Keeping the Flame Faithful
The Letter to the
Church at Smyrna
Polycarp was not a fish with the name Poly.
Polycarp was one of the earliest leaders of the church. His was born in 70 AD, a mere 36 years after Jesus died. We do not know much of his youth, but we do know that he came under the influence of the preaching of John the disciple of Jesus, that he became one of John’s disciples, he was very familiar with the letters of Paul to the churches quoting them often in his own letter to the church at Philippi and that over time became the beloved pastor of the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a beautiful city favored by the Roman Empire because of its strong patriotic spirit. Smyrna was chosen by the Roman empire to be the home of the temple of Dea Roma, or the Roman Empire personified as a goddess. This was empire worship and the city of Smyrna was proud of its important place in the empire.
Polycarp, as he pastored the Church in Smyrna would have gotten this letter from John - lets read it from Revelation 2:8-11. Imagine yourself, as Polycarp as your sit behind your pastor’s desk to read this hand written letter.
8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
I don’t know if you noticed, but there is no rebuke in this letter. This is one of two letters out of the seven listed in the book of Revelation that contains only praise. But notice the things we learn from this letter. First of all it comes from Christ the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. The evaluations that are given in these letters are not mere human opinion, they are Christ’s evaluation of his bride, the Great High Priest walking among the lamps of his lampstand in the cosmic temple. As Polycarp read this letter, he heard Christ speaking to him. We today are called to hear Christ speaking to us through his Spirit who is among us today - 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Now there is a theme that occurs in all the letters. Christ says “I know ” For ever church, Jesus is very aware of all their dynamics, all their struggles. For Polycarp, for us as individuals, Christ knows. He knows the dynamics of our lives. He is aware of what we think and what we do. He knows our deepest struggles, our most intimate relationships, our exuberant joys and our hidden tears. And for the Smyrnean church in a city that held Empire worship high, Christ saw their affliction and their poverty. To be a Christian in Smyrna was to have trouble. They were persecuted for their allegiance to Christ’s kingdom instead of the Roman Empire. After all, they were in the city of empire worship. But they refused to do as the Romans did. As a consequence, many of them would lose their jobs, or if they sold, no one would buy, and if they wanted to buy, the price was always higher. And to make it even worse, those who once were the people of God, the Jews, were the most opposed to this new cult called “Christians.” It seems Jewish opposition to Christ continued. Now the Jews made every effort to make it difficult for these Christ followers. Jesus as he writes to this church reminds them of where all the trouble came from - ultimately it was Satan, and though these Jews belonged to the Synagogue, now Jesus called it the Synagogue of Satan, for it was Satan who was oppressing the church, sifting it, purifying it. That phrase that says I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, very simply means that these people who claimed to be Jews and they may have been circumcised, were not circumcised in their hearts, they were not humble before God, there was little fear of God in their hearts.
As Polycarp read these words, how refreshing they must have been to his soul - I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! Christ knows. Christ understands. And Christ sees the real nature of the battle. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Obviously this church in Smyrna was undergoing trials and temptations and testing. Christ’s words are words of encouragement to them and us when we go through times of testing. Yet they were rich in love, in faithfulness, in truth, in standing their ground in Christ. How often it is the poor of this world that are rich toward God. Polycarp at the mere age of 26 knew how true it was as he suffered with his congregation.
But more was to come. Christ continued. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Suffering was going to come. Trials would get worse. As Polycarp read it, I wonder if he wept for his congregation knowing what was to come. I wonder if shivers went up and down his spine at the thought of what would come. And certainly fear would be at the edges of his feelings ready to pounce, fear not only for himself, but especially fear for the weaker sheep that he pastored. Now faith would have to be in all out battle against fear. Now his sermon’s would certainly be filled with warning “Gird up your loins and serve God in fear and truth.” (Polycarp to Philippi 2:1)
“Let us therefore without ceasing hold fast by our hope and by the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ who took up our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, but for our sakes He endured all things, that we might live in Him. Let us therefore become imitators of His endurance; and if we should suffer for His name's sake, let us glorify Him. For He gave this example to us in His own person, and we believed this.” (Polycarp to the Philippian Church 8:1,2)
Stand fast therefore in these things and follow the example of the Lord, being firm in the faith and immovable, (Ibid., 10:1)
He knew that when Satan sifts the church by the permission of God, much that is not worth much is lost. His words of warning would fall on eager ears. But he was preaching also to himself. Though persecution would only last for a time, 10 days are mentioned, and we don’t know if those days are symbolic of a given period or of specific events in Smyrna, we know that they reflect the principle of scripture that God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (I Cor 10:13) Yet 10 days, just over a week, can seem like an eternity and can end in death. Polycarp knew that it does not take long to die under torture. And Jesus instructions were clear Be faithful, even to the point of death. The reward, the crown of life, goes to those who are faithful through the sifting of Satan. The crown of eternal life goes to those who are faithful even to the point of death.
