In one of my recent posts, I discussed how the “crown of life” mentioned in James and Revelations is a way of describing eternal life itself. The “crown of life” is the “crown that is life.” Those who persevere in their faith receive this prize—eternal life.
When we study the earliest church fathers, this teaching that eternal life itself is the Christian’s reward is reinforced.
One such instance is the following quote from Ignatius in his letter to Polycarp. Both Ignatius and Polycarp were students of the Apostle John. They were directly exposed and taught from John himself. As such, their writings help us understand how the earliest Christians understood and interpreted scripture. This particular letter of Ignatius was written to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, as Ignatius was being taken to Rome, where he would eventually be martyred.
The times call for you, as pilots do for the winds, and as one tossed with tempest seeks for the haven, so that both you [and those under your care] may attain to God. Be sober as an athlete of God: the prize set before you is immortality and eternal life, of which you are also persuaded. (Ignatius to Polycarp; 2. 3; Roberts and Donaldson)
The prize of the Christian athlete is immortality and eternal life. This prize is not behind us according to Ignatius, but set before us. It is something we strive for as we seek to “attain to God.”
This quotation reminds us of Paul’s statement to the Corinthian church:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Ignatius was encouraging Polycarp with the same teaching that Paul himself wrote here to the Corinthians. Paul admonishes us to run the race in order to win the prize. The prize is an imperishable wreath, a reference to immortality (and which also seems to be another way of saying the “crown of life”).
Ignatius, knowing Paul’s intent, doesn’t even bother to use an analogy when describing the reward. He comes out and says plainly that the prize is eternal life. It is immortality.
This is just another tidbit that helps us have an informed, historical perspective of the early church teaching regarding salvation, perseverance, and completing the journey of faith.
Ignatius quotation translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.)