The bombing of Britain during World War II leveled most of the area known as “Elephant & Castle” in the city of London. A row of pillars stood defiantly among the piles of rubble. These pillars belonged to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the church that housed the larger-than-life preacher of the nineteenth century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Those pillars well represent Spurgeon. He was solid. He stood tall in his own day, and like the pillars, his legacy still stands.

Spurgeon has friends across many pews. Baptists like Spurgeon because he was a Baptist. Presbyterians like Spurgeon because he was so Reformed. Even Lutherans like Spurgeon because he was very nearly a nineteenth-century version of Martin Luther.

While Spurgeon held forth at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Londoners would flock to hear him preach. In fact, people even traveled the Atlantic to hear him preach. He wrote many sermons, of course, while he was at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. And Spurgeon also wrote many books.

In one of his many books, Spurgeon made a comment well worth hearing. It comes from the preface to his book on commentaries. He had written this book to convince pastors of the need to use commentaries and to engage in deep study for their sermon preparation. Spurgeon well knew the value of reading for preaching. He had a personal library of around twenty-five thousand books. And this was in the 1800s. What’s more, he actually read most of them.

In the preface to this book, he speaks to an objection to using commentaries. The objection goes something like this: As a Christian, I have the Holy Spirit. I have the Spirit’s wonderful work of illumination. I don’t need commentaries; I don’t need to rely on the thoughts of others. I can go right to the source.

To that objection, Spurgeon replied, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

Spurgeon reminds us that the Holy Spirit is not an individual gift. The Holy Spirit is a corporate gift to the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has taught others, and the Spirit uses others to teach us. Spurgeon’s argument reaches the conclusion that preachers should use commentaries. Don’t be arrogant, and don’t think you have a corner on the market of the Holy Spirit, because you don’t.

But what if we were to expand Spurgeon’s argument in order to apply it to the relationship of today’s church to church history? Here’s my paraphrase of Spurgeon’s argument: “I find it odd that the church of the century thinks so highly of what the Holy Spirit has taught it today that it thinks so little of what the Holy Spirit taught the church in the first century, the second, the third, the fourth, and so on, and so on.”

The Holy Spirit is not unique to our age. The Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for the past twenty centuries. We could put the matter this way—it is rather prideful to think that we have nothing to learn from the past. And remember, pride is a sin. And also remember, as Scripture says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). We need a little humility. Enough humility to say we may not have all the answers in the present. Enough humility to say we need the past, and enough humility to visit it from time to time.

As Deuteronomy 6:10–11 vividly portrays for us, we drink at wells we did not dig, we eat from vineyards we did not plant, and we live in cities we did not build. We need that dose of humility that reminds us how dependent we are on the past and how thankful we need to be for those who have gone before us and dug the wells, planted the vineyards, and built the cities.

The past enriches our lives in surprising ways. In our past, our family history, we see examples of faithful disciples. We can be encouraged and even inspired by their faithfulness. But, far more, we see examples of God’s faithfulness to His people. How does Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:10? He declares: “He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”

The centuries of church history give us a litany of God’s deliverances. God has done it before, many times and in many ways, and He can do it again. He will do it again. And in that, we find courage for today and for tomorrow.

In church history, we see men and women facing challenges not unlike the challenges before us today. We look back and we learn. We also learn from the mistakes and missteps of the past. And, though it is a cliché, learning can be fun. Family stories of the exploits of crazy uncles inform; they also entertain. It is the same with our history, our family story. Let’s get started.

THE FIRST OF THE TWO DISCIPLES OF JOHN: IGNATIUS

We begin our journey through church history with a direct link to the pages of the New Testament. This link is the two disciples of John, the Beloved Disciple. These two disciples are Ignatius and Polycarp. Ignatius’ name has something to do with lighting a fire: ignite. Polycarp’s name literally means “many fish.” No one should forget such memorable names. Beyond their names, they also lived remarkable lives as two of the most significant figures in the late first century and the second century.

Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, a city that factors prominently in the New Testament. At the city of Antioch, the followers of Christus were first called Christians. And a generation or so later, Ignatius served as the bishop at this exact spot to the second generation of the first group of people called Christians. We are not sure when he was born. Some put the date as early as AD 35. We do know that Ignatius died a martyr’s death around 110. He was martyred in Rome by the Emperor Trajan. On his way to Rome, Ignatius had the opportunity to visit various churches, and he even was able to write letters to these churches. We have some wonderful pieces of literature of the early church in these letters from Ignatius.

What makes Ignatius significant beyond the place where he served as bishop is the place where he was from. Ignatius was from the city of Ephesus, and as a young man he was actually discipled by the Apostle John.

Ignatius, a direct link back to the New Testament era and the original disciples, wrote these various letters to the church because there were some serious problems in the church. John writes about these exact same problems in his epistles. He warns the church that false teachers will surely come. These false teachers are going to be teaching, among other things, that Jesus did not truly come in the flesh; He only appeared to come in the flesh. Not only were they plaguing the churches in John’s day, they continued to plague the churches in the 100s. Ignatius followed the steps of his mentor and, in most of his letters, he addressed these false teachers who were denying the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Ignatius often starts off the chapters of his epistles with a singular warning, and he even gives a threat to the those who listen to these false teachers. He tells them, in essence, “Stop your ears when you hear these false teachers!” Ignatius does not want this false teaching even getting so much as a foothold in the church. As you read through his epistles, you find out why. You see, if Christ didn’t truly come in the flesh, then He really wasn’t born, He really didn’t live, He really didn’t die on the cross, and He really didn’t rise again. If Christ did not really and truly come in the flesh, then there is no gospel.

In fact, at the end of one of his epistles, he goes on to say that he wants to guard this church beforehand from these false teachers, whom he calls “beasts in the shape of men.” He doesn’t shrink back from harsh language here because the stakes are so high. You must not only turn away from these beasts in the shape of men; you must flee. Ignatius wants to make sure that false teaching gets no foothold whatsoever in the church. Ultimately, he longs for even the false teachers to see the truth of the gospel. He declares:

Only you must pray for them, if by any means they may be brought to repentance. For if the Lord were in the body in appearance only, and were crucified in appearance only, then am I also bound in appearance only. And why have I also surrendered myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wild beasts? But I endure all things for Christ, not in appearance only, but in reality. That I may suffer together with Him, while He Himself inwardly, strengthens me; for of myself I have no such ability.

It was all-important for Ignatius that Jesus be truly human. In His true humanity, Jesus identifies with us and our humanity. Ignatius had suffered persecution, and he would go on to suffer a martyr’s death. He endured and persevered those things because of his sympathetic High Priest. Jesus really was born, and He faced all the temptations and limitations of being truly human. He really died, and He really rose again. Make no mistake about it—Jesus came in the flesh. That was the message of John the Apostle, and that was also the message of John’s disciple Ignatius of Ephesus, bishop of Antioch.

Trajan came to power in 98 and ruled over Rome until 117. He was a rather successful military leader and capable administrator. By most accounts, he was one of Rome’s finest emperors. Around 110, he engaged in correspondence with Pliny, governor of Asia Minor at the time. Pliny wanted imperial advice on how to handle this new sect of Christians. Among the advice that Trajan offered is this comment:

If [Christians] are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.

How ironic.

Some of those who appeared before Trajan would not compromise their faith and would not falter. Ignatius was one of them. He did not deny Christ but instead professed Him—and that before the emperor of all of Rome. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and disciple of John, became one of the first martyrs of church history.

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Excerpt adapted from 5 Minutes in Church History by Stephen J. Nichols, © 2019, pp. 3–12.