"Pastor! Pastor!" I ran breathlessly into the church where I found Bishop Polycarp praying on his knees. Why didn't he jump in alarm at the fear in my voice? Instead, he continued to pray while I waited impatiently. Finally, he raised himself up and looked at me with his kind eyes.
"Yes, Alpay, my son. What is it that has you so agitated?"
I gazed into the elderly face that I had loved since I was but a boy.
"I heard it in the marketplace. The Romans say the Christians have angered their gods. They're coming after you since you are the Christian leader in Smyrna."
He gave a little sigh and put his hand on my shoulder. "Yes, I have heard this as well."
My temples throbbed. Why was he so calm? "You must leave at once, or they'll take you to the arena and throw you to the beasts!"
"Leave my church? And where shall I go?" he asked, still calm.
"I have made arrangements to hide you at a nearby farm, but you must quickly gather your things."
He smiled as if to reassure me. "I have little to take but my prayers."
Finally, we fled into the countryside where a family awaited our arrival. The firelight in the farmhouse welcomed us, as if this were merely a pleasant social call. I knew better, though. Our purpose for being there was to keep Smyrna's beloved bishop alive. I hoped to keep myself in that state as well.
A VISION OF FIRE
The following day, as Bishop Polycarp was lying on his bed praying, he fell into a trance. Moments later, he woke with a start.
"I just saw my pillow burning with fire," he said.
Those of us with him cast fearful glances at each other.
"What does this mean?" the lady of the farm cried.
"I shall be burned alive."
She scolded him. "You mustn't say such a thing!"
I was startled by his vision and his composure. I became even more determined to keep him alive. That night, a messenger ran to the farmhouse.
"You must leave again! The soldiers are tracking us down!"
I hurried Bishop Polycarp to yet another farmhouse. While he rested, I warmed myself at the hearth, and tried to calm two of the house servants.
"Aren't you afraid?" one of them asked.
"Yes, especially when I remember his vision of being consumed by the flames," I said, drinking deeply of hot broth they had brought to me. "But my pastor's peace gives me courage."
"I wish I could be like that," said the other servant. "I fear that if the time comes, I may not remain faithful."
"If I can be at peace, you can as well," I assured him.
The moment I dreaded arrived that evening with shouts and soldiers coming up the path carrying swords and torches. How had they found us? When the farmer answered the urgent summons, two soldiers burst in.
"Where is the bishop?" they demanded.
The farmer stalled. "Bishop?"
"We know he is here, so don't play games with us."
Hearing this, I rushed up the stairs to alert the Bishop. "Pastor, the soldiers have come for you!" I whispered. "Hurry, we'll slip out the back!"
He shook his head. "God's will be done."
I followed as he went downstairs to greet his pursuers in the name of Christ.
"Ah," he said, "you must be tired from your journey." Bishop Polycarp startled us by treating these thugs as if they were honored guests. The soldiers appeared shocked at his kindness. "Well, yes, we are."
"Then come and have some food," he invited. "You will feel better. My dear hosts will see to your well-being and it will give me some time to pray here by the fire." While they ate, Bishop Polycarp poured out his heart to God for what seemed like all the churches he'd visited and all the people he'd ever met, including me. "Protect him, O Lord, by your great might," he said. "Keep Alpay strong to serve you."
I had been so afraid. But now, though I knew what lay ahead for him and possibly even for me, I felt peaceful because of Jesus. The soldiers took him away after their meal, and I went along, his servant to the end.
"Do not worry, Alpay," he said. "The Lord himself told us, 'Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. . . Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.'"
LAST CHANCE AT LIFE
As we went along to his trial, the local magistrate and his father called out, "Come, Bishop Polycarp! Come up and speak with us." Soldiers helped him into their carriage.
The magistrate and his father tried to persuade Polycarp. "All you have to do is deny your faith. Then you will be spared."
"Ah, but I could never disown my Lord."
"Then be done with you, fool!" At this, they shoved Polycarp out of the coach, and I ran to his side as he landed with a jolt.
"Are you all right, Pastor?" I asked.
He rubbed his shin. "I am fine."
We walked on slowly until we entered the stadium. The rowdy crowd shouted for "entertainment." Just then a voice called out, "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man!"
I looked around but did not see any speaker. Others also were straining to see who had said these words. I concluded that the voice was from Heaven, and I took courage in spite of what was to come.
The soldiers presented Bishop Polycarp to the proconsul, a cruel-faced man who yelled to be heard above the noisy throng. "Curse Jesus, and I will spare you!"
The idea made my skin crawl. How could anyone who had loved our Lord ever curse him?
My dear pastor looked compassionately into the man's searing eyes. "Fourscore and six years have I served Him," he said, "and He has done me no harm. How then can I curse my King that saved me?"
"So be it!" he called out. "Carry him to the beasts!"
A soldier stepped forward. "Master, it is late, and the beasts have gone down for the night."
Appearing annoyed, the proconsul waved his hand with a large ring on it. "Then burn him!" I drew in my breath as I thought of the bishop's dream in which his pillow burned. My worst fears were about to come true.
The crowd, eager for the deaths of more Christians, gathered wood for the fire. I watched as Bishop Polycarp's lips moved in prayer, his face aglow from the light of Christ within him. He caught my eye and nodded. Like the children of Israel in the fiery furnace, Polycarp's body remained unharmed by the flames. In the end, a soldier stabbed him. Throughout, my dear pastor's face looked like that of an angel. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, believers gathered to thank God for Polycarp's life among us. He taught us to fear nothing, even death.
Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
- Polycarp knew he was being hunted and might die for his faith. How did God comfort and encourage him even as he faced death?
- Look up the word "martyr." Do you think there are Christians being martyred in the world today?
- Have you ever suffered for being a Christian? How did you respond?
- If someone really, truly believes in Christ in their heart, would it be possible for them to deny their faith? Why or why not?
- Did you know that Christians are still being persecuted in some areas of the world? Visit the website www.persecution.net to learn more about this. What can you do to support persecuted Christians?
- Suggested reading:
- The Crown of Fire: Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna by William C. Newsom (Mass Market Paperback)