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)