Throughout the New Testament, as we see Churches being founded by certain Apostles, we notice that these Apostles never stayed very long with those Churches, but appointed leaders in those Churches before moving on to start other ones. These leaders of the Churches, whom we call the Church Fathers, were not referred to as Pastors or "Reverend" like so many ministers today - they were known back then as Priests and Bishops.
During the Early Church years, many letters and epistles came to be written by these men who had been disciples of the Apostles. For the first 400 years of the Church, the Church had no Bible like we have one today. When the Apostle Paul, for example, would write a letter to one of the Churches, that Church would make a copy of it and send it on to another Church. In this way, all of the Churches had some copies of the various letters and Gospels of the New Testament, but none of them had a complete Bible.
Along with those Apostolic letters being circulated among the Churches, there were also many letters which were written by the Church Fathers. These letters were very highly regarded in the Churches, since they were written by men who had been personally taught by the Apostles. In fact, for many years, some of their writings were considered to be equal to Scripture.
These writings were so highly regarded, that when one of these letters was received, it was immediately read in the Church for the spiritual benefit and edification of the people there. The people would listen to the words, and then go home, asking God to show them how to apply those words to their lives. Sometimes an account of someone's martyrdom was read. Because of the persecutions going on all around them, the people would listen to these accounts being read, and then leave the Church praying for strength and courage to live a godly life and to take a stand for Christ just like that martyr did. Many of those writings have been preserved and handed down to us today. And it's one of those writings that I want to read to you today: Martyrdom of Ignatius
Ignatius was a pupil of the Apostle John. He was ordained the Bishop of Antioch in the year 69 AD, possibly by the Apostle Peter, who was also a Bishop in Antioch before his martyrdom. Ignatius served the Church in Syria, of which Antioch was the capital, for about 50 years before he was called upon to be a martyr for Christ in the on Dec. 20, in the year 110. After his death, his remains were sent back to the Church in Antioch, where they were highly revered and honored. Every year, for many years afterwards, the Church would gather at his graveside on the anniversary of his martyrdom, and there they would have their regular worship service, along with communion.
In one of the letters that Ignatius wrote, while on his way to Rome to be thrown to the lions, he wrote these words:
"I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow 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 so let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body."
In another place, he wrote: "If the lions are lazy, poke them."
The letter I'm going to read to you this morning is an account of his martyrdom by several eyewitnesses who traveled to Rome with him. This document was written shortly after the death of Ignatius, and was circulated and read in all the Churches.
And now, for your blessing and spiritual edification - the account of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius:
WHEN Trajan (Roman Emperor) succeeded to the empire of the Romans, Ignatius, who was the disciple of John the apostle, and a man in all respects of an apostolic character, governed the Church of the Antiochians with great care, having with difficulty escaped the former storms of the many persecutions under Domitian. Ignatius, like a good pilot, by the helm of prayer and fasting, by the earnestness of his teaching, and by his constant spiritual labour, resisted the flood of persecution that rolled against him, fearing only that he might lose some of those who were deficient in courage.
Wherefore he rejoiced over the peaceful state of the Church, when the persecution ceased for a little time, but was grieved as to himself, that he had not yet attained to a true love for Christ, nor reached the perfect rank of a disciple. For he inwardly reflected, that the confession which is made by martyrdom, would bring him into a yet more intimate relation to the Lord. Wherefore, continuing a few years longer with the Church, and, like a divine lamp, enlightening every one's understanding by his expositions of the Holy Scriptures, he at length attained the object of his desire.
For Trajan, in the ninth year of his reign, being lifted up with pride after the victory he had gained over the Scythians and Dacians, and many other nations, and thinking that the religious body of the Christians were the last group he needed to conquer in order to complete the subjugation of all things to himself, and thereupon threatening them with persecution unless they should agree to worship demons, as did all other nations, thus compelled all who were living godly lives either to sacrifice to idols or die.
Wherefore the noble soldier of Christ, Ignatius, being in fear for the Church of the Antiochians, was, in accordance with his own desire, brought before Trajan, who was at that time staying at Antioch. And when he was set before the Emperor Trajan, Trajan said unto him, "Who art thou, who settest thyself to transgress our commands, and persuadest others to do the same, so that they should miserably perish?" Ignatius replied, "No one ought to call Theophorus wicked; for all evil spirits have departed from the servants of God. But if, because I am an enemy to these evil spirits, you call me wicked in respect to them, then I quite agree with you; for inasmuch as I have Christ the King of heaven within me, I destroy all the devices of these evil spirits."
Trajan answered, "And who is Theophorus?" Ignatius replied, "He who has Christ within his breast." Trajan said, "Do we not then seem to you to have the gods in our hearts, whose assistance we enjoy in fighting against our enemies?" Ignatius answered, "Thou art in error when thou callest the demons of the nations gods. For there is but one God, who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that are in them; and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, whose kingdom may I enjoy." Trajan said, "Do you mean Him who was crucified under Pontius Pilate?" Ignatius replied, "I mean Him who crucified my sin, and who has condemned and cast down all the deceit and malice of the devil under the feet of those who carry Him in their heart." Trajan said, "Dost thou then carry within thee Him that was crucified?" Ignatius replied, "Truly so; for it is written, 'I will dwell in them, and walk in them.'"
