Apostolic Fathers – Ignatius

I am being enriched in reading the Apostolic Fathers, those Christians who lived and wrote near or immediately after the time of the Apostles, such as Barnabas, Ignatius, and Polycarp. I don’t see their writing as on the same level as the Apostles (and neither do they themselves), but what they write helps us to get a glimpse of what life and Christian faith were like at the very beginning. Their letters also help to fill in some of the gaps, some of the things that we are left wondering about in our reading of the Apostles’ letters.

For example, Ignatius — a disciple of the Apostle John — writes to those in Smyrna about the heretical Docetists who denied that Christ came in the flesh and suffered (actually) in real flesh. Not only does this confirm that the Apostle John was writing about heretical unbelievers in his letters instead of writing about a believer’s experience of fellowship as is taught in many fundamentalist churches in the USA, (Ignatius calls them unbelievers who are awaiting judgment if they don’t repent), but it sheds more light on what is so important in the phrases “believing on the blood of Christ” and “denying Christ”.

Believing on the blood of Christ makes almost no sense to modern American ears, and could even sound repulsive to those outside of Christ, but in that day it signified Christ’s actual incarnation and death in real flesh, and opposed the the Docetists’ teaching that Christ’s body only appeared to be real flesh and blood. Why is that important? If Christ didn’t assume real flesh, then he didn’t become like you and me, and he didn’t really assume sin, and he didn’t really take the penalty of sin (death), and you and I are still in our sins, not being properly cleansed, and we are still dead, having no eternal life.

Denying Christ, in Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaeans, is synonymous with denying the truth that Christ came in the flesh. In essence, the phrase is a judgment against the Docetists’, who denied Christ’s real, actual fleshly body, and in so doing, opposed the message of the Gospel — that God was reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting our transgressions against us.

Here below is another passage in Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, but not related to the content discussed above. This letter was being sent ahead of him as he traveled as a prisoner, escorted by Roman soldiers, to face his death in the arena. Here he describes a little bit about that experience and his expectation of what awaited him.

I can’t help but wander what would go through my mind, or any person’s mind, if I were traveling across the USA, perhaps to Washington, D.C., knowing that my geographical destination would also be my final destination on this earth. How would I write to those whom I love? I guess we’re all already on our way, as each day passes. I hope that reality can pierce my thick head today and spur me to gentleness for all who are in my path.

First, a few interesting notes. He asks his readers: “do not hinder me from living, do not wish me to die”, clearly referring to his desire to die to this world, so that he may live with Christ.

Second, he says the “ruler of this age wants to abduct me and to corrupt my mind towards God.” It seems he’s being very open about the difficulty that was facing him, knowing he would be given a chance from Caesar to save his earthly life by renouncing Christ and worshiping Caesar. He asks for their help by praying for him not to live, but to complete his journey and go to the Father.

Third, when he tells them “Do not let envy dwell in you”, he’s speaking of their desire to see him live and continue on earth, for their own benefit, a natural result of their love for him. But in speaking this way, he comforts them ahead of time, in their loss.

Lastly, this section ends with his true desire – imperishable love. My prayer, more and more, is that I may walk in the here-and-now in this imperishable love, in faith in God’s grace.

From Syria to Rome I am fighting with wild beasts, by land and sea, night and day, being imprisoned by ten leopards (that is, a company of soldiers) who also, being treated kindly,  become even worse. But in their mistreatments I am becoming more of a disciple, but I have not been justified by these mistreatments. May I enjoy the beasts that have been made ready for me, and I pray they might deal with me speedily. I will also entice them to devour me quickly, not as with some who were so cowardly they have not touched. But even if they are themselves unwilling I will force them myself. Grant me this favor. I know what is best for me. Now I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with beasts, mutilation, being torn apart, scattering of bones, mangling of limbs, grinding of the whole body, cruel tortures of the devil; let these come upon me, only that I may reach Jesus Christ.

