Ignatius of Antioch
I want to introduce you to a couple of men, because knowing about them is almost – not quite, but almost – like knowing the Scriptures. In other words, there are two men who knew the apostles and outlived them, and they are two of our earliest post-apostolic heroes: Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.
The final book of the Bible was probably written in the last decade of the first century. The apostle John, who outlived all his New Testament contemporaries and who, it seems, was the only disciple to die a natural death, lived almost to the year 100. He wrote the book of Revelation in perhaps the year 91, or 92, or 93, when he was probably in his eighties and living in the city of Ephesus.
When he died sometime before the end of the first century, the apostolic age ended. But at the time of his death many Christian leaders were still alive and writing letters and books. Many of them had been won to Christ and / or discipled by John or one of the New Testament heroes. We have preserved for us some of the documents these later men wrote. They are our earliest Christian writings apart from the New Testament, and they tell us what was happening in the church as the apostolic era ended and the post-apostolic or patristic era began.
I love studying about Christian history. It’s important for us to have a knowledge of the amazing story of the church and to know something about those who have passed the faith down to us.
The patristic or post-apostolic writings are not inspired nor infallible. We don’t take them as Scripture. They are fallible and very human, but they give us wonderful insights about how Christians lived and behaved in those days.
So let me introduce you to Ignatius of Antioch.
The Life of Ignatius
You may remember from our study of the book of Acts that when the Christians were persecuted and driven out of Jerusalem, many of them went up north to the great city of Antioch—the third largest city in the Roman Empire, and a city with a large Jewish presence. This became the primary church of its day, the center of gravity for Christianity. The city of Antioch still exists in southern Turkey, several hundred miles north of Jerusalem. Barnabas oversaw the church, and he recruited Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul) to help him. The church there became very strong and it was here the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians. The church of Antioch also sent out the first church-sponsored missionaries—Paul and Barnabas, as we read in Acts 13.
Well, sometime after Barnabas, Peter apparently became the head of the church there and oversaw the ministries of that region. And then, later, a man became the leader of the church whose name was Ignatius. We believe Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John, and we know he zealously defended the Gospel against certain heresies that were sweeping into the church.
One of those heresies is called Docetism, which claimed that Jesus Christ only appeared to have a human body, which suffered and died on the cross. It wasn’t a real body. Jesus had a spiritual body of some sort, but it wasn’t physical Docetism denied the full humanity of Christ and the full nature of the incarnation. Ignatius fought this heresy and preached against it with vigor.
At some point, political pressures and persecution grew, and Ignatius found himself in danger. He was arrested and he may have been placed on trial in Antioch. Some accounts say Emperor Trajan came to Antioch and demanded everyone sacrifice to the gods. Ignatius, being the head of the church in Antioch, refused, and Trajan ordered him transported to Rome to be fed to the beasts in the Colosseum. However it happened, there’s no doubt Ignatius was bound in chains and turned over to a group of ten soldiers—whom he called his ten leopards.
As he was taken overland across modern-day Turkey, the churches in the various cities gathered to watch him pass and to hear him preach.
The early church historian Eusebius wrote: “He was sent from [Antioch] Syria to Rome and became food for wild animals because of his witness to Christ. He was brought through Asia under the strictest guard, strengthening the Christian community by speech and encouragement in every city where he stayed. He warned them in particular to be on guard against the heresies that were then first beginning to spring up, urging them to hold fast to the apostolic tradition, which he thought necessary to put in writing for safety’s sake.”
As he traveled, he also wrote letters to the various churches there to give them a lasting reminder of his visit. He wrote seven different letters—to the church at Ephesus; to the church at Magnesia and to the church at Tralles, to the church at Rome, to the one at Smyrna; and a personal letter to Polycarp.
The Writings of Ignatius
His letter to the Ephesians is the longest, with 21 chapters, so let me read you some of this fascinating letter, written not long after the death of John the Apostle to the church established by the apostle Paul.
This isn’t New Testament inspired writing, but chronologically speaking, this is as close as it can possibly be to the epistles and the book of Revelation.
The bishop of the church in Ephesus was a man named Onesimus, and it may have been the very same Onesimus who we read about in the book of Philemon. Ignatius is keen that the church respect its bishop.
Here is a sample of what he wrote to the Ephesians:
Ignatius writes to the church at Ephesus in Asia, most worthy of all blessings, greetings in the fullness of God the Father, and especially in Jesus Christ and in blameless joy….
I take the opportunity in advance to encourage you so you will agree with the will of God. For Jesus Christ, our common life, is the will of the Father as also the bishops, who are appointed in various regions, are in the will of Jesus Christ.
