preached, his love of God and his witness unto death encourage and inspire me, so that I may have the courage to live and die for You as well, realizing: "What have we to fear if God is on our side?"

St. Polycarp, pray for us!  Help us to have ever-greater courage and love for Christ. Help us to stand up to the errors and deceptions of our day, so that we, like you, may be willing to give up everything in order to bring Jesus to the world and to help all enter into the heavenly glory that God longs to share with all His Children.  Amen.

       Life Span of the Eyewitnesses of John
Based on Approximate and Commonly Represented Dating (AD)
Numbers on the left are approximate birth date, on the right of line death date

First Person Testimony of Jesus: John the Apostle (highlighted in yellow)
First Person Direct Testimony of John: Widely recognized Disciple of John (red)
Second Person Direct Testimony: Known Disciple of Polycarp (blue)

5-10 Apostle John_______________________________________100
                                  35 Ignatius of Antioch______________________        108
                                                                         69 Polycarp____________________________________                          155
                                                                                                                                                               115 Irenaeus_________________________________                  202

You can read the entire account of his martyrdom here:

If you want to get to know more about Polycarp, you can read one of his epistles here:

Also, the Epistle to Polycarp from St. Ignatius can be found here:

© Janet Moore 2017. All Rights Reserved.