Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John and was the overseer of the church in Smyrna. Under persecution, Polycarp fled the city at the urging of his congregation. He was eventually found but made no effort to flee. Instead he asked for an hour of prayer. He prayed with such passion that the soldiers regretted they were the ones dealt the hand of having to arrest him.
After his arrest, Polycarp was sentenced to burn in the marketplace for all to see. Prior to the execution he was given to opportunity to reject his faith in Jesus Christ. Polycarp replied:
For 86 years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?
In the marketplace he was tied to the stake rather than nailed because he assured them he would stand immovable in the flames and not fight. As the dry sticks placed around him were lit, the flames rose up and circled his body without touching him. The executioner was then ordered to pierce him with a sword. When he did, a great quantity of blood gushed out and put out the fire. Eventually, Polycarp was consumed by the flames.
Sometimes following Jesus comes with a great cost.
A key mark of a living and thriving church is love (we saw this in the letter to the church in Ephesus) and another key mark is suffering. A willingness to suffer is a demonstration of genuine love … and Christlikeness. We follow a Savior who was cheered and praised. We follow a Savior who was also frequently rejected and ridiculed and ultimately betrayed and crucified. A willingness to suffer demonstrates genuine love for the Savior who experienced the same treatment. It also puts Christlikeness on display for all to see. Polycarp, the overseer of the church in Smyrna, is a great example.
How did the church in Smyrna suffer?
Yet, in a Jesus-centered world, these are not bad things. Rather, they are faithful and holy things.
In the midst of this difficulty we must not loose sight of the character of Jesus. The character of Jesus is revealed to us in this short letter to the church in Smyrna.
Jesus is Eternal: v8 These are the words of him who is the First and Last
Jesus is Victorious: v8 Who died and came to life again
Jesus is Present: v9 I know your afflictions … I know about the slander
Jesus is Generous: v10 I will give you life as your victor’s crown
What does this mean for us? We should expect to experience difficulty and hostility. And when we do experience difficulty and hostility, we should not see it as an absence of God but a part of faithfully following Jesus Christ. And Jesus is worth it.
I don’t foresee you being burned in the marketplace. But I do foresee:
- Difficult, tension filled conversations
- Strained relationships
- Hostility, rebuke, rejection
- Spiritual warfare
- Ethical dilemmas
- Destruction of comfort zones
… all for following Jesus.