St. Patrick and the Great Commission
A Fifth Century Christian’s Passion for God and the Gospel
By Marti Wade
St. Patrick’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day may be the only days many Protestants think about the Catholic saints. And let’s be honest, what comes to mind first? Probably something other than the devout men who inspired these celebrations! But I’d like to make a case for St. Patrick. This life of this fifth-century Catholic bishop is full of surprises. One of the biggest surprises: How much his motivations and challenges resemble those we see in pioneering missionaries today.
Though the story is obscured by myths and legends, Patrick wrote his own account of his life known as Confessions. He wrote to explain and defend his missionary calling and career to those who opposed him. Here’s what he tells us about his life, looking back over many years.
Patrick’s Journey to Ireland (and Jesus)
Patrick was born to privilege, the son of a prosperous Christian family in Britain. His grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon, but Patrick rejected his family’s faith. No one would have seen him as a future missionary.
Then, when he was about 16, Irish pirates abducted Patrick from a beach of his western England homeland. Sold into slavery to a cruel master who left him cold, hungry and largely alone, he spent his days minding pigs and flocks of sheep in the wilderness. This gave the young slave a time to think about spiritual things. He started getting up early to pray, and, before long, it was what he lived for. The Holy Spirit was moving in his heart, showing him his sin and calling him to a deep love for God and people. Though later he received more formal ministry training, his early experience depending on God laid a foundation crucial for his endurance.
After he had spent six years in Ireland, God sent Patrick a vision urging him to escape and make a run for the coast some 200 miles away. A risky journey for an escaped slave! Amazingly, though, he made it all the way and found a ship to take him back home.
Patrick Returns as a Missionary
Patrick hugged his mom, mourned his father who had died and settled back into British life. But God didn’t let him settle long. After a few years he has more visions. One is a “Macedonian call” of a dream in which the people of Ireland invite Patrick to return and live among them.
His parents find this inconceivable. Why would he go back to the very people who had enslaved him? “The one and only purpose I had in going back to the people from whom I had earlier escaped was the gospel and the promises of God,” he writes. But it takes years to win over the church leaders to send him back to Ireland. Many missionary stories include such setbacks.
When Patrick finally goes, he goes as a missionary to the lost, not a pastor to Ireland’s small Christian community. It meant going against what was expected, doing what others weren’t doing. In years to come Patrick would face ridicule from church leaders who did not appreciate his ministry as well as persecution and hardship from pagan leaders who sometimes threw him in jail. But Patrick persevered. He stayed and served until his death.
Making a Difference
He worked for the freedom of those who were slaves as he had been. He nurtured the birth of new Christian communities throughout the islands. And he multiplied himself, training and sending out others. Patrick and those God raised up to join him planted some 200 churches and raised up missionaries who went to Britain, on to Europe and as far south as Italy. Those who served in Ireland contextualized their message, using local metaphors and art forms to communicate to the Irish people and transform their society.
To the Ends of the Earth for God’s Glory
Behind this ministry was a strong, biblical motive. Patrick knew God had a call on his life—a call to cross cultures to share the knowledge of God with those who didn’t know Him.
Patrick was one of the earliest Christian leaders to think deeply and write clearly about the task of completing the Great Commission.
So, Patrick didn’t see himself just as a missionary to the Irish but as one called “to preach the gospel even to the ends of the earth.” Given Ireland’s location at the far western end of the world Patrick knew, to him it was literally the ends of the earth. The salvation of the Irish was an important part of making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). After all, Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15). Like the first apostles, Patrick longed to see the gospel preached to the whole world as a testimony to all nations (Matthew 24:14). That’s right: Patrick was one of the earliest Christian leaders to think deeply and write clearly about the task of completing the Great Commission.
So now you know. Next time St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, say a prayer. Ask God to raise up more people like Patrick, people compelled by the Great Commission to share the gospel with those at the ends of the earth.
- Ask God about your part in making disciples of the nations. Is He calling you to a specific place or people? Tell Him you are willing to go wherever He wants to send you.
- Read another article about historic pioneers, Travels with Paul: On Mission in an Uncertain World. Or dive into St. Patrick’s Confession.
- Like watching more than reading? Make plans to see the new docudrama, I Am Patrick. It’s good. Go to the website to watch the trailer and learn more.
Image source: I Am Patrick
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