Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Little Things...

Hopefully, last week's blog has you riveted for this discussion on martyrs of the Christian faith. I cannot tell you how much these stories have meant in my own life - both challenging me for the better and continually reminding me that prayer is of the utmost importance.

Last week, I ended with the one disciple who did not suffer a horrendous martyrdom, but instead he lived and continued to make disciples, as instructed by his teacher, rabbi, friend, and Savior - Jesus. This disciple was John, yes, the John who wrote the Gospel, the book of Revelation and three letters all found in the New Testament. After John was released from being exiled, he went back to Ephesus and became the Bishop there.

This week I want to introduce you to (or if you have already heard of these people, I want to remind you of) two men - both bishops, both very important men in the grand scheme of church history, both martyrs.

The first man is a Bishop from Antioch named Ignatius. Ignatius was Bishop during the time of Emperor Trajan. Now Trajan did not want to go hunting for Christians, as Nero had done, but he also could not stand by and let people not worship him. At this time, the Emperor of Rome was the god. As a citizen of Rome, or inhabitant in Roman jurisdiction, you were supposed to worship statues of the Emperor, burn incense to him, and say a prayer. The Roman rule was always a little more lenient to the Jews in Jerusalem, but the Christians did not receive this leniency. Christians were known as atheists, not because they did not believe in God, but because they did not believe in god. They were also thought of as being cannibals (because they ate someone's body and drank that person's blood) and as being fond of incest (because they called everyone brother and sister).

Trajan was pretty calm though, in the grand realm of crazy Roman Emperors, so while he did execute Christians because "of the name" and their atheistic beliefs, he did not hunt them down. He tried to keep everything legal, one must have an accuser, one must be brought before the court, and then if found guilty, one must be executed.

This is where our dear friend Ignatius of Antioch comes in. Ignatius was a pretty bold Bishop, so it is no surprise that he was accused, tried and found guilty of being a Christian. While on his way to Rome to be executed, he wrote seven letters to different churches. There are two important things about these letters:

1. Ignatius quotes what we now know as the New Testament as words of encouragement and Scripture. This is about 200 years before the New Testament was to be canonized, so Ignatius is doing a great service to what would later on become a rule for canonization. Ignatius is recognizing the words of Peter and Paul as Words from God. This is HUGE, especially since during his time men who would later be known as heretics were starting to strip away certain letters and books of what would be the New Testament because they did not agree with what these books said.

2. Ignatius asks the church in Rome to NOT interfere with his death. He writes to them:

"I am corresponding with all the churches and bidding them all realize that I am voluntarily dying for God - if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts - that is how I can get to God."

Ignatius goes on in this letter, pleading with the church in Rome, to let him fight with wild beasts so that he can only go to Jesus. This letter opens up what we now can see as the theology of martyrs. There was an amazing willingness to die for the sake of Christ among these men and women. They truly believed that God had chosen them for this purpose and that the Holy Spirit would grant them an extra measure of grace to withstand being torn limb from limb by beasts. They desired to share in the sufferings and victories of Christ. Ignatius is the prime example of this theology.

Our second bishop that I want to discuss is Polycarp. Polycarp was the Bishop in Smyrna, right around the corner from Ephesus. There are several fascinating things about Polycarp, but for those of you who do not know the man, prepare to have your minds blown. Remember when I said that John, the disciple of Jesus, made disciples himself? Well, meet Polycarp - disciple of John, disciple of Jesus.

Minds blown, right?

Polycarp was captured by Roman guards for being an atheist, he had an incredible vision of his pillow burning and knew that he would be burned at the stake. Someone recorded Polycarp's trial and martyrdom, so we have what could be the actual words of Polycarp written down for us. One thing that you should know about him was that by the time he was captured and put on trial, Polycarp was an old man. So, the Proconsul pleaded that Polycarp remember his age and forsake this Christ. Polycarp's response? He says this, "Eighty and six years have I served Him (that is Jesus), and He hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

To be a fly on the wall during these proceedings! The local ruler is pleading with an elderly man, because he doesn't particularly want to see an old man get ripped to shreds by wild beasts or be burned alive, and what does Polycarp say? He SCHOOLS the Ruler with wisdom that can only be acquired from a lifetime of serving Christ and basically says that he has served Christ for 86 years, why would he stop now for a young punk who has done nothing?!?

As he saw in his vision with the pillow burning, Polycarp was burned alive at a stake.

Besides showing us amazing wisdom in a time that could be extremely frightening, Polycarp has become a part of something else quite amazing. Polycarp, like John, like Jesus, also made disciples. One of his disciples was a guy name Irenaeus. Irenaeus worked mainly against the heretics that were forming and calling themselves Christians. Irenaeus came up with this genius thing called Apostolic Succession. Basically, Apostolic Succession said that in order to be a Bishop of a Church, you had to show that you were a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Jesus. Why? Because if Jesus imparted some sort of secret knowledge (which was a claim of one of the heretical groups called gnostics), then He would have left that knowledge with his closest disciples, who would also pass it on to their disciples.

So, when Irenaeus had to deal with the Gnostics, his defense for not having any sort of secret knowledge about another way to salvation was that his teacher, Polycarp, who learned from John, who learned from Jesus, did not give him that secret knowledge. This is what I like to call a Patristic Smackdown! This helped to insure that what we hold today as Orthodox Doctrine - meaning the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, Jesus being Fully God AND Fully Man - remained steadfast and became Orthodoxy.

This is a fascinating time of Church History. Lives are literally at stake, words that are written could become a part of orthodoxy or could be heretical at the drop of a hat. When I read the stories of Ignatius and Polycarp and how their letters and lives served to further the canonization of the New Testament and the Orthodox Doctrines that we still hold to today 1900 years later, I cannot help but be amazed at the Holy Spirit. He moves through the body of believers, working to continually lift up the Savior, working to continually push forward what is TRUE. Maybe this is why I am never completely worried about the future of the Church, because the TRUE Church is being taken care of by the Holy Spirit, and if that is enough to move mountains, then that is enough to keep me steadfast in the Word and the Truth.

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