Beginning this Sunday, we will turn our focus during the Training Hour to the stories of those followers of Jesus who came before us. The first 250 years of the church’s history is filled with persecution, so as a preview of the amazing testimonies we will hear, I give you a few snippets from the lives of two faithful martyrs: Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.
Ignatius succeeded the Apostle Peter as bishop of the church in Antioch, where Jesus’ follower were first called Christians (Acts 11:26) and where the first missionary movement originated (Acts 13:1-3). Not much is known about why Ignatius was sentenced to death, but as he was transported by a troop of soldiers from Antioch to Rome he authored seven letters that unveil his unwavering commitment to Christ. He wrote one of them to the church in Rome, which had plans to appeal for his release. Believing he was called to suffer in this way, Ignatius pleaded with them not to interfere with God’s purposes, writing, “If you remain silent about me, I shall become a word of God. But if you allow yourselves to be swayed by the love in which you hold my flesh, I shall again be no more than a human voice.”
As he approached his death, Ignatius expressed this fresh passion: “Now I am starting to be a disciple. May I envy nothing seen or unseen in gaining Jesus Christ. Let fire and cross, struggles with beasts, tearing bones apart, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, and tortures of the Devil come upon me, if only I may attain to Jesus Christ!” Writing about the martyrdom of Ignatius and others, Polycarp exhorted the Philippian believers, “I urge you to practice the obedience and endurance you saw [in these] who did not run in vain but in faith and righteousness, who are in the place they deserve at the side of the Lord whose suffering they shared. For they did not love this present world but him who died for us and was raised by God on our behalf.”
Polycarp himself was sentenced to death because he was a public “atheist,” meaning that he did not worship the gods or confess that “Caesar is Lord.” At the urging of his close friends, he initially allowed himself to be hidden on farms from the Roman guard. But one night he had a dream that the pillow under his head burst into flames, which he took to be an affirmation that he was to glorify Christ through martyrdom. Thus when the Roman guard discovered him at his hideout, he responded, “God’s will be done” and only asked that the Roman soldiers be given a good meal while he prayed for an hour.
The story of Polycarp’s execution, witnessed by many, is the stuff of legends. As he entered the stadium where the bloodthirsty Romans and anti-Christian Jews wished to see him killed, a voice from heaven said, “Be strong and play the man, Polycarp!” The proconsul gave him a last chance to swear his allegiance to Caesar and say “Away with the atheists (Christians).” Instead Polycarp waved his hands, identified the crowds, and said, “Away with the atheists.” Again the governor promised to set him free if he would curse Christ. Polycarp replied, “For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” After more back-and-forth, the proconsul threatened Polycarp with death by fire, to which Polycarp retorted, “You threaten a fire that burns for a time and is quickly extinguished. Yet a fire that you know nothing about awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in eternal punishment. But what are you waiting for? Do what you will.”
Once the proconsul’s herald officially indicted Polycarp as a Christian, the crowd rushed him with sticks and logs for the fire. He refused to be nailed to the stake, saying, “Let me be, for he who enables me to endure the flames will also enable me to remain in them unmoved, even without nails.” When the fire was lit, it “assumed the shape of a room, like a billowing ship’s sail that surrounded the martyr’s body inside it.” The mob, seeing that Polycarp was not being consumed by the fire, ordered the executioner to slay him with the sword, and when he did, the blood that gushed out extinguished the fire. Thus ended the earthly life of Polycarp. In the document that recounts this martyrdom, the writer clarifies, “We worship [Christ] as the Son of God, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord.”
May these and other stories motivate us to greater worship and imitation of our Lord Jesus.
These accounts are taken from “The Story of Christianity” by Justo Gonzalez, pp. 41-45 and “Eusebius: The Church History” translated by Paul Maier, pp. 108-110, 128-135.