What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Matthew 16:26a

As Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch in Syria, was being transported to Rome to die in the arena, he wrote to the Christians of that city, urging them not to do anything that would deliver him from his impending martyrdom: “I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it.

I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius, who was referred to as “Theophoros” meaning “bearer of God” or “borne of God”, was sentenced to death under the emperor Trajan in around 107. The emperor had decreed that Christians should worship the pagan gods and those who refused were to be killed. Undaunted by facing Trajan himself, Ignatius courageously and eloquently defended the Christian faith before being sent to Rome to die.

Ignatius was an exemplary Christian leader, who prayed fervently for his flock and exhorted them to stand firm in the face of persecution. On his journey from Syria to Rome, several churches sent delegations to meet him and they encouraged each other in the hope of the Gospel.

He also wrote letters, which have survived, to five of the congregations that had greeted him, as well as one to the Church in Rome and one to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. They stress the importance of maintaining Christian unity and sound doctrine, and they present martyrdom as a great privilege that should be keenly grasped. Ignatius wrote that he himself was “eager to die for the sake of Christ.” He was killed by wild beasts in the Colosseum.

All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. ‘For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?’ Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God.
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107), letter to the Romans

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.