Eric Liddell Died Yesterday; Polycarp Dies Tomorrow

A few weeks ago as I sat in my office one lengthy Monday afternoon, I began mulling over how mundane the day seemed. After the flurry of activity and business of Christmas and New Year’s and everything church-related that entails, that particular Monday just seemed incredibly ordinary. And then I discovered that it was the 53rd anniversary of Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youdarian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCulley making first contact with the Waodani (Auca) Indians. They’d spent years preparing for that particular day, yearning to bring the knowledge of Jesus Christ to people who had never heard of Him, even 1,923 years after His death. Three days later they would die upon the ends of Waodani spears, becoming the most famous missionary martyrs of the 20th century.

After realizing that my very common day was the anniversary of a very significant day in missions history, I set to work researching and writing down on my calendar events that are significant in church history. When the neon lights of progress are constantly flashing around us, the faithful glow of the saints of God easily becomes obscured or forgotten.

Eric Liddell died yesterday. Polycarp dies tomorrow. Both men served the Lord with faithfulness and integrity, holding fast to what they understood the Word of the Lord to say. His stand cost Liddell the potential to medal in three Olympic events. Polycarp’s stand cost him his life. Through both of them Christ was exalted as being greater than fame, success, and avoiding great physical suffering.

Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in the late first and early second centuries and studied under the Apostle John. Advanced in years, Polycarp was arrested for refusing to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor. describes the scene:

Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake.

Eric Liddell was famously portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. Although the Olympic schedule was published several months in advance (and not during the journey to France as the film depicts), Liddell forfeited his spot in three Olympic events because of his refusal to run on Sunday (the 100 meters, 4×100 relay, and 4×400 relay). Before the 400 meters final he was given a slip of paper with a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30 on it: “Those who honour Me, I will honour” by an American trainer. Running with the paper in his hand, Liddell set a new world record.

After the games, Liddell sailed for China as a missionary. Rather than flee the country at the beginning of World War II, Liddell stayed and was put in an internment camp for foreigners by the victorious Japanese armies. A prisoner exchange was negotiated for the release of some of the captives and Liddell was placed on the list to be released. He gave up his place in the exchange so a pregnant woman could escape the strain of being a prisoner of war. Liddell died in the interment camp of an inoperable brain tumor. He was not a martyr; the tumor would have been fatal either way. But one need not be a martyr to be worth remembering.

These two men are part of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. Though they may have died, they are not dead. They are with the Lord, having finished their earthly race. And we have been left with their legacy of faithfulness to imitate. I see in Polycarp a tenacity to cling to Christ at the cost of his own life. I see in Eric Liddell an uncompromising steadfastness, even when most people would think him an unpatriotic fool.  These men give me something to aspire to. And they remind me that God is faithful to transform the hearts of those who were once His enemies into people who count it a joy to live and to die that their Savior might be made much of.


Widipedia “Eric Liddell” “Polycarp”

“Pure Gold” by David McCasland


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