Picture yourself as a leader of the despised Christian church in an increasingly antagonistic society, on your way to your inevitable, humiliating, public execution. En route, you have the opportunity to send messages to your fellow “infidels” in this time of crisis and uncertainty. What will you write about?
It has been said that for many, if not the majority, of the world’s Christians, the 21st century is the closest their situation has been to that of the early Christian church than at any other time in history. The above scenario may sound familiar to our brothers and sisters being persecuted by ISIS and other fundamentalist Islamic groups, but it’s actually the story of Ignatius of Antioch who lived in the mid to late first century to early second century AD and was executed in Rome under emperor Trajan sometime between AD 98–117.
Ignatius and his fellow bishop Polycarp of Smyrna are believed to have been disciples of the Apostle John. This places Ignatius in the very next generation from the Apostles and he is considered one of the “Apostolic Fathers” of the early Christian church. Ignatius was writing on the go, and his letters are spontaneous and rather unstructured, which is understandable. He drew significantly on the Pauline writings and the Gospel of Matthew. He was dedicated to preserving the Apostolic tradition which he personally received and which he had laboured to pass on. Ignatius wrote letters to various churches and individuals during his journey to Rome to be thrown to the lions. Seven letters considered authentic have survived, to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnaeans and to his friend Polycarp. They are essentially Ignatius’ farewell message to the churches and give a unique insight into church life and concerns at the close of the Apostolic age. They also provide insight into the early church’s view of the Lord Jesus Christ, illustrating that his divinity, rather than being a later heretical accretion, was accepted from the close of the New Testament era.
So, what preoccupied Ignatius in his final days? His main concerns were for the unity of the church and that the Antiocene church was now leaderless, in the face of growing heresies. The two main heresies of the time (as discussed in the previous blog on the Apostles’ Creed) were Judaizing and Docetism. Judaizers such as the Ebionites denied the divinity and centrality of Christ and emphasised the necessity of keeping the Jewish customs and law. Docetists (and also Gnostics) denied the humanity of Christ, insisting that he only appeared to be human. Both these heresies were addressed in Ignatius’ letters. One of the safeguards which Ignatius believed would help protect the church from heresy was the unity of the catholic (universal) church under apostolic doctrine. Intrinsic to this was the emerging role of the monarchial bishop (overseer, episkopos) as leader of the Christian community in a region and he frequently urges submission to the bishop’s authority. Although the Roman church later corrupted the position of bishop, turning it into a position of power and priestly intercession, it’s important to not read this later development into Ignatius’ concept of episkopal oversight, which follows on from the New Testament’s (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 4:12–16; 5:17–20; Titus 1:7–11; 1 Pet 1:1–5).
Ignatius’ attitude toward his impending martyrdom is perhaps surprising and rather repellent to the reader. He desired to imitate the suffering of the Lord; “I strongly desire to suffer” (Trallians 4:2), and the alternative — to apostasize and thereby obtain clemency — was utterly abhorrent to him.
I am writing to all the churches and am insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will — unless you hinder me. I implore you: do not be ‘unseasonably kind’ to me. Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I might prove to be pure bread.” (Romans 4:1)
“Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil — let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ! Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on my behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me.” (Romans 5:3-6:1)
Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my God.” (Romans 6:3)
Ignatius saw both the divinity and humanity of Christ as important in his sufferings. Because Jesus was human, he truly suffered and died; because he is God he is worthy of Ignatius’ own sacrifice. There are intimations in his writings of Philippians 2:5–11 where Paul speaks of Jesus’ humbling and exaltation and 1 Peter 2:19–25 where Christ’s innocent suffering is set forth as an example.
The account of the martyrdom of Ignatius’ friend and former correspondent Polycarp in the 150s reveals a similar resolve, as he stood ready to face being torn by wild animals (“So the Proconsul said: ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he said: ‘Call for them!’”) or burnt alive (“But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish”).
