Martyrdom is a test every single Christian hopes to pass, but none of us would ever want to take.
I’ve never had a gun pointed at my face or a knife held to my throat accompanied with a demand to renounce my faith in Christ. I’d like to think that in that moment, I would be faithful to Jesus, even to the point of death.
I fear the opposite may be true, though. While I’ve never publicly denied Christ, I have on occasion been timid in social gatherings where an opportunity presented itself for me to make Christ known. So I surmise that if I’m not bold enough for Christ then, then I may struggle in those most-extreme moments.
This isn’t a pity party. It’s an honest self-evaluation. Feel free to insert your personal confession [_____ here ______].
The scary truth is that such a scenario may someday become a reality for many of us within Christendom. It’s certainly already true for many brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe who are presently been martyred.
Jesus knew such times would come, though.
In fact, He writes very specifically about what we are to do should we find ourselves in a tough spot where we are required to be faithful (to Him), even to the point of death.
It’s in Revelation 2:8-11 in His letter to the Christians in the Church in the small city of Smyrna. I could read it to you and explain the what, where, why, who and how, but I’d rather tell you a story that took place in the very city Jesus was writing to, a story that illustrates the big idea He’s getting at in His letter to the believers in Smyrna, a story that occurred some 50 years after the writing of His letter.
THE STORY OF, Polycarp.
His name was Polycarp.
He was a Christian who lived at the end of the age of the original 12 apostles, right about when the Church was making a critical transition to the second generation of believers. Tradition suggests that he was personally discipled by the last living apostle, John (author of the book of Revelation) and others who had personally sat under the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Polycarp was a staunch defender of the Christian faith and was eventually appointed as bishop of the city of Smyrna.
He had little formal education, but was direct, unpretentious, yet, humble. In one account, Polycarp confronts a heretic named, Marcion, a Gnostic, and calls him, “the first born of Satan.”
Polycarp, however, lived during a period of history when Christians were deeply hated.
Wealthy influential Jews opposed and oppressed the small band of, mostly poor Christians in the city of Smyrna. The oppression also flowed in from their Roman rulers. Violent persecution of Christians was the order of the day when Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome (161-180). Any and every excuse was given to burn Christians, impale them, or feed them to wild beasts in their arenas.
One author writes this about the experiences of the Christians in that period, “They (the hostile Jews) slandered them for cannibalism, saying they ate flesh and drank blood (at the Lord’s table). They slandered them for lust and immorality because they greeted one another with a holy kiss and held love feasts (as Paul instructed). They slandered them for home wrecking because one member of a home became a Christian and it brought a sword into the household. They slandered them for atheism because they rejected the worship of emperors and the deities of Rome. They slandered them for rebellion and political disloyalty because they said it was tantamount to mutiny. The Jews, wanting to destroy the Christian faith, went to the Romans to report the Christians, that they might lose their lives.”
This was the "afflictions and poverty" and "slander" Jesus said the Christians in Smyrna would encounter.
By age 86, Polycarp’s time had come.
It’s not quite clear why, in 156 A.D, the hostile city of Smyrna suddenly began to cry out, “Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!”
When news reached the elderly Church father that his life was being sought, he didn’t panic nor was he in any measure disturbed, rather, he simply continued to carry out his work of ministry. However, in deference to the wish of those who loved him and were concerned for his well being, he was persuaded to leave the city.
Settling down in a country house not to far from the city, he busied his time, night and day interceding in prayer for any and everyone the Lord brought to His mind and for the Churches throughout the world. It was during one of these prayer times, three days before he’d be martyred, that he was shown a vision. In it, he watched as the pillow he lay his head caught fire. Upon waking up, he spoke to those who were with him, prophetically saying, “I must be burned alive.”
The hunt for the elderly man continued. Each time his pursuers neared him, he was able to move on to another location before they closed in. Once, when his persecutors could not find him, they arrested two youths who had been with him and tortured at least one of them till he revealed where the Polycarp was staying.
When the authorities finally caught up with him, they found him lying down in the upper room of a cottage. Though he still had the means to escape [prior to their arrival and before his actual arrest], Polycarp refused and simply said, “The will of God be done.” Going out to meet the men, he presented himself. His arresting offices marveled at his age and faithfulness, and said to themselves, “Why was so much effort made to capture a man like this?”
Immediately, Polycarp invited them in for food and drink, then requested that he be given an hour to pray uninterrupted. They agreed and Polycarp stood praying for almost two hours, being so full of the grace of God. Those listening were astounded and many of them began to question their decision in coming to arrest such a godly devoted old man.
When he was done praying, the men loaded him up on a donkey and led him into the city on the Sabbath. As he neared the arena (where he knew he would be killed), there came a voice from heaven saying, “Be strong, and be a man, O Polycarp!” No one saw who spoke, but they all heard the voice.
When Polycarp finally entered the stadium and the crowds heard that he had been captured, there was an uproar. The Proconsul approached him and queried if he was indeed Polycarp. Polycarp did not deny himself or his faith.The Proconsul then tried to get him to apostatize, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’” [Atheist being, Christians].
Polycarp gazed sternly at the hostile multitudes in the stands and waving his hands in their general direction, he looked to the heavens and said, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
Again, the Proconsul pressed him. “Renounce your faith!”
Polycarp responded, “Since you are vainly urgent in having me recount my faith in Jesus Christ, then hear me clearly on this: I am a Christian. If you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, set a time and a date and I will gladly lay it all out for you.”
The Proconsul replied, “Then persuade the crowds!”
But Polycarp said, “I thought it appropriate to share my faith with you, for we are taught to give due honor to government authorities that have been put in place by God. But as for these crowds, I do not deem them worthy to receive any testimony from me.”
