Matthew – Day 27 – The Prisoner
lease begin by reading the Shema out loud and continue trying to memorize it.
“Hear, O Israel. The LORD is our God. The LORD alone. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Amen.”
Today, I want to pause and remember an early brother in Christ. When I first read this, it made my heart very sad, because I had never heard the name Polycarp. I want to make sure that every Christian knows of this man who lived thousands of years ago.
Polycarp was a friend of the apostle John. The scene portrayed here is taken from the “Letter from the Church of Smyrna” in David Bercot’s book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. Allow this to take you back to what life was like in the Roman Empire decades after Jesus died and rose…
As the chariot rumbled through the stone-paved streets of Smyrna, the prisoner could already hear the roar of the frenzied crowd in the arena. Scavenger dogs followed the chariot through the street, barking wildly. Olive-skinned children scurried out of the way, their eyes wide with excitement. Nameless faces peered out of windows along the street.
Halting outside the massive walls of the arena, the guard brusquely dumped the prisoner out of the chariot as though he were a sack of garbage, injuring the prisoner’s leg.
For weeks, the public had clamored for this man’s arrest and execution. But he hardly looked like a dangerous criminal – a frail old man, his face etched with wrinkles. His hair and beard were as white as the clouds that dotted the Mediterranean sky that afternoon. As the aged prisoner limped into the arena under armed guard, word quickly spread through the crowds that this was Polycarp – the vile criminal whose death they had come to see. His crime? He was the local leader of the superstitious cult known as the Christians.
As the crowd roared with bloodthirsty excitement, the soldiers led the prisoner to the stand where the Roman proconsul was seated. As the proconsul stared at the limping old man his face flushed with embarrassment. So this was the dangerous criminal who had caused such an uproar! Just a gentle old man?
The proconsul, his purple robe flapping in the breeze, leaned forward in his seat and privately addressed the elderly prisoner, saying, “The Roman government doesn’t make war on old men. Simply swear by the divinity of Caesar, and I’ll let you go.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Well, then, simply shout, ‘Away with the atheists,’ and that will be sufficient.’ (Since the Christians had no temples or images of any god, many Romans assumed they were atheists.)
The prisoner calmly stretched out his wrinkled arm and turned in a circle with a sweeping gesture toward the hate-filled crowd. Gazing intently toward heaven, he shouted, “Away with the atheists!”
The proconsul was momentarily taken aback by the prisoner’s response. Though he had done what was commanded, the proconsul knew from the reaction of the crowd that he dare not release Polycarp yet.
“Curse Jesus Christ!” he demanded.
For a few moments, Polycarp stared with his piercing brown eyes into the stern countenance of the proconsul. He then replied calmly, “For eighty-six years I’ve served Jesus, and he has never wronged me in any way. How, then, can I possibly curse my very King and Savior?”
The crowd, unable to hear the conversation, was growing impatient with the delay. So the proconsul anxiously urged the prisoner again, “Swear by the divinity of Caesar!”
“Since you keep pretending that you don’t know what I am, let me simplify your task. I declare without shame that I am a Christian. If you’d like to learn what Christians believe, set a time and I will tell you.”
Fidgeting nervously, the proconsul blurted back, “Don’t try to persuade me, persuade them,” pointing to the crowd.
Polycarp glanced at the faceless mob who were eagerly waiting for their bloody entertainment to begin. “No, I won’t cheapen the teaching of Jesus by trying to persuade such a throng.”
The proconsul shouted angrily back, “Don’t you know that I have wild animals at my disposal? I will unleash them on you immediately unless you repent.”
“Well then, unleash them,” Polycarp replied. There was no fear in his voice. “Whoever heard of repenting from what is good in order to follow what is evil?”
The proconsul was accustomed to intimidating even the strongest, most hardened criminals, but this old man was getting the best of him. He lashed back at the prisoner, “Since wild animals don’t seem to scare you, know here and now that I will have you burned alive if you don’t immediately denounce this Jesus Christ!”
Infused with the Holy Spirit, Polycarp was now beaming with joy and confidence. “You threaten me with a mere fire that burns for an hour and then goes out. Haven’t you heard of the fire of coming judgment and of the eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly? Why do you keep delaying? Do whatever you want with me.”
It wasn’t supposed to have worked this way. The proconsul was supposed to be the mighty conqueror, with the prisoner on his knees begging for mercy. But this prisoner – an old man – had vanquished the proconsul. The proconsul sank back into his seat in humiliating defeat.
Because of the vastness of the stadium, heralds were sent to several different stations throughout the arena to announce what Polycarp had said. When his final statement was announced, a wave of fury swept the crowd. They would do with him what they wanted! Screaming for Polycarp’s death, they spilled out of their seats into the corridors and through the exits. Running wildly through the city streets, they gathered wood from wherever they could find it. They looted stores and even stole the firewood piled inside the public baths. Then they thronged back into the arena, their arms laden with fuel for the executioner’s pyre. They piled the wood around an upright stake, to which the soldiers began to nail Polycarp’s limbs.
However, he calmly assured the soldiers, “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also enable me to remain motionless against the stake without having to be secured.” After allowing Polycarp to pray, the soldiers lit the wood.
By burning Polycarp, the people of Smyrna thought they would blot out his name forever and bring an end to the hated superstition called Christianity. But like the proconsul, they grossly underestimated the vitality and conviction of the Christians. Rather than intimidating other Christians, the death of Polycarp inspired them. Rather than disappearing, Christianity grew.
Persecution is Satan’s way and the world’s way of stopping God. The people in Rome did not understand Christianity. They thought it was a cult or a false religion. They did not understand people who willingly gave up material things to help others. They did not understand people who gave up popularity to belong to the rejected group. The way of the Christian did not make sense to the world – which is why persecution did not stop Christianity.
Let us be careful about whining about our “persecutions”. Let us keep everything in perspective. Many have gone before us and kept the faith under incredible persecution. May we have a faith that is strong enough to stand firm if we ever lose our freedom of religion. If it became against the law to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to arrest you? Remember Polycarp. Remember Christ. We must be prepared for what comes our way. We must stand firm.
“Letter from the Church of Smyrna” – David Bercot: Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up