But when the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath (to Caesar), and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’” (Polycarp 9:3)
Whilst we cannot, of course, regard Ignatius’ writings as inspired or authoritative alongside Scripture, they do provide an insight into the continuity of doctrine in the early church. Remember, he was contemporary with the Apostles and the writing of the later New Testament components. The Apostles warned against the same Judaizing and Docetic heresies as concerned Ignatius (Gal 5:1–12; 1 John 2:22–24; 4:1–6; 2 John :7–9; Jude 3–4). Ignatius’ repudiation of the Docetists reveals that he believed in the full and genuine humanity of the Lord Jesus.
Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up, who — his Father, that is — in the same way will likewise also raise us up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life. But if, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only (while they exist in appearance only!), why am I in chains? And why do I want to fight with wild beasts? If that is the case, I die for no reason; what is more, I am telling lies about the Lord.” (Trallians 9 & 10)
…with regard to our Lord that he is truly of the family of David with respect to human descent, Son of God with respect to the divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptised by John in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him, truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch… in order that he might raise a banner for the ages through his resurrection for his saints and faithful people, whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of his church. For he suffered all these things truly for our sakes, in order that we might be saved…’ (Smyrnians 1:1–2)
For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance only, then I am in chains in appearance only. Why, moreover, have I surrendered myself to death, to fire, to sword, to beasts? …Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, that I may suffer together with him! I endure everything, because he himself, who is perfect man, empowers me.” (Smyrnaeans 4:2)
Ignatius emphasised that Jesus’ birth was a real human birth, and yet was miraculous, in that the Son of God was born of a virgin. He evidently viewed this event as an incarnation of God in man, acknowledging that the Son existed with the Father before his conception.
“There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Ephesians 7:2)
“For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.” (Ephesians 18:2)
“Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life, and what had been prepared by God began to take effect.” (Ephesians 19:3)
“. . . having been entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ, who before the ages was with the Father and appeared at the end of time.” (Magnesians 6:1)
“Therefore as the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles, for he was united with him . . . Let all of you run together as to one temple of God, as to one altar. To one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and remained with the One and returned to the One.” (Magnesians 7:1, 2)
Ignatius acknowledged the subjection of the Son to the Father during his earthly ministry.
“. . . in faith and love, in the Son and the Father and in the Spirit… Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father . . .” (Magnesians 13:1,2)
Throughout his letters, Ignatius referred to Jesus Christ as God and in common with other writers of that era groups the Father, Son and Spirit together in the triadic pattern established in the New Testament (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 12:4–6; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2). Ignatius didn’t make a detailed theological argument for calling Jesus “God,” but rather used the appellation as confidently and routinely as other designations such as “Saviour” and “Lord,” with the ease of one who expects his readers to know what he means without further elaboration. This seems incredible if he was introducing a unique heresy to an empire-wide church which denied the divinity of Christ. On the contrary, his readers would be familiar with the scriptural testimony to Christ’s divinity and the infrequent but nevertheless evident title of “God” for Jesus in the New Testament (John 20:28; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13–14).
“…predestined before the ages for lasting and unchangeable glory forever, united and elect through genuine suffering by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God . . . (Letter to Ephesians, introduction)
“Being as you are imitators of God, once you took on new life through the blood of God you completed perfectly the task so natural to you.” (Ephesians 1:1)
“. . . in accordance with faith in and love for Jesus Christ our God . . . heartiest greetings blamelessly in Jesus Christ our God.” (Romans intro)
“For our God Jesus Christ is more visible now that he is in the Father.” (Romans 3:3)
“I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise …” (Smyrnans 1:1)
The doctrine of the deity of Christ did not appear from nowhere in later centuries as has been alleged by those who deny it. It can be clearly demonstrated not only within the Old and New Testaments, but from the earliest days of the church. Having a correct view of Jesus Christ was of vital importance to Ignatius, so much so that he devoted his last earthly communications to the subject. He was concerned to defend both the true humanity and the deity of the Son in the face of creeping heresies within the church that opposed one or the other. Christ was his life, his inspiration, his example, his Lord and it was Ignatius’ humble privilege to share in the sufferings of and die for the name of the One who had died for him. Those who suffer for the same Lord and God today live and die and have assurance of resurrection in continuity with the beliefs and example of the early church fathers and the Apostles before them.