The Proconsul continued, “I have wild beasts waiting behind these gates. I will set them loose on you if you do not renounce your beliefs!”
“Call them then, for it is unthinkable for me to repent of what is good in order to adopt what is evil; besides, it serves me well to be transformed [in death] from what is evil [the flesh] to what is righteous [glorified body].” Polycarp replied.
“Wild beasts don’t scare you? Then I will have them burn you alive at the stake!”
“You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour and is afterward extinguished, but you are completely ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting for? Bring on whatever you want.”
The Proconsul truly was astounded at the elderly man’s confidence and grace in the face of imminent death, so much so that he sent his herald into the crowd thrice to proclaim, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”
The crowds, eager for blood, cried out in one voice in uncontrollable fury, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods; he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice or to worship the gods.” They urged Phillip the Asiarch (superintendent of the public games and religious rites) to set loose a lion on Polycarp. But Phillip answered that it was not lawful for him to do so, seeing that the shows of wild beasts were already done for the day. The crowds then switched tones and called for the burning alive of Polycarp, which was the very death Polycarp had foreseen in his dream.
What happened next occurred in less time than it takes to explain it. Multitudes immediately gathered woods and bundles of sticks from nearby shops and public baths. The Jews, who, as usual were all too eager to help, joined in. When the pile was ready, Polycarp began to undress as he climbed on the pile. When they tried to secure him to the stake with nails, he responded:
“Leave me as I am, for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me not to struggle without the help of your nails.”
So they simply tied his hands behind his back like a ram being readied for a sacrificial slaughter. Fully ready to be an acceptable burnt offering to God, Polycarp prayed, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, …I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
As soon as Polycarp pronounced his, “Amen.”, the fire was lit, and the flame blazed furiously. Those believers who were present describe immediately witnessing a great miracle. They explain that the fire shaped itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, and formed a circle around the body of Polycarp. Inside the fiery arch, Polycarp looked not like flesh that is burnt, but like bread that is baked, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. They also explain, that rather than burnt human flesh, they smelt a sweet scent, like frankincense or some such precious spices.
Eventually, when his persecutors saw that the fire was not consuming his body, an executioner was ordered to pierce him with a dagger. Different stories have circulated about what happened the moment Polycarp was pierced, but all agree that it marked the final breath of this godly man, apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of Smyrna.
Unashamed and Unafraid Like Polycarp.
I don’t know about you, but I was thinking that last moment would have been the perfect time for Jesus to make a dramatic entrance, right?
Polycarp was already not burning, it would have been the perfect moment for Jesus to show up and prove what he wrote to the Church in Smyrna some fifty years earlier when he said, “I am the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (Revelation 2:8).
But Jesus chose not to show up.
Because death, though sorrowful, is not the end.
In the latter part of Revelation 2:10, Jesus calls for believers to, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
The only reason Jesus would do this is if He knows something about death no one else does (which, of course we all know now). Ready for this?
Death is not the end, but a passageway to greater glory for those who have put their faith in Christ.
You see, at the cross, Jesus rendered Satan, sin, and death’s power useless. In fact, Hebrews 2:14-15 explains exactly what happened, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.”
Here's His point: Though physical death still hurts, Jesus stripped it of its ultimate sting so that a nano second after you take your last breath in this life, you awake in the next in a magnificent glorious bodily form that's sturdier and healthier than you ever were even in your best of days!
Polycarp understood this truth, which is why he was able to endure the persecution and execution he faced. He knew that though Satan might "slander" him and his Church through those who "claim to be Jews (but are not)", and though he and many in his Church would be "put in prison, and suffer persecution for ten days” which would more than likely end in their death, Polycarp understood that the “second death” (eternal separation from God) had already been conquered by Jesus.
Hence, death in this life is actually sweet release.
Jesus will stand beside you, even in a fiery bodily death.
This is the promise of Jesus Christ Himself should you or I ever find ourselves in a tough spot where we need to prove faithful [to Him], even to the point of death.
The truth is, death will hurt and its sting is very real and present.
Death for the believers, however, only brings us closer to our eternal union with the lover of our souls in our eternal home. Through the cross and His blood shed (that is applied to our lives when we trust in Him), Jesus has ensured that we’ll not only never have to face the “second death”, but we will live eternally and blissfully with God the Father.
It’s this reminder that Jesus encouraged the Smyrnans and every believer with, should we have to face our own moment of death.
ONE LAST Note to American Christians
Most of us living in the western hemisphere of the world will probably not face the kind of persecution that leads to death (at least not anytime soon). Let's be honest here, despite all the opposition Christianity may be facing in our culture today, no one is banging down our doors with guns or flaming torches, demanding we recount our faith.
So, where Jesus' words may be most applicable to us is in the perseverance of our faith in the face of emotional or spiritual weariness. For example, you may have been waiting for several years for an answered prayer and are starting to grow weary of trusting in God. You may be facing financial, relational, emotional, or even health troubles, and all of it is wearing you down. In your experience, the daily grind of life may prove to be a greater threat to your faith than the actual threat of death.
Hence, Jesus' words, "Be faithful, even to the point of death", may be better rendered to 2016 Americans, "Be faithful, even when you feel worn down and beat down."
So the encouragement here to you is this: Do not become weary in doing good deeds and do not throw in the towel because your labor isn't producing immediate fruit. Jesus if far more concerned with your faithfulness to the tasks assigned to you than He is about the level of results you produce.
Stay faithful to HIM, even to the point of death, ...or spiritual, ...or emotional exhaustion.
In due time, He who called you will reward you with a victor's crown.
Husband. Dad. Pastor. Nigerian American. Storyteller. Aspiring Prayer Warrior. Steak Lover. Follower of Jesus Christ reminding you that God the Father still loves you.