Recently, I have been reading the early church fathers, who wrote only a few years after the apostles penned the New Testament. Although these writings are not Scripture, like spiritual biographies or books on theology they have encouraged me in my walk of faith. In order to share this encouragement, I would like to highlight one pastor in particular who presents pastoral wisdom coupled with a powerful theology of sanctification.
Writing in the early second century, Ignatius, the pastor of Antioch in Syria leaves us with valuable letters to various churches in Turkey. Although he writes in the early second century, he most likely pastored in Antioch during the first century. Thus, it is likely that he would have been in contact with at least the apostle John.
Since he is an early pastor and apostolic contemporary, Ignatius conveys theological instruction that reminds readers of the New Testament. In the area of Christian growth or sanctification, Ignatius exhorts the Ephesian church to imitate the Messiah and to abide in him in the face of mistreatment. This teaching receives more force, if one realizes that while writing this letter Roman soldiers were escorting Ignatius to his death sentence.
Although maligned and mistreated, Ignatius tells the Ephesians to, “Pray continually . . . that they may find God” (IEph 10:1). Additionally, the Ephesians were to respond to anger with gentleness, to boasting with humility, blasphemy with prayer, to error with steadfast faith, and cruelty with civility (IEph 10:2). In short, “do not be eager to imitate them” (μὴ σπουδάζοντες ἀντιμιμήσασθαι αὐτούς).
Instead of imitating them, “Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord (μιμηταὶ δὲ τοῦ κυρίου)” (IEph 10:3). This pastoral insight into how we respond to mistreatment is helpful for two reasons. First, Ignatius tells believers to exhibit “forbearance,” not to defend themselves vigorously, enact legal change, or to go on the offensive in anyway. Instead, simply forbearance is required, when someone maligns a believer.
Secondly, the reason that forbearance is key is because it shows that believers are eager to imitate the Lord. In this case, I believe contextually that Ignatius refers to Jesus’ life, and especially in his forbearance of persecution and death on the cross. Additionally, Ignatius throughout his letters views his suffering as an imitation of Christ and refuses to defend himself, but as sheep led to the slaughter, so goes he. No words of defense, when they will fall on deaf ears. No need to vindicate himself, when God has already done so. There is simply a need to imitate the Lord.
But Ignatius does not see imitation of Christ as something accomplished through human effort, but he grounds Christian imitation in union with the Messiah. The reason a person should imitate Christ in forbearing evil is, “to see who can receive more injustice, who is the more deprived, and who is the more rejected, in order that no plant of the devil may be found in you (ἐν ὑμῖν). But with complete purity and self control, abide in the Messiah Jesus (μένητε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ), physically and spiritually” (IEph 10:3). By contrasting the plant of the Devil with abiding in the Messiah, Ignatius signals that he sees overcoming evil as something done in Christ. In short, imitating Christ is accomplished through abiding him.
While Ignatius’ letters fall outside the realm of the Christian Canon, his letters still speak like any theological treatise or book would today. In many ways, he may better help us to understand the Biblical writings, since he speaks the same language (Greek) and lived in the same era. Whatever a person’s view on the value of Ignatius’ corpus as a whole, any believer should imitate Christ (John 1:43) and abide in him (John 15) in face of persecution or any sort of mistreatment (cf. Isa 53:7).