The Holy Spirit is not unique to our age. The Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for the past twenty centuries. We could put the matter this way—it is rather prideful to think that we have nothing to learn from the past. And remember, pride is a sin. And also remember, as Scripture says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). We need a little humility. Enough humility to say we may not have all the answers in the present. Enough humility to say we need the past, and enough humility to visit it from time to time.
As Deuteronomy 6:10–11 vividly portrays for us, we drink at wells we did not dig, we eat from vineyards we did not plant, and we live in cities we did not build. We need that dose of humility that reminds us how dependent we are on the past and how thankful we need to be for those who have gone before us and dug the wells, planted the vineyards, and built the cities.
The past enriches our lives in surprising ways. In our past, our family history, we see examples of faithful disciples. We can be encouraged and even inspired by their faithfulness. But, far more, we see examples of God’s faithfulness to His people. How does Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:10? He declares: “He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
The centuries of church history give us a litany of God’s deliverances. God has done it before, many times and in many ways, and He can do it again. He will do it again. And in that, we find courage for today and for tomorrow.
In church history, we see men and women facing challenges not unlike the challenges before us today. We look back and we learn. We also learn from the mistakes and missteps of the past. And, though it is a cliché, learning can be fun. Family stories of the exploits of crazy uncles inform; they also entertain. It is the same with our history, our family story. Let’s get started.
the first of the two disciples of john: ignatius
We begin our journey through church history with a direct link to the pages of the New Testament. This link is the two disciples of John, the Beloved Disciple. These two disciples are Ignatius and Polycarp. Ignatius’ name has something to do with lighting a fire: ignite. Polycarp’s name literally means “many fish.” No one should forget such memorable names. Beyond their names, they also lived remarkable lives as two of the most significant figures in the late first century and the second century.
Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, a city that factors prominently in the New Testament. At the city of Antioch, the followers of Christus were first called Christians. And a generation or so later, Ignatius served as the bishop at this exact spot to the second generation of the first group of people called Christians. We are not sure when he was born. Some put the date as early as AD 35. We do know that Ignatius died a martyr’s death around 110. He was martyred in Rome by the Emperor Trajan. On his way to Rome, Ignatius had the opportunity to visit various churches, and he even was able to write letters to these churches. We have some wonderful pieces of literature of the early church in these letters from Ignatius.
What makes Ignatius significant beyond the place where he served as bishop is the place where he was from. Ignatius was from the city of Ephesus, and as a young man he was actually discipled by the Apostle John.
Ignatius, a direct link back to the New Testament era and the original disciples, wrote these various letters to the church because there were some serious problems in the church. John writes about these exact same problems in his epistles. He warns the church that false teachers will surely come. These false teachers are going to be teaching, among other things, that Jesus did not truly come in the flesh; He only appeared to come in the flesh. Not only were they plaguing the churches in John’s day, they continued to plague the churches in the 100s. Ignatius followed the steps of his mentor and, in most of his letters, he addressed these false teachers who were denying the humanity of Jesus Christ.
Ignatius often starts off the chapters of his epistles with a singular warning, and he even gives a threat to the those who listen to these false teachers. He tells them, in essence, “Stop your ears when you hear these false teachers!” Ignatius does not want this false teaching even getting so much as a foothold in the church. As you read through his epistles, you find out why. You see, if Christ didn’t truly come in the flesh, then He really wasn’t born, He really didn’t live, He really didn’t die on the cross, and He really didn’t rise again. If Christ did not really and truly come in the flesh, then there is no gospel.