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  • Writer's pictureRick Appleton

Christian Courage of Polycarp

Polycarp (AD 69-155) whose name means “much fruit” was an early church father and a presbyter of the church in Smyrna, an important Greek city on the Aegean coast of Asian Minor. He had been a disciple of the apostle John and a teacher of Irenaeus, another important early church father. In the eighty-sixth year of his life Polycarp sealed his Christian testimony with his death, becoming a martyr for Christ in a Roman court. He was given a choice: swear allegiance to Caesar and live, or be faithful to Christ and die. The captain of the police urged him, “What harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord’, and offering incense, and saving yourself?” He didn’t have to mean it, he just had to go along with it. The proconsul, almost pleading with him, said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you. Revile the Christ.” Polycarp answered, “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The proconsul threatened to throw him to the beasts, where he would be torn apart and eaten. “Bring on the beasts”, said the old man. Again, the proconsul threatened, “I will cause you to be consumed with fire, unless you repent.” Unmoved, Polycarp declared, “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.” And so, the grey-haired saint was given to the flames, burned alive for Christ.

Jesus promised that those who abide in Him will bear much fruit (John 15:8). The dramatic life and death of Polycarp evidences many Christian fruits. Here are three of them.

First, the fruit of cultivating Christian children. Polycarp was eighty-six years old when he died, but he professed to have followed Christ for eighty-six years. The faith by which he stood firm had been planted, watered, and nurtured for many years before his trial. Like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15), Polycarp had been taught the sacred Scriptures since infancy, and they made him wise for salvation on that day.

Second, the fruit of Christian convictions. Polycarp stood firm because he had something to stand on. He knew what he believed, and he really believed what he knew. He had set apart Christ in his heart (1 Peter 3:15). Therefore, he was ready to answer the adversary when the time came. He knew that Christ, and not Caesar, was Lord (Philippian’s 2:10-11). He knew that even death could not separate him from Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

Third, the fruit of Christian courage. Polycarp feared God. Therefore, he did not wither in the face of man, beast, or fire. His was not a spirit of timidity, but of courage (2 Timothy 1:7). With a clean conscience he clung to Christ and His heavenly promises over earthly princes and safety. He favored the honor of Christ more than his own flesh. Therefore, he was unafraid of those who could kill his body and nothing more (Matthew 10:28). Polycarp served Christ eighty-six years, and fell asleep in the flames. He woke up to the words of his Savior, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matthew 25:21). May the Christian courage of Polycarp encourage us all!


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