It can be difficult sometimes to remember that the events of the Bible actually took place in history. Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and His sending the Apostles to preach, took place in space and time. One of the comforting results of this historical grounding of the Christian religion is that there are real figures from history who are not mentioned in the New Testament, but who nevertheless met and studied under Jesus’ 12 Apostles.
One such figure is Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was martyred between the year 98 and 117 AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Ignatius, along with another early Martyr named Polycarp, were students of John, the Disciple whom Jesus loved, the author of the Gospel of John, 1,2, and 3 John, and the Book of Revelation. They knew John! They had for their theology teacher the man who stood under the cross with Mary as Jesus died for the salvation of the world (John 19:25-26). The Disciples were not characters from Veggie Tales for Ignatius of Antioch, they were real men who lived and worked only a generation before himself. Indeed, he makes references to the Disciples frequently in his letters, such as in his letter to the Romans, “I do not give orders like Peter and Paul: they were Apostles, I am a convict; they were free, I am even now still a slave. But if I suffer, I will be a freedman of Jesus Christ and will rise up free in Him,” (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, 4:3).
Not much else is known about Ignatius’s early life, except that he was likely a Christian from a very young age. One tradition even suggested that Ignatius could have been one of the little children whom Jesus blessed in the Gospels (Matthew 19:13). While this tradition is not recorded in the Scriptures, it does underscore the fact that Ignatius is an important link between the events of the New Testament and the early life of the Christian church after the book of Acts. He discusses the relationship between Jesus, the work of pastors, and the church at length in his letters. One of his most famous sayings is from his letter to the Smyrnaeans, “Wherever the bishop (read pastor) appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic (Christian) church,” (Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:2). Ignatius does not say this to make the pastor equal to God, but rather to emphasize that faith is created through what Jesus does through pastors- Jesus preaches, baptizes, and distributes His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Through His word and sacraments, Jesus Himself is present and gathers the church through them as through means. Jesus does not deliver the fruits of His death and resurrection except through His word and sacraments. Hence the saying, where Jesus Christ is, there is the church, and where the church is, there is Jesus Christ.
Ignatius wrote letters under difficult circumstances. He was arrested in Syria and forced to leave his church in Antioch. He was then sent to Rome to be executed. Along his route to Rome, church leaders in various locations were advised that Ignatius would be passing through. And so, Ignatius prepared letters to give to all the churches along his path to Martyrdom, including Smyrna, Ephesus, Magnesia, Philadelphia, and Tralles. He also wrote a letter to the church in Rome and to his fellow student of John, the elderly bishop Polycarp. Polycarp would also be martyred for the Christian faith, being burned to death and stabbed numerous times. Ignatius, at the end of his final journey, was likely eaten by lions in the Roman Colosseum. His letters teach the Christian church so much about the Office of the Ministry, the Lord’s Supper, and the nature of the church. However, his zeal and boldness for the Christian faith in the face of persecution is perhaps the most important lesson he can teach to us in the 21st century. Especially appropriate for us are these words from Ignatius,
“The work is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric; rather, Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world,” (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans 3:3).