Neither the ends of the earth  nor the kingdoms of this age  will be of benefit to me. It is better  for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. I seek that one who died on my behalf. I desire that one who rose up on our account. But the pains of childbirth  are upon me. Be in agreement with me,  brothers, do not hinder me from living, do not wish me to die. Do hand over not to the world one who desires to belong to God, and do not deceive him with material things.  Allow me to receive the pure light; arriving there I will be a man. Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my God. If anyone has him in himself, let him understand what I want and let him sympathize with me, knowing what constrains me.

The ruler of this age wants to abduct  me and to corrupt my mind towards God. Therefore let none of you who are present help him. Instead be on my side, that is, God’s side.  Do not speak of Jesus Christ and desire the world. Do not let envy dwell in you. If I myself, being present, urge you, do not be persuaded by me, but instead be persuaded by this: what I write to you. For I write to you while living, strongly desiring  to die. My passion has been crucified and there is no fire of love for material things in me, but water living and speaking in me, saying within me, “Come to the Father.” I take no pleasure in food of corruption or the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread  of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is from the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is imperishable love.

– quoted from Rick Brannan’s “Apostolic Fathers in English” (with a few changes)

Confession Obsession

Beginning in the first chapter of 1st John, the apostle John addresses the heresy that was being taught by deceivers in some of the local churches – that Christ didn’t really come in the flesh. These false prophets had gone out from the apostles of the church into the local assemblies. John wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us”, 1st John 2:19.

Note: if you arrived here independently, you may want to read the previous article, “The Surprising Purpose of John’s Letters”.

Starting in verse six, John gives a series of contrasts so that the reader can make a distinction between the false prophets.  Later, he wrote “Make sure no one deceives you!” (1st John 3:7)

So John writes in a certain style, “If we… but if we”.  And it’s paramount to our spiritual health that we understand that John is writing in this manner: “If someone in the church does ______, but if someone in the church does _____”.  In other words, John is making distinctions between false Christians and true believers.

As he said in 1st John 3:7 – “Little children, let no one deceive you.”

And again, “… many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” 2nd John 7.

And in 1st John 2:19 – “They went out from us (the apostles), but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us”.

“I  wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes…” – 3rd John 9

So when we get to the ever-popular 1st John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”, we should stop and put on our thinking caps for a moment.  Did John give us (true Christians) a prescription for getting new forgiveness for the sins we commit in our daily walk with Christ?  Or was he, perhaps, trying to say something else.

Take a look at both the previous and the following verses (verse 8 and 10).

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1st John 1:8

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1st John 1:10

Notice something?  Or … notice a few things?  Here’s what I notice:

  1. Verses 8 and 10 contrast with verse 9.
  2. In verse 8, the people do not have the truth (the truth is not in them)
  3. In verse 10, the people do not have God’s word (his word is not in them).
  4. The people who John writes about in verses 8 and 10 do the opposite of what true Christians do.  They say they have no sin and they have not sinned.  But if that’s true, then they don’t need a Savior at all.
  5. The word “confess”, which has become a loaded word, is used in contrast to “If we say…” and that just happens to be the literal meaning of the word in the Greek.  The Greek word is “homologeo”.  The first part is homo, meaning “the same”. The second part is logeo and means “to say”.  So literally, “confess” means to say the same thing (that God says about our sins).

So, 1st John 1:9 isn’t a prescription for the true believer to get new forgiveness.  Rather, it’s a contrast to 1:8 and 1:10 about false prophets in the church who say they have no sin and have not sinned, which is a dangerous heresy – one which, if believed, would turn a person away from Christ for salvation.  After all, who would need a Savior (from God’s wrath against sin) if that person has no sin and has not sinned?

But, if we (true Christians) go around all day asking God to forgive us each time we sin a new sin, then we aren’t resting in the finished work of Christ.  All day long we bring death to God instead of life!  The apostle Paul wrote to us and said, “In the same way that Christ died once to sin (ie, once for all time) and now lives to God, we too are to consider ourselves dead to sin (once for all time) and alive to God (Romans 6:11, paraphrase).

