Ignatius of Antioch: True and Enduring Rest
There are some things that you never forget. I was wandering through the Colosseum, that giant amphitheatre of ancient Rome that tourists marvel at. It certainly makes an impression when you know a little more about the ancient history. This huge structure had accommodated thousands of spectators at a time when gladiators used to fight each other to the death as entertainment of the audience. Or when outlaws or other pariahs were thrown to the lions. We were shown their underground cages and the elevators that carried them up to their terrible destruction.
That White Cross
And then suddenly, along the edge of the arena, I happened to see that white cross. I asked what it was for. “Oh,” a guide said, “it marks the spot where Ignatius, a Christian, once died.” That shocked me. Ignatius: I knew him well. My teacher had told about him in church history lessons in elementary school. “That old pastor, boys, he stood for what he believed. And when it came right down to it, he had no problem to die for his Saviour. There was no way that he could deny him!” We listened breathlessly, full of admiration for that old man who had been so faithful and so brave. That had been an exciting story. We would not have minded to listen to the story for yet another hour.
Now I was standing here in Rome, in the bright sunlight. And I looked at the spot where he died. I shuddered. All the romance was gone now. The horror of his death had come very close. And I thought, “Would I be able to do that? Would I be prepared to give up my life for the sake of my faith? What does a man die for when he loves life? For ideals...? Convictions...? For a faith? Well, in that case such faith must mean a lot to you!” At that moment it was as if I heard the voice of my teacher once more: “Boys and girls, Ignatius died for his Saviour”. And suddenly I realized: he did not die for something but he died for Someone.
A Different Language
I was reminded of this experience when, during my vacation, I was reading professor Den Heyer’s much-debated book about the Atonement. The cover indicated that it contained “Biblical notations on a controversial theme”. I was reading the 7th reprint, while the book had only just been published in the previous year.1
One does not have to get far into this book to understand why it is so controversial. Everything that establishes our faith as a Christian faith is denied in this book. Atonement? Yes, but only on a horizontal level. There is no acknowledgement of Christ’s death as the means of our “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (see. Col. 1:14). For a person living in our modern age this should also be self-evident. Den Heyer formulates it rather suggestively: “How can the death of someone from a distant past bring salvation and redemption to me, who is alive so many centuries later?”2“Biblical notations...” — but you should not think of the Bible as God’s Word. “God’s word is fully the word of man.” “The Bible does not come to us ‘from above’, but ‘from below’”. “The book does not contain any ‘revelations with an inherent eternal value’”.3On the contrary: in this book “people tell about their experiences and their emotions, about their faith and their despair; they tell of God whom they sometimes see for a moment, and who is or remains hidden from them at times”.4But what about Jesus? What should I believe concerning him, and on whose authority? Well, it is on the authority of people such as professor Den Heyer that we must believe that “it was not the Christ of the two natures who walked around on earth, deliberately headed toward the cross in order to offer the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind”. No, in Jesus we meet one man among many others. Yes, he was endowed with special gifts, that is true. And he was certainly an inspiring individual. Nevertheless, he was a human being and certainly not God. Or, as the professor expressed it in an interview, in connection with a poem that he admires: For me, Jesus has become more and more that Jewish person from the year zero.5
He did manage to find God through Jesus. But that applies to him. Jesus is certainly not the only way. It is different for a Jew. And the way to God varies also with other religions.
A Stark Contrast
Anyone who reads something like this shudders. This person has lost everything. To him, the Bible is no longer God’s Word. And Jesus is no longer his Saviour. And yet, he remains very calm and composed about it. All he asks for is that we allow him room for his opinions of today, which might again be different tomorrow.6And if you please, do not go chasing after alleged heresies. Such a thing has no place with a God of love and mercy.7
There is a stark contrast between the firm faith of Ignatius and the uncertain search of Den Heyer. There are two circles of thought that barely intersect. If someone were to believe what this professor writes, would he still die for his convictions? For ideas that are perhaps different today from tomorrow? You would not give your life for a revolving truth like that, would you?
