Who Was Saint Patrick?

This article originally appeared in Hometown Journey Magazine.


Who was Saint Patrick? Was he a real historical figure?

Yes, he was real. And no, he would not approve of the festivities associated with his name today. That’s not to say that Patrick was some sort of joyless soul. In fact, what we know of Patrick gives every indication that he was a man of great passion and delight in his faith. Two of Patrick’s letters have survived the centuries, and these give a general account of his life and work.

Patrick was born sometime around the 390 A.D. in Britannia. (See? He wasn’t even Irish by birth!) Patrick went to Ireland for the first time at the age of sixteen, and not by choice. Abducted by Irish pirates, he was take captive and forced to work as a shepherd. Though he had heard the gospel before this time—after all, his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest—it was not until these years that he personally came to believe the truths of the Christian faith.

Six year after his abduction, Patrick escaped and returned to his homeland, where he continued to study Christianity. He remained in Britannia for 18 years, and then came to believe that God was calling upon him to return to Ireland, the place of his captivity, as a missionary.

Can you imagine willfully returning to a nation where you had been enslaved? Patrick explains the only motivation great enough for him to go back to Ireland was the message of Jesus Christ: “I testify in truthfulness and gladness of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any reason, except the gospel and his promises, ever to have returned to that nation from which I had previously escaped with difficulty.”

Reflecting on the grace of God in his own life, he wrote, “Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favors and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.” Patrick’s response to coming to know God through Jesus Christ was to make him known throughout all the world.

How do we know that Patrick’s “gospel” is the same one that we preach today? Many people believe the message of Christianity must have changed in the 1,600 years since Patrick’s time of ministry. Yet Patrick’s faith—both his theology and his trust in it—is the very same as that which historically Christian churches continue to proclaim. In the following quote, Patrick provides a summary of the content of his preaching. In spite of its length, it deserves to be quoted in full:

For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning, in whom all things began, whose are all things, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, who manifestly always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time in the spirit with the Father, indescribably begotten before all things, and all things visible and invisible were made by him. He was made man, conquered death and was received into Heaven, to the Father who gave him all power over every name in Heaven and on Earth and in Hell, so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe. And we look to his imminent coming again, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to each according to his deeds. And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, the gift and pledge of immortality, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons of God and co-heirs of Christ who is revealed, and we worship one God in the Trinity of holy name.

Despite what Dan Brown would have us believe through his novels or what some secular scholars may claim, the gospel message has been be preserved by God through the ages. The God of the Bible is one God, who exists as three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. He is Creator, Savior, Lord, and Judge. We are saved because the Father sent the Son to be born in our likeness, suffer in our place, and defeat sin and death. The Spirit applies this gracious gift of salvation to all who believe. And one day, our Savior will return to judge the world and set all things right.

For thirty years, Patrick lived among the Irish, proclaiming this good news. He built his life on Jesus’ calling that his followers be fishers of men: “So it behooved us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God, and so there might be clergy everywhere who baptized and exhorted a needy and desirous people.”

The writings of Patrick portray a man deeply devoted to Jesus and who lived in great dependence on the Spirit of God. His heart for God moved him to have a heart for others, and not just for their physical and temporal well-being, but for their eternal salvation. He saw in the Bible that the gospel should be preached “before every nation under heaven,” “everywhere,” “to all the ends of the earth.” Basically, Patrick lived out his conviction that he should tell others of Christ’s good news “whatever place I should be.”

Patrick’s true legacy has nothing to do with driving snakes out of Ireland. He helped establish the Celtic tradition of Christianity with a deep commitment to the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the call to missions. He expressed in this way what he understood to be the purpose of his life: “I may confidently offer my soul as a living sacrifice for Christ my Lord.”

So yes, Saint Patrick is a real historical figure. And no, his life has nothing to do with green beer. So may I encourage you to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this year in a way that truly honors this spiritual forefather of ours? Tell someone about Jesus.

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