And again in Colossians 3:13 – “… forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave (past tense) you, so also should you”.

And in Ephesians 1:7 – “In him we have (present tense – we have it now) redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”.

Once more in Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave (past tense) you”

Forgiveness is a finished work.

The writer of Hebrews wrote,

“where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin”.

Still not convinced that you don’t need to approach God in death all day, every day (or at least, whenever you sin)?  Then how about this in Hebrews 9:22,

“… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”.

Did you see that?  You can ask God to forgive you all day long, but you won’t get it unless Jesus bleeds for you.

But we know Christ isn’t going to come down from heaven and die again!  We know this because of Hebrews 10:12 –

“when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God”.

And then again, a few verses later in Hebrews 10:14, the writer says,

“by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”.

Dear Christian, from God’s perspective, you are perfect right now.  Your perfection was accomplished 2000 years ago through the blood of Christ.  There is nothing left to be done in this regard!

But wait.  Let’s finish up where we started – in 1st John.

Just two verses later – after our famous 1:9 – we come to 2:1.  John changes his tone here.  Now he begins with “My little children”.  Instead of continuing with contrasts, John is now writing an encouragement (perhaps he’s doing so in case someone might misunderstand 1:9).

What does he say exactly in 1st John 2:1?

Pick one:

  1. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, he should just ask for forgiveness again and again.
  2. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, Christ will come back down from heaven and endure the cross all over again so that the sinner can get new forgiveness.
  3. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, he should go sit in a dark box and tell his sins to a funny-looking guy dressed in a funny-looking robe.
  4. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, he should verbally recount it as fast as possible in order to avoid “disfellowshipping” from God and the associated perils, such as lightning strikes, boils, pestilence, etc.
  5. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

To the little children, John gave no formula.  He only reaffirmed a basic truth: “… we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”.  No formulas. No walking around in death.  No trying to get yourself to be “the righteous one”.  Just a simple fact. If you sin, you have an Advocate in heaven.

While we can distinguish between false Christians and true Christians by observing who agrees with God that they have sin and commit sins (something to which true Christians admit), we no longer need to do anything for our sins except trust in the finished work of our Advocate in heaven.

The next time someone points you to 1st John 1:9 to deal with your sins, kindly point that person to 1st John 2:1.

The Surprising Purpose of John’s Letters

Find a Christian who studies his Bible and ask him what the letters of John are about (1st, 2nd, and 3rd John).  For that matter, find a typical Christian pastor and ask him the same question.  Here are the typical answers:

  1. John wrote about “fellowshipping”.
  2. John wrote about “progressive sanctification” (becoming holier).
  3. John wrote about “abiding”.

John only mentions “Fellowship” a few times in his letters, and in 1st John, he uses “the fellowship” only four times – and then never again in the rest of his first letter.  So it’s safe to say that John’s purpose wasn’t to write about “fellowshipping”, or the idea of a Christian experiencing closeness with God and then falling out of that closeness because of sin.

Notice that “the fellowship” is a noun.  The action of fellowshipping is not in 1st John.  Not at all.  But, in the first chapter we do see the word “the Fellowship”, which is a relationship term, not an experience term.  Two fellows in the same ship – that’s the fellowship.

John doesn’t write about sanctification at all.  It’s nowhere in his letters.  So… not much to say about this one, except the idea that we become holier and holier (more sanctified) as Christians is one of the more evil heresies in the church today.  Believing and walking in this lie doesn’t remove one from the Fellowship of Christ, but it is rather ludicrous.  Pots and pans were sanctified in the Old Testament.  So, dear Christian, you’re either set apart for Christ (sanctified), or you’re not.  It’s that simple.  Thank you.  We can go home now.

