In the small town I grew up in people took Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. What else would you expect from a town called O’Neill? In fact, O’Neill is known as the “Irish Capital of Nebraska.” When I was a child, Saint Patrick’s Day meant a giant four-leaf clover painted on the main intersection of town, at least one green horse in the parade, and Irish dancers clogging down the streets. Despite growing up with such festivities, I never really knew what the holiday was meant to celebrate. I heard the myth about Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland, but that was all I knew. It was not until I was older that I learned the true story of Patrick of Ireland and his importance in Christian history.
Though we do not know exactly when Patrick was born, we do know that he died on March 17, 461 AD. Likely, he was born around 385. Even though Patrick is known as an Irish saint, he was born in southern Britain, which at the time was occupied by the Roman Empire.
When he was 16 years old raiders kidnapped Patrick and took him to Ireland as a slave. Unlike his largely Christian homeland, the Irish Celts were pagan animists who worshiped nature. Even so, it was during his 6 years in slavery that Patrick turned to Christ as his savior. In his Confessions, he wrote that he prayed over one hundred times a day while working pigs for his masters. When Patrick saw the opportunity to escape Ireland he took it and returned to Britain.
Years later Patrick dreamt that the people of Ireland were calling out to him asking him to return and preach the gospel. He immediately began studying to teach God’s word. Eventually, he became a bishop. Most bishops in the fifth century stayed in urban areas and ministered to established churches. So when Patrick gave that up in order to preach the gospel to the pagans in Ireland, he did not have very much support. Even so, he spent the rest of his life in Ireland preaching God’s word to the people who once enslaved him.
What we can learn from the life of Patrick
1. The church must be about reaching the ends of the earth with the Gospel.
In Patrick’s time, Ireland was the furthest West that anyone knew or had traveled. Patrick was going to the ends of the earth, and he is an example to us of faithfully going out; leaving homelands and crossing cultures to preach Christ to the nations. And this was no short-term visit; he lived with the Irish and became their bishop. He is one of the great Christian missionaries of the early church and an example to us of obedience to the Great Commission.
2. We can use simple ideas to explain complex biblical truths.
Just as Jesus used stories about everyday objects and people to explain big truths about God, Patrick used items familiar with his audience to teach them important doctrines. Patrick is most famous for using the Irish clover to explain the Trinity. Though not a perfect illustration, it helped explain that important truth about God. The doctrine of the Trinity was especially important to Patrick because of the time in which he lived. The church had just emerged from the Arian controversy, which taught that God the Father was devine, but Christ and the Holy Spirt were not. Patrick saw the importance of teaching vital biblical truth to all believers. And he did this through simple words and illustrations, demonstrating that one doesn’t need big words to teach big truths.
3. God can use anyone who is faithful to do his work.
We all doubt ourselves, and Patrick was no different. He thought he lacked intelligence and most scholars consider him a sloppy writer. Yet, despite these weaknesses, God used him to reach the lost in Ireland and change the country forever. He was faithful to his calling. Danger knocked at his door regularly, but he relied on God’s power and Spirit to work wonders in the lives of those he reached. As it turns out, Patrick really did chase the snakes out of Ireland – snakes like idolatry and unbelief. He trusted God, and God used him greatly.
Patrick’s Own Words
To wrap this up, perhaps it is best to allow Patrick to speak for himself with a few of the most famous quotes from his Confessions:
“But after I came to Ireland – every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed – the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the Spirit within me was then fervent.”
“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
“I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.”