Ignatius the Christian
Can you imagine that I would like to talk to you about Ignatius? About his life, his death, and his faith? Perhaps it could encourage you and me, and urge us to stay on the right path. Because please do not think that we are immune to these kinds of ideas. It is with good reason that the Bible warns time and again against false teachings and erring teachers.
For us to have a closer encounter with Ignatius, I need to take you back to the early beginnings of the Christian church. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, Ignatius became pastor in the metropolis of Antioch. It is possible that in his younger years he may have met the apostle Paul, who went on his missionary journeys from Antioch. Or the apostle Peter, who at one time needed to be reprimanded by his colleague in this metropolis. This was also the city where the believers who fled from Jerusalem were first called Christians. Yes, Ignatius understood very well from the start: he was a Christian, not a Jesuit.8His Master was not only human, he was also God. It is with this conviction that he was able to work as a preacher for about forty years in Antioch, a melting pot of civilizations and a centre of Christian hope. But then, after the last apostle had died and the second century had dawned, the preacher, who by then had reached a mature age, was arrested during a short persecution of Christians. And because he was regarded as an important leader of the new movement that disrupted the unity of the empire, he was sent to die in Rome. To the lions with that man!
It became a terrible journey for the old Ignatius. The soldiers who accompanied him on his long journey across Asia Minor behaved like animals. The kindness of this old Christian only irritated them further.9
The Secret of Ignatius
It was only on a few occasions that they granted him a somewhat longer rest. In Smyrna he had the opportunity to meet with the local church and especially his colleague Polycarp. Delegates from the neighbouring congregations also visited Ignatius there. Throughout the churches people had learned about the sad journey that the bishop had to make, and everywhere he met with heartfelt sympathy. While in Smyrna, Ignatius wrote a few letters to the churches that had expressed their kind sympathy to him: to Ephesus, Tralles and Magnesia. At the same time, he also sends a letter ahead to Rome to ask the brothers there not to undertake any attempts to free him. He writes them, “I am ready to die for my Saviour”. Some time later, after he has arrived in Troas, he once again writes a few letters. He expresses his thanks to Polycarp and to the church in Smyrna for their encouraging sympathy. And he also writes a heartfelt letter of thanks to members of the church in Philadelphia, whom he had the pleasure of meeting earlier on his journey.10
However, there is more to these letters than merely thanks and best wishes. The gray-haired pastor always exhorts the brotherhood to remain faithful and to follow Christ just as he has done.
Less than two months later Ignatius died a martyr’s death in the Roman Colosseum; a violent death. But he had been prepared for this. In one of his letters he had put it this way, “Let the crowds of wild beasts; let breakings, tearings, and separations of bones; let cutting off of members; let bruising to pieces of the whole body; and let the very torment of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”11And what was the secret of his lack of fear? He added, “Him I seek, who died for us; him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain that is laid up for me.”12
It Is True!
Yes, that was the secret of Ignatius, of his life and of his dying. All of his letters revolve around that core truth. That may seem to be rather one-sided. Surely there are more things of importance. Of course, Ignatius knew that as well, and he shows it regularly. But it is that core of faith, which we were talking about, that is attacked in his time. And he seeks to defend it at all cost. He wants to impress it upon the churches that he wrote: “This is what it is all about; hold on to it!”
For there are two errors threatening the “catholic church”. Yes — that is a term that originated with Ignatius.13The church all over the world is threatened by two dangers: Docetism and Judaism. The docetists — the name means “people of appearances” — teach that Jesus did not really suffer and did not actually die; he did not really rise. All of this was a mere facade. And surely that would also be obvious to any educated person. Just think: God cannot suffer, can he? He cannot die, cannot rise again. He is far too great for that. No, it was only the human Jesus who died on the cross.
