In every hour of history, God raises up pivotal figures who are mightily used to advance His kingdom. Such individuals are deeply grounded in the truth and are unwavering in the face of mounting challenges to the gospel. In the second century, one of these significant figures was Ignatius of Antioch.
A Miraculous Change
Ignatius was born to pagan parents and though little is known about his early years, he did join in the persecution of the Christians. But in God’s timing, Ignatius was soundly converted to Christ. It is believed that he received instruction directly from Peter and Paul and enjoyed fellowship with many other apostles.
Over time, Ignatius came to possess a thorough knowledge of Scripture and sound doctrine, great piety, and exceptional gifts. The apostles deemed him fit for spiritual leadership and appointed him as bishop of Antioch in Syria, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire at that time.
For some forty years, Ignatius faithfully pastored the church of Antioch, where he was a bold witness for Christ.
Years earlier, God had planted a thriving church in Antioch (Acts 11:19–21), and it was there that the disciples had first been called Christians (v. 26). In this weighty position, Ignatius was responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church in a bustling center of commerce and culture.
During Ignatius’s ministry, dangerous heresies began to brew in Antioch. Antioch devolved into a cesspool of immorality, false teaching, and rank ungodliness. Amid this moral pollution, Ignatius persistently labored, a beacon of light and a stalwart of the faith.
The Wheat of God
When the Emperor Trajan passed through Antioch on his way to war, he summoned Ignatius to appear before him. Ignatius was pressured to blaspheme the name of Christ with threats on his life––but he refused to do so.
Trajan pronounced the death sentence on Ignatius and ordered that he be bound in chains, transported to Rome, and thrown to the wild beasts.
Ignatius prayed, “Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
Ignatius thought of his journey to Rome for execution as “a conscious imitation of the Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem and the cross.”
Letters of a Prisoner
Ignatius wrote seven epistles while en route to Rome, as “the letters of a prisoner on his way to martyrdom.” Five were addressed to local churches throughout Asia Minor—Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smyrna—one to the church in Rome, and one to Polycarp.
These epistles of Ignatius reveal a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and several letters of Paul. Further, these letters contain the first written theology of the Christian faith outside the Bible.
Boldly Proclaimed Theology
Because Ignatius wrote these letters while he was a prisoner en route to his death, he addressed urgent pastoral concerns, rather than deep theology.
Ignatius was eager to defend the undiminished deity and full humanity of Christ. He opposed the Docetists, who claimed that the incarnation of Christ was not real, but that He was merely spirit. They denied the physical body and humanity of Christ and rejected His virgin birth and substitutionary death.
Ignatius boldly affirmed the full humanity of Jesus as a necessary component of the true gospel: “There is only one physician—of flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God, first subject to suffering then beyond it—Jesus Christ our Lord.”
He also refuted the heresy of the Judaizers, who insisted that all people, even Gentiles, needed to strictly observe Old Testament rituals, especially circumcision, to be justified before God. Just before Ignatius’s time, Paul had minced no words in pronouncing a divine curse—anathema—on them and their false gospel (Gal. 1:6–10).
Ignatius wrote, “It is absurd to speak of Jesus Christ with the tongue, and to cherish in the mind a Judaism which has now come to an end.” He was uncompromising in his stance that Old Covenant Jewish practices had no place in Christian living.
The Doctrines Ignatius Defended
Ignatius believed that the fall affected the entirety of man’s being—body, mind, emotions, and will. He states: “Carnal people cannot act spiritually, or spiritual people carnally, just as faith cannot act like unbelief, or unbelief like faith.” Sinful man is bound to a fallen will and must obey sin apart from grace.
Moreover, Ignatius believed all grace flows out of the sovereign choice of God to save His elect before time began.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius begins: “Ignatius, the ‘God-inspired,’ to the church at Ephesus in Asia. Out of the fullness of God the Father you have been blessed with large numbers and are predestined from eternity to enjoy forever continual and unfading glory.” By this greeting, Ignatius alluded to the unconditional election of God, by which He has predestined some to salvation from eternity past.
Finally, Ignatius held that all believers will be forever preserved in grace. He writes: “For Jesus Christ—that life from which we cannot be torn—is the Father’s mind.” Here, Ignatius acknowledged that Christ Himself is the eternal life of believers, and none who possess this life can be “torn” from it.
Such a conviction surely gave this church father great confidence when facing certain death in Rome.
Bound for Rome
On his way to Rome, Ignatius was allowed to receive visits from the believers in Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, who sought to encourage him. As he approached the imperial capital, other Christians came to the edge of the city to strengthen him in the Lord.
Ignatius reached Rome around AD 107. He was taken to the famous Roman Colosseum––a large, circular stadium with three tiers that seated more than fifty thousand frenzied spectators.
This arena represented the godless grandeur of imperial Rome. The most gruesome deaths here belonged to the early Christians, who were fed for sport to the lions.
Steadfast in the Face of Death
As Ignatius entered the Colosseum to face death, the crowd shouted in anticipation of his martyrdom. But Ignatius held fast. Earlier, he had said that “near the sword means near God.” In the hour of his death, God was never more nea to him.
Martyrdom was to be his crown. Death meant his homecoming, the means by which he would be taken to glory to stand before Christ.
In his letter to the Roman church, Ignatius had written words appropriate to his dying moments: “I want all men to know that I die for God of my own free will. . . . Then shall I truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not so much as see my body.”
He later added, “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!”
With this steadfast confidence in a future resurrection, Ignatius died, bearing witness for Christ.
Protecting Truth to the End
Even in the face of death, Ignatius remained unshakeable in his commitment to Christ, whom he proclaimed at great personal cost.
Such faithful individuals like Ignatius of Antioch are always in great demand in the church. This present hour is no exception. How can God use you, as a part of His remnant, to maintain His cause in the world today? May you seek to be deeply grounded in God’s word and, in turn, be a force for His truth in this present generation.
Adapted from Pillars of Grace by Dr. Steven Lawson (Reformation Trust, 2016). Read more by purchasing Pillars of Grace here.