When the apostle John addressed his readers as “my children,” he perhaps had in mind his pupil Ignatius, a young man whose name doesn’t appear in the New Testament but who figures prominently in early church history. About 69 Ignatius became the third bishop of the church in Antioch (where the Lord’s followers were first called “Christians”—Acts 11:26), and he became the first to use the terms “Christianity” and “Catholic.”

We know little of his ministry, but he faithfully served the church at Antioch 40 years. When persecution arose Ignatius was arrested, chained, and entrusted to ten soldiers who treated him as if they were “leopards.” The story of his prison-voyage to Rome reads as though it leaped from the pages of the New Testament.

The party made its way overland and by the shipping routes, following the footsteps of Paul. As they passed Smyrna, Ephesus, Philippi, and Thessalonica, Christians gathered to ask his blessings. Along the way, Ignatius wrote seven letters that rank among the most famous documents in church history. In his letter to Rome, intended to precede his arrival, Ignatius begged the brothers there to avoid using their political connections to hinder his expected martyrdom. “You cannot do me a greater favor,” he wrote, “than allow me to be poured out as an offering to God while the altar is ready.” Not wanting to bother them with the burial of his remains, he desired to be entirely consumed by the beasts in the arena. “Entice the beasts to become my sepulcher,” he wrote, “that they may leave nothing of my body.”

And so were his prayers answered. He died, reportedly on October 17, 108, under the claws and teeth of lions or tigers as entertainment for Emperor Trajan. But his influence didn’t die. Fourteen hundred years later a young Spanish soldier was so moved by reading Ignatius’s story that he dedicated his life to God and changed his name to Ignatius—of Loyola.

My children, I am writing this so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, Jesus Christ always does the right thing, and he will speak to the Father for us. Christ is the sacrifice that takes away our sins and the sins of all the world’s people. (1 John 2:1-2)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Oct.17.

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