[Your bishop, Onesimus, loves you] beyond words. It is him I ask you to love in accord with Jesus Christ as well as all of you trying to be like him. Blessed is He who graciously gave you such a one as bishop!
…it is fitting that you agree with the opinion (or will) of the bishop, like strings tuned to a harp. For this reason, Jesus Christ is praised in your harmony and in your united love. Now, each of you, become a chorus together so that by a united voice in harmony as you take up the tune of God in unity, you may sing in one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. This is so that the Father may hear and recognize you by the good things you do, who are members of His Son….
[Bishop] Onesimus himself highly praises your good order in God because you all live in accord with truth and because no heresy lives in your midst. Nor do you listen to anyone more than the one who speaks about Jesus Christ in truth.
For some are accustomed to bear the name of Christ with an evil guile while practicing other things that are unworthy of God. These are ones you should avoid like wild beasts for they are mad dogs….
Then, speaking of the Lord Jesus, Ignatius said:
There is one physician, both fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, becoming God in the flesh, true life in death, from Mary and from God, at first suffering and then incapable of suffering. This is Jesus Christ our Lord….
I recognized some who were passing through there with evil doctrine. You have not permitted them to sow [evil doctrine] among you, because you have plugged up your ears so as not to receive the things sown by them. As stones in the Father’s temple you have been prepared to be God the Father’s building, lifted up to the heights through the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, as you use the Holy Spirit for a rope…. You are fellow travelers, God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, ordered well in every way in the commands of Jesus Christ.
Pray unceasingly for others; in their case there is hope of repentance, that they may obtain God. Permit them to become disciples by seeing your works. With regard to expressions of anger, be meek; with regard to their boasts, be humble. Meet their blasphemies with your prayers and their deception with your steadfastness of faith. Meet their unruly life with your gentleness, and be diligent not to imitate them….
These are the last times…. Be diligent to gather more frequently for thanksgiving and glory to God.
Ignatius ended his letter saying: I am going to Rome in chains. I, the least of all believers there, was counted worthy to be found for the honor of God. Farewell in God the Father and in Jesus Christ our common hope.
As Ignatius trudged across modern Turkey in chains, he next wrote to the church in Magnesia, telling them to respect their bishop even though he was quite young. And he told us something interesting about how and when Christians worshiped—no longer on Saturday (or the Sabbath), but on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Ignatius wrote:
If those who lived in the old ways come to the newness of hope, they no longer keep the Sabbath but live by the Lord’s Day. On this day, our life dawned through Him and His death, which some deny.
Ignatius’ third letter was to the Trallians. He exhorted them to respect and obey their bishop and deacons, and he warned them against false teaching.
His next letter is to the church of Rome—the church in the city to which he is being taken in chains. He wanted his letter to get there before he did. He began saying:
Ignatius…to the church [that] presides in the region of the Romans; it is worthy of God, worthy of propriety; worthy of blessings; worthy of praise; worthy of success; worthy of purity…. I greet your church in the name of Jesus Christ.
He went on to tell them he is looking forward to seeing their “God-worthy faces.”
Ignatius didn’t want the Christians in Rome to try to intervene on his behalf. He wrote: Do not prevent me from being poured out to God as a libation…. It is good that I should be like the sun setting from this world so that I may rise to God…. I willingly die for God, if in fact you do not prevent me. I appeal to you not to be inopportune even with a noble purpose. Permit me to be food for the beasts…. I do not command you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles; I am a criminal.
Ignatius’ next letter is to the church in Philadelphia, which John also addressed in the book of Revelation. Remember, Ignatius may have written his letter only about ten or fifteen years or so after the book of Revelation was sent. In his letter to the church at Philadelphia, the apostle John had said, “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut., I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” Then John commended them for enduring some level of persecution from a nearby Jewish synagogue.
Fifteen or so years later, the Philadelphians were still contending with some of these issues. Ignatius commended the bishop, and as we read through his letters we see the structure of the local church at that time had evolved into a threefold organization: The bishop, the elders or presbyters, and the deacons—more about that later.
Ignatius wrote: Ignatius…to the church of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ that is in Philadelphia of Asia. This church has received mercy, has been established in the harmony of God, and rejoices in the suffering of our Lord unquestionably, and is fully confident in His mercy in his resurrection. I greet this church in the blood of Jesus Christ, a church that is eternal and abiding joy, especially if they are at one with the bishop, with his presbyters, and the deacons who have been approved in the mind of Jesus Christ.
If anyone tries to interpret Judaism for you, do not listen to him. It is better to hear about Christianity from a man who has circumcision than about Judaism from an uncircumcised man. But if neither of them speaks about Jesus Christ, to me they are gravestones and tombs of the dead on which only the names of men are inscribed. Free the evil practices and snares of the ruler of this age lest you grow weak in love by this troubling of mind. Rather, come together in an undivided heart.
