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 challenging letter in which Ignatius pours himself out to the Roman church about his impending martyrdom.
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
On reading the introduction to this letter my first thought was “wow” because Ignatius really liked this Roman church! The opening paragraph is literally a string of praises that they are worthy of, such as: “worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy”! Very different to the previous letters, in which he highly praised the bishops and the faith of the previous churches, there has be nothing quite like this so far.
In all of Ignatius's letters so far, he has mentioned that he is bound as a prisoner for Christ, on his way to face beasts and that in doing so he will “attain to God” and truly become a disciple of Jesus through martyrdom. But this time it's different. He actually pleads with the Roman church not to do anything that will prevent his death!
From the way he writes, it sounds like the church in Rome had great influence and could have probably changed his sentence to have Ignatius set free. But he writes to them saying that he is “afraid” of their love, “lest it should do me an injury” because it was easy for the Roman church to “accomplish what [they] please” which, in his mind, would make it difficult for him to “attain to God” if they show their love to his flesh and thus cause him to have to run his race once again from the start.
This letter is overall different in its tone and I found the things Ignatius said quite a challenge.
Ignatius repeatedly says he will “willingly die for God” and to let him “become food for the wild beasts” because he is “the wheat of God”, to be “ground by the teeth of the wild beasts”, so that he “may be found the pure bread of God” and that the wild beasts “may become [his] tomb”.
He is really living out the truth of the Gospel of willingly laying down his life for God, even in the face of a horrendous death by wild animals! It reminds me of one of my favourite Scriptures, a similar situation actually, when Paul is bound and on his way to Jerusalem to face death and he says:
But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
This right here sums up everything Ignatius is saying and desires. His resolve is steadfast, even with the opportunity to get out of this situation via help from the Roman church. I wonder how many of us, myself included, would have such strength of faith in the face of death?
As Ignatius said, he wants to “not merely be called a Christian, but really found to be one” through his actions and outward faith, whatever the circumstances. He does give us a small insight into what drives him during this time, because not only is he facing execution, but has ten soldiers guarding him who are not exactly treating him well, by the sounds of things. But despite this, he tells us that, “there is within me a water that liveth and speaketh, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father”. The Spirit drives him and comforts him, and in this he draws his strength to face whatever comes.
Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.
I began this letter wowed, but leave it feeling a bit stunned. It kind of puts things into perspective, in that we in the West really have it quite easy these days as Christians. The challenges we face today are vastly different from these early Christians (and, indeed, believers in other parts of the world today), but the freedom we have is something which I don't think we always appreciate as much as we could.
May we find strength and comfort in Christ by the power of the Spirit, to face whatever challenges come our way in life, even unto death. Amen.
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