I’m still reading through some of the writings from our early Church Fathers, the ones known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who wrote before the Nicene Council of 324 AD.) To make a long story short, these writers were among the second generation of the Church, mentored by Apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. They provide a rare glimpse of what church life was like in the years immediately after the biblical records. They also show the tremendous perils the early Church faced, everything from dangerously divisive heresies to life-threatening persecution.
Polycarp, mentored by the Apostle John, was the leader of the church in Smyrna, a town located in modern day Turkey. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities, and after his death, Polycarp became a widely celebrated hero of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. We still have some of his writings and the detailed description of his arrest and death called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”
Persecution and execution of Christians during this period of time was no rarity. The Roman Empire regarded Christians as “atheists” and “heretics”, atheists because they did not worship Roman idols and heretics for not acknowledging Caesar as a god. Christians were rounded up, coerced, tortured, and threatened with death to offer incense to idols and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” In response, most of these Christians refused and replied, “Christ is Lord.”
In the famous “Martyrdom of Polycarp” we have a story told by eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Polycarp’s arrest, trial, and death. There are a lot of obvious allusions to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, specifically Polycarp riding into Smyrna on a donkey, his silence before the questions and accusations hurled against him by the governor of the city, and the roar of the crowd demanding his death. One memorable scene occurs in Chapter 9 when the Governor of Smyrna demanded Polycarp to denounce his faith:
The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him. “Revile your Christ.” Polycarp’s reply was, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
But my favorite, most moving scene from the entire account is Polycarp’s final prayer before the Roman authorities attempted to burn him alive. (I say “attempted” for a reason. You’ll have to read the account for yourself to find out what happened!) Here is what he prayed, rendered into current English:
O Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of yourself; you are the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all generations of the righteous who live in your sight. I bless you for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share in the cup of your Anointed and to rise again to everlasting life, both in body and in soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as you appoint and foreshadow, and now bring to pass, for you are the God of truth in whom there is no falsehood. For this, and for all else, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you; through our eternal High Priest in heaven, your beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen.
If only you and I could faithfully pray with such passion and love! So often, though, our comfortable existence reduces our prayers to formalities and formulas. Maybe if were more like Polycarp and stood a little taller and bolder for Christ, we might be forced into learning how to pray something like this. And then we’d rediscover just how much God honors the prayers of the saints to reveal the fullness of God’s glory and power.