Ignatius of Antioch, Syria was also known as Ignatius Theophorus. According to tradition, Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John, along with Polycarp. Ignatius was born in 50 CE and was martyred in 108/140 CE.
There are 15 epistles or letters which bear Ignatius’ name. These were written when Ignatius was on his way from Antioch, Syria to Rome for his martyrdom. Of these, only seven are believed to actually have been written by Ignatius; the rest are considered forgeries. Each of these has both a short and a long version. The shorter ones have been generally accepted in preference to the longer ones; however, these may not be free of interpolations. In my opinion, I often prefer the longer versions because the minor differences or extra explanations often seem to make the letter clearer and/or better in-line with Scripture as a whole. However, it is hard to know for sure whether or not anything had been changed or interpolated either in the short or long forms. It is extremely important that we bear this possibility in mind as we read the early church fathers.
The seven letters believed to actually have been written by Ignatius are to:
- The Ephesians,
- The Magnesians,
- The Trallians,
- The Romans,
- The Philadelphians,
- The Smyrnaeans,
Generally speaking, these seven letters:
- Contain general exhortations, requests, and warnings against false teachings, including statements about the Jewish law;
- Contain commands regarding the bishop, presbytery, and deacons;
- Mention the mysteries of the gospels;
- Contain statements regarding God, Yeshua, the Holy Spirit, and rarely, the law;
- Talk about Ignatius’ coming martyrdom — this in primarily in the letter to the Romans.
The strange or false doctrines typically have to do with doctrines related to who Yeshua is. Ignatius mentioned to the Trallians that there were those who alienated Messiah from the Father, and the law from Christ. Some rejected the virgin birth, denied the passion and Yeshua’s resurrection. They say Messiah was unbegotten; others say he was a mere man and not God. Some say the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the same person. Some say the creation is the work of God, not by Messiah, but by another strange power. Some say that the Spirit does not exist. In his letter to the Philadelphians, he said that some people believe that Yeshua’s incarnation was merely an appearance, and they deny that God the Word did dwell in a human body.
For now, I’m not ready to address all of this in great detail. For now, I want to simply present what is in Ignatius’ letters and not discuss what would become a huge tangent. I am very much aware that many who are in Torah observant groups are trying to re-evaluate everything they have been taught about the trinity and Christianity, and I know for many, this is very difficult. As it is, the concept of the trinity that exists today was not firmly decided upon in creedal form in Ignatius’ time. It was a debated topic in the early centuries, and so there is no surprise that as people attempt to get back to the beliefs of the early church, they are debating this topic once again.
I will say this — as I have revisited this topic myself, I have looked at the pattern of the tabernacle for clues to the truth of the matter. The human high priest had to wash at the laver. There had to be a blood sacrifice to make it possible to approach YHVH. The human high priest had to trust that the blood sacrifice would make it possible for him to enter the most holy place of the Tabernacle without dying. The holy place and its contents — the light of the menorah and the bread of the presence represented Yeshua. Both the holy place and the most holy place comprised the Tabernacle proper. The priest would have to go through the holy place in order to enter the most holy place where God dwelled among His people. So, it is no surprise that we must come to the Father through Yeshua. By Yeshua’s day, Ezekiel had already seen the vision of the glory of YHVH leaving the Temple (Ezekiel 10:18). In order for God to come back to dwell among His people, He would have to have a suitable place to dwell and move around in. In order for God to speak to His people, He would have to speak through Yeshua; for people to approach God, they would have to approach Him through Yeshua. Based on what we know about the Tabernacle and Yeshua being the way, truth, life, door, source of living water, light of the world, etcetera, YHVH would have to be in Yeshua. Even now, we enter into covenant with YHVH through Yeshua, our mediator, and because of that, the Spirit of YHVH dwells in us as we abide in Yeshua.
There is very little that Ignatius says about God and the Holy Spirit. He says much more about Yeshua. He describes the Father as our Physician, the only true God, unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. He says that God’s teaching passed through Yeshua, and through the Holy Spirit to man.
