What did early Christians think of the cross? Many modern day Christians wear a cross around their neck but this was not done in the early years following the death of Jesus. For early Christians to wear a cross would be equivalent to modern people wearing an electric chair. The cross was an instrument of torture and death. Jesus was a real man who suffered and died on such a device. These truths were self-evident to those who lived in Jesus’ day; therefore the early church helps us to understand the true nature of the cross.
Ignatius was bishop of Antioch in Syria who was martyred in Rome early in the second century. While being led under captivity to Rome, where he would be fed to the lions, he wrote seven letters. His letters reveal important truths concerning Christianity and the cross.
First, the cross (and the Christ) is real. Some people claimed that Jesus “suffered in appearance only”. They claimed that Jesus was not truly a man and therefore he did not truly die. Yet Ignatius warns Christians not to be led astray by these “worthless opinions” but rather be convinced that Jesus suffered “during the time of the governorship of Pontius Pilate”. Ignatius reminds us that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was a historical event. Salvation is dependent upon the flesh and blood death of the God-man Jesus Christ. The Christian faith is based on the death of a real man on a real cross, and he has achieved for us a real salvation. This physical-historical reality of the cross can greatly help us in our day. Far too often we neglect the tragic physical consequences of sin. We forget that the coming judgment is a physical one. And we forget that the healing extended in Christ name is not only spiritual but physical as well.
Second, the cross is a defining mark of Christianity. Ignatius picks up on biblical language as he says; “the cross… is a stumbling block to unbelievers but salvation and eternal life to us”. Christians are marked not only as a saved people, but a people who have been saved by the death of Jesus. Without the cross no man can be a Christian. Without the cross no man can come to God. In our day, many frown upon the idea of having a certain qualification for acceptance in a community. The cry is, “All are accepted, no standards necessary.” Yet, the cross (which is foolishness to the world) is the defining standard that must be accepted if one is to be a Christian. For Ignatius those who are established in the faith have “been nailed… to the cross of the Lord Jesus”. The cross is so central to his understanding of Christianity that those in the faith are nailed to the cross.
Third, the cross is motivation to suffer. Ignatius knew that suffering and death awaited him in Rome. He was under the guard of ten Roman soldiers who most likely treated him very poorly. When explaining why he surrendered himself to suffer he says, “only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that I may suffer together with him”. Since Christ has endured suffering on the cross, Christians can endure suffering for his namesake. Jesus called his followers to take up their cross and follow him. Sacrifice is never easy, therefore we need a strong motivation if we are to lay down the things of this world and seek his kingdom first. Ignatius calls us to look to the cross for strength and motivation to suffer along with our Lord.
Ignatius is a helpful guide for our own thinking about the cross.
[Click on the picture above for a link to a children’s book on Ignatius, written by Sinclair Ferguson]