Day Six: St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Magnesians (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: Ignatius urges the church to continue in unity, to honour their leadership and to avoid Judaizers who may try to bring false teaching. This letter also gives some valuable insight to early church hierarchy.
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.
When: Around 107-108 AD
Today continues with Ignatius's next letter which he wrote on his travels through Asia Minor towards his martyrdom. I'd not heard of this church before now, but he commends them highly for their faith.
There is definitely a strong theme with Ignatius with regards to the structure of church leadership and how the believers should trust and follow their bishops, which begins to make more sense now in this letter as his thinking is displayed some more. He urges the church to submit to their bishop because in doing so, they are in fact submitting to the Father, who is “bishop of us all”.
The opening chapters of this letter reminded me of Paul when he wrote to Timothy to encourage him in his position within the church, despite his youth (1 Tim 4:12). In a similar manner, Ignatius is advising this church in Magnesia to not become too familiar with their bishop “on account of his youth” but to remember his position as a leader of the church and to “yield him all reverence” due to that.
Chapter six actually gives us a really good insight into the theology behind church hierarchy, and why Ignatius is emphasising obeying the bishop and presbyters so much— they are essentially the representation of God and the Apostles to the congregation! Look at how Ignatius puts it:
…your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ
That's some high standards to live up to! It's no wonder the qualifications for these positions were strict if this was the thinking behind them even when Paul first penned his letters to Timothy and Titus (1 Tim 3:1-7; 8-13; Tit 1:5-9).
But it's also because of this that Ignatius instructs that no one do anything “without the bishop and presbyters” since, as Jesus did nothing without the Father, and the Apostles without Jesus, so neither should the Church without their leadership. It's interesting to see that this church structure was active from so early on, and not something created hundreds of years after the fact.
The final chapters warn against “strange doctrines” and “old fables”, which mainly seems to be about Judaizers who would teach the new believers to follow the old ways of Judaism. This would be another early example of the views of the Church in regards to the Jewish Law and how it relates to Christians, “For if we still live according to the Jewish law,” Ignatius says, “we acknowledge that we have not received grace”, which you can see is a statement echoing Paul’s sentiments throughout his letters to the churches – “you are not under law, but under grace” as he wrote in Romans 6:14 (and Rom 7:4,6; Gal 4:21 etc).
This whole chapter is pretty much a short summary of Paul’s teaching on the Law and how we Christians are no longer bound by it; "You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal 5:4), or as Ignatius phrases it, "it is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize" – the message is consistent, Christians are no longer under the Law of Moses, but “have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day”.
An encouraging letter to read offering some valuable insight to the early church.