Ignatius’ last two letters were to the church in Smyrna and to its famous bishop, named Polycarp. Once again, Smyrna was one of the churches addressed in the book of Revelation. Fifteen or so years earlier, John had told them: I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid about what you are about to suffer.”
So what was going on with this church a decade or so later?
The heresy of Docetism is troubling the church—the teaching that Jesus only appeared to have a human body. Ignatius wrote to the church in Smyrna: Truly he was nailed [to the cross] for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch…that he might carry the banner for the ages through the resurrection for his holy and faithful ones, whether Jew or Gentile, in the one body of his church. He suffered all these things for us to be saved. And truly he suffered as he also truly raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that he only seemed to suffer.
And finally, there is a poignant letter to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, whom I’ll profile for you next week. He said, in part:
I encourage you in that grace with which you are clothed to set your course and encourage everyone to be saved. Vindicate your position with a physical and spiritual diligence…. Linger constantly in your prayers….
Ignatius went on to tell Polycarp to be wise as a serpent in everything, and always as harmless as a dove, and he told him to have the perseverance and endurance of an athlete. He reminded him to make sure widows are cared for and to write to the other churches with news of him.
At last, Ignatius arrived in Rome where he was apparently martyred by emperor Trajan. He was apparently killed, torn apart, and devoured by the wild beasts in the Colosseum. The traditional date of his martyrdom was December 20, 107. Historian Philip Schaff says that only a few bones remained of his body, and these were carefully gathered up and conveyed back to Antioch for burial.
What can we learn? Clearly by this time there were three organizational levels in the early church—the bishop, the elders, and the deacons.
Remember, these were the days of house churches. It would seem that every city had a church leader—a bishop—and many elders, who perhaps served as pastors of the house churches, under the authority of the bishop. The deacons, we can presume, worked to tend the flock in various practical ways.
This is not very different from what I’ve experienced throughout my ministry. I was a senior pastor in a church; I had an ordained staff to help shepherd the flock; and we had deacons to assist in practical and invaluable ways. This is a workable structure that can be adapted in almost any environment. I’m convinced the New Testament had two ordained positions. The first was called the role of elder, or pastor, or shepherd, or bishop, or presbyter. The second was the deacon. But as the church evolved, the first category began to have levels that allowed for smooth administration, and Ignatius spoke of the bishop, the elders, and the deacons.
We should point out that Ignatius did not advance the idea of bishops over regions or a bishop over the entire church. He was speaking of a workable structure for local cities.
Ignatius was very keen that the church members in every city respect and obey their bishop. He was more dogmatic about this than I would be today, but remember—the church was combating false teachings like Docetism, and these bishops were responsible for keeping the church from veering off into dangerous teachings.
In terms of theology, Ignatius followed the teachings of the apostle Paul and of the New Testament writers. He often quoted from or alluded to the New Testament scriptures. He taught that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God—and this is very important to remember. Some years ago during the DaVinci Code hysteria, the idea seeped into the public mind that the dual nature of Jesus—His being both God and Man—was something decided by the Council of Nicaea in the Fourth Century.
Not so. Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians in the name of “Jesus Christ our God.” In the same letter, he wrote: Our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s design; he is from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized so that he might purify the water by His Passion. His theology is grounded on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One aspect of Ignatius’ theology, however, has generated some questions. He seems to have believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or in the Lord’s Supper. In his letter to Philadelphia, he wrote: Therefore, be diligent to employ only one Eucharist. For there is only one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and there is only one cup for unity in His blood. There is one altar as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons….
It is from Ignatius that we get the tradition of the Lord’s Supper being conducted by ordained church officials—by the bishop or someone authorized by him.
Above all, from the life of Ignatius we learn God places His people in every generation. When the last apostle died, nothing slowed down or ceased in the Lord’s work. Men and women like Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna and all the believers in the growing churches were there to carry on and to pass down the message of the cross, through the centuries, to us, who now bear the privilege of passing it to others. Every generation has faced the possibility of martyrdom, as Ignatius did. Every age has been forced to contend for the integrity of the faith once for all delivered to us. But in this way, the Kingdom of God advances across the earth until He comes to establish the Kingdom that will never end.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excursus into Christian history. It seems logical as we’ve finished our studies of the book of Acts to see what happened during the next few years as the work continued. Next week, we’ll look at the second of our two early heroes—Polycarp of Smyrna.
While I’ve consulted several church histories for this, my primary resource is a book by Kenneth J. Howell entitled, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna: A New Translation and Theological Commentary, published in 2009. Also, see the new translation and commentary of Eusebius by Paul L. Maier, published by Kregel in 1999.