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Patrick of Ireland: A Missionary to His Captors

Remembering and reflecting on the life of Patrick this St. Patrick's Day

On this day, we remember Patrick, a missionary to Ireland who was a lover of God and who was passionate about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in a missionary context. People often know the myths and legends about Patrick and not the actual historical account. On this day, it is important to learn, or to be reminded of the truth, and to distinguish between fact and fiction.

A slave brought to Ireland, a missionary returned to Ireland

Patrick was born (387 AD) into a Christian family in Britain. As a teenager, Patrick was captured and then taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave to a chieftain named Milchu, where he was forced to tend sheep. Approximately six years later, he escaped and returned home to Britain. While there, God called him to go back to the people to whom he had been enslaved to serve as a missionary to convert pagans/unbelievers to Christianity. Upon the Holy Spirit's leading, Patrick returned to his captors in Ireland to preach the gospel, to serve Christ as a missionary to the Irish.

Here is his own personal account of his conversion, his turning to God from his sin.

I was sixteen years old and knew not the true God; but in that strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes and, although late, I called my sins to mind, and was converted with my whole heart to the Lord my God. . . . The love of God increased more and more in me with faith and the fear of His name. The Spirit urged me to such a degree that I poured forth as many as a hundred prayers in one day. And even during the night, in the forests and on the mountains where I kept my flock, the rain, and snow, and suffering which I endured, excited me to seek after God . . .

Patrick had been freed (he actually escaped) from being a slave to the Irish by becoming a slave of Christ (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1). With this newfound freedom, he returned to serve those who had previously enslaved him. Though they were free, they were in spiritual slavery, bondage (John 3:5:24; Rom 6:23), and Patrick returned to them with the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1; Rom 1:1; 15:16; 16:25) that they might experience true freedom, freedom in Christ (John 8:32; Gal 3:28; 5:1).

A faithful and exemplary disciple of Christ and minister of the gospel

By the grace of God, there are a few things that Patrick did that were exemplary. All of Patrick’s life and ministry evidenced his commitment to and being anchored in the Bible, the Scriptures, the Word of God.

Grounded in the Great Commission, Patrick was committed to evangelism and discipleship as two aspects of a singular truth—of presenting believers mature in Christ.

After hearing the gospel and responding by believing and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:12), Patrick was burdened to evangelize. He experienced the freedom that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings to a person, of making a dead person spiritually alive, of freeing slaves, and he also knew the gospel of Jesus Christ was the hope for this people. The gospel was for him and others.

Because of this commitment, he evangelized and discipled—evangelistically, he propagated the gospel so that people might hear and believe; regarding disciplemaking, he built up and edified believers. Grounded in the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus (Matt 28:19-20), Patrick was committed to evangelism and discipleship as two aspects of a singular truth—of presenting believers mature in Christ (Col 1:28).

Though there were others both before Patrick who had been committed to evangelize, he was the first to consider bringing the gospel to the nations, hearing and obeying the words of Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19-20).

A thought and prayer

We give thanks for those God has used in the past, those from whom we learn. These are some of the ongoing witnesses of Hebrews 11.

On these days when even the secular calendar remembers a saint (not a status conferred by some ecclesiastical authority, but all those who have been called by and set apart for God, namely, all those believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, cf. 1 Cor 1:2), it is a helpful reminder for us as Christians to give thanks to God for his faithfulness to his promises, and to thank him for raising up men and women to live and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we do this, let’s give thanks and praise to God as we remember a man used of and by God. The Lord used Patrick in unique ways and circumstances. How might the Lord use us in unique ways, especially during these days of the coronavirus?

Greg Strand

Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.

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