When our Lord ascended into Heaven, He left the government of His Church to the Apostles. We are told that during the forty days between His rising from the grave and His ascension, He gave commandments unto the Apostles, and spoke of the things belonging to the kingdom of God (Acts i. 2f). Thus they knew what they were to do when their Master should be no longer with them; and one of the first things which they did, even without waiting until His promise of sending the Holy Ghost should be fulfilled, was to choose St. Matthias into the place which had been left empty by the fall of the traitor Judas (Acts i. 15-26).
After this we find that they appointed other persons to help them in their work. First, they appointed the deacons to take care of the poor and to assist in other services. Then they appointed presbyters (or elders), to undertake the charge of congregations. Afterwards, we find St. Paul sending Timothy to Ephesus, and Titus into the island of Crete, with power to "ordain elders in every city" (Tit. 1. 5), and to govern all the churches within a large country. Thus, then, three kinds (or orders) of ministers of the Church are mentioned in the Acts and Epistles. The deacons are lowest, the presbyters, or elders, are next; and, above these, there is a higher order, made of the Apostles themselves, with such persons as Timothy and Titus, who had to look after a great number of presbyters and deacons, and were also the chief spiritual pastors (or shepherds) of the people who were under the care of these presbyters and deacons. In the New Testament, the name of "bishops," (which means "overseers") is sometimes given to the Apostles and other clergy of the highest order, and sometimes to the presbyters, but after a time it was given only to the highest order, and when the Apostles were dead, the bishops had the chief government of the Church. It has since been found convenient that some bishops should be placed above others, and should be called by higher titles, such as archbishops and patriarchs, but these all belong to the same order of bishops; just as in a parish, although the rector and the curate have different titles, and one of them is above the other, they are both most commonly presbyters (or, as we now say, priests), and so they both belong to the same "order" in the ministry.
One of the most famous among the early bishops was St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, the place where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts xi. 26). Antioch was the chief city of Syria, and was so large that it had more than two hundred thousand inhabitants. St. Peter himself is said to have been its bishop for some years; and, although this is perhaps a mistake, it is worth remembering, because we shall find by-and-by that much was said about the bishops of Antioch being St. Peter's successors, as well as the bishops of Rome.
Ignatius had known St. John, and was made bishop of Antioch about thirty years before the Apostle's death. He had governed his church for forty years or more, when the Emperor Trajan came to Antioch. In the Roman history, Trajan is described as one of the best among the emperors; but he did not treat the Christians well. He seems never to have thought that the Gospel could possibly be true, and thus he did not take the trouble to inquire what the Christians really believed or did. They were obliged in those days to hold their worship in secret, and mostly by night, or very early in the morning, because it would not have been safe to meet openly; and hence, the heathens, who did not know what was done at their meetings, were tempted to fancy all manner of shocking things, such as that the Christians practised magic; that they worshipped the head of an ass; that they offered children in sacrifice; and that they ate human flesh! It is not likely that the Emperor Trajan believed such foolish tales as these; and, when he DID make some inquiry about the ways of the Christians, he heard nothing but what was good of them. But still he might think that there was some mischief behind; and he might fear lest the secret meetings of the Christians should have something to do with plots against his government; and so, as I have said, he was no friend to them.
When Trajan came to Antioch, St. Ignatius was carried before him. The emperor asked what evil spirit possessed him, so that he not only broke the laws by refusing to serve the gods of Rome, but persuaded others to do the same. Ignatius answered, that he was not possessed by any evil spirit; that he was a servant of Christ; that by His help he defeated the malice of evil spirits; and that he bore his God and Saviour within his heart. After some more questions and answers, the emperor ordered that he should be carried in chains to Rome, and there should be devoured by wild beasts. When Ignatius heard this terrible sentence, he was so far from being frightened, that he burst forth into thankfulness and rejoicing, because he was allowed to suffer for his Saviour, and for the deliverance of his people.
It was a long and toilsome journey, over land and sea, from Antioch to Rome, and an old man, such as Ignatius, was ill able to bear it, especially as winter was coming on. He was to be chained, too, and the soldiers who had the charge of him behaved very rudely and cruelly to him. And no doubt the emperor thought that, by sending so venerable a bishop in this way to suffer so fearful and so disgraceful a death (to which only the very lowest wretches were usually sentenced), he should terrify other Christians into forsaking their faith. But instead of this, the courage and the patience with which St Ignatius bore his sufferings gave the Christians fresh spirit to endure whatever might come on them.
The news that the holy bishop of Antioch was to be carried to Rome soon spread, and at many places on the way the bishops, clergy, and people flocked together, that they might see him, and pray and talk with him, and receive his blessing. And when he could find time, he wrote letters to various churches, exhorting them to stand fast in the faith, to be at peace among themselves, to obey the bishops who were set over them, and to advance in all holy living. One of the letters was written to the Church at Rome, and was sent on by some persons who were travelling by a shorter way. St. Ignatius begs, in this letter, that the Romans will not try to save him from death. "I am the wheat of God," he says, "let me be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather do ye encourage the beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body, so that, when dead, I may not be troublesome to any one." He even said that, if the lions should hang back, he would himself provoke them to attack him. It would not be right for ordinary people to speak in this way, and the Church has always disapproved of those who threw themselves in the way of persecution. But a holy man who had served God for so many years as Ignatius, might well speak in a way which could not become ordinary Christians. When he was called to die for his people and for the troth of Christ, he might even take it as a token of God's favour, and might long for his deliverance from the troubles and the trials of this world, as St. Paul said of himself, that he "had a desire to depart, and to be with Christ" (Phil. i. 23).
He reached Rome just in time for some games which were to take place a little before Christmas; for the Romans were cruel enough to amuse themselves with setting wild beasts to tear and devour men, in vast places called amphitheatres, at their public games. When the Christians of Rome heard that Ignatius was near the city, great numbers of them went out to meet him, and they said that they would try to persuade the people in the amphitheatre to see that he might not be put to death. But he entreated, as he had before done in his letter, that they would do nothing to hinder him from glorifying God by his death; and he knelt down with them, and prayed that they might continue in faith and love, and that the persecution might soon come to an end. As it was the last day of the games, and they were nearly over, he was then hurried into the amphitheatre (called the Coliseum), which was so large that tens of thousands of people might look on. And in this place (of which the ruins are still to be seen), St Ignatius was torn to death by wild beasts, so that only a few of his larger bones were left, which the Christians took up and conveyed to his own city of Antioch.