Ignatius of Antioch’s Desire for Martyrdom

Author:

Matthew M. Kennedy

Article ID:

JAF2441

Updated: 

Jan 19, 2023

Published:

Jan 16, 2023

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:26–27).1 Jesus spoke these words to a crowd of more than 5,000 people. Only the day before He had taken five loaves and two fish and fed the entire multitude (Matt. 14:13–21). Understandably in a world without grocery stores in which the possibility of starvation loomed over each year’s harvest, Jesus’ miracle seemed a panacea. “Give us this bread always,” they demanded (John 6:34). It must have seemed exceptionally cruel that Jesus, who could feed them with a word, refused to do so, directing them, strangely, to Himself as the true and lasting bread.

We are, as C. S. Lewis said, spiritual animals2 with beastlike appetites for food, drink, and sex, but with eternity set in our hearts — a yearning earthly meals cannot quench. This duality means that we are ever prone to confusion. The yearning tells us that our immortal souls require eternal food. But we demand earthly pleasures, higher achievements, spacious homes, and overflowing purses, believing these will fill us.

Even the Christian falls to this confusion. Entire ministries are built upon the lie that you, the Christian, should lack for nothing. God never brings pain, hunger, sorrow, sickness, only prosperity and health. To suffer is a spiritual failure — your own lack of faith. Or, perhaps, you have not given enough. Those who teach such things deny God’s use of want and suffering to wean the soul from this world and bind it to His Son.

This truth is obscure to twenty-first century Western Christians for whom comfort is the norm. Whereas Christians baptized within the first 300 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection were born into a church despised by the people and persecuted by the state. When disaster, famine, or plague struck, people blamed the Christians’ stubborn refusal to honor the gods for provoking their wrath. That Christians rejected the cult of the divine emperor indicated a traitorous disloyalty in the eyes of imperial officials. The waves of persecution washing over the Church during those years varied in ferocity and extent, but the Christian was never safe.

A Witness to the Apostolic Era

Few martyrs have counted, embraced, and actually savored the high cost of discipleship more than Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was born sometime between AD 35 to 50. Suggested dates for his martyrdom vary from AD 108 to 140, though precise dating is impossible. Most agree, however, that Ignatius was alive during the apostolic era. Tradition indicates that he, along with his younger contemporary Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, sat under the apostle John’s teaching.3 Of Polycarp, Eusebius quotes a letter from Irenaeus of Lyon to Florinus, now lost: “I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years….so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with

the others who had seen the Lord.”4

Assuming the tradition is correct, Ignatius knew men who had seen Jesus with their eyes, heard Him with their ears, and touched Him with their hands — men who were eyewitnesses of the Resurrection. Jesus’ defeat of death was not an ancient, remote occurrence, but the seminal event of that time.

Not only did Ignatius learn from the apostles face to face, but his correspondence admits access to at least some of the New Testament documents. Already apostolic writings were highly revered as carrying supreme authority alongside the Old Testament Scriptures, and in his letters, Ignatius alludes to and/or quotes from three of the four Gospels and several of Paul’s epistles.5

Ignatius seems to have become Bishop of Antioch in the Roman province of Syria, sometime around AD 70.6 It was in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas nurtured the first congregation composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The Antiochene church served as the base for Paul’s subsequent missionary journeys to the Gentiles. Eusebius claims that Peter served as the first Bishop of Antioch.7 If so, Ignatius seems to have followed Peter’s immediate successor, Evodius.8

Persecution

Ignatius served almost forty years in relative peace. But probably toward the end of the first decade of the second century, during the reign of Emperor Trajan, Ignatius ran afoul of the Empire. Persecutions under Trajan were neither as widespread nor as brutal as those under later emperors. Nevertheless, under Trajan, those credibly identified as Christians were required to renounce their faith before a Roman magistrate or face torture and death. We have no contemporary record of the events leading to Ignatius’ arrest. Most likely, someone identified him as a Christian to imperial officials. They arrested him, examined him, and demanded that he renounce his faith. He refused. So, he was bound in chains and sent to Rome for execution.

Scholars are unsure why Ignatius was bundled off to Rome rather than executed in Syria. Perhaps Trajan wanted to put prominent Christian leaders to death in the capital city as a public warning and example. Stevan Davies suggests that Syria’s governor was traveling when Ignatius was arrested. Since only a governor or the Emperor could order the death sentence, local magistrates sent him to Rome.9 The fastest and cheapest means of travel was by sea. Ignatius, however, for reasons unknown, was transported by land, a journey lasting several months. All along the route he was greeted by well-wishing Christian congregations.

Though he refers to his captors as “leopards…who only get worse the better you treat them,”10 they nonetheless allowed Ignatius to meet and spend extended time with visitors and friends. We know of two extended pauses in the journey, first in Smyrna where Ignatius visited his friend Polycarp, and the second in the port city of Troas where they awaited sea transport across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Ignatius wrote four of his famous seven letters from Smyrna and three from Troas. Six were addressed to congregations, one to his friend Polycarp. Of the six, five were addressed to churches he had visited on his journey. One, his letter to Rome, written from Troas, was addressed to the church in the city where he expected to be martyred.

