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Eighty and Six Years: Urgent Words for Apocalyptic Times, No. 15

Edited by Robert V. Rakestraw (October 1, 2016)

Why did this martyr’s living body not burn in the flames?

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“We have written to you, brethren, the circumstances respecting the martyrs [in Asia Minor], and the blessed Polycarp [esteemed overseer of the church at Smyrna], who as if sealing it with his martyrdom [in 155 or 156] has also put a stop to the persecution. . . . [When the hour had come for him to go, Polycarp’s captors] placed him upon an ass and conducted him to the city, it being a great Sabbath-day. He was met by Herod, who was the irenarch, and his father Nicetes; who, taking him into their vehicle, persuaded him to take a seat with them, and said, ‘For what harm is there in saying Lord Cesar, and to sacrifice, and thus save your life?’ . . . . [Polycarp, who may have known the beloved apostle John and other eyewitnesses of Christ, refused, and] was conducted to the stadium. But as there was so great an uproar in the place that not many could hear, a voice came from heaven to Polycarp as he entered the stadium: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and contend manfully’ [or, ‘play the man’]. No one saw who it was that spoke; but the voice itself was heard by many of our brethren. When he was led forward, however, a great tumult arose among those that heard Polycarp was taken. At length, as he advanced, the proconsul . . . persuaded him to renounce Christ, saying, ‘Have a regard for your age,’ and adding similar expressions, such as is usual for them to say, he said, ‘Swear by the genius of Cesar. Repent; say Away with those that deny the gods.’ . . . Polycarp replied, ‘Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?’. . . . . Then all [in the amphitheatre] cried out together, that Polycarp should be burnt alive. . . . Presently the instruments prepared for the funeral pile were applied to him. . . . [He then, closing his hands behind him, spoke a confident prayer of praise and thanksgiving to almighty God.] . . .
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“After he had repeated amen . . . the executioners kindled the fire. And when it arose in great flames, we saw a miracle, those of us who were privileged to see it, and who, therefore, were preserved to declare the facts to others. For the flames presented an appearance like an oven, as when the sail of a vessel is filled with the wind; and thus formed a wall around the body of the martyr. And he was in the midst not like burning flesh, but like gold and silver purified in the furnace. We also perceived a fragrant odour, like the fumes of incense, or some other precious aromatic drugs. At length the wicked persecutors, seeing that the body could not be consumed by fire, commanded the executioner to draw near to him and to plunge his sword into him; and when he had done this, such a quantity of blood gushed forth that the fire was extinguished. So that the whole multitude were astonished that such a difference should be made between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this one, [overseer of the universal] church in Smyrna, was the most admirable, apostolical, and prophetical teacher of our times. . . . The centurian then . . . placed [Polycarp’s body] in the middle, and burnt it according to the custom of the Gentiles. Thus, at last, taking up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, and more tried than gold, we deposited them where it was proper they should be. There, also, as far as we can, the Lord will grant us to [gather] and celebrate the natal day [his birthday for a better world] of his martyrdom in joy and gladness, both in commemoration of those who finished their contest before, and to exercise and prepare those that shall hereafter.”

From an epistle of the church at Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, as preserved in The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bk. 4, ch. 15 (“The martyrdom of Polycarp, with others at Smyrna”), trans. Christian Frederick Cruse (Baker, 1973 printing, pp. 143-49). This selection, along with other items and articles, may be found on Dr. Rakestraw’s website/blog gracequestministries.org., where you may sign up to receive free regular postings such as the above, and where you may order his books GraceQuest and Heart Cries. You may write Dr.Rakestraw at bob@gracequestministries.org .

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