Can Leopards Change Their Spots?

Around AD 116, with early Christianity under extreme pressure, Roman Emperor Trajan condemned Bishop Ignatius, of the Antioch church of Syria, to execution by lions in the Roman Coliseum, for Ignatius's refusal to recognize Trajan and other Roman gods as deities, and for proclaiming Yahweh, and his son, Jesus Christ Incarnate, the only true and living God. Trajan's highly decorated soldiers, led by Captain Maximus Aurelius, secured Ignatius on a year-long death march from Syria to Rome, chained to the soldiers daily, to humiliate and intimidate Ignatius and fellow Christians. Along their journey, Ignatius wrote seven encouraging letters to Christian churches, in some of which he figuratively referred to these soldiers as leopards, because of their cruelty.

Ignatius's letters and his actions, expressing his love and forgiveness, even for those vicious soldiers and for Trajan, caused Aurelius and some of the soldiers, to begin to question the then commonly held Roman view of Christianity as a fanatical superstition, led by lunatics and followed by a band of atheist, and, therefore, to also question their traditional faiths in the gods of Rome. Most impressive about Ignatius to the soldiers, was not only Ignatius's embrace of death, but his belief that to die in faith in God is to gain eternal life with Him in heaven. Bitter conflicts arose among the soldiers over these matters, which exposed Aurelius's budding Christian faith to Roman authorities.

In Rome, Aurelius's confession of faith in the God of Ignatius, and his rejection of Trajan's offers to publicly denounce Christ, resulted in Trajan ordering Aurelius's death in the Coliseum with Ignatius. Aurelius's faith is strengthened as he endured beatings, isolation and imprisonment with Ignatius, touching the lives of others, who become advocates for Christianity.

In the Coliseum, this story imagined the favor of God showing up for Ignatius and Aurelius, in the form of miraculous happenings with the lion keepers, with the lions, and with Ignatius's and Aurelius's transformation into heavenly beings before the blood-sport-minded Roman Coliseum patrons. Though many believe in Christ through these miracles, Trajan refused to accept the sovereignty of Ignatius's God, and suffered his own excruciating death.

At its core, this story—though it depicts actual historical persons, places and events in fictional guise—encompasses scriptural guarantees exemplifying the availability of the limitless power of the Holy Spirit, through love, its most precious fruit, to forgive and reach even the most hardened and resistant of men and women through God's redeeming Word, and of the reality of God's promise to believers of abiding comfort in this world, and of an awaiting home with Him in Heavenly Glory, a promise extending through the life and times of Ignatius, a real-life martyr, to each of us to this day.

--William Jefferson

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