I must take care not to hide the gift of God which he has generously given us in the land of my captivity. (33)
The double reference here is to Paul’s injunction to Timothy to “stir up the gift” within him (2 Timothy 1:6) and to the story that Jesus told about the “Talents” which one hapless recipient hid, rather than put to use (Matt 25:14-30). In Patrick’s mind, both the gift (of apostolic mission) and the place of service are one and the same. They are the land of my captivity.
It’s an interesting way of putting it. Patrick had been enslaved as a boy, of course, during which captivity he turned to Christ. Now as an adult he has returned as a “slave of Christ” and may still fairly call Ireland the land of my captivity.
In the following section (Confession 34), he describes the holy and wonderful work to which he is committed. In the casual and highly personal terms of someone testifying in a church meeting, he says:
In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!
One catches the excitement of Patrick’s understanding of the missionary work to which he has been called. Even though what he does is but a pale imitation (In this way I can imitate somewhat…), it is part of something long foretold would happen before the end of the world. That is, quite simply, that the gospel would be preached to the ends of the world, and, as far his geography lessons can teach him, that’s exactly where he stands: Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!
So Patrick stands at the end of the known world, preaching the gospel, as he believes, at the end of the age. Imagine having that sense of destiny and purpose.
And if our understanding of both geography and history have extended –it wasn’t the end of the world, and it wasn’t the time of Christ’s return- our perception of spiritual reality falls far short of Patrick’s. We preen ourselves on our scientific knowledge but have little notion of our place in God’s scheme of things.
Patrick knew, and he had a “holy ambition” to see it done, and done well.
There is a strong connection between what I may call the “missionary heart” of both Patrick and Paul. It’s very evident in Paul’s declaration at the end of Romans (15:16-24), which reads thus:
For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named… but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” … But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain… (Rom 15:18-24)
Paul also possessed limitations in his own knowledge, but he understood “holy ambition” just as surely as did Patrick.
It’s there in v20: “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named….”
Paul, as Patrick, was driven by a holy ambition. He mentions being often hindered (v22) and yet longing to see the project through. That is to say, he was driven by his passion for mission. There was no way he could go to Rome until he had finished in the regions from Jerusalem to Illyricum. But finally, he says in v23, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” So: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.” (v24)
Both Patrick and Paul had a holy ambition to see people from all the nations who had never heard of Jesus believe in Him and become obedient to Him.
When Paul came to Christ (Acts 9, 22, 26), he was told this: “I am sending you [to the Gentiles, the nations] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
Where does holy ambition come from? It comes from a personal encounter with the living Christ shaped and informed by the written word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
God doesn’t lead us into ambitions that are pointless—that you will regret at the end of your life. There is always a need to be met—not a need in God, but in the world—by a holy ambition. Holy ambitions are not about self-exaltation. They are always a form of love. They always meet someone’s need.
Now what is the need Paul refers to in this text? Verse 20: “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.” That means that Paul has set his face like flint to preach the gospel to people who have never heard of Christ. They don’t even know his name.
So, we come to v19: “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s from Jerusalem up through Syria, across Asia Minor (Turkey), down through Greece on the east side and up the west to northern Italy where Albania is today. Paul says he has fulfilled the gospel there. And he underlines that astonishing statement in verse 23 by saying, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” And then in verse 24 he says, “I go to Spain.”
What does that mean? Surely there was much to be done in those regions? How could he say his job was done? Simply that Paul was not a local evangelist, but a frontier missionary, a pioneer missionary. That is, his calling and his ambition was not to do evangelism where the church has been planted. The church should do that! No, his call was to go where they didn’t even know the name.
This was Paul’s ambition. And since the great commission to make disciples of all nations is still valid and there are peoples today who do not know the gospel, therefore every church should pray that God raise up many frontier missionaries, and make all of us evangelists.
And this, I believe, was the central hub of Patrick’s missionary heart. He felt the honour and privilege of his calling, just as he understood its immensity and his own inadequacy.