Antioch in Syria is the first place where believers were called “Christians” and it was the home church for Paul and Barnabas, from which Paul launched his missionary journeys. Other early church writers identify Peter as the first bishop of Antioch, even though the New Testament bases him in Jerusalem.
Following Peter, the next bishop was Euodius, of whom we know next to nothing, and then Ignatius.
Dates for Ignatius’ life suggest he was born in 35AD and died as a martyr in Rome in 107AD. Some historians believe that the Apostle John survived until as late as 110AD and so Ignatius most likely met John. It is also possible that he met Paul, even though there is no account of it.
Some historians believe that Ignatius was martyred as late as 115AD.
Ignatius was not highly educated but he was a much loved bishop. While little is known of his early life and even of his work as a bishop, we have a richer resource from the time of his death. En route to Rome, where he was to be executed, Ignatius wrote seven letters, mostly to churches. These letters, along with records of his death from others, provide our understanding of this man of God.
Ignatius is revealed as a man who communicates simply and directly and who draws much on Biblical language and idioms. He displays a passionate devotion to His Lord, calling himself ‘Theophorus’, meaning the God Carrier. He is regarded as “one of the most attractive of the early church fathers”.
Roman Emperor Trajan was not particularly aggressive in his persecution of Christians, but if one was brought to trial the only possibility was a death sentence. When Ignatius was arrested by the Imperial authorities it was decided that he should be executed in Rome, as a warning to the growing number of Christians, since he was a high profile Christian leader.
Guarded by ten Roman soldiers, Ignatius was first taken to Smyrna, where he would most certainly have met with Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. While there he wrote letters to the Christians at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome.
When he reached Troas, Ignatius wrote a further three letters, to the Christians at Smyrna and Philadelphia and also to Polycarp. It is understood that the local churches welcomed Ignatius as he made his long overland journey to Rome. They held him in great honour.
Ignatius was finally fed to the beasts in the Colosseum “for the gratification of the people” (as Trajan put it).
In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius refers to himself as theophorus, the God bearer. He also uses this term to identify himself before Emperor Trajan.
Ignatius explained that Theophorus referred to one who “has Christ within his breast”. Trajan asked, “Do you mean Him who was crucified under Pontius Pilate?” “Do you then carry within you Him that was crucified?” Ignatius answered, “Truly so”.
We see in these comments a very real grasp of Paul’s repeated theme of Christ in us (2Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 3:17, Colossians 1:27). How wonderful if all Christians could live with this reality as a daily awareness.
The Pre-eminence of Bishops
One of the controversial issues springing from Ignatius’ letters is his emphasis on a single bishop who must be obeyed by the church. The notions of apostolic succession and church hierarchy find strength in the early development of leading Bishops.
Ignatius refers to a single bishop and a presbytery, suggesting a pastoral group under the direction of a single leader, with an office superior to them. Note these quotes from his letters….
“You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God’s law. Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval.”
“For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons”
Back in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries scholars raised doubts about the authenticity of the letters which promoted the role of the bishop. Their authenticity has been supported by scholarship since then, but as recently as the 1980’s it has been suggested by Rius-Camps that a forger concocted some of the letters, using genuine material mixed with additions, to promote the concepts of church unity and the absolute authority of the bishop.
The main themes which spring from his letters are: Christian unity; authority of the clergy; and the glorious privilege of Christian martyrdom. He warns against the development of factions and against the heresy of Docetism, which denied the material existence of Christ.
Of his own sentencing to martyrdom he said, “I am God’s wheat, ground fine by the lion’s teeth to be made purest bread for Christ.” “I thank You, O Lord, that You have chosen to honour me with a perfect love towards You, and have made me to be bound with iron chains, like Your Apostle Paul.”