Some erroneously contend that Ignatius yearned for death.1 For Ignatius, discipleship entailed death. Suffering was the natural path of following Jesus Christ. Death was the natural end of suffering. Therefore to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, death should be welcomed just as our Lord ‘set his face toward Jerusalem.’ One writer says of Ignatius, ‘the “self” does not really come into being until it suffers; suffering is not simply something that happens to a person. Rather, it is the means of achieving real selfhood 2’ while another feels that being a disciple had nothing to do with suffering or martyrdom.3 But Ignatius firmly decries that position by stating so often that Christ’s suffering is to be followed. One could further state that real discipleship does not come into being until one suffers. For example, Ignatius writes that he is not yet ‘someone’ and would not be until he was perfected in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3.1), i.e. until he was martyred. ‘Perfected in Jesus Christ’ is his way of saying, ‘I followed Him to the end, suffering as He suffered, dying as He died, demanding nothing but God's glory above self gain.’ Ignatius’ theology is not shrunken into the kernel of a quest for personal redemption.4 Rather his personal goal was to perfectly follow the Lord Jesus in life, suffering, proclamation, shepherding, and death. Ignatius understood pain not as something to be avoided but as providing a benefit—union with the divine Savior of the world.5 In the incarnation, the Son embraced human flesh and human suffering , so Ignatius would not shy from his own upcoming suffering. “It is not a question whether he would appear as an individual of abnormal psychology today, but whether he was such to his own contemporaries.6” Perhaps this vivid approach to death is clouded by our distance from his situation. Perhaps his contemporaries could identify with his resolve. He had a foreboding and earnest desire to become a martyr, and wished for nothing more than to seal with his death the truth of the gospel to which he had borne such a loud and convincing testimony for so many years.7 He would be a disciple to the death. Christ’s suffering is his essential message, and Christians’ acceptance of suffering is the sign of their commitment to his message.8 Death was a means to bring unity for St. Ignatius [where ever would he get such an idea, wink]. His community suffered from persecution and disunity. Some assert that Ignatius was the cause of the civil unrest. They claim that is why he was arrested. But just as our Lord was innocent of the charges against Him, I am compelled to think that Ignatius was falsely accused too. The Empire under Rome could pull off such a fraud. Ignatius followed Christ in death for the sake of unity, as we shall see from his own comments about death and suffering.
Magnesians 1:2. ‘ . . . In him enduring every abuse of the ruler of this age and escaping, we will meet God.’ Here Ignatius connects the idea of suffering to discipleship by using the word ‘enduring.’ Usually he speaks of ‘attaining God.’ Here though, he uses the term ‘meet God,’ rather than ‘attain.’ This could mean that martyrdom was not on his mind, but rather living sacrificially. But the allusion to Christ’s suffering at the hand of the ruler of this age and ascending to the father cannot be overlooked.
Magnesians 5:2. ‘ [God]. . . through whom, unless we willingly die into his suffering, his life is not in us.’ Here he speaks of us imitating Christ’s death. Does Ignatius imply that we die a martyr’s death in order to prove our faith? Perhaps this language implies our dying by embracing the inevitable suffering connected to Jesus Christ’s new life. In any case this is an allusion to Christ’s suffering in the context of our imitation.
Trallians 4:2. ‘For while I love to suffer, I do not know if I am worthy.’ Somehow Ignatius connects the concept of suffering to that of worthiness. ‘Worthy’ occurs over thirty times in these brief seven epistles. Most of the occurrences speak of being ‘worthy of Christ’ or ‘worthy of God.’ Does that not sound like being an authentic disciple? While it could be a self-deprecating expression, his use of it referring to others seems to suggest that our connection is contextual.
Trallians 10:1. ‘But if . . . he (Jesus Christ) [only] seemed to suffer, why am I bound? And why do I pray for battle with wild beasts? Then I die for nothing.’ This verse speaks of Christ’s passion in light of our suffering in a new way. He confronts the idea of false teachers’ saying Christ did not really suffer by arguing that his present bondage is directly related to Christ’s real suffering. In other words, he would not risk personal injury were he not certain that Christ suffered as an example. He even disputes with the Docetists in mind of being an imitator, a true disciple.
Romans 2:1. ‘ For if I am a word of God, but if you love my flesh, I will be a voice.’ This enigmatic expression is unclear. What is clear is that he asks again that the Roman Church not interfere with his plight, lest his message, and his faithfulness to God, be somehow diminished. So his suffering must be a ‘word’ and his rescue merely a ‘voice.’
