Now I begin to be a disciple. … Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ. –Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-107)
The Apostolic Fathers are the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament authors themselves. They belong to what we call the “subapostolic age.” Into this world was born a man by the name of Ignatius, who would become one of those Apostolic Fathers, and a bishop. The early church historian, Eusebius, records that Ignatius and his good friend Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna) were both disciples of the Apostle John. Ignatius served as the Bishop of Antioch (where Paul and Barnabas were commissioned for their first missionary journey) at the beginning of the second century. Tradition has it that the Apostle Peter himself left directions stating that Ignatius should be made Bishop of Antioch when he reached an appropriate age.
Ignatius, like many other early Christian leaders, suffered martyrdom in Rome. What makes Ignatius somewhat different (and somewhat strange) is that he seemed to long for that distinction. Ignatius was arrested early in the second century and condemned to die. However, at this point in the history of Roman persecution against Christians, a “notable” Christian could often be spared from execution for a price, or if a Roman nobleman or noblewoman appealed to the emperor on their behalf. Ignatius wanted none of this. On his long journey from Antioch (in modern day Turkey) to Rome, Ignatius penned seven letters – five to churches in Asia Minor, one to the church in Rome, and one to his good friend Polycarp. In these letters he gives counsel to the church leaders, calls for Christian unity, warns against apostasy, and demands that his own impending martyrdom not be interfered with, since he welcomes it as the seal upon his discipleship in Christ.
We learn much about the inner workings of the early church from Ignatius’ letters. He is the first writer to clearly present a threefold pattern of ministry in the local church: one bishop (pastor) in a church with elders and deacons. He argues strongly in support of what he sees as the biblical pattern in all of his letters except his letter to Rome, which may indicate that this pattern had not yet become the norm in the newest churches in the western region of the Roman Empire. He is conspicuously silent about a Bishop in Rome, which argues against the Roman Catholic view that there was a direct line of succession from the Apostle Peter to each Bishop of Rome (Pope).
Ignatius’ main concern was unity in the body of Christ, particularly in a time of unrest and persecution. It is a concern that I share with him. Even in difficult times, unity is essential to the healthy functioning of the local church. “Shun divisions,” he said in his letter to the church in Smyrna, “as the beginning of evil.” Paul said it this way to Titus; “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning them once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” There is room in the church for peaceful debate and for disagreements on secondary matters, but seeking to drive a wedge into a healthy church by insisting on our own way is anathema to God.
It is interesting how often Ignatius quotes the Scriptures in his letters, indicating that by the late first century/early second century, they had been copied and disseminated to the churches. His quotations appear to be from memory, however, as one would expect from a man who did not have all the Scriptures at his daily disposal, as we do today. The Scriptures he could not hold in his hands, he held in his heart.
Ignatius finally became the martyr he hoped to be, likely being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum at Rome. He left behind a legacy we can all hope to emulate. He remained faithful even unto death, and in life served Christ with all his might. He lived and died for Jesus, and for unity in the body of Christ. Two goals worth dying for.
Let us all rise to such an occasion. Let us live for Christ regardless of the hardships in our own time, and let us be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
Grace and peace,