Then Trajan pronounced sentence as follows: "We command that Ignatius, who affirms that he carries about within him Him that was crucified, be bound by soldiers, and carried to the great city Rome, there to be devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of all the people there." When the holy martyr heard this sentence, he cried out with joy, "I thank thee, O Lord, that Thou hast chosen to honor me with a perfect love towards Thee, and hast made me to be bound with iron chains, like Thy Apostle Paul." Having spoken thus, he then, with delight, clasped the chains about him; and when he had first prayed for the Church, and commended it with tears to the Lord, he was hurried away by the savage cruelty of the soldiers, like a distinguished ram who was the leader of a goodly flock, that he might be carried to Rome, there to furnish food to the bloodthirsty beasts.
Wherefore, with great eagerness and joy, through his desire to suffer for Christ, he came down from Antioch to Seleucia, from which place he set sail. And after a great deal of suffering he came to Smyrna, where he disembarked with great joy, and hastened to see the holy Polycarp, who was formerly his fellow-disciple, and now bishop of Smyrna. For they had both, in old times, been disciples of St. John the Apostle.
Being then brought to Polycarp, and having communicated to him some spiritual gifts, and glorying in his bonds, he entreated of him to labour along with him for the fulfillment of his desire; earnestly indeed asking this of the whole Church, but above all, the holy Polycarp, that, by means of the wild beasts, he soon disappearing from this world, might be manifested before the face of Christ.
Many of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons of the various cities and Churches of Asia also came to Smyrna to welcome the holy man Ignatius, in the hope that they might receive from him some spiritual gift of counsel and wisdom. And these things he thus spoke to them, sending letters of thanksgiving, prayer, and exhortation to the Churches, to be delivered by their Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.
Explain Letters - 7 letters; They are filled with encouragement, and as you read them you can really sense the spirit of anticipation that Ignatius has as he looks forward to his martyrdom. Like the apostle Paul, Ignatius looked forward to the opportunity to die for Christ. His letters also emphasize the evil of heresy and division, and they counsel the Church to be in submission to the Bishops and Priests of the Church.
Having therefore set sail from Smyrna he next landed in Troas. Christophorus, the ship's captain, was pressed by the soldiers to hasten the ship to the public performances in the mighty city of Rome, that, being given up to the wild beasts in the sight of the Roman people, Ignatius might attain to his crown for which he strove. Then, going on from that place to Neapolis, he went on foot by Philippi through Macedonia, and on to that part of Epirus which is near Epidamnus; and finding a ship in one of the seaports, he sailed over the Adriatic Sea, and entering from it on the Tyrrhene, he passed by the various islands and cities, until, when Puteoli came in sight, Ignatius was eager there to disembark, having a desire to tread in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul in that place.
But a violent wind arising did not allow him to do so, the ship being driven rapidly forwards; and, simply expressing his delight over the love of the brethren in that place, he sailed by. Wherefore, continuing to enjoy fair winds, we were reluctantly hurried on in one day and a night, mourning as we did over the coming departure from us of this righteous man. But to him this happened just as he wished, since he was in haste as soon as possible to leave this world, that he might attain to the Lord whom he loved. Sailing then into the Roman harbour, with the unhallowed sports being just about to close, the soldiers began to be annoyed at our slowness, but the bishop Ignatius rejoicingly yielded to their urgency.
The soldiers pushed forth therefore from the place which is called Portus; and, because of the fame of the holy martyr being already spread abroad we met the brethren of Rome full of fear and joy - rejoicing indeed because they were thought worthy to meet with the Bishop Ignatius, but struck with fear because so eminent a man was being led to death. Now he enjoined some to keep silence, who, in their fervent zeal, were saying that they would appease the people, so that they should not demand the destruction of this just one.
He being immediately aware of this through the Spirit, and having greeted them all, and begged of them to show a true affection towards him, and having persuaded them not to envy him hastening to the Lord, he then, with all the brethren kneeling beside him, entreated the Son of God on behalf of the Churches, that a stop might be put to the persecution, and that mutual love might continue among the brethren. He was then led with all haste into the amphitheater [Roman Coliseum]. Then, being immediately thrown in, according to the command of Caesar given some time ago, the public spectacles being just about to close, he was thus cast to the wild beasts, that so by them the desire of the holy martyr Ignatius should be fulfilled, according to that which is written, "The desire of the righteous is acceptable [to God]." His wish was to be totally consumed by the lions, so that he might get any of the brethren in trouble with the authorities as they tried to gather his remains. In the end, only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were gathered together and sent to Antioch. There they were wrapped in linen, as an rich treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr.
Now these things took place on the thirteenth day before the Kalends of January, that is, on the twentieth of December. Having ourselves been eye-witnesses of these things, and having spent the whole night in tears within the house, and having entreated the Lord with bended knees and much prayer, that He would give us weak men full assurance respecting the things which were done, it came to pass, on our falling into a brief slumber, that some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labour, and standing by the Lord. When, therefore, we had with great joy witnessed these things, and had compared our several visions together, we sang praise to God, the giver of all good things, and expressed our sense of the happiness of the holy martyr; and now we have made known to you both the day and the time when these things happened, that, assembling ourselves together according to the time of his martyrdom [ie: on the anniversary of his martyrdom], we may have fellowship with that champion and noble martyr of Christ, who trod under foot the devil, and perfected the course which, out of love for Christ, he had desired, in Christ Jesus our Lord; by whom, and with whom, be glory and power to the Father, with the Holy Spirit, for evermore! Amen.