St. Patrick’s Day is more about missions than anything else. Of course, we’ve managed to mess it all up with parades, green beer, drunkenness, and revelry. But the point of St. Patrick’s Day is to remind us of how a life surrendered to the Lord God in sacrifice and service can produce unimaginable results.
The Life of Patrick
Patrick was not from Ireland. He was British, born around 390A.D.
- His grandfather was a pastor and his father was a deacon. He was brought up in the Christian church and was taught the truths of scripture (remember this key point). Yet by his own admission, he was a rebellious, unbeliever who lived in the flesh.
- At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and made a slave. He lived in Ireland as a slave for 6 years, tending to his masters cattle and sheep. During this time, much of which was spent in isolation in the rain and snow, Patrick’s faith in God deepened and his heart was turned to Jesus. Without a single Christian influence in his life, Patrick prayed day and night, sometimes hundreds of prayers at a time, in constant communication with God.
One night the Lord gave him a dream telling him to escape and travel to the coast (nearly 200 miles) where he would find rescue. As he journeyed, Patrick was never pursued or captured by his masters. And when he arrived at the coast, not knowing where or how rescue could come, there were fishermen there who rescued him and brought him back to Britain.
- After returning to Britain, Patrick enrolled in seminary and was commissioned as a pastor. Some years later, the Lord God spoke to Patrick in another dream, calling him to return to Ireland to evangelize the lost and to bring the gospel to an entire nation. At period in history (5th c.),
- Ireland was an incredibly disorganized tribal country. They had no central government, no cooperation, and very little love for one another. The country was a mess of about 150 warring clans who lived debased, wicked, and paganistic lives with little respect for anyone outside of their own clans. In fact, the Church of Rome had essentially given up on them, calling them barbarians who were beyond saving. They had either killed or run out any other missionary ever sent to the island. But Patrick had a love for the people who had once enslaved him. This is what fueled his missionary efforts.
In faith, the forty-year-old Patrick sold all of possessions, including the land he had inherited from his father, to fund his missionary journey to Ireland. He worked as an itinerant preacher and paid large sums of money to various tribal chiefs to ensure he could travel safely through their lands and preach the gospel. Patrick used a completely unique and unorthodox strategy for reaching the Irish clans.
He functioned like a missionary, trying to relate to the Irish people and communicate the gospel in their culture and language. Unlike the missionaries sent by the church of Rome, Patrick understood the people he was sent to help, and he communicated to them in ways which they could understand. There is some debate to the legendary story as to whether or not Patrick used the three-leaf clover to teach the gospel and the doctrine of the Trinity. It cannot be proven or dis-proven; but it would not be surprising if that was one of Patrick’s strategies for sharing Christ with the lost Irish.
Patrick’s strategy began with the key leaders of each clan. Upon entering a pagan clan, Patrick would seek to first convert the tribal leaders and other people of influence. He would then pray for the sick, preach the Bible, and use music and art to persuade people to put their faith in Jesus. Once enough people had converted to faith in Jesus, he would build a simple church that did not resemble Roman architecture, baptize the converts, and hand over the church to a convert he had trained to be the pastor. Then he would move on to repeat the process with another clan.
The reason Patrick is not canonized by the Roman Catholic Church is one of simple disagreement. The church did not approve of Patrick using “common means” to teach the Holy Scriptures. Patrick was more of a “whatever works to reach the lost” kind of guy, while the monks and priests were more of “it’s our way or the highway!” The results are undeniable.
In nearly 40 years of missionary work in Ireland, it is reported that Patrick:
- Baptized nearly 100,000 believers.
- Between 30-40 of the 150 tribes in Ireland had become substantially Christian.
- He trained 1000 pastors
- He planted 700 churches
- And he was the first noted person in history to take a strong public stand against slavery. (for obvious reasons!)
The churches and monasteries that Patrick was responsible for establishing became some of the most influential missionary centers in all of Europe. Missionaries went out from Ireland to spread the gospel throughout the world. In fact, it is believed that the work of Patrick on the Irish Iles became the foundation for preserving the Christian faith during the dark ages. Patrick died at the age of 77, having given his life to the people who enslaved him.
Lessons we can learn from the life of St. Patrick:
1) Children brought up to know and love the Lord God and his Word will find out later in life just how valuable that training is. Patrick didn’t have a Bible to read or pastors to teach him while he was enslaved, but all that his father and grand-father taught him as a boy was remembered and trusted upon while he spend long, terrible nights out in the fields.
2) So often in the lives of God’s children, God will use our prior circumstances, especially our most difficult ones, to stir in us a passion for ministry. Like abused children who grow up to help and minister to other abused children. How those who grew up in poverty know how to relate to the poor. Or those who understand suffering through sickness and disease can help others dealing with those same struggles. Patrick knew the Irish people. He knew their culture and their ways. He knew they were lost and he knew why they were lost. He was uniquely gifted by God, even by his afflictions, to minister to them effectively.
3) Missionary work is first and foremost a work of sacrifice. Patrick had to leave everything behind, a life of comfort and provision, to go to the Irish people. We must understand that to reach the nations, it will cost us more than “just a little extra”. It will require an all or nothing commitment.
4) Gospel ministry requires us to be sensitive and aware to the uniqueness of the culture. Missionaries from America don’t expect those they are called to reach to learn English. No, missionaries learn the language and culture of whom they are called. We can’t say “Be like us or you’re doomed to hell”. We have to be willing to learn and adapt to the language and customs of our culture. This is an important aspect to church work as well. We can’t sit on our hands and expect the world to just to “show up and fall in line”. We have to “speak to them in a way that they can understand”, just like Patrick did for the Irish.
5) Never underestimate the effect of many years of faithful gospel preaching and ministry. in nearly 40 years of ministry, Patrick undoubtedly had times of utter despair when reaching the clans of Ireland seemed impossible. But God honored his hard work and the world was affected by Patrick’s commitment to the gospel. God is the same today as he was then. HE is faithful to his people to use their humble service to save souls. Let us not grow weary in proclaiming the gospel, for in time, God will bring a great harvest.
When Jesus said “Go and make disciples. . . baptizing them. . . and teaching them all I have commanded you”, he didn’t leave us with that command to go it alone. Jesus said, “And I will be with you to the very end.” That means that Jesus will be with us until the very end of our work, and he will be with his people until the very end of this earthly age. Let us not lose heart. Preach and live the gospel and Jesus will make of us a witness to the glory of his name.