The Witness of Polycarp

“Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

- Matthew 16:25

As we have focused on the Reformation and ecclesiology over the past few weeks, we have covered many biblical truths about the church. One of these truths is the fact that there is one church of God over time, that we who are believers today are part of a long line of faith, the church triumphant that even now is praising the Lord in glory (Heb. 12:1). This communion of saints includes many outstanding men and women from history whose example can help us learn to be more faithful Christians. We will now spend some time looking at the lives and ministry of several key pastors and theologians from church history with the help of Heroes of the Christian Faith, a teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

The first figure we will consider is Polycarp, the second-century bishop of Smyrna, on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. Polycarp is one of the most important post-Apostolic fathers, those men who led the church immediately after the death of the last Apostle. He was famous in the early church for his pastoral care, and he was beloved by his church. During his childhood, Polycarp sat under the teaching of the Apostle John. He also taught Irenaeus, who was perhaps the most important Christian theologian of the second century.

Today, Polycarp is perhaps best known for his martyrdom. The Romans executed him when he was elderly because of his faithfulness to Christ. Unlike several heretics at the time, Polycarp did not set out to be a martyr. He was not afraid to die for Christ, as the story of his life tells us, but neither did he think that martyrdom was an automatic ticket into heaven. Many others in Polycarp’s day called their followers to seek out martyrdom because they believed that martyrdom could provide assurance of salvation. Polycarp rightly rejected that works-righteousness view of how one enters into eternal life.

Although Polycarp did not call his followers to antagonize the authorities purposefully so that they would be martyred, he taught by his example that Christians must be willing to give their lives for Christ if it is so required. After his arrest, Polycarp was given the chance to escape death—all he had to do was recant his faith and worship the emperor. But Polycarp regarded Christ and His kingdom as more valuable than his earthly life. He did not give in to the pressure but allowed himself to be executed rather than forsake his Savior.

Coram Deo

Islam teaches that dying as a witness to Allah guarantees entry into heaven. Biblical Christianity tells us that we cannot merit heaven by our deaths. Our willingness to die for Christ proves that we have faith, but seeking out death will avail us nothing. Any willingness we have to suffer and die for Christ must be born of the thankfulness we have for His saving us.

Passages for Further Study

2 Chronicles 24:20–22
Luke 21:10–19

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.