‘Away With the Godless!’
THE masses regarded him as godless, a man seeking to discourage worship and destroy their gods. Despised and belittled, he was brought before them in public assembly. When the governor made inquiry, a stately man of 86 years of age stepped forth and acknowledged his identity. His name was Polycarp.
The Roman provincial governor Statius Quadratus proceeded with the words: “Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind and say, ‘Away with the atheists!’” Polycarp then gazed at the vast crowd of lawless pagans filling the stadium. Motioning toward them, he groaned, looked heavenward, and said: “Away with the atheists!” Indeed, ‘Away with the godless!’
The proconsul then spoke with greater urgency, saying: “Take the oath and I release you; revile Christ.” But Polycarp responded: “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
Preparations were then made for the aged man’s execution. His flesh was to be consumed by fire. Why? Just who was Polycarp? And what events led up to his death?
Polycarp’s Early Life
Polycarp was born about 69 C.E. in Asia Minor, at Smyrna (the modern-day Turkish city of Izmir). Reportedly, he was reared by Christian parents. Maturing into a distinguished gentleman, Polycarp was noted for generosity, self-denial, kindly treatment of others, and diligent study of the Scriptures. In time he became an overseer in the congregation at Smyrna.
It has been reported that in his earlier years, Polycarp took advantage of opportunities to learn directly from some of the apostles. The apostle John apparently was one of his teachers. In fact, Irenaeus relates that Polycarp “was not only instructed by apostles, and had intercourse with many who had seen Christ, but was also appointed for Asia by apostles, in the church that is in Smyrna an overseer.” We can only imagine the joy and satisfaction Polycarp derived from such enriching association. It must have helped to equip him for his assignment as an overseer in the congregation.—Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4.
Upholds Basic Truths
Polycarp’s oversight of the congregation began in the challenging years of the foretold apostasy. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3) He was apparently willing to expend himself in behalf of others. Thus, when Ignatius of Antioch, Syria, en route to his martyrdom in Rome, asked the Philippians to send a letter to his home congregation, Polycarp of Smyrna saw to its delivery. At that time he sent the Philippians his own letter.
In Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, we find reaffirmation of certain Scriptural truths. He separates God and Christ, the Father and Son, and says that it is “by the will of God through Jesus Christ” that we gain salvation. Polycarp warns against the love of money and reminds his readers that fornicators and men who lie with men will not inherit God’s Kingdom. (Compare 1 Timothy 6:10; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.) He also includes exhortation for wives to love their husbands and for elders to be “compassionate and merciful.” All are urged to “be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good.” Finally, Polycarp pleads: “May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest, build you up in faith and truth, and in all meekness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, forbearance, and purity.”
Polycarp quoted liberally from the Scriptures. In his letter to the Philippians, he referred to Matthew, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and likely other portions of the Scriptures. This gives us an indication that at least some professed Christians sought to adhere to Scriptural principles during the difficult period following the death of the apostles.
His Work in Smyrna
Smyrna, an ancient coastal city of Asia Minor, was a busy and prosperous trading center. It was also a center for worship of the State. For instance, Roman emperors were featured prominently as deities on coins and in inscriptions. Pagan religious philosophies were promoted by imperial authority.
Evidently, a number of those associated with the Smyrna congregation were poor materially. But at one time, they were commended for being spiritually rich. How encouraging it must have been to Christians in Smyrna to hear Jesus’ words recorded by the apostle John! Said Christ to the “angel,” or anointed overseers, at Smyrna: “I know your tribulation and poverty—but you are rich—and the blasphemy by those who say they themselves are Jews, and yet they are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil will keep on throwing some of you into prison that you may be fully put to the test, and that you may have tribulation ten days. Prove yourself faithful even to death, and I will give you the crown of life.”—Revelation 2:8-10.
Any spiritual richness that may have continued among professing Christians at Smyrna was no doubt directly related to the fine oversight of congregation elders. That era was one of tumultuous religious struggling, and members of the congregation served amid conflicting creeds and cults. Their witnessing territory was rife with demonic practices, including sorcery and astrology, and thus the climate was one of godlessness.
Adding to the hostility of the pagan populace was the bitter hatred expressed by the Jews. When the martyrdom of Polycarp took place on February 23, 155 C.E., fanatical Jews reportedly assisted with the gathering of firewood. This they did even though the execution took place on a great Sabbath day!
Who Are the Godless?
Polycarp had intended to remain in Smyrna and face the danger when his foes came for him. But at the urging of others, he withdrew to a nearby farm. When his whereabouts became known, he refused to move again to elude those searching for him but merely said: “The will of God be done.”
Entering the stadium, Polycarp stood before the governor and the vast, seething crowd. As the governor persisted in urging him to express worshipful honor to Caesar, Polycarp plainly said: “I am a Christian . . . If you want to know the meaning of Christianity, you have only to name a day and give me a hearing.” The governor replied: “Try your arguments on the crowd.” But Polycarp said: “It is you whom I thought it might be worth discussing it with, because we have been taught to pay all proper respect to powers and authorities . . . so long as it does not compromise us.” Shortly thereafter Polycarp was burned to death because he would not renounce Jesus Christ.
Polycarp’s status as a Christian is something God alone can determine. What of today? A vast throng of true Christians also will not renounce Christ. Rather, they declare that he is God’s Messianic King enthroned in heaven. These Witnesses of Jehovah also point out that we are about to see the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic words concerning the “great tribulation,” the most cataclysmic event the world will ever know. However, this betokens not the end of humankind but of wickedness. Survival is possible into a righteous new world of peace and pleasantness.—Matthew 24:13, 21, 34; 2 Peter 3:13.
Who would choose to fight against the messengers of such glad tidings? Only those who really are godless, even if they have a “form of godly devotion.” (2 Timothy 3:5) False religious teachings have blinded the minds of some, and many are “paying attention to misleading inspired utterances and teachings of demons.” (1 Timothy 4:1) Present-day Christians have suffered at the hands of the godless, some to the point of death. But faithful servants of Jehovah will never lose out, for theirs will be God’s eventual gift of eternal life. Meanwhile, these faithful proclaimers of God’s Kingdom remain staunch advocates of Scriptural truth.