Ignatius says that Yeshua manifested the will of the Father, the Almighty. God the Word was with the Father before time began, and He established all things according to the will of the Father. Although pre-existing, He was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. He is of the seed of David; He is the Son of Man and the Son of God. He was baptized by John that he might ratify the institution committed to that prophet. God Himself was manifested in human form, and man displaying power as God – not as a mere imagination, for the renewal of eternal life. He is the Physician the Lord of our God, Yeshua the Messiah. He describes Yeshua as Captain and Guardian. Being immortal, He was in a mortal body. Being life, He became subject to corruption that He might free our souls from death and corruption, heal them, and restore them to health when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts. He endured the events of the Passion, including the resurrection. He mediated the abolition of death. He will come at the end of the world with His Father’s glory to judge the living and the dead and to render to everyone according to his works. Christ is in us as God; we are His temple.
In the letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius does discourage living according to the Jewish law, and the circumcision of the flesh – he says doing so acknowledges that we have not received grace. When he says Jewish law, the question arises as to whether he means the written or the oral law or both, but since he discourages observing the Jewish Sabbath, both is likely in mind.
Instead of observing the seventh-day Sabbath, he encourages the observance of the Lord’s Day – the eighth day as a festival – the resurrection day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. In addition, the Lord’s Day was not only the resurrection day, it was also the day of Firstfruits, which is an annual feast of YHVH. In my opinion, one shouldn’t dare to change the weekly feast of the seventh-day Sabbath to the annual appointed time of Firstfruits for both are to be observed in their appointed times. Since we are still waiting for the fall feasts to be fulfilled, it is inappropriate to change anything that has not been commanded in advance. I find it hard to believe that the apostle John would have ever condoned much less encouraged this.
Ignatius says it is absurd to profess Christ and to Judaize because Christianity did not embrace Judaism but Judaism Christianity. This idea, in my opinion, is absurd because Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism.
Ignatius also says one should study to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, so that you will prosper both in the flesh and in the spirit – these doctrines would refer to what we find only in the New Testament. I find this odd since Ignatius also sets life and death before his readers, as Moses did before the people long ago, telling them to observe God’s precepts which bring life. Ignatius describes people as being the image of two coins – one bearing the image of the prince of this world – wickedness, which leads to death or the image of their prince, God the Father, and Yeshua Messiah, which leads to life.
In the letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius encourages believers to not be the cause of a schism in the church, nor should one join with others who do so. He says those who do that will not enter the kingdom of God. This brings us to probably one of the most surprising and repeated teachings found in all of Ignatius’ letters — his position on the ecclesiastical order – the bishop, the presbytery, and the deacons.
Ignatius repeatedly tells the churches to be subject to their bishop and presbytery. He speaks of this in a variety of ways. In fact, he says we should look upon the bishop even as we would look upon the Lord Himself. He instructs them not to despise the youth of their bishops but to yield reverence according to God’s will as presbyters do and to have regard for their knowledge of God. He instructs people to be obedient to the bishop and not to contradict them because doing so is the same as mocking God. He says that the bishop presides in the place of God, the presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with the deacons who are entrusted with the ministry of Yeshua Messiah. Therefore, presbyters, deacons, and laymen should do nothing without the bishop. In another letter, he describes the bishop as the representative of the Father, the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God and the assembly of the apostles of Messiah. He instructs the churches to reverence their bishop as Messiah himself. He describes the presbytery as a sacred assembly, the counselors and assessors of the bishop. He describes the deacons as the imitators of the angelic powers fulfilling a pure and blameless ministry. He further says that it is not lawful to baptize or celebrate a love-feast without the bishop. He says that anyone who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop serves the devil. He says to honor the bishop as the high priest who bears the image of God.