“Do Not Spare Me!”

Imagine that you have been forcibly taken on a long and arduous journey toward a city where you are all but sure you will be given over to be devoured by wild beasts. How would you pray? If you had influential friends in the city, what would you ask of them? Ignatius writes to the Roman church: “Things are off to a good start. May I have the good fortune to meet my fate without interference! What I fear is your generosity which may prove detrimental to me. For you can easily do what you want to, whereas it is hard for me to get to God unless you let me alone.”11

The purpose for which Ignatius writes to Rome is to plead with his friends not to intervene. They can “easily” do what they want, that is, facilitate his release, but if they do, Ignatius’ chance to “get to God” will be thwarted. “Get to God” is a curious phrase. Ignatius uses it throughout his letter. He is, of course, already with God in the sense that the Spirit dwells within him. He refers to himself as “theophorous” or “God-bearer.”12 But Ignatius, with Paul, knows that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Meanwhile, he has the foretaste of the banquet but not the feast itself. He writes, “If you quietly let me alone, people will see in me God’s Word. But if you are enamored of my mere body, I shall, on the contrary, be a meaningless noise.”13 Ignatius seems to have in mind the principle that Paul articulates in 2 Corinthians 4:11, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” By his death in the arena, Ignatius trusts that Christ the Word might be manifested in his flesh. But if there is wrangling over his case and he is denied his martyrdom, there will be noise rather than speech, confusion rather than glory.

For that reason, he pleads, “Let me be fodder for wild beasts — that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.”14 Ignatius likens his ordeal to grain crushed under a millstone. The beasts will grind him, separating wheat from chaff. The arena, likewise, becomes a furnace where he will emerge “a pure loaf for Christ.” Writing further, his language grows even more visceral:

What a thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me! I hope they will make short work of me. I shall coax them on to eat me up at once and not to hold off, as sometimes happens, through fear. And if they are reluctant, I shall force them to it….May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil —only let me get to Jesus Christ!15

The language seems obsessively morbid at first, as if Ignatius harbors a lurid preoccupation with his own pain. But no, the suffering by itself affords him no thrill. He recognizes suffering as the corridor through which he must pass to make his way to Christ. In his light, death becomes life, the way of the cross is the way of glory. He writes, “I would rather die and get to Jesus Christ, than reign over the ends of the earth. That is whom I am looking for — the One who died for us. That is whom I want — the One who rose for us. I am going through the pangs of being born.”16 For one bound to Christ and His resurrection, the throes of death become the pangs of birth.

Give us more bread, the crowd demanded. Jesus offered them Himself. The people refused. Many professing disciples turned away. Only the twelve remained. “Where will we go,” Peter asked Jesus, “you have the words of life.”17 They may not have understood everything Jesus taught that day. But they knew that they must have Jesus, that He is the true bread for whom they were willing to forfeit their lives.

Ignatius learned well from the apostles. Toward the end of the letter to the Romans, he concludes the matter, “My Desire has been crucified and there burns in me no passion for material things. There is living water in me, which speaks and says inside me, ‘Come to the Father.’ I take no delight in corruptible food or in the dainties of this life. What I want is God’s bread, which is the flesh of Christ, who came from David’s line; and for drink I want his blood, an immortal love feast indeed!”18

Christians need not look to death with such enthusiasm. Death is, indeed, the great enemy, and where it can be faithfully avoided, it is good to do so. But nor must we allow ourselves to be fooled by what we taste, what we touch, what we enjoy or achieve. These things, even the good ones, cannot endure and will not ultimately satisfy. We should not despair when they are taken away, nor fear the prospect. With Ignatius, I pray that we might all say, “What I want is God’s bread, which is the flesh of Christ…and for drink I want his blood.”

The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.

NOTES

  1. Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from ESV.
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco: Harper Collins Press, 2001), 37–38.
  3. B. O’Connor, “St. Ignatius of Antioch,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Kevin Knight (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 2020), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07644a.htm.
  4. Eusebius of Caesarea, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 1, 2nd series, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Press, 1999), 238–39.
  5. Graham Harter, “Ignatius of Antioch’s New Testament,” etimasthe, November 22, 2018, https://etimasthe.com/2018/11/22/ignatius-of-antiochsnew-testament/.
  6. “Patriarchs of Antioch,” Syriac Orthodox Resources, last modified March 21, 2014, http://syriacorthodoxresources.org/Patriarchate/PatriarchsChronList.html.
  7. Eusebius, “Church History,” 166–67.
  8. O’Connor, “Saint Ignatius of Antioch.”
  9. Stevan Davies, “The Predicament of Ignatius of Antioch,” Vigiliae Christianae 30, no. 3 (September 1976): 175–80.
  10. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans 5, trans. Cyril C. Richardson, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers/fathers.vi.ii.iii.iv.html.
  11. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
  12. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
  13. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
  14. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
  15. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
  16. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
  17. I’m paraphrasing John 6:68.
  18. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans 7. 
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