Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp


He blesses God for the firm establishment of Polycarp in the faith, and gives him particular directions for improving it.

1. Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna, their overseer, but rather himself overseen by God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: all happiness.
2. Having known that your mind towards God is fixed as it were upon an immovable rock, I exceedingly give thanks that I have been thought worthy to behold your blessed face, at which may I always rejoice in God.

Ignatius had just learned from his guards that he must suddenly sail from Troas to Neapolis (3:6) on the next stage of his trip to martyrdom in Rome. He realizes his trusted couriers will be unable to deliver any future letters, even if he is allowed to write any. During the earlier stopover in Smyrna, he had been received with such kindness and reverence by Polycarp that he addresses this final letter to him.

3. For this reason I implore you by the grace of God with which you are clothed, to press forward in your course, and to exhort all others that they may be saved.

Compare with: "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:14)

4. Maintain your place with all care both of body and spirit. Make it your endeavor to preserve unity, for nothing is better. Bear with all men, even as the Lord does with you.

Compare with: "Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:3); "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

5. Support all in love, as also you do. Pray without ceasing; ask more understanding than what you already have. Be watchful and keep your spirit always awake.

Compare with: "Pray without ceasing." (1 Thessalonians 5:17); "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all [men] liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." (James 1:5); "But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry." (2 Timothy 4:5); "Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober." (1 Thessalonians 5:6); "But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer." (1 Peter 4:7)

6. Speak to everyone according as God will enable you. Bear the infirmities of all, as a perfect combatant; where the labor is great, the gain is greater.

Ignatius seems to be advising Polycarp, as a bishop, to speak personally with all church members in his care.

7. If you love the good disciples, what thanks is it? But rather, govern in meekness those who are mischievous.

Compare with: "And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]? do not even the publicans so?" (Matthew 5:47)

8. Every wound is not healed with the same kind of bandage: if the progress of the disease is painful, modify it with soft remedies. Be in all things wise as a serpent, but harmless as a dove.

This saying about serpents and doves from Matthew 10:16 is often quoted as though it were self- explanatory, but in what respect is a serpent wise, or why should a dove's harmlessness be emulated? Jesus spoke that in the context of his disciples' inevitable persecutions, and therefore he instructed them to "be wise as serpents" that they might not be unnecessarily wounded, and "harmless as doves" that they should not retaliate against those who do them wrong.

9. For this reason you are composed of flesh and spirit, so that you may modify those things that appear before your face.
10. And as for those that are not seen, pray to God that he would reveal them to you, so that you may be lacking in nothing, but may abound in every gift.
11. The times direct you, as the winds do the pilots and as the haven where he wants to be guides him who is tossed in a tempest, that you may attain to God.
12. Be serious as the combatant of God, for the crown proposed to you is immortality and eternal life, concerning which you are also fully persuaded. I and my bonds, which you have loved, will guarantee your assurance in all things,
13. Do not let those disturb you who seem worthy of belief but teach other doctrines. Stand firm and immoveable, as an anvil when it is beaten upon.

The Christian anvil has broken many hammers.

14. It is the part of a brave combatant to be wounded and yet to overcome. But especially we ought to endure all things for God's sake, so that he may bear with us.

Compare with: "And ye shall be hated of all [men] for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved." (Matthew 10:22 and Mark 13:13)

15. Be every day more studious and diligent than the one before. Consider the times, and await him who is above all time, eternal, invisible, though for our sakes made visible, and who is impalpable and impassable, yet for us was subjected to sufferings and endured all manner of ways for our salvation.

Compare with: "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15); "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, [be] honor and glory for ever and ever, Amen." (1 Timothy 1:17)

1. He continues his advice, 6. and teaches him how to advise others. 12. He enforces unity and subjection to the bishop.

1. Let not the widows be neglected, but after God, you their guardian.

Compare with: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, [and] to keep himself unspotted from the world." (James 1:27)

1 Timothy 5:3-16 contains complete instructions to the church about widows. It was desirable that younger widows marry; it was the obligation of children (and nephews) to take care of widows in their families; only devout widows over sixty years old without any family to help were to be entirely supported by the church.

2. Let nothing be done without your knowledge and consent; neither you do anything but according to the will of God, as also you do, with all constancy.
3. Let your assemblies be more full; inquire for all by name.

An encouragement to build church membership and inquire after those who are absent from services.

4. Overlook not the men servants and maid servants; neither let them be puffed up, but rather let them be the more subject to the glory of God, that they may obtain from him a better liberty.

In an age when some Christians were still either slaves or indentured servants (Onesimus was a slave before he became a bishop, see Paul's Epistle to Philemon), these instructions were needed.

Compare with: "Servants, be obedient to them that are [your] masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ." (Ephesians 6:5); "Servants, obey in all things [your] masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God." (Colossians 3:22); "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and [his] doctrine be not blasphemed. (1 Timothy 6:1); "[Exhort] servants to be obedient unto their own masters, [and] to please [them] well in all things; not answering again." (Titus 2:90); "Servants, [be] subject to [your] masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward." (1 Peter 2:18)

5. Let them not desire to be set free at the public cost, so that they be not slaves to their own lusts.
6. Flee evil arts [or trades]; or rather, do not make any mention of them.

