Church History, Lesson 8: The Last of the Apostles’ Students, Ignatius and Polycarp

Ignatius and Polycarp 2Intro


Ignatius of Antioch (35-107 AD) was the 3rd Bishop of Antioch.  Late in Emperor Trajan’s reign (98-117 AD), he was arrested for being a Christian, chosen because of his status and profile.  So, he was taken to Rome under a guard of 10 soldiers to face martyrdom.

On the way, Christians gathered to comfort and encourage their brother in chains.  During this time, he wrote seven letters, six to congregations, one to a fellow bishop: Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and to Polycarp.

8, Ignatius mapIn his letters, he revealed his strong stand against Docetism, which maintained that Christ only appeared to be a man.


Polycarp (69-156 AD), was the last of the “apostolic fathers.”  Though only writing one letter (which survives), as a young man, he was a student of the Apostle John.  At middle age, he was a bishop of Smyrna [today, Izmir, Turkey] and a colleague of Ignatius of Antioch.  As an old man, he was a teacher to the young boy who would grow up to be Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons.

Tertullian tells us the Apostle John appointed him to be the bishop (The Prescriptions Against Heretics 32).  Irenaeus recorded the vivid impression Polycarp made on him in his youth and reported he was a student of the Apostle John.


Against False Teaching

“I appeal to you … not to nourish yourselves on anything but Christian food, and abstain from the alien herbs of heresy…. Guard against such people” [Tral 6:1, 7:1].

  • What is both the “yes” and the “no” when to comes to remaining in the Faith?


“Do not let those who only appear trustworthy deliver strange doctrines and daze you.  Stand firm as an anvil struck with a hammer.  The strong athlete bears the blows yet still overcomes” [Pol 3:1].

A distortion of Christianity took root early on.  Some began to deny the truth of Christ’s humanity.  They were called “Docetists,” coming from the Greek word dokesis, meaning “appearance” or “seeming like.”  They held, since the flesh was sinful, Jesus couldn’t really be a human but only appeared to be.

There is only one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in the flesh, true life in death, from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then incapable of it, Jesus Christ our Lord.  [Ignatius’ Ephesians 7:2]

  • What does Ignatius call Jesus?


  • How does this counter Docetism?


[Jesus] is truly of the family of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the will and power of God.  He was truly born of a virgin and baptized by John so all righteousness might be fulfilled.  [Smyrneans 1:1]

  • What does Ignatius mean by Jesus fulfilling all righteousness?


Polycarp and Ignatius saw eye-to-eye on this:

For everyone who does not confess that Jesus the Christ came in the flesh is an antichrist.  Whoever will not confess the eyewitness [accounts] of the cross is of the devil.  Whoever distorts the words of the Lord to suit his desires, and claims there is neither resurrection nor judgment, he is the firstborn of Satan. [Polycarp’s Philippians 7:1]

  • For Polycarp, what does he not allow to be separated from Jesus?


  • What does this imply?


To counter Docetism, Ignatius recalled Jesus’ life.  He pointed to His physical birth (Eph, 19:1, 18:2; Mag 11:1).  Jesus was a “descendant of David” (Eph 18:2, 20:2; Tral 9:1) and “of the Holy Spirit (Eph, 18:2), and He “ate and drank” (Tral 9:1).  Ignatius emphasized Christ’s suffering (Eph 20:1, TraI 10:1) under Pilate (Mag 11:1, Tral 9:1, and Smy 9:2) with a real death (Mag 11:1, Tral 9:1; Smy 1:2, 2:1).

Be deaf when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was a descendant of David and also of Mary.  He was truly born, ate and drank, truly suffered under Pontius Pilate.  He truly was crucified and died … He truly was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up.  In the same way, his Father will also raise us in Christ Jesus, we who believe in him.  Apart from him, we have no true life. [Trallians 9]

  • Do we hear any “pre-echoes” of anything in Ignatius’ description of Jesus?


The number of times Ignatius used particular phrases in his letters, often in the same order, leads one to conclude their usage was formalized.  This means Ignatius inherited their usage from within the Church, not originate them!

This doctrinal standard and confession of Christ was written less than 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  How astounding Ignatius’ wording, almost entirely, contains the phrases in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed.  In many cases, the Apostles’ Creed simplified Ignatius’ confession.


Church Structure

So it is proper for you to be together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, which you are doing.  Your presbyters [elders] are a credit to their name and a credit to God because they are attuned to the bishop as strings are to the lyre.  This is why the praises of Jesus Christ are sung in the symphony of your concord and love.  Join in this chorus, each of you.  By being harmonious in your oneness, taking up God’s pitch in unison, so you may sing in one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. [Ignatius’ Ephesians 4:1-2]

  • For Ignatius, what was the purpose of everyone following the Bishop’s lead?


  • As Clement also wrote, what was the music style of the early Church?


Ignatius upheld a local, three-tier church structure.  He wrote, “Pay attention to the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons” (Phil 7:1-2).  For him, the Church was organized with a bishop, presbyters [elders], and deacons (Pol 6:1; Tral 7.2; Phil 7.1; Smy 8.1, 12.2), with the local bishop as the authority in each location (Eph 4.1, 5.3; Trall 2.1; 7.1; Phil 7.2; Smy 9.1; Pol 5).  “Whoever does anything without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons does not have a clean conscience” [Tral 7:2].

For Ignatius, the local bishop had jurisdiction, not another bishop, or even the one in Rome.

  • How then could Ignatius write with authority to these congregations when he was not their local bishop? (Think back on Clement writing with authority to Corinth.)


With Ignatius, the local bishop held the key to keeping a church united in the truth.  Under the bishop, a congregation remained like a harp with every string in tune (Eph 4).  With the bishops corresponding to God, the presbyters to the Apostles, and with deacons serving in their place, the unified church became a “pattern and lesson” of our immortality (Mag 6:2).  By submitting to the bishop’s leadership, the local congregation mirrored how Jesus submitted to the Father.

