Summary: An eight part series concerning the Seven Churches of the Revelation and their relevance for us.
It happened 1848 years ago this very day. February 23, 155. His name was Polycarp and he was the bishop of the city of Smyrna. As a young man he had been a disciple of the Apostle John, but he was no longer a young man as a matter of fact he was eighty six years old. And February 23rd would be his last day to live. Through the years the Christians of Smyrna had come under persecutions and this time it was no different, public opinion had been stirred against the Christ followers and the Roman Governor was taking actions. As a matter of fact it provided a great opportunity to please the crowd and entertain them at the same time. And so the Christians would be brought to the stadium and executed in any number of ways but the favourite of the crowd was for the Christians to be fed to wild beast. And the cry went up from the crowd for the leader of the Christians, Polycarp to be brought for execution. The story goes that when the Roman troops arrived at the Bishop’s home he asked to be allowed to pray alone for an hour before he was taken away. At the same time he ordered the very best food and drink available to be brought to those who had come to arrest him. Needless to say that came as a surprise to the soldiers. Tradition tells us that when Polycarp was led into the arena to meet his fate that a voice from heaven was heard to say “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” And play the man he did.
When the Roman Proconsul or Governor was confronted with this senior citizen he wasn’t sure what to do with the 86 year old bishop, it hardly seemed sporting to feed him to the lions and so he offered him a chance to recant. “Deny Christ” he said “And I’ll let you go free.” Polycarp just looked at him, “Deny Christ” he replied, “I have served him eighty-six years and in no way has he dealt unjustly with me; so how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
The governor tried again, “Act your age and wisdom, praise Caesar, change your mind, say, ‘Away with the atheists.’” Polycarp looked at the pagans surrounding him and waved his hand as he replied “Away with the atheists.” Not exactly the response that the governor was looking for. And then Polycarp said “If you vainly expect that I will swear by Caesar’s Genius, as you suggest, and pretend to be ignorant who I am, listen to what I openly say to everyone here: I am a Christian. If you want to learn the teaching of Christianity, name the day and hear about our beliefs.”
That was all that was needed, the governor demanded of Polycarp, “Don’t you realize that I can have you thrown to the wild beasts.” And Polycarp said “Go ahead.” Well if the old man wasn’t afraid of a relatively quick death by the animals then maybe he would fear fire, and so it was that Polycarp was sentenced to be burned alive. Which of course would be better then having his head cut off because a hot steak is always better then a cold chop. Anyway, the Bishop was led to the platform where the execution was to take place, normally the prisoner would be nailed to the stake to secure them in place, I don’t know what it was with Romans and nails. But as they approached Polycarp with the hammer and nails he said and I quote "Let me be as I am; for he who makes it possible for me to endure the fire will also make it possible for me to remain . . . unmoved without the security of nails." And he did. And so on February 23 1848 years ago Bishop Polycarp died a martyr in the city of Smyrna.
Now maybe you are wondering “So what?’ Well the “so what” is that history tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle and that he was a part of the church that the letter of the Revelation in General and the portion that Heather read earlier in particular was addressed to, the church in Smyrna. When I first read the account of Polycarp I wondered if he remembered the words that had been read in his church a life time before.
It was the second of the Seven, perhaps that was simply an accident of geography it was the next city on the route the messenger was to take, or perhaps it was by design. You see if it were natural that Ephesus be the first city mentioned then it is only proper that Christ should speak to Smyrna next. The historians tell us that Smyrna was the most beautiful city in all of Asia. The city was referred to as the Flower of Asia, the Crown of Asia or the Jewel of Asia. Smyrna stood on the trade routes to the Far East, if we pull up a map here you can see that it was situated just north of Ephesus but still on the Aegean Sea. As a matter of fact they had one of the safest and most convenient harbours in all of Asia. Here is a picture of the harbour which was at the end of a long narrow channel, during times of war they would actually run a chain across the neck of the channel to keep the enemy from sailing in. Here’s a picture of the hills surrounding the city. One ancient writer said the harbour was Smyrna’s feet, the valley her body and the hills her head which was crowned with temple built to various gods.