Ultimately discipleship is imitating Christ. Ignatius conceives martyrdom as the perfect imitation of Christ.1 This is the central point of the paper. Ignatius saw following Jesus to be ultimately accomplished in the imitation of his own suffering and passion. A case of true imitation can be seen only in the case of Ignatius’ relationship with Christ.2 Examination of the imitation-texts clearly shows that imitation is oriented primarily to suffering, not to the cross specifically but to suffering, as the inevitable consequence of loving like God loves.3 The whole point of the baptism, Eucharist, suffering for God, and Christology is to be an imitator of the one in whom we are baptized, the one whom we partake at the table, who suffered for our sakes and for our salvation, who embraces humanity and redeems it.
Ephesians 1:1. ‘Being imitators of God, taking on new life in the blood of God, you have fully completed the task so well suited to you.’ He speaks of imitating God and fulfilling a task. The question is, ‘what is the task?’ Is it imitation or visitation from the larger context of greeting and helping him? It is clear that the Church’s life comes from the blood of Christ, but what is the imitation? The evidence seems to point to a period of persecution at Ephesus. But one cannot contend certainly that this is Ignatius’ intent, for the ‘task’ referred to here as ‘imitation’ is not necessarily withstanding persecution. But one would also not expect him to refer to this in terms of imitation of God. So we think he begins his first letter with a statement about their obedience in terms of imitation.
Eph 9:2 “Ye, therefore, as well as all your fellow-travelers, are God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, adorned in all respects with the commandments of Jesus Christ, in whom also I exult that I have been thought worthy, by means of this Epistle, to converse and rejoice with you, because with respect to your Christian life ye love nothing but God only.”
Ephesians 10:1. ‘Let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, who was most maltreated, who endured deprivation and who was rejected.’ Here the instruction to imitate Jesus at the point o suffering is sent to the Church as a whole. The fate of the entire Church is to suffer for the faith. He emphasizes the duty of the whole Church to suffer in imitation the Lord Jesus Christ. If the Church imitates Christ, the logical conclusion is that they will be mistreated, deprived and rejected. In the letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius does not connect discipleship with the faithful Christian life. Rather he connects it to martyrdom. Perhaps, as Rathke suggests, martyrdom is the imitation for a single person whereas the Church is the way of the community, through suffering or not.4
Magnesians 4:1. “It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality:” If Docetists believed that Christ appeared only in aspect, then truly they could believe that our expression of his life could remain undercover. We have been called to be the real expressions of a real Person, the man Jesus Christ.
Magnesians 9:1. ‘And this is why we endure: that we might be found disciples of Jesus Christ . . .’ No other passage says it clearer that this one. Endurance is the mark of a disciple. What is there to endure but suffering? Why endure suffering in the first place; because it is an imitation of Christ’s suffering.
Trallians3:1. ‘In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ.’
Romans 1:2. ‘For I fear your love, lest it do me wrong, for it is easy for you to do what you want to, but it will be hard for me to attain to God unless you spare me.’ He asks the Romans not to intervene for him because they in doing so will impede his idea of following Christ. If he is disallowed to join in Christ’s suffering, via the Romans contending for his release, then his discipleship is halted.
Philadelphians 7:2. ‘But the Spirit proclaimed these words: Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father.’ He gives us here a direct connection between our obedience to others and Christ’s obedience to the Father. Noteworthy is the absence of the instruction to follow the teachings of Christ. We are told to follow Christ. Surely we are to understand that the Lord’s teachings are for the Church, but the point is to follow a person rather than a principle. I propose that following Christ is the same as following his teachings.
Smyrneans12:1. ‘The love of the brethren at Troas salutes you; whence also I write to you by Burrhus, . . . I would that all may imitate him, as being a pattern of a minister of God. Grace will reward him in all things.’ Here he gives us instruction to follow someone besides Christ. The principle of imitation is the same if we follow the bishop, for the bishop is the head of the presbytery just as the Father above the Son.
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, "Do not go beyond what is written." Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 1 Corinthians 4:16. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; For you, brothers, became imitators of God's Churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those Churches suffered from the Jews 2:14. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. Hebrews 6:12; Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 13:7.
How could one miss the connection Ignatius finds in these scriptures to his explicit idea of imitation? We are to imitate the faith of our leaders, of others who are more spiritual [that is those that serve and lead], the Bishop, and ultimately the Father, through Christ.
1 Johannes Quasten, Patrology, (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1950), 1: p.71.
2 Daniel N. McNamara, “Ignatius of Antioch on his death, discipleship, sacrifice, and imitation,” (Ph.D. diss. McMaster University, 1978) p. 248.
3 Willard M. Swartley, “The Imitatio Christi in the Ignatian letters,” Vigiliae Christianae 27 no. 2 (1973): p. 100.
4 Heinrich Rathke, Ignatius von Antiochien und die Paulusbriefe, (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1967) p. 68-75.