Wait a second, we forgot “abiding”.  In a sense, John is writing about abiding – but not in the contemporary sense of this word.  We’ve hijacked the word abiding over the years and turned it into a word of experience.  Andrew Murray wrote a popular booklet in the late 1800’s titled, “Abide in Christ”, where he totally destroyed the real meaning of this word – especially as it’s used in John’s letters and even in the Gospel of John.

Abiding means “stay”.  That’s stay – as in, don’t leave.  I know.  Hard, isn’t it?  For more about this, see here.

So what did the Apostle John write about then.  Check these out:

  • 1st Jn 1:6
  • 1st Jn 2:4
  • 1st Jn 2:9
  • 1st Jn 2:15, 16 (By implication)
  • 1st Jn 2:19
  • 1st  Jn 2:22, 3:8, 12
  • 1st  Jn 3:4
  • 1st Jn 3:13
  • 1st Jn 3:15
  • 1st Jn 3:17
  • 1st Jn 4:5-6 (see Acts 2:42)
  • 1st Jn 4:8
  • 1st Jn 4:18
  • 3rd Jn 9-10

What are all those references, you ask?  Those are all the pointers in John’s letters that tell us what he wrote about.  Did you look at all of them?  Notice a theme developing here?

John’s letters are all about deceivers in the church.  False Prophets. Antichrists. Deceivers.

And where are these false prophets?  They’re in the church.

See 3rd John 9-10, “I wrote something to the church but Diotrephes…”

What did these “antichrists” talk about?  We find the answer in the following verses, where we see their lie revolved around the “flesh” of Christ.  Did Christ come in a real, fleshly body?  Yes! And this is important because Christ had to be made like mankind in order to offer the perfect sacrifice for mankind.  Most likely, their belief about “flesh” also had something to do with gross sin, since John claims they walked in darkness.

  • 1st Jn 1:8
  • 1st Jn 2:22
  • 1st Jn 4:2-3
  • 1st Jn 4:15
  • 2nd  Jn 7

In addition, John says these false prophets walked in darkness, did not keep Christ’s commandments (to believe in Christ and love other Christians), hated other Christians, had no regard for the apostles’ teaching, bad-mouthed the apostles, caused others to fear, did not know God.

Why is it important to know that John wrote about deceivers and to recognize that the deceivers were in the church? Because it is critical to our walk that we properly understand the first chapter of 1st John – specifically 1st John 1:9, which deals with forgiveness and makes a contrast between these false prophets and true Christians, rather than prescribing some sort of Confession Obsession for new forgiveness.  More on that topic here.

Abiding in Christ and Spiritual Schizophrenia

In the epistles of John, we come across the concepts of abiding in Christ, what it means to be a brother, and what it means to love our brothers.

John uses the word “brother” to refer to both Christians and non-Christians, and it’s important to know this, so that we can understand who John is talking about when he says things like, “The one who does not love his brother, whom he has not seen, cannot love God”.  John did not write this to condemn true Christians for not being loving enough, rather he wrote things like this so that true Christians would be encouraged to make a distinction between the deceivers and brothers – both of whom are called “brothers” in John’s lingo – and these people are still in “the church”, even though they separated themselves from the apostles.

There is a tangible example of “not loving” a brother in 3rd John, and we should use that as a reference for what it means to hate our brother, rather than assuming it’s the lack of ooey-gooey feelings.  The example is Diotrephes:

The one who doesn’t love his brother is the kind of person who speaks evil of the apostles, puts people out of the church because they help Christian missionaries, and sets himself over the apostles.  They claim to have more authority than the apostles.

Today these kinds of people would be called Cult leaders. They would be the kind of cultic “Christians” who are opposed to the true Gospel.

Think Jonestown.  Think Waco.

