St Ignatius Epistles to the Ephesians, Magnesians, and Smyrnaeans

On his way to martyrdom, St Ignatius exhorted the Christian churches to hold fast to the apostolic tradition.

Eusebius, the ancient church historian living during the reign of Emperor Constantine, speaks of Ignatius: “There is evidence that Ignatius was sent from Syria to Rome and became food for wild animals because of his testimony for Christ. He made the journey through Asia under the strictest military guard, encouraging the Christian community, by homilies and exhortations, in every city where he stayed. In particular he warned them to guard most carefully against the heresies which were then first becoming prevalent, and exhorted them to hold fast to the apostolic tradition, which, as he was now on his way to martyrdom, he thought it necessary for safety’s sake to set down clearly in writing.”[1]

Does this make sense? The provincial governor receives a request from Rome to furnish Christians to feed to the lions, so he finds the local and sends him under way, “under the strictest military guard,” but yet he is allowed to receive many visitors, who seemingly stay as long as they like, and he writes them epistles to send back to their communities. In the modern world this would not happen, but the ancient system of justice is quite different.

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There are no prisons in the ancient world, only jails, and often jails are filled simply by those who irritate the authorities. If you break a law in the ancient world, you are either fined, exiled, or executed, there are no long prison sentences. The state does not have the resources to run a prison, so when you are thrown in jail awaiting a hearing the government expects you to visit and bring food with you to feed the prisoner, and maybe the jailers too. We see in our video on the death and execution of Socrates how his friends were able to come and stay with Socrates for his entire last day on earth.

Henry Chadwick, an Anglican academic, contrasts early Christianity with the mature Christian Church “which had a common creed, a canon of Scripture, and a recognized ministry with definite powers, there is little scope for deviation. But Ignatius did not have these resources,” Ignatius could only “fall back on the personal element,” the authority of the bishop and the clergy. Chadwick points out that St Ignatius emphasizes “the authority of the clergy, the hatred of heresy and schism, and the glory of martyrdom.” In his epistles St Ignatius insists that there be unity in the churches, that the members respect the bishops.  He also tells them that a liturgy or sacrament that is not blessed by the bishop is not valid, that the faithful should be loyal and obedient to their bishop.[2]

The Orthodox Scholar John Anthony McGuckin argues that St Ignatius, with other early church leaders, begins the development of the church hierarchy, how “Ignatius’ key text advocating the duty of all to obey the ruling bishop implicitly and without question became a tidal marker of the move toward single episcopal presidency in the churches.” Also, “the bishop is elevates as the efficient symbol, or the sacrament of the unity of the church and is the chief legitimator of the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, and marriage.” He has a chapter in his book on how the church hierarchy evolved in early Christianity, a potential topic for a later blog and video.[3]

Stylistically, the Epistles of St Ignatius are similar to the Epistles of St Paul, they are a message containing a prayer, they specifically admonish a particular community, they provide advice on how the community can better walk in the Way of the Lord. But to be accepted in the canon, a work had to have apostolic authorship, be in wide use in the Church, be quoted by many Church Fathers, and proclaim the Good News with right teachings.  Although St Ignatius may have meet one or more of the apostles, he was part of the second-generation church leaders.

In his lecture on St Ignatius, Bart Ehrman shares that when he first read his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans in the original Greek that it literally admonished them that the bishop should be present when they baptize and make love, and he was thinking, this must have been an interesting congregation.  After further thought he realized that what St Ignatius meant was that the bishop should be present for baptisms and love feasts, which is how they referred to the Lord’s Supper, which was celebrated as a communal meal in the early Church, as we are informed by St Paul in his Epistles to the Corinthians.  This is interesting because it tells us that the early church saw the partaking of the Eucharist not as a religious duty, but as a joyous occasion, a gift from God that we should celebrate.[4]


St Ignatius starts his Epistle to the Ephesians encouraging the parishioners to respect their clergy, for the clergy to respect their bishop, and for all to respect the community, not failing to come together for worship, as St Paul puts it in Hebrews, to encourage one another.  St Ignatius tells us, “A man who excludes himself from the sanctuary is depriving himself of the bread of God, for if the prayers of one or two have power, how much more powerful are the prayers of the bishop with his whole church!  Anyone who refuses to attend church shows to the world his arrogance, he is excommunicating himself.”

He elaborates on the Beatitude, Blessed are you when men persecute you.  St Ignatius shows us how we can all be martyrs in our daily lives, when we return good for evil, when we return compassion for scorn, when we return love for hate.  Regarding the unfaithful, “pray for them unceasingly, hope that they may repent and find their way to God.  Give them a change to learn from you and your actions.  Meet their animosity with mildness, their high words with humility, and their abuse with your prayers.  But stand firm against their errors, and if they become violent, be gentle, do not retaliate.  Let us show by our restraint we are their brothers, and try to imitate the Lord by seeing which of us can put up with the most ill-usage or privation or contempt.”

