Vigilant Christian

Polycarp and His Martyrdom

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The early church was hated by the society and government of the Roman Empire for various reasons, such as the refusal of Christians to sacrifice to the gods. The Empire went through many phases of demanding that the Christians sacrifice — which meant denying their faith — or be killed. The earliest attacks claimed the lives of many of the apostles.

This text is the story, from around 160 AD, of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Bishop of the church in Smyrna, a city in Asia Minor (modern Izmir in Turkey) devoted to Roman worship. The account is in the form of a letter from eye-witnesses to other churches in the area. It is the earliest chronicle of a martyrdom outside the New Testament.

Polycarp was an old man, at least 86,, and probably the last surviving person to have known an apostle, having been a disciple of the Apostle John. This was one reason he was greatly revered as a teacher and church leader. One interesting feature of this letter is that the writer is very conscious of how Polycarp’s death followed the pattern of Christ’s. As we read it, look for parallels between this story and the Easter story in the gospels.

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