Polycarp – An Acceptable Sacrifice

October 31st. Even just mentioning that date brings about palpable images, right? Witches and black cats, tiny Jedis and princesses knocking on complete strangers’ doors, snaggletoothed pumpkins, candy that’s going to be 75% cheaper in just a couple days.

Undeniably, Halloween in America has been muddled down to serve two purposes:

  1. A fun tradition for children and families, with plenty of pictures of you in that terrible Dalmatian costume so your friends can make fun of you in a decade or two. (Thanks, Mom.)
  2. An opportunity for adults to be whomever they want to be for a night (culturally appropriate or not), and to perpetuate a culture dedicated to alcohol and sex.

Don’t mishear me. If you’re looking for someone to watch Hocus Pocus and munch on a vat of free candy with you, I am definitely your girl. (And that goes for anytime of year, really.) I’m not trying to make any claims that Halloween is inherently bad, should be banned, or is of the devil. In fact, it’s just the opposite. We have moved so far away from the original intent of this holiday, that it’s almost completely unrecognizable.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as a time to honor all saints and martyrs. This day of celebration became known as All Saint’s Day, and the evening before was deemed All Hallows’ Eve. These celebrations incorporated some traditions from the Celtic festival, Samhain, which included people roaming around in costumes to ward off ghosts. Based on my Instagram feed full of pseudo-characters from Stranger Things, I’d say we’ve definitely got the whole costume thing down. The saints and martyrs, though? I’m not so sure.

Our churches are often quick to condemn Halloween, instead of taking the opportunity to recount the incredible stories of the martyrs and saints that play crucial roles in our history. And believe me, these men and women are worth the honor and celebration.

In 69 AD, a man named Polycarp was born. Eighty-six years later, he became the first recorded post-New Testament Christian martyr, killed for his faith in Jesus Christ.

Polycarp lived in what is arguably the most formative era of the Church.  Most historians agree that Polycarp was discipled by the apostle John, and was a key player during the transition to a second generation of believers. Although he was a man with very little formal education, he was a known and trusted leader of the Christians throughout the rule of the Roman Empire.

Throughout the beginnings of this second generation of believers, the Roman Empire brutally persecuted the Church. The Roman Empire as a whole believed if proper piety was not shown to their pagan gods, then terrible things would happen. Operating from this belief, the conclusion was that the Christians had to go.

At the age of 86, Polycarp’s impact became too much for the Roman Empire, and its leaders subjected him to arrest. His peers implored him to flee—to skip town before they found him. Polycarp, however, was not interested in running away. His only concern after hearing of his impending arrest was to pray day and night for all the men and churches in the world.

He compromised with his friends, and withdrew to his small estate just outside of town. When his persecutors discovered him, he simply replied, “God’s will be done,” and let the soldiers in. Polycarp ordered food and drink for the men—as much as they would like—and in return he asked for one more hour so that he might pray undisturbed. He proceeded to pray aloud for two hours.

The soldiers escorted him to Statius Quadrates, where he was interrogated in front of a crowd and prepared to be burned at stake. The proconsul gave Polycarp a chance to save his own life. “Take the oath, and I shall release you,” he said. “Curse Christ.” Polycarp, entirely unfazed, replied, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The proconsul responded with threats to have him consumed with fire.

Let me stop here for just a second. If someone told me, “Hey Megan, we’re going to set you on fire so your flesh will melt and your bones will burn, until there’s not a scrap left of you,” you better believe that I’m hightailing it out of there. In my own weakness, I would say just about anything to get me off of that stake, run to the next town, and pray that God would find it in His heart to forgive me.

Not so with Polycarp. Here’s how he responded:

“The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”

According to the account of his martyrdom, the crowds began to shout with an uncontrollable anger, deeming Polycarp as, “the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.” They tried to nail him to the stake, but he stopped them from doing so, saying, “Leave me as I am. For He who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.”

The account goes on, “With his hands put behind him and tied, like a noble ram out of a great flock ready for sacrifice, a burnt offering ready and acceptable to God, he looked up to heaven and said:

‘Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, ‘the God of angels and powers and all creation’ and of the whole race of the righteous who live in thy presence: I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for ‘resurrection to eternal life’ of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou hast prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, thou that art the true God without any falsehood. For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen.’”

I know that prayer is a mouthful, and seeing thee, thou, and thy can be an excuse for our eyes to glaze over, but let’s not miss this: In the face of death, Polycarp blessed the Lord, because he had been deemed worthy of death. An insane notion, to be sure, but Polycarp was confident in the Paradise that was waiting on the other side. In his very last breath, he gave all credit and glory to Jesus Christ.

As the flames came forth, something truly unbelievable happened. The fire made a vaulted shape, it formed a wall around the body of Polycarp. The chronicler of the martyrdom describes it this way: “He was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.” The people in that square that day were given an unbelievable picture of sanctification, and Polycarp’s body remained untouched by the flames.

When the men of the Roman Empire saw that his body would not be consumed by the fire, an executioner was commanded to stab him with a dagger. “A great quantity of blood came forth, so that the fire was quenched, and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”

In a letter to the Philippians before his martyrdom, Polycarp writes, “Let us, then, hold steadfastly and unceasingly to our Hope and to the Pledge of our righteousness, that is, Christ Jesus, ‘who bore our sins in his own body on the tree, who committed no sin, neither was guile found on his lips’; but for our sakes he endured everything that we might live in Him. Therefore, let us be imitators of his patient endurance, and if we suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify Him.”

There is no mistaking Polycarp’s patient endurance amidst suffering for the glory of Christ. This man did not waiver in his trust in God—not one time. He died for what he believed in, and his well-recorded death is a gift to us so that we might grasp the unsurpassable devotion that Christ is due.

Polycarp’s martyrdom is a historic reality. This reality does not mean that God is not a helpless or indifferent Lord, playing a morbid game of puppets with his people. He has allowed the death of Polycarp, and the deaths of many, many Christian since, because they are powerful declarations of the free gift of life that is offered to us through Jesus Christ.

Throughout history, many saints and martyrs have given their lives so that we might have the opportunity to know Christ and worship Him freely. Their sacrifices are far more worthy of celebration than scarecrows and oddly-shaped gourds.

Megan Richardson graduate of Belmont University and staff writer for Kingdom Tribe Press. 

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