One of the letters that Ignatius sent on his way to Rome was to Polycarp, the young leader of the church in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey). In the letter, Ignatius encouraged Polycarp to take seriously his responsibilities as a minister and remain firm in his faith.
For over fifty years, Polycarp showed that he took Ignatius’s advice seriously. He served the church and preached the gospel. His great pupil, Irenaeus, tells us that Polycarp was a gifted teacher, “a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than… all the heretics.” His teaching was extremely important and influential at a time when the church was working out what it should believe, as well as fighting heresies from across the spectrum of crazy.
When Polycarp was eighty-six, the Romans began and large-scale persecution of Christians in Smyrna. Germanicus, an elderly Christian in Smyrna, was one of the first to be tried. When he refused to deny Christ, he was thrown to wild animals for the Roman’s enjoyment. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied, and called for the church leader, Polycarp, to be executed as well.
Polycarp went into hiding, but was soon found, and willingly went before the Roman authorities. When Polycarp refused to worship the emperor, the judge ordered him to cry, “Out with the atheists!” But Polycarp, turning and pointing at the crowd, replied, “Yes, out with the atheists!” (Romans would call Christians ‘atheists’ because they didn’t believe in the Roman gods.)
The judge threatened to burn him alive at the stake. Polycarp answered that the judge’s fire would only last a few minutes, but the eternal fire would never go out. “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil,” Polycarp said, “How could I curse my king, who saved me?”
As he was tied to the stake and kindling was piled around he feet, Polycarp thanked God that he was allowed to share in Christ’s sufferings and die for his sake. His godly example has inspired Christians for millennia.