Romans 4:3. ‘Not like Peter and Paul do I give you instructions. They were apostles, I am a convict. They were free, but I am till now a slave. But, if I suffer, I will be a freedman of Jesus Christ and will arise, free, in him.’ This is another clear passage where Ignatius relates suffering to the goal of his Christian life. He almost hinges the idea of his resurrection to his personal martyrdom.
Romans 6:3. ‘I long after the Lord, the Son of the true God and Father, even Jesus Christ. Him I seek, who died for us and rose again. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me in attaining to life; for Jesus is the life of believers. Do not wish to keep me in a state of death for life without Christ is death. While I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of Christ, my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened.’ He again requests no help from the believers in Rome. But now he says that Christ is the life of believers. Somewhat platonically, he affirms that life begins in death and if they help him stay in this world, they actually hinder his coming to life. He also does not consider this a personal quest alone. Isn't he asking us to consider his path, to sympathize with him...perhaps to suffer with him too.
Philadelphians 5:1. ‘ In whom being bound, I fear much, for I am as yet incomplete.’ Again Ignatius describes his faithfulness to Christ as incomplete because he has not yet died for the Lord.
Trallians12:3. ‘My bonds, which I carry about with me for the sake of Jesus Christ (praying that I may attain to God), exhort you,’ and ‘And do ye also pray for me, who have need of your love, along with the mercy of God, that I may be thought worthy to attain the lot for which I am now designed,’ and Philadelphians 5:2. ‘But your prayer to God shall make me perfect, that I may attain that to which I have been called, while I flee to the Gospel as to the flesh of Jesus Christ.’
Philadelphians 7:1. ‘For though some would have deceived me according to the flesh, yet the Spirit, as being from God, is not deceived. For it knows both whence it comes and whither it goes.’
Smyrneans 4:2. ‘For near the sward is near to god, next to wild beast is next to God. Only in the name of Jesus Christ, to suffer jointly with him, do I endure all things, and he, the perfect man, empowers me.’
Smyrneans 9:2. ‘If you endure all things on account of him, you will reach God.’ This is an echo of the exact same statement in the other letters.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Acts 5:41. Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. Romans 8:17. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.2 Corinthians 1:5-7. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2Cor. 12:7-10. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10. Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church. Colossians 1:24. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, 2 Timothy 1:8; This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 2:9. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.1 Peter 4:12-19; To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed, Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.5:1,9. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Hebrews 2:10; Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered 5:8; Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 10:32.
This long list of scripture supports the idea that Ignatius was within the biblical bounds when he wrote anticipating his own suffering and death. The central text is the 2 Cor. 12:7-10 passage. It boldly states that in suffering, Paul gladly boasts in his weaknesses. Strange it is that we cannot easily establish this connection. Perhaps it is our own desire for personal prosperity and well-being that blinds us to Ignatius’ proud statements about his own death. In short, suffering and death were not foreign to the biblical writers or to the Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius represents perhaps the most scriptural view of death-as-an-end-to-discipleship within that group9 of early Christians. Moderns might not apprehend his claims immediately. But rather than dismiss him as fantastic, we do better to ask, "who is out of step with whom?"
1 A. A. K. Graham, “Their word to our day, IV. Ignatius of Antioch,” The Expository Times 80 (Jan. 1969): p.108.
2 Judith Perkins, “The “self” as sufferer.” Harvard Theological Review 85 (July 1992): p.264.
3 Daniel N. McNamara, “Ignatius of Antioch on his death, discipleship, sacrifice, and imitation,” (Ph.D. diss. McMaster University, 1978) p. 247.
4 Willard M. Swartley, “The Imitatio Christi in the Ignatian letters,” Vigiliae Christianae 27 no. 2 (1973): p. 102.
5 Judith Perkins, “The “self” as sufferer.” Harvard Theological Review 85 (July 1992): p.263.
6 Frederick Augustus Schilling, The mysticism of Ignatius of Antioch, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1932), p. 72.
7 John Gambold. The martyrdom of Ignatius: A tragedy. ([Philadelphia?]: I. Ashmead & Co. for J. Wright, 1832), p. 17.
8 Judith Perkins, “The “self” as sufferer.” Harvard Theological Review 85 (July 1992): p. 263.
9 Some of the pseudepigraphal writings actually do push the envelope with fantastic stories about martyrdom and other strange ideas about Christology. If our devoted Father Ignatius had done that, the Church would have condemned him a heretic.