If we were to leave the city of Ephesus traveling by foot, we would travel north up the main highway about 35 miles to the modern port city of Izmir, which is the Turkish name for Smyrna. This city is the site of the ancient city of Smyrna, located in the country of Turkey. A small group of believers who had a Church in that town received this letter. Of all the seven letters that Jesus writes to the Churches, this is the Lord's briefest message, and the whole letter is one of commendation.
Smyrna was a poor, persecuted church located in a beautiful city of wealth and commercial greatness, with a large Jewish population. And Jesus says that even though the Christians were poor, they were spiritually rich. Opposition from the Jews made life especially difficult for the Christians there.
Smyrna was also strongly devoted to emperor worship; once a year a citizen had to burn incense on the alter to the godhead of Caesar and afterwards he was issued a certificate. This cult of Caesar worship caused severe problems the believers living in Smyrna.
During time that John wrote this book of Revelation, or shortly thereafter, the Church of Smyrna was led by a godly Bishop called Polycarp. Imagine being able to sit at the feet of the apostles and hear their stories of life with Jesus from their own lips. Imagine walking with those who had walked with Jesus, seen him, and touched him. That was what Polycarp was able to do since he himself was a disciple of Saint John the Apostle, the same apostle who also wrote the book of Revelation.
St Polycarp was one of the most famous of the group of early bishops who were known as 'the Apostolic Fathers', who, being the immediate disciples of the apostles, received instruction directly from them, and were even appointed by them to become Bishops of various Churches that the Apostles had started. Since Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle, he was respected by the faithful to the point of profound veneration. Christians longed for the privilege of bowing before him in honor, not to worship him, but to venerate him, and to show their loyalty and submission to him as their spiritual father and teacher. Polycarp went on to train many holy disciples, one of whom later became Polycarp's successor as Bishop of Smyrna, when Polycarp was later killed for his faith in Christ.
Some of you may have read some of the writings of C.S. Lewis, such as "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," or "The Screwtape Letters." In Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, four children, poking about in the back of an old wardrobe in the attic, tumble into another world filled with unusual delights and strange enchantments. Well, something like that has been happening to me recently.
I've been rummaging through a lot of old books and documents lately. And I don't mean dog-eared copies of early Billy Graham books, or books by Charles Spurgeon or Martin Luther. I mean old - writings by St. Justin Martyr, St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, St. Ignatius, authors whose lips have been silent nearly two thousand years, but whose minds still speak delights and enchantments every time you and I seek their counsel.
In my readings I came across the oldest written account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. It's the account of the martyrdom of the Bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp. Last month I read to you the account of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius. Today I want to read to you the letter that was sent to all the Churches around Smyrna, recounting the details of Polycarp's death:
The Church of God which is at Smyrna, to the Church of God in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: [Not "Roman" Catholic - Early Church called the Holy Catholic Church] Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.
We have written to you, brethren, as to what relates to the martyrs, and especially to the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution [in this city], having, as it were, set a seal upon it by his martyrdom. For almost all the events that happened previously [to this one], took place that the Lord might show us from above a martyrdom worthy of the Gospel. For he waited to be delivered up, even as the Lord had done, that we also might become his followers, while we look not merely at what concerns ourselves but have regard also to our neighbors. For it is the part of a true and well-founded love, not only to wish one's self to be saved, but also all the brethren.
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed? - who, when they were so torn with scourges [and whippings], that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and cried for them. And, in like manner, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful tortures, being stretched out upon beds full of spikes, and subjected to various other kinds of torments, in order that, if it were possible, the tyrant might, by their lingering tortures, lead them to a denial [of Christ].
For the devil did indeed invent many things against them; but thanks be to God, he could not prevail over all. For the most noble Germanicus strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts. For, when the proconsul sought to persuade him, and urged him to take pity upon his age, he attracted the wild beast towards himself, and provoked it, being desirous to escape all the more quickly from an unrighteous and impious world. But upon this the whole multitude, marvelling at the nobility of mind displayed by the devout and godly race of Christians, cried out, "Away with the Atheists; let's look for Polycarp as well, [that he might be killed too]!"
But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to stay within the city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, [in the vision he saw] the pillow under his head on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically," I must be burnt alive."
And when those who looked for him were just about to find him, he left that farm house in order to go to another place of hiding. And when the pursuers couldn't find him, they grabbed upon two teenage boys [that were there], one of whom, being subjected to torture, finally confessed.
His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them, went forth at suppertime with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And being come about evening [to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place; but he refused, saying, "The will of God be done." So when he heard that they were come, he went down and spoke with them. And as those that were present were amazed at how old he was, some of them said, "Was so much effort made to capture such a honorable man? Immediately then, in that very hour, he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he asked them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And on their giving him permission, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not stop for two full hours, to the astonishment of them that heard him, insomuch that many began to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.
