In this brief letter to Polycarp, Ignatius imparts wisdom to his brother in the Lord along with encouragement. This is all the more moving when we remember that Ignatius is fast approaching his own death at this point. As such, we can be sure that the coming affliction and his knowledge of the approaching end burned the dross out of Ignatius’ advice. What we have, then, is the seasoned wisdom of a great man of God who realizes that his end is near and does not have time to waste words.
Ignatius uses Pauline imagery in ch.1 when he encourages Polycarp to “bear the infirmities of all, as being a perfect athlete [in the Christian life]: where the labour is great, the gain is all the more.” Was Ignatius saying this just to Polycarp, or was he also saying this to himself?
Concerning those who are opposing Polycarp’s ministry, Ignatius gives wise advice:
“If thou lovest the good disciples, no thanks are due to thee on that account; but rather seek by meekness to subdue the more troublesome. Every kind of wound is not healed with the same plaster.”
This sagely and practical advice would serve many a modern minster well, if heeded. In fact, I have often been struck by the pastoral wisdom of these early writing and of how foolish we are to pass them by in favor of the latest fad or leadership scheme. For instance, where can ministers find this kind of advice today:
“Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer.”
Interestingly, we also find what I believe is the first reference to weddings in the patristic writings. In ch.5, Ignatius says that “it becomes both men and women who marry to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.” No doubt detractors would see this as evidence of increasing ecclesiastical control of marriages, but Ignatius’ concerns are no-doubt pastoral. He is wanting to ensure that marriage bonds are created and confirmed under the guidance of godly ministers and in the name of Jesus Christ.