Who Was Polycarp?

In the Christian church today, the name Polycarp stands as a reminder of commitment, faithfulness, sacrifice, martyrdom, and courage in the face of opposition. He provided selfless leadership to the early church, a trait he practiced onto the grave. As he stood in the area awaiting his end, Polycarp shouted to the proconsul, “Hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian.”

During Polycarp’s life, the church in Smyrna began experiencing opposition to the point that some of the saints were put to death. These atrocious acts did not take the Christians by surprise as God had already forewarned that the church would come under persecution:

“And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the First and the Last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:8-10 KJV).

Polycarp, Bishop in Smyrna and a well-known figure to Christians and persecutors alike, could not go unmolested for long. He was hunted down and finally caught by his persecutors, who took him to the proconsul. He was placed in the arena with a large crowd watching him. There he met his final fate.

What do we know about Polycarp?

1. Polycarp embraced the faith at a young age. It is said that Polycarp worked as an enslaved person at a young age. He was adopted and cared for by Callisto, a God-fearing woman. Callisto taught Polycarp the ways of Christ, so Polycarp embraced the doctrine of Christ at an early age. He started studying the Bible quickly and gained knowledge that further spurred his Christian beliefs onward.

2. Polycarp tried to dispel heresies by imitating the life of Christ. St. John was the last apostle to die. With all the apostles gone, heresies began to spread in the churches, and deceptions began to grow. These false teachings were close to the truth but not true teachings. Hence, many people fell into the clutches of apostasy. Polycarp saw the danger immediately and decided that he could only dispel these false teachings by living a life devoted to Christ, his Master. He became an example of Christ and made his commitment to Lord absolute. His close friend Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, once told Polycarp, “Your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock.”

3. Polycarp faced persecution willingly. As persecutors searched for him, Christians took Polycarp to a farmhouse and hid him there. However, the persecutors caught two slave boys and tortured them till they told them where Polycarp was hidden. As the tormentors arrived on the scene, Christians tried to convince Polycarp to escape. He decided to remain, saying, “God’s will be done.” He welcomed his enemies with open arms and ordered food to be set before them. He was willing to be arrested and suffer persecution for the sake of Christ.

4. Polycarp was a man of prayer. Polycarp spent most of his time in prayer at the farmhouse. When the tyrants confronted him in the farmhouse, he didn’t resist arrest. He, however, asked for an hour to pray before they cart him off to prison. They allowed him to do this. The hour turned into two hours. As he prayed, the intimidators overheard him, and their consciences became pricked. They asked themselves why they should arrest such a man who did no one any harm. Nevertheless, they took him into custody and brought him before the authorities.

5. Polycarp cared for those Christian widows whose husbands were in chains or martyred. As persecution grew in the early church, many Christians were arrested and put in chains. Husbands who were breadwinners were either imprisoned or killed. Polycarp made sure to take up offerings for those families that were left without a breadwinner to fend for themselves in the home. He used the collected offerings to feed and clothe people who were in need.

6. Polycarp named a saint. Both Roman Catholic Churches and Eastern Orthodox Churches gave Polycarp sainthood. Each year, the 23rd of February is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church as the feast day of Polycarp.

7. Polycarp died at age 86. Polycarp reigned as bishop of Smyrna for over 60 years. Throughout, he imitated the life of Christ to the best of His ability. Even as he became elderly, his limitations didn’t stop him from telling others about Jesus Christ. At age 86, he was arrested. He died in the arena. When told to deny Christ, Polycarp shouted back at the proconsul and his other accusers, saying, “86 years have I served him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

8. Polycarp was faithful until death. Polycarp’s faith in Christ never wavered. As he was brought into the arena where he was sentenced to die, he spoke boldly of his Savior. He never once denied Christ but instead spoke highly of the Lord. In the arena, he was told to call all Christians atheists (for not believing in the Roman pantheon). He did no such thing but pointed to the cheering bloodthirsty crowd and called them atheists. Polycarp was faithful to Christ even unto death.

Who Discipled Polycarp?

Polycarp was a disciple of St. John. He was maybe one of the last disciples of John before the aged apostle left the land of the living. He sat under John and learned many things from his teachings. Apostle John became his mentor, and Polycarp continued the work after John’s death. Apostle John saw the keenness in Polycarp and knew he was a promising leader in the Christian faith. Hence, Apostle John ordained him bishop over the church of Smyrna.

Why Is Polycarp Considered An Apostolic Father?

Polycarp belonged to the second-generation Apostolic Fathers of the early church. The twelve apostles were the church’s first-generation leaders, with St. John being the last to die. Polycarp’s bishopric over the church of Smyrna was one of faithfulness to Christ. Christians viewed him as an exemplary leader who would not compromise with the standards of the Bible. He spread the word of Christ everywhere he went, and lived a lifestyle true to his calling. Polycarp passed on the knowledge he gained from John to his followers and thus helped to lay the foundations of the early church.

How Did Polycarp Die?

Polycarp was led into the arena where the cheering mad crowd awaited him. He was first given a chance to deny and curse Christ. He refused to do this but spoke boldly of his allegiance to the Lord. He was placed at the stake. They lit a fire to burn him. As the fire grew in strength, Polycarp was not harmed by it. Some of his tormentors, realizing that the fire was not doing its job, threw spears at him. The spears pierced his body, and as they did so, blood gushed forth from his body and extinguished the fire. Thus, Polycarp died from the piercings and not by fire.

Where Can We Find Polycarp’s Writings?

It is said that Polycarp wrote a fair number of letters to Christians. However, most of those letters either cannot be found or were not published. The only evidence we have of Polycarp’s writings are two letters addressed to the Philippians known as The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which he sent to the churches in Smyrna, Philomelium, and the Roman Catholic congregation.

What Can We Learn From Polycarp?

Modern-day Christians can learn a lot from the life of this champion of the faith known as Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna.

1. Be faithful even in times of hardship: During the last years of Polycarp’s bishopric, persecution of Christians grew and became intense. Polycarp never flinched during the hardest times of persecution. Like Polycarp, we must also keep the faith during times of hardship. We must not grow weary, especially to the point of losing our salvation. We must remain in prayer, read the scriptures, stay in fellowship with the saints and continue to help those persons that are less fortunate than us.

2. Be prayerful: Polycarp learned the power of prayer from an early age. As Christians, we should spend quality time in prayer before our Master and King. Prayer keeps us going, and if we should stop praying, there is a danger that we can become overly relaxed in our Christian walk.

3. We must remain in the Word of God: Polycarp grew to love the scriptures at an early age. Not only the scriptures did he take after, but knowledge taught to him by elders of the faith. The word of God is given to guide, comfort, rebuke, and exhort us. We should take heed to the scriptures and not become complacent learners. Without the guiding light of the scriptures, we remain in utter darkness.

The life of Bishop Polycarp was one of reverence and faithfulness to the Lord. As modern-day Christians, we should endeavor to follow in the footsteps of this champion of the faith. We should conduct our lives in such a way, knowing that “whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we belong to the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8 KJV).

Further Reading: 

Who Was Ignatius of Antioch?

The Writings of Polycarp

Rediscovering the Church Fathers

Photo Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons/Welcome Collection

Lancelot Tucker is a book author and freelance writer who writes on a vast amount of topics. In addition, he serves as an associate pastor in his hometown, Spanish Town. Lancelot loves to do research and write, and is an avid reader of other authors' works. When not writing or reading, he spends his time reaching out to the less fortunate residing in his community.


This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

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