Polycarp put the letter down as he listened to the Spirit speak these words to his heart. What his future would hold he did not know, but he knew the persecution was getting worse and it could mean, in time, the lives of his people and his own life. He read this letter to his congregation, reminded them that the worst thing that can happen to a Christian is not death, it is losing faithfulness to Christ in the test. Though Christ had his whole heart he knew that when his time came, he wondered if he would stand...
That time did come. Some years later. He probably recieved this letter in late 96 AD. He would serve as a faithful pastor for another 50 years, encouraging the faith, exhorting his congregation to stand their ground in faith even if it caused intense difficulty and suffering. As first one, then two, then more of his congregation were led away to torture and death, members were scourged, whipped so severly that their bones and veins were exposed before they died, others were fed to the lions, his message remained consistent. Let us therefore without ceasing hold fast, keep your love for Christ.
First one, then two, Germanicus, a member of the Smyrnean congregation, was the 11th to die in the Stadium in Smyrna. When they let the lions out to eat him, Germanicus welcomed the lions with such peace and joy that it infuriated the crowds even more, now they wanted the pastor of the Smyrnean church = Polycarp.
When Polycarp first was warned to flee, he wanted to stay in the city to remain with his congregation but his own followers convinced him to flee. A young servant, a member of his own household was tortured and so the Romans found the place where he was hiding. When the Roman soldiers first entered into his hiding place, they were stunned that they were after this old old man. Why kill him, he is almost dead anyways. Polycarp asked them if he could privately pray for just one more hour while he had food and drinks set out for them. The hospitality Christ taught was practiced by the early church. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. One hour extended to two but then the time came that he had to get into the chariot for his trip to the Stadium. It was the Jewish Sabbath, a great feast day. Certainly the Jews were preoccupied with their festivities.
Irenarch Herod, captain of the chariot, having a sense of pity on the old man tried to reason with Polycarp.
“What harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety? Respect your old age...” (These and following quotes are taken from "The Martyrdom of Polycarp" - http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/martyrdompolycarp.html)
Polycarp, knowing that this man was not a true authority over him remained silent. In anger Irenarch threw him out of the moving chariot. Polycarp in the fall dislocated his hip, yet was forced to walk alongside the chariot to the Stadium where his entrance was expected and the tumult of the crowds shock the stadium. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
The Proconsul, a lawyer and judge of sorts, urged Polycarp
“Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ.”
To this judge, Polycarp responded
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?
The Proconsul persisted though, inviting him to make some small compromise and save his life. Polycarp responded:
Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Cæsar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, 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 you shall hear them. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
The Proconsul, knowing the power he had threatened Polycarp with the lions, but then it came clear that Polycarp would welcome those lions just as Germanicus had. So the Proconsul threatened Polycarp to be burned alive at the stake.
Polycarp’s answer was firm.
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. The Proconsul was astonished at the sense of Peace that Polycarp had. His face radiated grace, even joy. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
But the Jews were there. Instead of being in the synagogue, they were in the stadium confirming that their first allegiance was to Dea Roma, the goddess of the empire. Truly, they were from the Synagogue of Satan. They cried out with uncontrollable fury that Polycarp be burned. So judgement was passed.
The burning stake was set in the ground. From among the crowd Jews came helping, even eager to bring the firewood. Polycarp removed his outer garments. They were about to nail Polycarps hands to the stake when 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. And so they simply bound his hands and feet as he stood beside the stake. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Polycarp, in prayer thanked God for the privilege of being a witness, gave glory to the Father Son and Holy Spirit, and the fire was started. The fire quickly turned furious, but to the amazement of all who watched, the fire formed an arch around Polycarp. He was not burning, he was glowing with a golden warm radiance like bread baking in the oven. And some even sensed the sweet aroma of a pleasing sacrifice. Seeing that the fire was not going to kill him, an executioner with a spear stabbed him and there he died in the fire. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. They burned him completely, refusing any of his remains to the Smyrnean church. He was the twelfth, and for a time, the final martyr in the Smyrnean church.
Love is like that. Love is willing to suffer for the one who is loved. Whereas the Ephesian church had lost its first love, the Smyrnean church loved and remained faithful to the end.
How would we do? How would you do if this true story was your story?
(Polycarp's Prayer in the hour of his persecution)
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, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast 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.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.