When Kingdoms Collide: the martyrdom of Polycarp

Along the western seacoast of Turkey there is a beautiful coastal town known as Izmir. Tucked amidst the high-rises and minarets is a Roman Catholic church built in the 17th century and dedicated to an early Christian many of us no longer remember from a time when Izmir was known as Smyrna.

There, nearly 1900 years ago, lived an early Christian named Polycarp, a convert during the ministry of the apostle John. Serving the Lord over the course of his life and well-respected in the church, Polycarp was wholly committed to the Lord Jesus at a time of great persecution for the church. The influence of the Roman Emperor appeared unlimited, and the basic declaration of allegiance to the Emperor was: “Caesar is Lord.” For the early Christians, the basic declaration of faith also reflected their allegiance: “Jesus is Lord.”

When Polycarp was dragged before the Roman Proconsul Statius Quadratus on trumped up charges, Polycarp was thoroughly interrogated and asked to swear allegiance to Caesar. “Swear, and I release you; curse Christ,” said the Proconsul.

To which Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Again, the Proconsul said, “Swear by the genius of Caesar.” To which Polycarp responded once more, “If you vainly imagine that I would ‘swear by the genius of Caesar’, as you may say, pretending that you are ignorant who I am , hear plainly that I am a Christian.”[1]

It is this bold statement that eventually led to Polycarp’s execution by burning in public in AD 156. Polycarp’s situation sets in bold relief one of the greatest challenges of any discussion of the kingdom of God. We live as citizens of earthly kingdoms by birth or by decision, even while we live as citizens of the heavenly kingdom through faith in Christ.

[1] The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom is found in many places but I relied on James W. Skillen’s telling from The Good of Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 47-48.

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