Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ignatius to the Smyrneans - Battlelines of the Flesh

This is a continuation of my series on Ignatius and the seven letters he wrote while on his way to be martyred in Rome. If you are unfamiliar with Ignatius, you may want to start with the introduction to this series.

Ignatius draws the a line regarding those who would deny that Jesus came in the flesh.
"Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation." (Ignatius to the Smyrneans, Chapter 6)
Jesus was both God and man. God because he was the from the Father and was, born of a virgin birth, and man because he partook of flesh and blood just like you and me. As God, He spoke with the authority and power of God. As man, he paid the price for our sins, redeemed us from every offense, and reconciled us back to God. To deny the flesh of Jesus is do deny His humanity and His redemptive work on the cross. The writer of Hebrews also concurs regarding the significance of the flesh of Christ. "Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives." (Hebrews 2:14-15) Without the flesh of Christ, there is no salvation and our hope is in vain.

Furthermore, the evidence of the ineffectiveness of this false doctrine to redeem and reconcile anyone to God was demonstrated by the character and behavior of its most ardent supporters.
"Let not [high] place puff any one up: for that which is worth all is faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred. But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty." (Ignatius to the Smyrneans, Chapter 6)
It matters not how many followers a person has, the height of their stature, or the degree of respect they receive from the world, what matters is "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6) and, most assuredly,  "the tree is known by its fruit." (Matthew 12:33) The leaders of this false doctrine failed on both accounts.

Moreover, they also abstained from the true church of God and prefer their own gatherings with their own bishop, rules, teachings, and traditions.
"They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again." (Ignatius to the Smyrneans, Chapter 7)
I believe that "the gift of God" that Ignatius is referring to is not the offerings at the "Eucharist" but rather Jesus Himself. Some have used this passage to purport that the early church believed that the elements of the "Eucharist" literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus. However, I am not convinced, for several reasons. First, in all my reading of the early church writings there seems little to no evidence that this was a common and universal belief among the churches. In fact, except for this passage, I cannot find this teaching taught anywhere by either the apostles or the writers of the first and second century. Secondly, in this letter Ignatius  main focus was the reality of the flesh of Christ. To change the focus from this to the elements of their "Thanksgiving" seems somewhat out of context with the rest of his letter. Finally, the reference to the flesh of the "Eucharist" does not appear in the longer version of Ignatius' letter which calls into question its existence in this shorter version of the letter. It is unclear which, if either, is closer to the original letter written by Ignatius  However, I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Finally, Ignatius encourages His fellow believers to withdraw and have no associations with such persons who hold to this false teaching.
"It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils." (Ignatius to the Smyrneans, Chapter 7)
Ignatius is not referring to people who may be untaught, immature, or uncertain in their beliefs, as we are all still growing in our knowledge and understanding of God. Just because someone believes different from us is no reason to shun them. Rather, Ignatius is referring to those who are actively teaching such a doctrine and trying to lead astray true believers in God. That is why he stresses that they should avoid all divisions. In Ignatius' days there were many who thought false doctrine and sought to divide the church and to draw others after themselves. These we must, by all means, shun and withdraw from, since they have in their heart the work of Satan and not the love and grace of God.

David Robison

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