There is one more thing in regard to the Apostolic Fathers that we would have you consider with us. It is the matter the persecution which the early church endured and which was therefore not at all strange to the Apostolic Fathers. For this purpose we have singled out the martyrdom of Polycarp for our present consideration.
It can be inferred already from that we wrote last month about Ignatius that this period was one of persecution. Ignatius also lost his life through this persecution, being fed to wild beasts for the entertainment of the ungodly. That it was such a period of persecution need not surprise us at all. Jesus Himself declared in John 15:20. “The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” We can see this carried out in literal, historical fulfillment. Christ they crucified, and it did not take the ungodly very long before they detected the life of Christ in the lives of His Apostles. Soon enough they say again, “Away with Him”. To achieve their end and attempt to stop the reappearance of Christ through the proclamation of the truth concerning Him, they killed His apostles. Soon enough they also persecuted those who were His disciples in a broader sense. Was it not in Thessalonica that they laid hold on one Jason by name who had given Paul lodging? Surely then when these Apostolic Fathers, who were no ordinary disciples but rather leaders in the church, began to preach Christ, we can expect that they too would be subject to persecution.
This persecution came from two quarters both of which were godless, but each in its own way. Even as with Christ and the Apostles, they were opposed by the false church, the ungodly Jews, and by the world, the Gentiles. The Apostles suffered especially at the hands of their own nation, yet not exclusively. In Ephesus Paul was attacked not by the Jews who professed to believe in Jehovah but by the worshippers of Diana the goddess of the Ephesians. The Apostolic Fathers were opposed by both of these factions but especially by the Gentiles.
Polycarp was put to death by these Gentiles who opposed him because he preached Christ. At that time the world was filled with superstition and the worship of false gods, idols and images. Christianity was growing rapidly, and these false gods were being discounted and branded by the preaching of the church as being nothing but the work of man’s hands and of having no power whatsoever. Those who preached this truth incurred the wrath of the worshippers of these gods. So it was with Polycarp. The Christians were blamed for every calamity that came the way of the nation. It was explained that the gods were displeased because these Christians denied their power and divinity. Especially then were the leaders who preached Christ singled out to be tormented and killed to satisfy these gods. And so Polycarp is killed.
Let me give you a few facts about his martyr’s death. He was ninety years old when it took place. Hearing the people shouting for his death, he first intended to wait quietly in the city to be captured. Persuaded by the church he took refuge instead in a neighboring villa. He was betrayed by so-called friends and fled to another villa. A servant who was left behind was tortured until he revealed the new hiding place. When the soldiers came to capture him, Polycarp gave himself up. Having been hiding on the top story of a high building, he came down to meet those coming up after him. He asked these captors to indulge with him for one hour of prayer. The prayer lasted two hours. Taken before the ruler he was asked to denounce Christianity and confess the emperor to be lord. He refused. Then he was asked to repent and show his penitence by joining in with the shout of the people, “Away with the godless”. The inference was that the Christians were godless, having nothing to do with these heathen gods. Instead of doing as he was asked Polycarp pointed his figure at these unbelievers and lifting up his eyes to heaven cried out, “Away with the godless”. Even here he dared to condemn those who had condemned him to death. Now the proconsul urged him to “Swear, curse Christ” with the promise that then he would be released. To this Polycarp gave answer in those memorable words, “Sixty and eight years have I served Him, and He has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse my God and Saviour!” Still prodded by the proconsul, he finally declared, “If you would know what I am, I tell you frankly that I am a Christian.”
Needless to say, he was put to death. They burned him at the stake. His prayer before the fire was lighted was this, “Lord, Almighty God, Father of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ though Whom we have received the knowledge of Thyself; God of angels and of the whole creation; of the human race, and of the just that live in Thy presence; I praise Thee that Thou hast judged me worthy of this day and of this hour, to take part in the number of Thy witnesses, in the cup of Thy Christ.”