Written by Doug Ponder on November 27, 2012
Ignatius the Convert
Born in the area of modern-day Syria just a few years after Jesus was crucified, Ignatius grew up in rapidly-changing times. As Jesus’ followers were scattered by persecution they went about telling others the good news about his saving reign (Acts 8:4). This is likely how Ignatius first heard the gospel, for we know from historical accounts that he began following Jesus at an early age. Ironically, the same persecution that brought him to faith in Jesus would one day bring him home to Jesus.
Ignatius the Leader
Ignatius was mentored by John the apostle, one of the twelve disciples that Jesus first called to follow him. After studying under John, he was eventually chosen to serve as the bishop of the church at Antioch, the same church where Peter the apostle had served earlier in life. Those close connections with two of Jesus’ first followers afforded Ignatius a great deal of influence, but he never seemed to let it go to his head. Whenever he wrote to other Christians he said things like this:
“I do not issue orders to you, as if I were some great person… I speak to you as fellow-disciples with me.” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Chap. III)
Ignatius the Martyr
Because of his influence and prominence in the church, Ignatius was eventually hunted down by the Roman emperor Trajan. He was ordered to choose between death or denying Jesus. He choose death. So, he was chained to ten soldiers and put on a ship bound for Rome, where he was to be to eaten by lions as a public spectacle in the Colosseum. During the long journey to Rome Ignatius wrote letters to encourage the churches he left behind. He knew they were afraid of what might happen to their own lives, so he reminded them of the treasure we have in Christ and of the kingdom that cannot be shaken:
“Let fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, 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 our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake.” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Chap. V-VI)
Ignatius the Example of Christ
It would be easy for us to think that Ignatius went to his death with bitterness and hatred in heart toward his captors. But his letters indicate otherwise. To the very end Ignatius proved to be a true follower of Jesus, someone who suffered for Christ (1 Peter 2:21), someone who loved his enemies and prayed for those who persecuted him (Matt. 5:44), and someone who did not repay evil with evil, but with blessing (1 Peter 3:9). These were some of the final words he wrote to the churches back home:
“Pray without ceasing for others, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord . . . in order that no weed of the devil may be found among you, but that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Chap. X)
Let us all pray that, like Ignatius, we too will be filled with courage, humility, and love because of what Jesus has done for us.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.