Seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch survive for us to read, giving us a wonderful insight into the church of the first few years of the second century.
In his letter to the church in Smyrna, a church family he had become acquainted with during a stopover as he headed from Antioch to Rome (to face martyrdom for his faith), the church leader Ignatius spells out some wonderful and timeless truths. After opening his letter with a greeting that reminds both writer and reader of their sure and certain salvation in Jesus Christ, Ignatius turns to spell out a brief Gospel summary.
The Basis of Hope
Ignatius writes that he knows his readers “have been made complete in a faith that cannot be moved… and that you have been fully established in love by the blood of the Lord.” (Ad Smyrn. 1.1.) His confidence, he writes, stems from their shared faith in Jesus Christ.
“For you are fully convinced about our Lord, that he was truly from the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born from a virgin, and baptised by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled in him. In the time of Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh – we ourselves come from the fruit of his divinely blessed suffering – so that through his resurrection he might eternally lift up the standard for his holy and faithful ones, whether Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of his church.
For he suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved.” (Ad Smyrn. 1.1-2.1.)
This wonderful summary explains the shared hope of Ignatius and the Smyrnean church. The incarnate Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection have won salvation for all who believe in him.
Continuing in Steadfast Hope
There is so much that could be said about this little summary, but permit me to focus in on one thing. Shortly after these words, Ignatius explains why he writes these things – even though they are truths the church already know and love.
“I am advising you about all these things, dear ones, even though I know that you already agree. But I am guarding you ahead of time from the wild beasts in human form. Not only should you refrain from welcoming such people, if possible you should not even meet with them.” (Ad Smyrn. 4.1.)
Ignatius knows the church know all this, but he writes it precisely because they know it already! In the reminder of these glorious truths the church family in Smyrna are being protected against these wild beasts in human form that may well come upon them. There is an edge to this, as Ignatius himself is headed to Rome to face martyrdom for his Christian faith. He expected to be thrown to beasts in the Roman colosseum – these human wild beasts are supposed to invoke a similar sense of terror.
Ignatius therefore wanted to equip the church in Smyrna to stand firm in the face of such opposition, opposition that would spring upon them from within their own church family – those they would be willing to welcome and meet with.
In a separate letter to Polycarp, the leader of the Smyrnean church, Ignatius had praised Polycarp for having his mind “fixed on God as upon an immoveable rock”, and encouraged him to “stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten.” (Ad Polycarp 1; 3.)
This opening section of the letter to the whole church in Smyrna is an effort to equip all the saints there to do just that, and to do so against wild beasts which will creep in amongst them. The tools for continued and faithful perseverance in the faith are found in the simple and eternal truth of the Gospel message. The Smyrneans would be undone, just as we would be today, if they embraced anything more than this saving message. It is not the case that one accepts the Gospel and graduates to ‘Advanced Christianity 101’. The Gospel is, for the Christian life, the start point, end point and everything in between! The Smyrneans would stand firm if they clung to the Gospel they first believed. (An echo of Paul – 1 Cor 15:1-2.)
Ignatius was headed off to face the wild beasts. Savage animals that would very much tear him apart. Yet his concern for the Smyrneans was not that they dodge such animals, but that they are equipped to spot and stand firm against the human equivalent of such wild beasts.
Time and again Scripture also warns us against the dangers of false and divisive teachers, tearing apart faithful believers by their deceptive words. The solution to such dangers is to cling steadfastly to the Gospel. Accept it, hope in it, and persist in it. There is no other way to live the Christian life. There is no other way to salvation. The danger of welcoming wild beasts into our church families is just as strong as it was for those early generations of Christian brothers and sisters. Too often we hear of or experience churches and Christian contexts where the Gospel is taught, but then a little more is expected, asked for or encouraged. The ‘Gospel plus x y or z’ is the ‘gospel’ of wild beasts among the flock.
So much like those faithful believers in Smyrna, we must hear and heed Ignatius’ warning, some 1900 years later. Put your hope in the truth of the Gospel, and never ‘move past’ it.