Are you shocked yet? I sure was. I found this quite distasteful. I sought to understand his reasoning. I can’t fully accept what he has said because I have the hindsight of hundreds of years of church history that he did not have. There have been many wicked church leaders who were not interpreting and teaching the Scriptures accurately. Even today we know of many leaders within the Catholic faith who are pedophiles, condone idolatry, and attempt to merge other religions such as Islam with the Catholic (universal) faith – and who hope to form a one-world religion. Even in assemblies that I have been part of, I have experienced leaders who have treated people with hatred, jealousy, bitterness, unforgiveness, and brutality.
Why would Ignatius suggest such devotion to bishops, presbytery, and deacons? Honestly, I think it could go back to what took place between Moses and the mixed multitude in the wilderness. YHVH himself chose Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. That is really a hefty responsibility. Initially, Moses was teaching the law to the people, but it was eventually the priests who were to be teaching the law to the people. Moses’ job was comparable to the responsibility of a bishop. Moses chose 70 men of the elders of Israel, and YHVH took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and distributed it among these men who were similar to the presbytery (eldership). They were to bear the burden of the people in order to lighten Moses’ load; they were to be knowledgeable of the law and to judge simple cases and bring the difficult cases to Moses to rule on. Many years later, spirit-filled men, called deacons, were chosen to assist with ministering to the physical needs of the widows, so that the apostles could focus on teaching the people. Anyone who reads Torah knows of the rebellions that Moses had to deal with in the wilderness. I believe that Ignatius’ instructions to show reverence for the bishop presbytery was to curtail this kind of behavior and to prevent schisms that could potentially occur in the assembly.
In Torah observant groups, many have a hard time finding a place of fellowship because they are few and far between. Even some of the people I know travel long distances to visit regularly with people that are in different fellowships. These assemblies vary widely in some of their doctrinal beliefs for one reason or another. Because these fellowships are long distances from each other, people also listen to various teaching podcasts and/or watch a variety of video teachings from a wide variety of sources. Some of the people generating these videos and podcasts do not study the Word, history, or culture thoroughly. They pick up on maybe a few ideas and run with them. Their conclusions are not always accurate, and many people lap it up like it is sweet candy. After that, many are unwilling to listen to a fuller presentation because they believe they have now found the truth. This, of course, causes me great concern because it is obvious that there is frequently little discernment out there. The fact of the matter is that the information we are trying to process is so vast. We have to chunk it in stages before we can even examine it. Just to examine Ignatius’ letters is a multi-step process to see what the main point are and to summarize them. We still have yet to compare the information in his letters and to the other church fathers! Having said all of this, it is clear that since people in Torah observant groups look to several leaders of various groups with differing opinions to teach them, they likely don’t look to all of them as a single person being a parallel to God Himself.
Another thing that Ignatius mentions is that believers have been initiated into the mysteries of the gospel with Paul. Yeshua indicated that he was making known to them the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Actually, the various religions in Yeshua’s time had their own mysteries that people were initiated into. For now, Ignatius mentions that three of these mysteries included Mary’s virginity which was hidden from the prince of this world, as was her offspring, as well as the death of Yeshua. He also mentions that deacons are ministers of the mysteries of the Messiah.
Only two of Ignatius’ letters mention his coming martyrdom. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius says he desires to suffer, but that he didn’t know if he was worthy to do so. Remember, Ignatius was on his way from Antioch, Syria to Rome; therefore, most of what he has to say concerning his martyrdom, he says to the church of Rome. He desires to be sacrificed to God and deemed worthy and to become a martyr. He’s willing to die for God – to be the wheat of God, ground by the teeth of wild beasts – to be pure bread of God. He wants these wild beasts to leave nothing of his body, so that he will not be a trouble to anyone. He doesn’t want the Roman believers to interfere with his martyrdom, so that he can attain Christ; he is eager to die.
How many of us can say something like this? How many of us are willing and able to endure persecution, torture, and death for our faith? We have to prepare our hearts and minds for such a possibility, and if such is ever required us, never waver in the faith that we hold dear.