Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp

Ignatius, Letter To Polycarp

IGNATIUS THEOPHORUS to Polycarp, the Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnaeans—or, should I say, to one who is under the bishopric of God the Father and Jesus Christ? —I wish you every joy.

I was glad enough to learn that your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock, but I rejoice exceedingly to have been able to see your face. May its candor be a joy to me in God. I exhort you by the grace with which you are clothed to press forward in the race, and exhort all others, so that they may be saved. Live up to the demands of your office by unceasing care in your practical and spiritual[1] duties. Be preoccupied about unity, for nothing is better than this. Help others along, as the Lord helps you. Bear with all out of love, as indeed you do. Find time for unceasing prayer. Ask for more wisdom than you have. Keep your spirit awake and on the watch. Copy the ways of God in speaking to each as an individual person. Like an athlete in perfect condition, give a hand to all who are sick. Where there is more work, there is much reward.

There is no thanks for liking good pupils. The real task is by mildness to bring to obedience the ones who plague you. Not every wound is healed by the same salve. Where the pains are sharp, give relief with embrocation. In all things be wise as the serpent and at all times be as simple as the dove.[2] You are made of flesh and spirit so that you may be able to persuade what you can see to come to you;[3] as for the invisible realities, pray that they may be revealed to you. In this way nothing will be lacking, and you will abound in every gift. The age is in need of you, if it is to reach God—as pilots need the winds and as a storm-tossed sailor needs port. Be temperate, like an athlete of God; the prize is immortality and eternal life. Of this you have no doubt. I offer up all for you, both myself and my bonds which you loved.[4]

There are some who seem plausible enough, but who teach heretical doctrine. Do not let them disturb you. Stand firm like an anvil under the hammer. A great boxer will take a beating and yet win through. We ought to put up with anything especially for the sake of God, so that He will put upwith us. Become more zealous even than you are. Under­stand the age in which we live.[5] Look for Him who is beyond all time, the Eternal, the Invisible who became visible for our sake, the Impalpable, the Impassible who suffered for our sake, who endured every outrage for our sake.

Do not let the widows be neglected. After God, you should be their guardian. Let nothing be done without your consent; and continue, as at present, to do nothing yourself without the consent of God. Do not weaken. Let your assem­blies be more frequent. Seek out all by name, and do not overlook the slaves, whether men or women. At the same time, they  should not be puffed up, but rather better workers for the glory of God, so that they may be given by God an even better freedom. Lest they become slaves of their own desires, they should not long to obtain freedom at the public cost.

Avoid anything like magic, but do not fail to speak to the people about such things. Tell my sisters to love the Lord and to be satisfied with their husbands in flesh and spirit. In the same way tell my brothers in the name of Jesus Christ to love their wives as the Lord does the Church.[6] If anyone is able to persevere in chastity to the honor of the flesh of the Lord, let him do so in all humility. If he is boast­ful about it, he is lost; if he should be more esteemed than the bishop,[7] his purity is gone. When men and women marry, the union should be made with the consent of the bishop, so that the marriage may be according to the Lord and not merely out of lust. Let all be done to the glory of God.

Pay attention to the bishop, if you would have God pay attention to you. I offer myself up for those who obey the bishop, priests and deacons. May it be my lot to be with them in God. Toil and train together, run and suffer together, rest and rise at the same time, as God’s stewards, assistants and servants. Please the leader under whom you serve, for from him you receive your pay. May none of you turn out a deserter. Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due to you. In humility be patient with one another, as God is with you. May I rejoice in you always.

I have been told that, through your prayers, the Church in Antioch of Syria has found peace; and so I have become very comforted and without a care in God—or shall be, if only through suffering I come to God, so that, by the help of your prayers, I may be reckoned a disciple. Polycarp, you have been abundantly blessed by God and it behooves you to call a religious council to elect someone who is particularly loved and who is tireless and fit to be named a messenger of God. Let him be appointed to go to Syria so as to glorify your tireless love, to the glory of God. A Christian is not his own master, since all his time belongs to God. When you have done this work, it will be God’s and yours. I trust in His grace that you are ready to do well in the service of God. I have exhorted you in so short a letter, because I know your eagerness for the truth.

It has been impossible for me to write to all the Churches, since I must set sail at once from Troas for Neapo­lis, as God’s will enjoins. And so, may I ask you, as one knowing the mind of God, to write to the neighboring Churches and have them do the same. Let those who can send messengers, and let the others send letters by your mes­sengers, so that you may have the glory, as you deserve, of a work that will never be forgotten.

I greet all of you by name, not forgetting the wife of Epitropus[8] with all who serve her and her children. I greet Attalus whom I love, and the one who is to be thought fit to go to Syria. Grace will be with him forever and with Polycarp who sends him. I bid you a long farewell in our God, Jesus Christ. Persevere, through Him, in communion with God and under his guidance. I salute Alce, a name very dear to me. Farewell in the Lord.


[1]  Literally, ‘of flesh and spirit.’

[2]  Cf. Matt. 10.16.

[3]  The general idea seems to be that the ‘world’ can be humored into obedience to God if the ministers of the Gospel become, like St. Paul, all things to all men.

[4]   It is not unlikely that the faithful kissed the chains of the martyr on his way to death.

[5]  Cf. Luke 1256: ‘Poor fools. you know well enough how to interpret the face of land and sky; can you interpret the times you live in?’

[6]  Cf. Eph. 5.25.

[7] The meaning may be: If the vow of chastity is revealed to any other than the bishop, the parade of virtue is another kind of immodesty.

[8]   Epitropus may not be a proper name but may mean simply the procurator, the epitropos strategós, an official title which appears on inscriptions found at Smyrna.