It is the year 107 and an elderly man named Ignatius awaits his execution after being condemned to death by the Roman authorities. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch, and his crime was that of being a Christian. While little is known about Ignatius’ early life, he and his friend Polycarp are thought to have been disciples of the Apostle John, and there is even a tradition that holds he was one of the little ones Jesus took in his arms.
At the time Ignatius was condemned, great festivities were being planned in Rome in celebration of a military victory. For this reason Ignatius was not executed in his home city of Antioch, but was instead sent to Rome so that his death might amuse the masses. He died about the year 110 – eaten by wild animals as the crowd of 20,000 people in the Flavian Amphitheater watched and cheered.
On his way to Rome, however, the soldiers who were transporting him allowed him to stop at Smyrna for a brief respite from his brutal journey. A number of Christians from the area came to visit him, including some from Magnesia, Tralles, and Ephesus. To each of these churches he wrote a letter thanking them for their sympathy and encouraging them in their faith.
While we know next to nothing about Ignatius besides what he wrote in his letters, the very act of writing these letters speaks volumes about his character. He was in the middle of an arduous journey, knowing that what awaited him at the end was his execution. Instead of taking time to rest when he was given a break, he chose to write letters encouraging fledgling churches in their faith – truly the heart of a pastor and bishop.
We’re not comfortable with faith like this – a faith so sure that it thinks nothing of the wild beasts, fire and the cruelest of tortures.
From those who came to visit him he learned that the Christians in Rome were considering the possibility of freeing him. Ignatius, having prepared himself for what was to come, didn’t like this idea whatsoever. He was ready and waiting to seal his witness with his life. And so Ignatius wrote a fourth letter to the church at Rome in which he desperately appealed to them not to interfere with his martyrdom. It’s an extraordinary letter because it allows us to see how one of the Apostolic fathers faced the prospect of his own execution; he desired nothing other than to see Christ:
I write to all the Churches and state emphatically to all that I die willingly for God, provided you do not interfere. I beg you, do not show me unreasonable kindness. Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, which are the means of my making my way to God. God’s wheat I am, and by the teeth of wild beasts I am to be ground that I may prove Christ’s pure bread. […] May nothing seen or unseen, fascinate me, so that I may happily make my way to Jesus Christ! Fire, cross, struggles with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crunching of the whole body, cruel tortures inflicted by the devil – let them come upon me provided only I make my way to Jesus Christ.
What’s truly remarkable about Ignatius is the certainty of his faith. He is so fixed on Jesus that nothing will distract him or get in the way of his seeking him. He knows that his faith in Jesus will cost him his life in the most painful way imaginable, but he’s excited at the prospect!
I’ve taught on Ignatius several times in the past and his letters are always difficult to swallow. We’re not comfortable with faith like this – a faith so sure that it thinks nothing of the wild beasts, fire and the cruelest of tortures. Even taking the smallest step of obedience toward Jesus is hard for us at times, so this is positively unimaginable. I think we often treat our faith as though it’s legitimized by a little doubt, but the writer of Hebrews insists that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It’s this sort of faith that we see in Ignatius – the kind of faith that could only be authored and perfected by Christ.