Saint Ignatius of Antioch was a prominent Christian leader following the time of the Apostles, the men directly commissioned by Jesus Christ to spread Christianity. Ignatius is considered an Apostolic Father with Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna due to his leadership in the early church and surviving writings. He was active in the early 100s, and was martyred sometime before 140 CE.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch: A Disciple of John
Ignatius was possibly a disciple of the Apostle John, writer of the Gospel of John, the Revelation of John, and three epistles. Later, he was made the Bishop of Antioch, one of the early centers of Christianity and the city where followers of Jesus Christ were first called “Christians” per Acts 11.
A Series of Letters
Ignatius wrote six letters to various churches in Europe. Several of these letters may have been written as he was escorted to Rome for torture and execution for his beliefs. They were:
- The Epistle to the Ephesians (not to be confused with Paul’s letter in the New Testament), which may mention the same Onesimus Paul writes to Philemon about in the New Testament. Ignatius also addresses the need for church unity and obedience to the bishop.
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2. The Epistle to the Magnesians – a letter of thankfulness to the Magnesians, which also warns against false doctrines. It also contains one of the earliest reference to Christians meeting on Sunday rather than Saturday.
3. The Epistle to the Trallians – another letter of thanks, which also warns against false teachings. Ignatius affirms here the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as a declaration of Christ’s divinity.
4. The Epistle to the Romans (again, not to be confused with Paul’s letter) – a letter sent ahead to the church in Rome, rather than to churches he had already visited. Here, Ignatius asks the church in Rome to “let me die a martyr’s death,” as an example of Christian suffering.
5. The Epistle to the Philadelphians – a letter to the church in Philadelphia, encouraging the believers there to maintain unity under their leadership. He also warns against returning to Jewish customs. This epistle contains some references to how the hierarchy in the church was evolving at that time, with Bishops, elders, and deacons.
6. The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans – contains another reference to the physical, not merely spiritual, resurrection of Jesus. A common heresy at the time was called Docetism, which held that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion. Several heresies at that time held the physical world to be inherently evil, and could not accept that God would come in a physical form. This epistle is also the earliest known usage of the term “Catholic Church,” though at this time “catholic” was used in a more common sense of “universal.”
Ignatius also wrote The Epistle to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna – a letter of encouragement and warning to Polycarp, and a request to encourage Ignatius’ home church at Antioch which had recently resolved some issue which had caused division within that church.
Ignatius of Antioch Suffered a Terrible Death
A work called the Martyrium Ignatii is a possible description of Ignatius’ death at the hands of the Romans that dates from the 10th century. Here, Ignatius is described as being tried by the Roman Emperor Trajan and thrown to be eaten by wild beasts after his conviction. His final words were reportedly: “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose means it will be granted me to reach God.” However, the authenticity of this account, as are several other letters attributed to Ignatius, are highly suspect.
Chronicles of His Story
Ignatius’ story is chronicled by the church historian Eusebius who lived in the late 200s and early 300s, from which we obtained much of the history of the early church following the times of the New Testament. The Apostolic Father Ignatius of Antioch provides much valuable information into the life and practices of the early Christian church following the time of the New Testament. Though we have little information regarding much of his life, we have insight into how the early church evolved and suffered before rising to more prominence.