June 21, 2013

Pastor Ignatius on Imitating Christ

by Wyatt Graham

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).

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham. Follow TGCCanada at @CanadaTgc.
  • jasoncaine1

    Absolutely beautiful article. never realized that it was possible that he had contact with the apostle John. His comments about abiding in Christ vs the plant of the Devil is extremely vivid imagery. Do you have any thoughts on the spiritual disciplines prescribed by Ignatious, specifically Ignatious prayer?

    • gerald

      If you are speaking of the Spiritual Excercises, you may be confusing Ignatius of Antioch with Ignatius of Loyola who was a 16th Century writer.

    • Hey Jason! I think Gerald is right on this one. Ignatius of Loyola is probably who you are thinking of.

  • Gavin

    Great post.
    What other EARLY church fathers do you recommend reading?

    • Good question! I enjoy reading Polycarp. He was a disciple of John the Apostle. He wrote letter or two to the churches, although his ministry was cut short since he died a martyr (like Ignatius). Other than that, Clement of Rome is another early church father, who is enjoyable to read. Maybe start with those two? You can find free English translations online on these pastors at http://www.ccel.org/.

      • Heather

        Just out of curiosity…Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle? Can you cite that? I only ask because I’m curious to know if the term “disciple of John” was literally used as a title to describe who Polycarp was. It has intrigued me, lately, that people refer to Timothy as a disciple of Paul, even though no where in Scripture does it say Timothy is a “disciple of Paul.” That would be fascinating if that phrase was actually used of Polycarp…

        • Polycarp didn’t use the phrase, but other people did. For example, Tertullian marks the connection between the two in “Prescription against the Heretics,” ch.32.

          • And before Tertullian would have written that, the phrase is used in the account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (AD 150-160) to describe Irenaeus as a disciple of Polycarp himself. This is a great illustration of the discipleship process outlined in 2 Timothy 2:2.

          • Heather

            Hi Wyatt,

            Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. I read ch 32 of “The Prescription against Heretics” and I couldn’t find a reference of Polycarp being an actual disciple of John, but I realize that might be because we are missing something in the English translation, is that right? I found where it said Polycarp was placed in the church of Smyrna by John, but it doesn’t say he was John’s disciple?

            Also, thanks, Mike, for sharing that 🙂 Very interesting! I still find it intriguing that Paul, nor others, ever referred to Timothy as his disciple. It seems Paul acted more as a father toward Timothy than anything else…”son in the faith” and all?

          • We’ve been through this, Heather. It is unmistakably plain that Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, speaks of Paul’s disciples in Acts 9. No matter how hard you try, there is no such false dichotomy between being a “son in the faith” and being a disciple of Paul as Paul was a disciple of Christ.

            Let’s not rehash any of that further here, as it’s off-topic. Those interested can follow the link and read that discussion.

  • Nate_Busenitz


    Thanks for highlighting the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Out of curiosity, which edition/translation of the apostolic fathers are you reading ? Michael Holmes, perhaps?

    • For this post, I used Michael Holmes. I’ve been trying to work through it this year. Also, I have used Migne to read Origen and others.

  • Robyn

    I find it most encouraging and trustworthy that the early church fathers wrote from the perspective of truth rather than ‘feelings’.