“Stop your ears!” That is one of my favorite lines from one of the earliest church fathers, Ignatius. Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, where the followers of Christ were first called Christians. He was martyred for his faith sometime around 110.
Ignatius left us a rich legacy, not only in the testimony of his martyrdom, but also in the testimony of his bold writings against the heretics of his day. The biggest battle Ignatius and the church faced in that first generation after the apostles had everything to do with the event we celebrate at Christmas.
The false teachers, known as the Docetists, declared that Jesus had not really come in the flesh, that He was not fully human. They denied the doctrine of the incarnation. They falsely claimed that Jesus only appeared to be flesh. The Greek word for appear is dokew, hence the heresy of Docetism.
So what did Ignatius have to say about all this? In one of his letters he delivers that great line: “Stop your ears!” Don’t even listen to the heretics. Jesus did not appear to be born of flesh, He did not appear to be the Word made flesh. He was really and truly flesh. Ignatius puts it this way, “Mary then did truly conceive a body which had God inhabiting it. And God the Word was truly born of the Virgin. He who forms all men in the womb, was himself really in the womb, and made from a body of the seed of the Virgin.” Jesus was really and truly born. He really and truly lived. Ignatius adds, “He wore a crown of thorns and a purple robe; he was condemned; he was crucified in reality, and not in appearance, not in imagination, not in deceit. He really died, was buried, and rose from the dead.”
Ignatius led the church to a faithful understanding of the doctrine of the incarnation. And this doctrine meant all the difference in the world to him.
Like Paul at times, Ignatius wrote this letter when he was a prisoner facing his trial and eventual martyrdom. If Christ only appeared to be human, then, Ignatius asked, “Why am I in bonds? And why have I surrendered myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wild beasts?” He could only endure these things because Christ was truly human and truly suffered and truly conquered all our enemies. Ignatius did not suffer in vain, neither would he die in vain. The incarnate Christ means that what happens to us is real, it has meaning, and it matters. It’s not in vain.
The incarnation is of all-crucial importance in both doctrine and discipleship.
Jesus did come in the flesh. The first Christmas happened truly and really. This babe in a manger is truly the God-Man, the Savior of His people. And so Ignatius can say, “I do not place my hopes in one who died for me in appearance, but in reality.”
This article was originally published December 22, 2014.