They would be the kind of people who sin licentiously yet call it “not sin”.  They would be the kind of people who walk in darkness yet claim to walk in the light.  They would say they had no sin. But true Christians do claim to have sin. True Christians admit they have sin. In other words, these deceivers were hateful, mean, rotten people who did whatever they could to hurt the apostles and the true Christians, all while preaching some other message, saying they didn’t sin and still claiming to be Christian.  This was obviously confusing for the “average Joe” Christians in the primitive, local assemblies.  The Average Joe might have even feared a leader in the church like Diotrephes.  The Average Joe in the primitive church might have even wondered if he himself was in fact saved after being excommunicated by Diotrephes. He might have lost his assurance of his own salvation.

When John spoke of “loving our brothers”, he wasn’t talking about people who don’t always have good feelings toward other people. John wasn’t talking about people who sin, or people who get angry sometimes… people who get frustrated with other people at times – it’s clear that Christians sin. John says so himself.  But a distinction between true Christians in the church and the false Christians in the church is that true Christians “admit” to it when they sin.

There is a difference between people who sin and people who are “sin factories”. When John talks about a person who doesn’t love his brother – a person who hates his brother – he’s talking about these licentious people who are “sin factories” – people who are mean-spirited evil people.  But, the letter of John has nothing to do with Paul’s concept of “doing what I don’t want to do”, and “not doing what I want to do” in Romans 7.  John’s not writing about that kind of legitimate experience that every true Christian has.  The people that John wrote about are the kind who would never have a Romans 7 experience because they wouldn’t admit to their sin in the first place.

“Repeating” a sin is not the same as “practicing” a sin.

And that’s important enough to repeat, I think.

Repeating a sin is not the same as practicing a sin.

Paul talks about the Christian who sins repeatedly, even though he doesn’t want to.  John is talking about deceivers who practice sin – the word used for “practice” means “to produce sin” – kind of like a business owner who sets up a factory and hires people to come in and put together widgets – only these people’s lives are the factories… sin-factories. They walked in darkness because they had nothing to do with the Light.  It wasn’t that they stumbled – we all stumble, and John’s answer for the Christian who stumbles is “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  No formulas. No confession booths.  No walking around all day being super-conscious of your sins so you can confess them right away and get some sort of new forgiveness.  Nope.  Just… “we have an advocate” with the Father.

Abiding is not a mystical word.  It simply means “to stay”.

It is popular in many Christian circles to consider this word as something that means “to experience”. But that is not how John uses this word. In John’s mind, there are Christians who remain or stay or continue in the faith and then there are also Christians who go out from the faith. A true Christian never stops abiding in Christ. If he were to stop abiding in Christ he would become a Muslim or a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or an Atheist or an Agnostic or something similar. In the context of John’s letters, a person who did not abide in Christ would be a person who left the faith  – a person who walked in darkness – a person who claimed to have no sin but still walked in darkness.

If we …

  • interpret abiding as meaning “experience” …
  • fail to properly interpret “brothers” as including saved and unsaved in the assemblies…
  • realize John wrote so that we would make distinctions between deceivers and true Christians in the assemblies…
  • don’t understand the difference between those who “practice” sin in John’s letters and those who “struggle” with sin in Paul’s letter to the Romans …
  • We have mixed-up ideas about what it means to “love” and “hate” our brothers – basing it on feelings rather than the real-world example provided in 3rd John …

then we can only come to the conclusion that when we don’t experience God, when we’re not “loving” enough, or when we stumble, that we become “children of the devil”, since John wrote, “the one who does not love his brother is a child of the devil” (1 Jn 3:10 paraphrased)

This leads only to “spiritual schizophrenia”.

The Christian who approaches God with this misconception will never have peace with God and will therefore never receive the love from God that God wants them to receive.

The irony is this:  “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19)

If we’re not receiving God’s love for us, because of some sort of misconception, then we cannot love God, and if we cannot love God, we cannot love the children of God.  So this misconception hinders the growth of the Christian,  the peace of the Christian, the assurance of the Christian, and it hinders the practical outworking of love toward other Christians in this world. A person who has this misconception can never read the letters of John peacefully. He can never open his Bible and be comforted. He or she keeps getting hung up on the misconceptions and becomes fearful, yet John wrote:

There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.