The Roman Empire during the first century AD was ruled by emperors who demanded absolute loyalty and worship. As a gesture of fidelity, citizens were required to burn incense before the Greek gods, such as Poseidon, Artemis, and Demetrius. Roman guards kept watch at the marketplace, making sure all citizens complied. But the early Christian church refused to participate in this idolatry, and many paid for it with their lives.
Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John and an elder in the church of Smyrna. One night, Roman officials arrested him in a house outside the city. He knew why they were there, and he knew what happened to Christians who refused to worship the emperor—many were tortured and put to death either at the stake or torn apart by animals. Yet Polycarp received these officers with surprising joy. He even invited them to sit down and eat. Then he asked for one hour to pray without interruption.
They agreed, and when the time was up, Polycarp went willingly with the soldiers, who took him to the city coliseum. The huge crowd roared when he entered, and before a large pile of firewood, Polycarp was given one last chance to renounce Christ and pay homage to the emperor.
“Take the oath; I will let you go. Just revile Christ!” the proconsul declared.
Polycarp addressed him serenely: “For eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then, can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Throughout his ordeal, witnesses were amazed at Polycarp’s confidence and even joy. They said he was “enlightened by grace.”
Polycarp wasn’t seeing just the bloodthirsty crowd in the coliseum or the firewood waiting to be lit. He was looking with the eyes of faith to a different horizon.
When it was announced that Polycarp had confessed to being a Christian and refused to renounce Christ, the frenzied crowd shouted: “May he be burned alive!”
The soldiers moved to tie Polycarp to the stake, but he said there was no need, he would remain there. Then he thanked God for judging him worthy of the honor of testifying for his faith. The executioner lit the fire, and flames quickly engulfed Polycarp. He had spoken confidently to the very end. Polycarp spoke of the resurrection and of eternal life. The horror of his trial could not kill him. He looked past it to heaven’s horizon.
God can grant us that kind of confidence in order to witness for Him. He will help us look beyond the flames, beyond the shouts of an angry crowd, beyond the pain and discouragement. He can keep us firm to the very end.
What is the common denominator in the story of Polycarp and in the stories of the martyrs throughout the ages, from Abel to our days? Their love for God and for others. Those eternal principles of God’s law that He wishes to engrave in our minds and hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind (Matt. 22:37–40).
What led Jesus to descend to our level and sacrifice Himself to rescue us? The very same principle (John 3:16). In the life of Jesus and in the lives of believers, there are two verbs that are conjugated together: to love and to give. To love God, the Divine, the Righteous One, is to willingly and joyfully sacrifice anything, including self, for Him. And we consider it a privilege to sacrifice everything, including our life for Him because we love Him.
One of my favorite authors said it best: “Not Enoch, who was translated to heaven, not Elijah, who ascended in a chariot of fire, was greater or more honored than John the Baptist, who perished alone in the dungeon. ‘Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.’ Philippians 1:29. And of all the gifts that Heaven can bestow upon men, fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is the most weighty trust and the highest honor.”1
Someone once said that we are never more like God than when we give—and giving up our lives for Christ is the highest honor.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1949), 224.