Saint Patrick is an interesting historical figure. He is one of the most famous men in history that most know nothing about. Millions gather on March 17 to celebrate him while at the same time unable to tell you a historical fact about his life. The same could be said about the average Christian. Ask one and they will probably tell you that Patrick was an Irishman who introduced Christianity to Ireland (neither of which is true). The reality is that Patrick is worth honoring because of how the Lord used his life. He ought not to be confined to the month of March only but is someone that can be appreciated throughout the year.
Patrick the Man
The real Patrick was born in a world of turmoil around the year 380 A.D. By this time the Roman rule in Briton had been broken. He grew up in a Christian home, even though he claimed to not know the true God during his youth (The Confession of St. Patrick, Double Day Publishing, 1998, 26). At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. Unfortunately, we do not have details about how he was treated as a slave, and debate has ensued about the location he was taken. But what we do know is that during his enslavement, Patrick turned in repentance to the God of his father. It was in the midst of trial, difficulty, and hardship, that Patrick cried out to the God of his household, and the God of all comfort was there, ready to forgive Patrick with the grace of the gospel.
After six years, Patrick escaped Ireland on a ship that was a hundred miles away from his location. It was when he was back home that he had a vision calling him back to the very place that enslaved him. After some ministerial training, Patrick returned to Ireland to minister to the people that had kept him in bondage. Contrary to popular notions, Patrick’s ministry faced opposition from the “Irish Gentiles.” Many looked down upon him and were strongly opposed to what he was preaching. Eventually things turned in his favor, and while Patrick rightly attributed his success to the sovereign plan of God, from a human perspective he accomplished this by befriending the various kings in the land. This allowed him to go from tribe to tribe in Ireland to bring the gospel—and the result was mass conversions.
In contrast to popular belief, Patrick was not Irish, but a Roman Briton. Furthermore, he was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. There were many that were kidnapped and brought over in captivity, and out of those thousands, it would be reasonable to assume that many were Christians. These would have likely shared their faith and taught it to their children. There were also many merchants that traveled back and forth from Ireland to Britain that may have shared the gospel with those they encountered (Jonathan Rogers, Saint Patrick, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010, 54-55). Additionally, the historical evidence tells us that in 431 A.D., there was a Bishop in Ireland named Palladius. The evidence is limited on this figure, but what we do know is that Patrick followed him as Bishop of Ireland in 432 A.D. What we can say about Patrick, however, is even though he was not the first, he certainly saw the Irish overwhelmingly respond to the gospel during his lifetime in a way that they hadn’t before.
From a literary standpoint, Patrick was a man of few words. The two works that we have from his hand are his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. His Confession was more than likely written in Ireland (Thomas O’Loughlin, Discovering St. Patrick, Paulist Press, 2005, 60) and written with a few different motivations. One of the purposes of writing was to defend his ministry. Patrick had been charged with some kind of wrongdoing that prompted him to respond to his superiors back in Britain (Rogers, xxi). Secondly, he wrote about the work of God in his life and bore testimony to the great works that the Lord accomplished through his ministry. What we discover in Patrick’s Confession is a man that was acutely aware of how the Lord used a great evil in his life (being sold into slavery) to produce a minister of the gospel sent to serve in a country that desperately needed it. The Confession is also remarkable in that it strictly adhered to the words of Scripture and repeatedly references the Word of God—showing a habitual regard for its authority on matters of faith and practice. In this way, Saint Patrick acknowledged the value and supremacy of the Holy Scriptures.
The other work of Patrick is the Epistola, or Letter, and it was written to confront slave traders that kidnapped some of his Irish converts. Presumably written in Ireland, the letter from Bishop Patrick is essentially an excommunication and judgment from God on the slavers for their sin (O’Loughlin, 60). Patrick, relentless in his condemnation, writes: “they will face the eternal pains of Gehenna equally with the devil; because whoever commits sin is rightly called a slave and son of the devil” (Saint Patrick, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus). Further, he calls that “all … should not fawn on such people, nor share food or drink with them, nor accept their alms, until such time as they make satisfaction to God in severe penance and shedding of tears, and until they set free the menservants of God and the baptised women servants of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified” (Ibid.). Not only was Patrick redeemed by the Great Shepherd, but as an under shepherd, he was greatly concerned for God’s people that were under his care.
What Can Patrick Teach Us?
There is a lot that we can learn from Saint Patrick—much more than about the color green, shamrocks, and leprechauns. For the Christian in 2023, Patrick can teach us about living Coram Deo, with contentment, and with courage.
Saint Patrick can remind us in 2023 that all of the Christian life is lived coram Deo—“before the face of God.” When you read Patrick’s Confession, you come away with the sense that he truly believed that. His life was an open book before God. Followers of Jesus Christ need this healthy reminder. There is no part of our life that is hidden before the face of God. No matter how much we attempt to compartmentalize our lives. The same God that sees us singing praises to Him in worship on the Lord’s Day is the same God that sees us on Monday. The same God that sees us when we are around other Christians is the same one that sees us when we are alone in front of our computers late at night, or what we are writing to other people on social media. We are called to honor the Lord in every facet our of life—eating and drinking to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31). Therefore, let us take the same approach as Patrick, acknowledging that the Lord is with us in whatever situation we are in. If we do so, we may find ourselves growing in the ability to match our lives with what we profess.
We live in a culture of grievances. There are whole hosts of people looking for something by which to be offended. Many young people in our country believe that they are “owed” something simply because they exist. And as is often the case, cultural problems find their way into the church—including this issue. Yet what we learn about Patrick is that he was a man who was content with the life that God had for him. That is not to say that he did not seek to advance himself or make his position in life better. He certainly did this by finding a way to escape his enslavement. However, we do not see a hint of Patrick ever complaining about his lot in life. We do not see him complaining that he was sold into slavery at a young age, nor that he had gaps in his education because of his enslavement. Instead, we see a man who recognized that God used an evil in his life and turned it into good.
Patrick’s life epitomizes those ancient words that Joseph spoke to his brothers after being sold as a slave: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). As Christians, we must learn to be content with the life that God has given us and not be constant complainers. Certainly, if we can move up in life, then we should take the opportunity to do so, however our heart attitude should always be thankfulness to God in whatever station of life we are in. Patrick had applied the words of the apostle Paul well, that in whatever circumstance in life, he had learned to be content (Phil. 4:11). May we do the same.
Lastly, Patrick can teach Christians in 2023 to have courage. Sadly, in the Christian church we have developed a culture of niceness. It is not that Christians are to neglect being kind or loving to those that they interact with, but it is a posture of avoiding all kinds of conflict. Not wanting to ever offend or step on toes. It seems today that there are many Christian leaders that want to avoid confrontation at all costs. Patrick understood that there were times where we must confront, and we must step into controversy for the sake of defending the truth. Patrick not only had the courage to befriend tribal leaders in Ireland, but he also had the resolution to call out military soldiers when they were in sin. He had a strong sense of right and wrong and understood that there were times where we must confront and commit the consequences to the Lord. We need a healthy dose of that courage to find its way back into the American church.
We are, at present, living under the judgment of Romans 1. Our culture is embracing death and celebrating destruction. Governmental officials at the highest levels are ardent supports of those that are rebelling against creational realities. We are literally watching God give people over to a “debased mind” (Rom. 1:28). Where are the men of courage? Where are the men that are willing to call out the wickedness of the culture and point them to their only hope, Jesus Christ? Patrick had a zeal and conviction for the truth that drove him to hold those accountable that would commit such blatant sin. Where are the men today that will follow in the steps of this minister to Ireland, for the glory of God, and the good of His people?