On March 17 many people will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without a clue as to why or whom they are celebrating. I know this may raise eyebrows among some of our readers, but I love St. Patrick. Not the legendary guy who stars in stories about snakes and shamrocks and the luck of the Irish–most of those stories are bubbe miesehs,” (Yiddish for “grandmothers’ tales.”) But much of what Patrick wrote and stood for reminds me of another saint: the Apostle Paul.
We Jews for Jesus don’t have any patron saints, but I’ll say this: if I had to choose one, it would be St. Paul. I am drawn to Paul because of his enduring passion for God, his deep love for people and his sacrificial commitment to evangelism. What a great example for any missionary! It is these same qualities that compel me to love Patrick. From what we can know about him from his own writings, I have a feeling that Patrick saw himself as following in Paul’s footsteps.
Numerous biographies and mythologies have been written about Patrick, but we have only two letters written by the man himself: “Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus,” and “Confession.” Both were circular letters, written in Latin, preserved as copies of copies of the original and included as part of larger documents. (see http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1166.htm; http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Stories/St.Patrick.Confession.text.html)
To read those letters is to gain a deep appreciation for a man whose life, like the Apostle Paul’s, was dramatically apprehended by God–and then spent in His service, so that others might know that same salvation.
Patrick was born and raised in Britain, the son of a church deacon, the grandson of Catholic priest (priests were allowed to marry then). Despite his religious upbringing, by the time he reached his teenage years Patrick was a self-confessed atheist who confided to his closest friend a dark and grievous sin he’d committed (we have no record to know what the sin was).
Just prior to his sixteenth birthday, Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was held as a slave for six years. During this period of brutal enslavement, Patrick came to know and believe in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He wrote concerning his captivity,
“There the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God … I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up.”
After being told in a dream that he would be freed, Patrick wrote of a miraculous journey back to Britain, where he was eventually reunited with his family. He might have spent the remainder of his days in the relative comfort and prosperity afforded a noble family of Roman citizenry, but God called him into the ministry–specifically to return as a missionary to the very people who had subjected him to slavery and humiliation. God blessed his ministry greatly: thousands came to Christ and hundreds of churches were planted.
If you are interested in knowing more about him, I recommend a compelling and readable book on his life titled, “St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography” by Philip Freeman (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Even if you just read his “Confession,” I think you will agree that the man had a deep love for Christ and the Scriptures, as well as a passion for the lost that make Patrick one of the greatest Christian leaders in history.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1Corinthians 15:9) and “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1Timothy 1:15). Patrick wrote “I, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful.” Such humility marks the greatest of God’s servants. And throughout his letters you hear the voice of one who, like Paul, was passionate for the sake of Messiah and His gospel. Like Paul, Patrick considered himself a debtor to grace. He willingly sacrificed a life of prestige and luxury for the sake of the gospel. Yet Patrick was misunderstood by his own family and by other church leaders who believed he was wasting his time going to the Irish.
In his “Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus,” Patrick concludes, “I make no false claim. I share in the work of those whom He called and predestined to preach the Gospel amidst grave persecutions unto the end of the earth. Did I come to Ireland without God, or according to the flesh? Who compelled me? I am bound by the Spirit not to see any of my kinsfolk. Is it of my own doing that I have holy mercy on the people who once took me captive and made away with the servants and maids of my father’s house? I was freeborn according to the flesh. But I sold my noble rank, I am neither ashamed nor sorry, for the good of others. Thus I am a servant in Christ to a foreign nation for the unspeakable glory of life everlasting which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Can’t you hear the echoes of a man who was compelled, a man who believed, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16b)? It is a curious thing that someone who so loved God and gave up so much for the sake of Christ and His gospel could be so misunderstood, not only in his lifetime but even to this day. How is it that his name and his legacy are so often associated with the things he had no place for in his own life. Could he even imagine the establishment of a St. Patrick’s Day, let alone the manner in which it is celebrated today?
It’s easy to allow ourselves to believe that if we are faithful in serving God, we will be blessed with much comfort and prosperity in our daily lives. But that is not what the Bible or history reveals. Patrick reminds us that following Jesus requires great sacrifice; it means we will often be misunderstood in our life and yes, even in the eyes of history. But we must remember that our vindication is from the Lord. Our reward is with Him and we can surely find no greater purpose in this life than joining ourselves to God’s great eternal purposes, as Patrick said, “for the unspeakable glory of life everlasting which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”