Be eager, then, to stand firm in the decrees of the Lord and the Apostles … in body and spirit, in faith and love, in Son, Father, and Spirit … with your most worthy bishop and your presbyters [elders] … and your godly deacons.  Defer to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ did to the Father in the days of his flesh, and as the Apostles did to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit….  So there may be unity in both flesh and spirit. [Magnesians 13:1-2]

Ignatius also described the rationale for the Church structure in this way.  “For whomever the master of the house sends to manage his affairs, we must welcome as the one who sent him.  So also are we are to regard the bishop as the Lord himself” [Eph 6:1].

False teachers and Docetists, however, were “evil plants,” who didn’t inherit heaven (Phil 3).  Unity at the Lord’s Table only existed under the church’s bishops (Phil 4, Eph. 5).  Ignatius also told a younger bishop, Polycarp, to make unity a prime concern: “Focus on for unity, for nothing is better” (Pol 1:2).

However, Polycarp, also a student of the Apostle John, only wrote to “be obedient to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ” (Phil 5:3), never mentioning the bishop.

  • Though Ignatius is firm on a three-tiered Church structure, how dogmatic should we get considering Polycarp’s letter lacks all mention of a bishop?


Pastoral Responsibilities

I exhort you by the grace that clothes you, to forge ahead on your course and urge all to be saved.  Do justice to your office with all diligence, in both flesh and spirit.  Focus on unity, for nothing is better.  Bear with all, even as the Lord bears with you.  Endure everything in love, as indeed you are doing.  Devote yourself to unceasing prayer, asking for greater wisdom than you have.  Keep watchful, as someone who received a Spirit that never slumbers.   Speak to each person as God would do. [Polycarp 1:2-3]

The presbyters [elders] should be compassionate, merciful to all, turning back those who have gone astray, visiting the sick, not neglecting the widow, orphan, or the poor.  Instead, they are to aim for what is honorable in the sight of God and man, avoiding anger, social snobbery, unrighteous judgment, staying far away far from the love of money.  Never should they be quick to believe the worst in anyone, or be rash in judgment, realizing we are all debtors because of sin. [Polycarp’s Philippians 6:1]

  • Do you think anyone can meet these standards are or they the ideals to which a pastor should strive?



Ignatius placed much emphasis on Baptism: The “Son of God according to God’s will and power … [was] baptized by John so all righteousness might be fulfilled…” [Smy 1:1].  “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in Mary according to God’s plan, the seed of David but also of the Holy Spirit.  He was born and was baptized that He might cleanse water by his suffering” [Eph 18:2].

Now, if Ignatius believed baptism did nothing, why would He insist “without the bishop’s supervision, no baptisms … are permitted”? [Smy 8:2].


The Eucharist

Ignatius placed much emphasis on the Lord’s Supper, which he called the “Eucharist”: “In one Faith and one Jesus Christ … obey the bishop and the presbyters with an undisturbed mind, breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality … [Eph 20:2].

  • Here, how do we approach the Supper?


  • What do we receive in the Supper?


“Be careful, then, to observe a one Eucharist.  For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one …”  [Phi 4:1].

  • Here, what does the Supper do?


  • What does a “one Eucharist” imply about the uniformity of celebrating the Lord’s Supper?


The Docetists believed something else about the Supper, for this reason, they did not commune at a Christian Altar.  “They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ …” [Smy 6].

  • Do we have modern-day Docetists concerning the Lord’s Supper?


Women in the Church

“I greet the households of my brothers, with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows” [Smy 13:1].

  • For a term like “virgins who are called widows” to describe widows in the Church tells us what about any possible roles they may have?


“The widows must be self-controlled about the Faith of the Lord, praying unceasingly for all, staying far away from malicious talk, slander, false testimony, love of money, and all evil, knowing that they are God’s altar …” [Phil 4:3].

  • Discuss the listed traits and being called “God’s Altar” revealing what role these widows had in the Church?


Their Influence on What the Church Will Later Recognize as Scripture

Ignatius quoted little from the Old Testament.  In his letters, his language was full of allusions to, less often quotations from, what we now call the New Testament, especially the Pauline epistles.

Polycarp only alluded to the Old Testament a few times, including Isaiah and Tobit.  However, his referencing of quotations of what would later become the New Testament was numerous: Matthew, (perhaps Luke), Acts, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 John.


Church Vocabulary from Ignatius


“Free from evil practices, but even better, deliver a homily [homolian] against them” [Pol 5:1].

In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius referred to the word spoken to the congregation as a “homily.”  Homily stems from homolegeo, which means “saying the same word.”  Thus, the idea behind a homily is the pastor’s word speaking THE Word (Jesus), and applying His truth in a given time, place, and setting.  Remember, they didn’t have the Bible as we now have and understand it.


“Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.” [Smy 8:2]

Catholic means “according to the whole.”  This refers to one Church, which believes and practices the same thing, for what happens in one location is “according to the whole,” overseen by one bishop.

The Medicine of Immortality

Ignatius referred to the Lord’s Supper as “the medicine of immortality [pharmakon athanasias] and an antidote that we may not die but live forever in Jesus Christ” [Eph 20:2].



Ignatius of Antioch was torn apart by wild beasts.  Polycarp of Smyrna was burned alive.

When Polycarp entered the arena, and the Governor said: “Swear [to the gods], and I will let you go.  Curse Christ.”  Polycarp responded.  “For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong.  How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” [Martyrdom of Polycarp 9].  At 86 he died.  His statement also testified to infant baptism, since he could only have been Christ’s servant for 86 years if he was soon baptized after birth.


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