Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria. He was arrested for his association with Christ and hauled off to Rome where he would die for his faith around A.D. 110. On his way from Syria to Rome, knowing he was facing execution, he wrote letters to churches in various regions. In these letters, and much of the early church writing on persecution, there are some statements that are simply striking. The way they viewed suffering for Christ presents a stark contrast from the way we often do. One of those letters was addressed to the Trallians. Speaking of their bishop, Polybius, Ignatius said this,
“By God’s will and that of Jesus Christ, he came to me in Smyrna, and so heartily congratulated me on being a prisoner for Jesus Christ…” (Taken from Readings in the History of Christian Theology (Volume 1), edited by William C. Placher and Derek R. Nelson.)
Maybe you were struck by that wording like I was when I first read it. Polybius “heartily congratulated” Ignatius on his suffering for Christ. If I were arrested and sentenced to death for my Christian faith, how many fellow believers would congratulate me on that predicament? This shows that, when it comes to our view of persecution, we have lost a great deal of understanding in our modern times.
As modern Christians, our reaction to persecution is much different. When we are persecuted for the cause of Christ we want to withdraw and flee the affliction. We are careful to avoid any situation where our association with the Lord may cause us adversity. We want Christ, but we also want comfort. And we want these two things simultaneously. That is the difference between us and Ignatius. When faced with persecution, Ignatius did not flee or back down. He dug in his heels and embraced it with anticipation.
That view of suffering is totally unnatural. The flesh wants nothing to do with pain or discomfort. The natural man wants to avoid death at any cost because, for him, the greatest possession he has is his earthly life. Obviously, Ignatius was not living as a natural man. He was living as an awakened, spiritual man. This begs a question. What is it that causes a man to embrace persecution and martyrdom in this way?
Fortunately, we can answer that question from Ignatius’ own pen. Here are two excerpts from his letter to the Romans, in which he pleaded with them not to try to arrange his escape,
“I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts - that is how I can get to God.”
“Now is the moment I am beginning to be a disciple. 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!” (Taken from Readings in the History of Christian Theology (Volume 1), edited by William C. Placher and Derek R. Nelson.)
Ignatius wanted Christ and only Christ. The natural man’s greatest possession is his earthly life. The spiritual man’s greatest possession is Christ. Though Christ is fully guaranteed to all the saints, His presence is fully culminated only when the saint leaves this earthly life. There we will be with Him in complete purity, without the hindrances of sin, and fully glorified by Him in our own bodies.
Since Christ was the ultimate possession and goal for Ignatius, he could view the destruction and loss of his earthly life as gain. He could even embrace it, welcome it, and glory in it!
This exposes a huge issue in modern Christianity. The reason persecution often deters us from our pursuit of Christ is quite clear. We don’t understand His value. We don’t understand the great worth of the One whom we seek. We view Jesus as the means through which we gain something, namely eternal life. But Jesus is no means at all. He is the goal. It was through Him we were created. It was by Him we were justified. It is in Him we are sanctified. It is with Him we will be glorified. It is to Him we belong eternally.
Christ is everything. When we truly understand that we will be willing to risk anything for the sake of gaining Him. I pray that we will embrace Ignatius’ words as the theme of our pilgrimage.
“Only let me get to Christ!”