Evil arts can be translated evil trades or businesses. Unlike our contemporary practice, Ignatius advises against inadvertently publicizing them by means of public denunciations.

7. Say to my sisters that they love the Lord and be satisfied with their own husbands, both in the body and spirit.

For the meaning of "sisters" and "brethren" as fellow-Christians, see 1 Timothy 5:1,2.

8. In like manner, exhort my brethren in the name of Jesus Christ that they love their wives, even as the Lord does the Church.

Compare with: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it." (Ephesians 5:25)

9. If any man can remain in a celibate state in honor of the flesh of Christ, let him remain so without boasting; but if he boasts of it, he is undone. And if he desires to be more taken notice of than the bishop, he is corrupted.

Celibacy was never more than a voluntary option in the early Church. Compare with: "His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with [his] wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All [men] cannot receive this saying, save [they] to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive [it], let him receive [it]." (Matthew 19:10,12)

It is scarcely necessary to say that this was meant only in a figurative sense. Nevertheless, in an overzealous moment, Origen, the bishop of Alexandria, literally castrated himself, for which the Church disciplined him by removing him from his episcopacy.

Paul, speaking "by permission, [and] not of commandment," said: "For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." (1 Corinthians 7:7-9)

The last sentence is better translated: "But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." Paul's opinion is based on the "present distress" (1 Corinthians 7:26), or the intense persecution of the Church at that time.

Ignatius speaks to a different issue: those who can remain celibate must not on that account think themselves better or more spiritual than those who are married. Bishops (presumably including Polycarp) in the Early Church were married. The Eastern Orthodox Church today allows priests and deacons to marry before but not after ordination, although bishops are either widowers or monks and therefore required to remain celibate.

10. But it is appropriate for all such as are married, whether men or women, to come together with the consent of the bishop, so that their marriage may be according to godliness and not in lust.

Advice that sexual relations of married couples should be "with the consent of the bishop" seems strange, but it is evidently related to Paul's "by permission, not by commandment" opinion in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, the gist of which is that while periodic ascetic practices, including temporary abstinence from sexual relations for the sake of prayer, are good, sexual abstinence by married people for other reasons and at other times is usually unwise.

The mutuality of marriage, the equality of commitment, which Paul enjoins is actually unprecedented in his era.

11. Let all things be done to the honor of God.
12. Pay heed to the bishop, that God also may pay heed to you. My soul be security for them that submit to their bishop, with their presbyters and deacons. And may my portion be together with theirs in God.

In verses 12-16, Ignatius is speaking not to Polycarp, but through him to the church of Smyrna. This is the last letter he will be able to write, and he cannot resist exhorting them one final time.

13. Labor with one another, contend together, run together, suffer together, sleep together, and rise together as the stewards, and assessors, and ministers of God.
14. Please him under whom you war, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter, but let your baptism remain as your armor: your faith as your helmet, your charity as your spear, and your patience as your whole armor.

Compare with: "Put on the whole armor of God.... the shield of faith.... the helmet of salvation...", etc. (Ephesians 6:11-17)

15. Let your works be your duty, so that you may receive a suitable reward. Be long-suffering therefore towards each other in meekness, as God is towards you.

A variant copy of the first sentence reads: "Let that which is committed to your custody be kept secure."

16. Let me be joyful of you in all things.

1. He greets Polycarp on the peace of the church at Antioch, 2. and desires him to write to them and other churches.

1. Since I am told that the church of Antioch in Syria is in peace through your prayers, I also have been more comforted and without care in the security of God; if so be that by suffering, I shall attain to God and through your prayers may be found to be a disciple of Christ.
2. It will be very fitting, O most worthy Polycarp, to call a select council, and choose someone whom you particularly love, who is patient of labor, so that he may be the messenger of God by going to Syria to glorify your incessant love, to the praise of Christ.
3. A Christian does not have power over himself, but must be always at leisure for God's service. Now this work is both God's and yours, when you will have completed it.
4. For I trust through the grace of God that you are ready to do every good work that is fitting for you in the Lord.
5. Knowing therefore your earnest affection for the truth, I have exhorted you by these short letters.

That is, this to him, and other one to the Smyrnaeans.

6. But I have not been able to write to all the churches, because I must suddenly sail from Troas to Neapolis by the command of those to whose pleasure I am subject, so you should write to the churches that are near you, as one instructed in the will of God, that they also may do the same.
7. Let those that are able send messengers by foot, and let the rest send their letters by those who will be sent by you, so that you may be glorified in the eternal work of which you are worthy.
8. I salute all by name, particularly the wife of Epitropus, with all her house and children; I salute Attalus my well-beloved.
9. I salute him who will be thought worthy to be sent by you into Syria. Let grace be ever with him, and with Polycarp who sends him.
10. I wish you all happiness in our God, Jesus Christ, in whom continue in the unity and protection of God.
11. I salute Alce my well-beloved. Farewell in the Lord.

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