Polycarp: Losing Your Life to Gain It

John FarrellBy John Farrell9 Minutes

“If you seek to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for Christ’s sake, you will gain it.” – Anna, Polycarp (2015)

According to an article on the Vatican News website, every day “13 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked and 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned, while another 5 are abducted.”

After first reading the previous paragraph, you may wonder what benefit is there to listing stats that are several years’ old or even decades old? However, perhaps the most shocking part of that statistic is that it isn’t from 5, 10, 25, or 50 years ago. They were taken from an article published in January 2021, and based on Open Door’s 2021 World Watch List. Open Doors is a non-profit organization that tracks attacks and injustices performed on Christians.

Regardless of the rights we have as Christians living in the U.S. to practice our faith without fear of persecution, this is not the case in many countries. In the same Vatican News article, according to Open Door’s report, “there 309 million Christians living in places with ‘very high’ or ‘extreme’ levels of persecution.” That figure is up more than 49 million from the previous year.

Per the 2021 World Watch List, the top 10 countries where it is most difficult to follow Jesus are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India.

Ever since Jesus’ time, Christians have faced various acts of persecution, of which many of the earliest cases are described in the Book of Acts. There are many stories of people throughout history who are remembered as martyrs after standing strong in their faith, unwilling to deny Christ as Savior and King.

One of the earliest martyrs on record was Polycarp.

Who Was Polycarp?

Polycarp was a 2nd-Century bishop in Smyrna. He was a disciple of the apostle John, and was a devout follower of Christ, even in the face of adversity. His letter to the Philippians, which speaks to the many blasphemous affronts of the Philippian church and urges them to turn away from this bad behavior, is his only surviving literary contribution.

Although Polycarp’s words live on in his letter, he is perhaps best remembered for the way in which he died. At the age of 86, he was summoned to appear before proconsul Gaius Asinius Quadratus. When Polycarp refused to renounce Jesus Christ as his King and Savior, Quadratus ordered him to be burned at the stake for high treason to Caesar and the Roman Empire. The execution took place in front of thousands of spectators gathered in an arena in Smyrna; however, when the fire failed to consume Polycarp’s body, he was stabbed with a dagger.

He is fondly remembered as a martyr for his strong Christian conviction and unyielding faith even under the threat of persecution and death.

Polycarp: The Movie

In 2015, Polycarp’s life was made into a movie, Polycarp, with Garry Nation playing the titular character. Joining him in the cast were Eliya Hurt as Anna, Rusty Martin as Germanicus, Ilse Apestegui as Melina, Curt Cloninger as Elias, and Gary Bosek as Quadratus.

The film follows Anna, a young girl who is put up for sale on the slave market, and is “perfect for a house slave or work at the temple.” She is adopted for 50 denarii by a loving Christian woman, Melina, who welcomes her as a member of her family instead of assigning her to a life of slavery.

When Anna arrives to live with Melina, her husband Elias, and their son Germanicus, she is not a Christian and is unsure of what to think about her new family’s faith, God, and Jesus. Under the tutelage of Polycarp and care of her adoptive parents, she soon begins to understand and follow the Christian doctrines, including learning about Jesus Christ and God.

Unfortunately, at this impressionable time in her life, when she’s relatively new in her faith, the Roman government increases their persecution of Christians. The local government, especially proconsul Quadratus, focuses on rounding up all Christians and demanding they state their allegiance and support to Caesar and the Roman government. Because of his prominence in the local Christian community, Polycarp is one of Quadratus’ top targets.

Eventually, Polycarp is brought before Quadratus where the following exchange occurs:

Polycarp: “Eighty and six years I have served my Lord, and He has never done me any harm. Rather, much good. How can I blaspheme my king and savior?”

Quadratus: “How can you believe in only one god? There are many gods! Are you an atheist?”

Polycarp: “I am a Christian. If you do not understand our doctrines, make an appointment. I shall explain them to you fully.”

Quadratus: “Worship Caesar and you may yet live.”

Polycarp: “If we live, we live unto the Lord. If we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore, either way, we are the Lord’s.”

Quadratus: “I have wild beasts I shall feed you to!”

Polycarp: “Bring them. To me, to live is Christ. To die is gain.”

Quadratus: “I shall cause you to be burnt to ashes!”

Polycarp: “You threaten me with fire that burns but for an hour. And are yourself ignorant of the everlasting fiery judgement that is prepared for the wicked. Why do you delay? Bring against me what you please.”

Just as it happened in real life, Polycarp is sentenced to be executed by burning. But when the fire failed to consume his body, he’s pierced with a dagger. In his final moments, he was not in pain, nor was he scared. Instead, “there was no fear in his eyes. His countenance was one of pure joy.”

Would you be willing to die for Christ just as Polycarp so willingly did? Would you be brave enough to claim Christ as your King and Savior in the face of your enemies who want nothing more than for you to deny your faith?

Is Christ worth dying for?

Polycarp is a beautiful narrative of the 2nd-Century bishop’s life that families can enjoy together. Armed with a compelling story and a good script, the actors do an incredible job of bringing to life the account of one of Christianity’s first recorded martyrs. Nation and Hurt, in particular, deliver stand-out performances.

To learn more about Polycarp and its upcoming airtimes on Inspiration TV click here