When we live as martyrs every day when we will live selflessly in faith and love for Jesus Christ, “for life begins and ends with faith and love.  Faith is the beginning, and love is the end, and their union is God, perfecting our soul.  Nobody who professes faith with commit sin, nobody who possesses love can feel hatred.”

The translator tells us this passage was frequently quoted by the Church Fathers, “Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world, so was her child-bearing, and so was the death of the Lord.  All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God.  How were they made known to the world?  Up in the heavens a star gleamed out, more brilliant than all the rest, no words could describe its luster, it’s strangeness bewildered men.  The other stars and the sun and the moon gathered round it in chorus, but this star outshone them all.”  The translator tells us, “the devil was completely hoodwinked by the secrecy of the Incarnation.”  How resounding is the overwhelming silence of God, the still quiet voice that Elisha heard in the midst of the tempest.[5]


Even in the midst of persecution the early church experienced the same sort of pettiness we see today.  This epistle was written to church where some splintered into their own group because they didn’t like the new young bishop that was appointed.  St Ignatius warns them, “be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to His Father, and as the Apostles were to Christ and the Father; so there may be complete unity in the flesh as well as in the spirit.”

Nobody likes the word submit.  Many women dislike and many men like the admonition by St Paul to the Ephesians that a wife should submit to her husband, but both men and women overlook the preceding verse that exhorts all Christians to submit to one another.  It is a matter of respect, without respect there can be no love, if we do not honor our father and our mother and those in authority we cannot truly love our neighbor, if we do not honor God’s name and God’s Sabbath we cannot truly Love God.

We must be considerate to one another.  As St Ignatius urges us, “you must show every consideration for one another, never letting your attitude to a neighbor be affect by your human feelings, but simply loving each other consistently in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”[6]  As the Stoic Philosophers note, if someone imagines they are harming you they are mistaken, they are really harming themselves, because when they act hatefully they are murdering their own soul, and if you forgive you become a better person, climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes ever higher.


St Ignatius greets the Smyrnaeans, “Glory be to Jesus Christ, the Divine One who has gifted you with such wisdom.  I have seen how immovably settled in faith you are; nailed body and soul to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, rooted and grounded in Love by His Blood.”  Living a godly life is crucial, but belief does matter, belief in Christ allows the Holy Spirit to enable us to live a godly life boldly with confidence and assurance, eager to suffer for our faith and for the good as did Christ and the martyrs.  “Jesus submitted to suffering for our sakes, that salvation might be ours.  Suffer He did, just as He raised Himself.”

St Ignatius asks, “to what end have I given myself up to perish by fire or sword or savage beasts?”  The translator notes that he would suffer all three torments in his martyrdom.  St Ignatius continues, “when I am surrounded by lions I am surrounded by God.  It is only in the name of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of sharing His sufferings, that I could face my impending martyrdom; for He, the perfect man, gives me strength.”[7]

This recalls when the prophet Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den for worshipping God when a royal decree forbade it, and God shut the mouths of the lions.  This also recalls the three young men and the angel who walked and sung praises to God in the midst of a flaming furnace.  These three men said to the King of Babylon, before he threw them into the furnace, “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”[8]

St Ignatius reminds us that we should have faith in God.  “Faith and love are everything, faith and love must come before all else.  But some men have perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ contrary to the mind of God.  They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.”[9]

NOTE: This is probably the only course of Bart Ehrman’s that I will mention in my blog.  Bart Ehrman is one of the foremost textual critics of the New Testament, which means his academic specialty is analyzing the original Greek manuscripts to determine as accurately as possible what the original text said.  Unfortunately, he has lost his faith.  He is also the leading Historical Jesus scholar, which is why I also include a link to a book that is an apology defending traditional Christianity against the Historical Jesus movement.  He has also published a fresh translation of the Apostolic Fathers.

Please also review my blogs on the Historical Jesus: .

[1] Eusebius, The History of the Church, translated by GA Williamson (New York: Dorset Press, 1965, originally written around 324 AD), Chapter 3.36, pp. 145-146.

[2] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967, 1986), pp. 66-68.

[3] John Anthony McGuckin, pp. 58-70.

[4] Bart Ehrman, “After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers,” lectures recorded by The Great Courses, (, 2005), lecture 4.

[5] Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Ephesians,” in Early Christian Writings – The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), pp. 64-84.

[6] Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Magnesians,” pp. 87-92.

[7] Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans,” pp. 119-120.


[9] Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans,” p. 121.

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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