Fiercely and indignantly Ignatius combats this “pious” heresy. Time and again he speaks about Jesus Christ, our God.14And he warns against the heretics. “Ravening dogs”, he calls them, “who bite secretly”. And with their bite they transmit a disease that is difficult to fight. “There is one Physician for this,” he says, and he gives the following description of this doctor who: “is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; subject to suffering at first and then no longer subject to it — even Jesus Christ our Lord”. 15
And over against the “appearances” of Docetism, his “it is true” sounds repeatedly. “He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; he was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him; and he was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in his flesh”.16“Now, he suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. And he suffered truly, even as also he truly raised up himself.”17
“Yes”, says Ignatius indignantly, and then he clearly agrees with the apostle Paul18: “If this was all appearances only, well then my imprisonment is pretense as well. Why then did I give myself up to death by exposing myself to fire, sword or wild beasts?”19
The Only Way
The Jewish threat that Ignatius fights against is no less dangerous. In a fictitious discussion he introduces his opponents arguing with him: “What you preach as the gospel, Ignatius, we do not find in the charters.” With these charters they mean the Old Testament. “Yes,” says the bishop, “it says so black on white.” “That is precisely the question,” is the response. At this point Ignatius concludes the discussion with this clear confession: “But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: his cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity...”20And there is only one way to God: “He is the door of the Father, by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the church.”21
Ignatius uses harsh words to expose the error. But he does more. He also points out how the believers are to protect themselves from the danger. Left by themselves, they are not equal to it. Together they will be stronger. Therefore they should remain within the walls of the church.
Therefore they have to stay within the walls of the church. They are to stay with the overseer, the pastor, and submit to him, to the council of elders and to the deacons. “Unity” is his watchword. There, within the one church, the gospel is proclaimed and the teachings of the apostles and of the prophets, who also hoped for and expected Jesus.22
Jesus Christ, our God
The letters of Ignatius are almost 1900 years old. In other words, it is like reading material from the old shoebox. If you were to ask me whether it is great literature, I would say, “No. I have read more beautiful texts with my students than these hastily written letters.” And again, if you ask me whether they give the best summary of the Christian faith, my answer is, “No. There are all sorts of things in them that I would have formulated differently, and which the church has also formulated better later on.”
However, the core of these simple letters is rock solid. “Jesus Christ, our God” — that is different language than “that Jewish person from the year zero”.
“He truly suffered for us”. Again, that means so much more than saying that he was a great source of inspiration and of reconciliation among people. No, the contrast could hardly be any greater. We will need to reject the new teaching in regard to reconciliation as sharply as Ignatius did in his time.
Believing is Done On Your Knees
There is however one caveat in all of this. The doctrine of reconciliation (or atonement) has no value for you or for me when it remains merely a part of the Reformed confession. It needs to be alive in our hearts. After all, the atonement is not simply a doctrine that needs to be defended. It is essentially about our lives, and it concerns God’s honour.
Anyone who may believe this “foolish” gospel will not be easily inclined to say: “Now do you understand that people get such new and strange ideas? We would be immune to such ideas.” Rather, he will get down on his knees and thank God for the miracle of being able to believe this teaching which, humanly speaking, is unbelievable. It is only when I am on my knees that I can exclaim with emotion, “Jesus, your atoning death alone grants true and enduring rest for my heart. My Saviour and my God, what an incredible exchange has taken place: death for you — and life for me. The curse was yours, the blessings are all mine. You, holy God, took upon you to be forsaken by God so that I, sinful creature, might have the absolute certainty that God will never forsake me for even one moment!”
Only when I experience reconciliation in this way does my heart sing; on Sundays in church but just also on Thursday afternoons, in good days but also on days of fear and pain. “You, holy Lamb of God we bless. You, through your cross, redemption sent us... Hence we will honour and adore you and cast in gratitude before you the crowns by grace bestowed on us.”