Now, as soon as he had stopped praying, having prayed for every person that had come to his mind, as well as for the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the time of his departure having arrived, they set him upon an donkey, and led him into the city, the day being that of the great Sabbath. And one of the governing leaders, who was riding in a chariot, met him, and taking him up into the chariot, he seated Polycarp next to himself, and endeavored to persuade him, saying, "What harm is there in saying, 'Lord Caesar,' and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of your safety?" At first, Polycarp gave them no answer; but when they continued to urge him, he said, "I shall not do as you advise me." So they, having no hope of persuading him, began to speak bitter words unto him, and cast him with violence out of the chariot, insomuch that, in getting down from the carriage, he dislocated his leg [by the fall]. But without being disturbed, and as if suffering nothing, he went eagerly forward with all haste, and was conducted to the stadium, where the commotion was so great, that there was no possibility of even being heard.
Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, "Be strong, O Polycarp, and show yourself to be a man!" No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the excitement became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he camenear, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, "Consider your old age," and other similar things according to their custom, [such as], "Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists." [By this they tried to get Polycarp to denounce the Christians as Atheists, since they didn't worship the Emperor and all of the Greek and Roman gods.] But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, "Away with the Atheists," [meaning 'away with those unbelievers who are really the atheists.'] Then, the proconsul urging him, saying, "Swear, and I will set you free - renounce Christ; [say you want nothing to do with Him]." But Polycarp declared, "Eighty six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"
And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar," he answered, "Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and yet you pretend not to know who and what I am, then hear me declare with boldness: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and I'll teach them to you." The proconsul replied, "Try persuading the people." But Polycarp said, "To you I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honor to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me."
The proconsul then said to him, "I have some wild beasts ready; to these will I cast you, unless you repent." But Polycarp answered, "Go ahead and call them, for we are not accustomed to repent of that which is good in order to adopt that which is evil." But again the proconsul said to him, "I will cause you to be consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent." But Polycarp said, "You threaten me with fire which burn for an hour, and after a little time is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why are you waiting? Bring forth whatever you want to."
While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and so he sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium three times, "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, "This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods." Speaking thus, they cried out, and demanded that Philip (another governing leader) to let loose a lion upon Polycarp. But Philip answered that it was not lawful for him to do so, since the gladiator games with the wild beasts were already officially over. Then it seemed good to them to cry out with one consent, that Polycarp should be burnt alive. For this is how the vision which was revealed to him regarding his pillow was to be fulfilled, when, seeing it on fire as he was praying, he turned about and said prophetically to the faithful that were with him," I must be burnt alive."
This, then, was carried into effect with greater speed than it was spoken, the multitudes immediately gathering together wood and sticks out of the shops and bathhouses; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it. And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals, - a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as everyone of the faithful was always so eager to be the first one to touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, honored greatly by the people. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were also about to nail his hands to the wooden stake, so that he wouldn't try to escape, 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 from the pile."
They did not nail him then, but simply tied his hands. And he, placing his hands behind his back, 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, [Polycarp's great prayer]: "O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the Saints who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy 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 Thee as an acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, 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 lit the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, who had the privilege to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and we have been spared by God so 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, began to surround the body of the martyr in the form of a big circle. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver being refined in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet fragrance [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been burning 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 spear. And when he did this, there came forth 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 Christians, 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.
But when the adversary of the saints, the envious, malicious, and wicked one, noticed the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the crown of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy body. For this reason he made sure that the body was not given to the Christians to be buried, "lest," said he, "forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one." This he said at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched us, as we tried to take him out of the fire. But what the governor was ignorant of was this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world, nor is it possible for us to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples!
The centurion then, seeing the strife stirred up by the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire, whereupon the fire completely burned it. Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and buried them in a fitting place, at which place, being gathered together as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the encouragement and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
This, then, is the account of the blessed Polycarp, who, being the twelfth that was martyred in Smyrna, yet occupies a place of his own in the memory of all men, insomuch that he is everywhere spoken of even by the heathen themselves. He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the saints [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the whole world.
Since, then, you requested that we would at large make you acquainted with what really took place, we have for the present sent you this summary account through our brother Marcus. When, therefore, you have yourselves read this letter, please to send it to the brethren at a greater distance, that they also may glorify the Lord. To Him who is able to bring us all, by His grace and goodness, into his everlasting kingdom, through His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, to Him be glory, and honor, and power, and majesty, for ever. Amen.
We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy people, after whose example the blessed Polycarp suffered, following in whose steps may we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!
The closing words of the letter tell us that St. Polycarp suffered martyrdom on February 23, in the year 155, at 2:00 in afternoon.
As Christians our lives are not at risk here in the West. Far from it. We're not faced with the ultimatum, "Renounce Christ or die." But sometimes, in many small ways, perhaps we do renounce Him without realizing it. We deny our Savior in the little things - the bitterness we sometimes hold onto, the petty offense, the silent put-down of others, hidden envy and greed.
This quote also comes from the Fathers of old: sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. You see, the most important measure of our success is not our numbers or even our impact, but our moment by moment faithfulness. The Church in Smyrna didn't have large number of people, they didn't have a lot of money, and they really weren't making as much impact on the city of Smyrna as they would have liked to. But they remained faithful to Christ and to the Church - moment by moment.
This is wisdom that Polycarp understood. The eyewitness account included this statement: "He had been treated with all honor [by the faithful] on account of his holy life even before his gray hair appeared." You see, Polycarp was noble in death because he had first been noble in life.
And that's the kind of life that God has called us to live.