Day Eleven: St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to Polycarp (full text)

Who: Ignatius converted at a young age and later became Bishop of Antioch. A friend of Polycarp and fellow disciple of John, there is a long standing tradition that Ignatius was the child that Jesus held in his arms and blessed in Mark 10:13-16

What: A letter addressed personally to Polycarp giving him advice and encouragement as a bishop, plus some instructions on marriage to the church, which are reminiscent of Paul’s epistles.

Why: Ignatius wrote a series of letters to the churches in Asia Minor whilst en route to Rome to face martyrdom by wild beasts in the Colosseum around 108 AD.

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When: Around 107-108 AD

This is the final letter by Ignatius, and it ends with him writing personally to his fellow bishop Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey) who was the leader of the church in which yesterday's reading was addressed to. Whereas the previous letters were all written to the church as a whole, with praise and exhortations of their bishops, this one is addressed directly to a bishop personally.

Ignatius aims to encourage Polycarp in this letter by acknowledging his strengths and steadfast faith, and also by reminding him off his duties and role as a bishop. There's a brief warning against “those who seem worthy of credit”, but actually “teach strange doctrines” which may fill Polycarp with some “apprehension”.

This warning would seem to be against Docetism again, as in all of Ignatius's previous letters, which leads him to write this short creed about Christ just to reiterate the Church’s stance on the matter, and although it’s only short, I do like it, especially the parallelism:

Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.

What follows this are a few instructions, or maybe advice, to Polycarp, which isn’t too unusual since Ignatius is the elder of the two bishops – probably well into his 70s by this point, Polycarp maybe in his 40s. We see the inverse of what the previous letters have encouraged the church body to do: “do nothing without the bishop”, where here we see that same advice given to Polycarp but from a leadership point of view. “Let nothing be done without thy consent” he is told, but also not do “anything without the approval of God”. The position of bishop was not one to be abused, those who held that office were to be subject to God and leading of the Spirit all the more.

Polycarp is encouraged to “flee evil arts”, or “wicked practices” as other translations have it, but to also make sure he preaches against such things in public. Within the rest of this chapter, there is a quick run down of instructions concerning marriage and how to pastor those who want to be married, or who already are. There are similar calls to marriage purity and relationships as Paul gives in Eph 5:25, which is probably what Ignatius is quoting when he writes that Polycarp should encourage the men to “love their wives, even as the Lord the Church”, but also to those who are unmarried and virgins, they should strive to remain “in a state of purity” – another echo of Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Cor 7:8.

But there is a definite change of thinking between what Paul wrote and what Ignatius says to Polycarp in the remainder of this chapter. Where Paul says that “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:9) with no other rules attached, Ignatius writes saying that those who wish to marry should plan to “form their union with the approval of the bishop” so that it may be a Godly coupling and not something formed “after their own lust”. For all of times that Ignatius quotes Paul in his letters, it seems strange now that there has been a subtle change with regards to marriage which departs slightly from Paul’s instruction. Maybe this is a rule formed from the inference in what Paul says in 1 Cor 7 about widows who want to marry again, but “only in the Lord”, ie. to other believers; or more explicitly, from 2 Cor 6:14 where he instructs that believers should not be “unequally yoked” (or “mismatched”) with unbelievers. But even when taking this into consideration, requiring permission from the bishop is a new one.

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After this there is a shift of audience in the letter as it appears to go from talking personally to Polycarp, to speaking to the whole congregation. “Give ye heed to the bishop” chapter six begins, speaking of Polycarp in the third person, and not by name. What follows is a familiar call to live in unity with one another, but said in words which are reminiscent once again of Paul:

Labour together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together, as the stewards, and associates, and servants of God. Please ye Him under whom ye fight, and from whom ye receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply. Let your works be the charge assigned to you, that ye may receive a worthy recompense. Be long-suffering, therefore, with one another, in meekness, as God is towards you.

I don’t know about you, but when reading this except I can almost feel the desire which Ignatius had towards his fellow churches and his passion to see everyone live out that goal to have “love for one another” which Jesus prayed for in Jn 13:35, so that “everyone will know that you are [Jesus’] disciples”.

The closing chapters display more of this unity of the churches being lived out as there are instructions to send various letters and messengers between the churches far and wide where Ignatius won’t be able to make it to, so that the message and teaching may be consistent.

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This is the final letter of Ignatius due to him being martyred shortly after by wild animals in Rome. There is another letter called “The Martyrdom of Ignatius” which isn’t included in this Lent reading plan, but you can read it in full here at newadvent.org.

Scholarly opinion is somewhat divided on the authenticity of The Martyrdom epistle, with some accepting it as totally genuine, others partially and some rejecting it completely. You can read a brief overview on this subject here: biblestudytools.com/history/.

In brief though, if it is genuine, the letter is supposed to written by those who accompanied Ignatius on his travels through Asia Minor and who also witnessed his execution in Rome. After a lengthy trip, they eventually landed in Rome where Ignatius “was thus cast to the wild beasts”. The believers in the city “spent the whole night in tears” and prayer to the Lord, and it is recorded in the closing chapter of this letter that some “saw the blessed Ignatius” standing with them and embracing the group, and “others beheld him again praying” for them and lastly, some saw him sweating and “standing by the Lord” as though coming from “his great labour”. Whether you accept the genuineness of this last letter or not, I think it gives some nice closure to the life of Ignatius which we’ve briefly been following over the last few days.

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