These Roman soldiers have been chasing him through the night. It’s not even his house, he’s hiding out in the back building, and Polycarp asks the owner of the home, “Fix them a meal. They look hungry and they’re tired.” One of Polycarp’s instructions in his epistles to the Philippians was to show hospitality. On the night of his arrest, that’s exactly what he did.
They bring him back to Smyrna, they put him on trial and they give him the opportunity to recant his faith. And he says simply, “Eighty-six years I have been his servant. He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?”
So they brought him into the arena, and gave him one last chance to recant his faith. He said, “I am a Christian. Pick the day.” The implication was that he wanted a debate. They weren’t up for a debate. In the amphitheater waited the bloodthirsty Roman crowd. This is not quite the end of the degeneracy of Rome, but they were headed there. For the public sport of Rome, the slaughter of Christians was quite the thrilling entertainment. And of course, they filled the amphitheater. Behind Polycarp were his fellow Christians that they had rounded up to arrest. And they said to Polycarp one last time, “Say, ‘Away with the atheists.’ Distance yourself from the Christians. Recant your faith. ‘Away with the atheists,’ and we’ll let you walk out of here.”
Polycarp is 86 years old, he’s about to die, and he cracks a joke. He takes his hand, and with one big sweeping gesture across the crowd gathered in the amphitheater, he does precisely what his captors told him to do: He looks out on the Roman audience and says, “Away with the atheists!”
That pinpoints the irony of the charge against the Christians. And so Polycarp, on Feb. 23, A.D. 155, is martyred for his faith. At the end of the epistle that chronicles Polycarp’s martyrom, it reads, “Polycarp was arrested by Herod when Philip was high priest during the proconsulship of Saccheas Cogratus, while Jesus Christ was reigning as King forever.”
If we were to put ourselves in the position of the Christians at Rome, we would have a hard time getting past the reality in front of us. Everything on the surface pointed away from the fulfillment of the promises of the apostles and of the book of the New Testament. Rome was in charge. These words at the end of this epistle had a singular intention for the audience in A.D. 155, to communicate, “Do not mistake appearances for reality. What you see in front of you as the great Rome is a shadow. It’s not the real thing. There is a singular reality, and that is that Jesus Christ is King.” That’s the reality. And so this was written down and hand-copied, spread around the churches – not to be read as Sacred Scripture, not to be expounded upon as they met around that gladsome light, but to encourage them in their Christian journey.