As so many other cities have over the past few days, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, held its annual St. Patrick’s Day parade this week.
With thousands in attendance, the yearly celebration has become a favorite event for residents of northeastern Pennsylvania.
While this year’s parade featured enormous floats, marching bagpipers, rock bands, and even classic hot-rods, the truth is that Scranton’s party isn’t the biggest.
New York City, Boston and Chicago also hosted St. Patrick’s Day parades. Dozens of American cities, in fact, were baptized in a sea of green this weekend and even before that.
— Jay (@rjsincs) March 17, 2019
— Gord McIntyre (@gordmcintyre) March 17, 2019
But for all the fun and enjoyment of this holiday, there’s a serious history attached to this day that we shouldn’t overlook.
Many people might be surprised to learn this special holiday isn’t about Irish pubs and four-leaf clovers — it honors the contributions of a courageous Christian missionary who loved Jesus, people, and the message of the Gospels.
So what is the true story of St. Patrick — and what spiritual life lessons can we learn from his example?
Consider these three lessons.
1.) Patrick demonstrated a forgiving spirit. Patrick was born around 389 A.D. in England. Shocking, right? One of Ireland’s greatest heroes wasn’t Irish, but British. Patrick was raised in a Christian home; his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. Patrick, however, would have described himself as a “nominal” Christian, as his heart and life weren’t truly inclined to loving God or obeying Him. But Patrick’s relationship with God would soon experience a radical change.
When Roman legions were called back to Italy to protect their homeland, England became vulnerable. Irish invaders would often storm the coasts of England, raiding farms, stealing property, and kidnapping children. At age 16, Patrick was taken from England and sold into Irish slavery. For six years, Patrick tended the livestock of an Irish farmer, but it was this traumatic experience that brought Patrick to true faith in Christ.
As his prayer life ignited, his relationship with God grew immensely. At age 22, Patrick finally escaped his master, traveling 200 miles on foot to the coast before hitching a ride on a ship delivering dogs. Eventually, Patrick returned home to England.
While many people would have burned with hatred toward those evil captors, Patrick demonstrated a forgiving spirit. He chose to forgive because God had forgiven him (Ephesians 4:32). Patrick understood that the Irish people were just like everyone else: sinners in need of God’s amazing grace (Romans 3:23).
2.) Patrick developed a heart for broken people. Patrick’s family and friends were thrilled at his safe return to England. But they didn’t know that while Patrick slept, he experienced recurring dreams of Irish men and children pleading with him to return and tell them the good news of Jesus.
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Patrick new firsthand the wickedness and paganism running rampant in Ireland and it broke his heart. Who better than he to reach the Irish tribes with the news of salvation in Christ? After a few years of intense theological preparation, Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary around 432 A.D.
3.) Patrick dared to persevere for God. Christianity had come to Ireland in the years prior to Patrick’s arrival but with little success.
The Irish people were mired in paganism, spiritism, even human sacrifices under the Druids. But because Patrick understood the Irish people and their culture, he knew how to speak to them.
Despite ongoing opposition from contentious pagan leaders, Patrick persevered in preaching salvation through Jesus Christ. By the end of his 30-year ministry in Ireland, Patrick had baptized more than 100,000 Christian converts and planted more than 200 vibrant churches. When the Roman Catholic Church came to Ireland many years later, it discovered a vibrant Christianity already in progress, all because of Patrick’s influence.
After decades of ministry, Patrick died around 460 A.D., on March 17.
This explains why that date is kept special on our calendar.
On St. Patrick’s Day, millions of Americans celebrate by drinking green beer, eating corned beef and cabbage, or speaking with an Irish accent. Many schoolchildren color a picture of a shamrock — and green is everywhere.
Remember the deeper meaning, though. On March 17, we pay tribute to a committed Christian who impacted a whole nation for Christ. Patrick’s legacy calls us to forgiveness, compassion, and perseverance — and it reminds us of what one person can accomplish for God.
Pastor Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for 20 years. He is also the featured Bible teacher on the “Preaching for a Change” weekly podcast.