Emphasizing missions may be a more fitting way to observe St. Patrick’s Day than wearing green and hailing Irish culture. That’s because the March 17 celebration marks the traditional death date of Patrick of Ireland, the fifth-century Christian who was instrumental in spreading the gospel to the Irish.
Patrick’s “incredible understanding of the Great Commission and his passion for mission and evangelism” were “in western Christianity in the fifth century almost completely unique,” said Michael Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Some Patrick scholars actually go so far as to say it is unique.”
When William Carey launched the modern mission movement in the early 19th century by setting out for India, he cited Patrick’s work in the British Isles as one of his inspirations, according to Haykin’s book Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact.
W.A. Criswell compared Patrick in a 1958 sermon to pastor Charles Spurgeon and evangelist D.L. Moody. Though Criswell differed from Haykin in his depiction of some details in Patrick’s life, Criswell and Haykin agree that Patrick possessed a unique missionary zeal.
Patrick “had a missionary, strategist intuition,” Criswell, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said according to a sermon transcript at wacriswell.com. “If he could win the king and the chief and the head of the clan, he’d win the whole country! And that’s exactly what Patrick did. He went to the king’s court, he went to the chief clansman, he went to the head of the tribe, and he preached the gospel in power, and they were converted! And all through the life of Patrick, there are recorded baptisms by the thousands and the thousands and the thousands!”
Who was Patrick?
Historians don’t know the precise date of Patrick’s birth, but they believe it occurred in the late 300s to an upper-class Christian family in Roman-controlled Britain.
When Patrick was 16, Irish raiders took him into captivity and sold him as a slave in Ireland. Though he had heard the gospel growing up, he finally understood it and trusted Christ for salvation during his captivity, according to Patrick’s autobiographical work “Confession.” His devotion to Christ increased as his captivity progressed.
“In a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night,” Patrick wrote, “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.”
After six years as a slave, Patrick had a dream in which a voice told him, “Soon you will go to your own country.” Prompted by the dream, he travelled 200 miles to find a ship that could take him home to Britain across the Irish Sea, according to Haykin’s book.
Back home, Patrick experienced another unique dream – this time calling him back to Ireland to preach the gospel to a nation with little Christian witness and steeped in animistic religion, including human sacrifice, ceremonial bestiality and idol worship. After pursuing theological training for several years, he returned to Ireland.
Knowledge of the native Old Irish language gleaned during his captivity contributed to Patrick’s evangelistic success as he saw thousands of former pagans commit their lives to Christ as Lord and Savior. Patrick became bishop of Ireland and spent some three decades preaching, baptizing and discipling Irish converts. He died during the mid to late fifth century.
Thanks to Patrick’s influence, the Irish Christians – known as the Celtic Church – led the way in evangelizing Europe for a hundred years following his death. By the end of his life, Patrick could write, “In Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God.”
Not until the 1800s did St. Patrick’s Day become an official feast among Catholics, Anglicans and other Christian groups. In the mid-1900s, the Republic of Ireland began using St. Patrick’s Day to showcase Irish culture.
Among the fictional legends associated with Patrick are that he rid Ireland of snakes and that he taught about the Trinity using a shamrock – though he did emphasize the doctrine of the Trinity, Haykin said. The true legacy of Patrick is evangelism and orthodox Christian teaching.
Patrick’s passion for the Great Commission “gets passed down into the DNA of the Celtic Church,” Haykin said. “The Celtic Church is without a shadow of a doubt the most evangelistic body in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.”
Nik Ripken, a Christian author and international missionary, said Patrick serves as a reminder that a faithful gospel witness can lead to multitudes being saved, even in countries dominated by non-Christian worldviews. He compared the gospel’s victory over non-Christian religions in Patrick’s day with its battle to deliver people from Islam today.
“The only places where Muslims are not coming to Christ are places where we are not going,” Ripken said. “… We can’t reap what we don’t sow.”
Like the Irish came to Christ and abandoned their brutal practices, even terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can be saved and delivered from their sin, Ripken said. To work toward that end, Christians must pray for social stability in Muslim lands, create a “right” to be heard by serving Muslims and then proclaim the scriptures.
But western Christians have not yet laid the foundation for evangelistic work among ISIS, he said.
Someone who tries to witness to ISIS terrorists today “is just going to get killed when they get off the plane,” Ripken said. “We don’t have the stability there to do what St. Patrick did in Ireland.” ISIS is “out of control.”
Winning entire families to Christ in Muslim lands like Iraq and Syria will lead to an organic, indigenous network of Christian witness that could permeate the population and eventually reach ISIS, Ripken said.
Even if terrorists do not come to Christ in mass, a gospel witness in unreached nations will help prepare believers there for persecution, Ripken said, like Patrick’s witness helped Irish Christians remain steadfast in their faith amid the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Germanic tribes in the fifth century.
“Anytime we have a break in the chain of witness and being obedient to Jesus’ command to go to all the nations, then we do not prepare ourselves for times of persecution,” Ripken said.
Jason Duesing, provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed that Patrick should inspire missions.
“The relevance of Patrick of Ireland for modern missions lies in a sacrificial heart motivated by the Great Commission and burdened for the lost,” said Duesing, who has written on Patrick.
“In his ‘Confession’ Patrick shares that he went in response to the call of God to ‘come to the Irish people to preach the gospel … so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others.’ This selfless motivation is as timeless as the Apostle Paul’s desire to become all things to all people that he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), and as relevant for the 21st-century family from Bolivar called to live among the people of Bhutan,” Duesing said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)