Timothy George recounts Polycarp’s life and death in martyrdom: “Faithful Unto Death: What We Can Learn Today From St. Polycarp.”
George states that Polycarp heard from the Lord Jesus through Paul and John: “From Paul, Polycarp heard Jesus say, ‘Will you follow me?’ From John, he heard Jesus say, ‘Do you love me?’ These two questions” George concludes, “would shape his life and ministry and give meaning to his martyrdom.”
The cultural context in which Polycarp lived and proclaimed the Scriptures was influenced by Gnosticism whose chief proponent was Marcion. The Christian church was significantly influenced and affected by this thought propounded by Marcion. Over against both, Polycarp engaged in a defense of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the acceptance of the Christian Bible, including the Old Testament.
This meant, according to George, “To proclaim the God of the Bible in Polycarp’s world was to invite conflict with the dominant structures of the day. And so the persecutions came.” Persecution eventually became more focused and acute when it moved from the dominant structures generally to “competing spiritualties. At issue was the requirement for Christians to take part in the religious veneration of the emperor, to place a pinch of incense on the altar of the imperial deity.”
When Revelation was written, the emperor Domitian had his image stamped on a Roman coin and included the words “Dominus et Deus,” “Lord and God.” This is something Christians would not and could not say. Jesus is Lord!
For Polycarp, there was an easy concession, so it was claimed. George notes what the proconsul suggested to Polycarp: “Just take a pinch of incense and place it on the altar of the imperial deity. A simple gesture. Symbolic, that’s all. Then you can go on worshiping Jesus all you like. We’ll check you off our list.”
To this Polycarp replied, in words that have echoed through history since the day they were uttered: “For eighty and six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I now blaspheme my king who saved me?” After stating this, he prayed in the name of the Triune God and was bound and burned.
This is not just history. It is part of our living history, a part of the great cloud of witnesses who though dead still speak.
In some parts of the world, Christians face similar challenges to deny Christ accompanied with a similar fate, martyrdom. For Christians in the West, we do not at present face the fate of martyrdom, but we do face challenges to make concessions to our absolute allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. What are those challenges? How do we respond?
Our Lord Jesus brooks no rivals. He alone is Lord!