Learning Jesus (4)
Medieval Ireland shows the transforming power of knowing Jesus.
And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed. Acts 19.18-20
The Gospel in Ephesus
Luke records the astonishing impact of the Gospel among the pagan people of mid-first century Ephesus. Beginning with just a handful of unlearned almost-Christians, the knowledge of Christ spread rapidly through the entire city. Then it broke out into the countryside, capturing the hearts of multitudes, until “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19.10).
The impact was dramatic. Evil spirits, which had kept people blind and deluded for generations, were sent packing. People woke up to the harm that their wicked ways were doing to themselves and their neighbors, and confessed their sins and forsook them publicly. Those whose private devotions and other practices had enabled deluding spirits and false worldviews to plague the populace, brought their books and paraphernalia and burned them publicly. So powerful did the knowledge of Christ become in Ephesus that the ancient worship of Diana, the city’s goddess/protector, was threatened, and ultimately disappeared.
The book of Acts fulfills many purposes, one of which is to tell us what to expect when the knowledge of Jesus Christ becomes the driving force in a life, a city, a region, and the world. What we should expect is a world turned upside-down (Acts 17.6), as people confess Jesus as Christ, Savior, and King, and begin to practice the knowledge of Christ unto righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
We read about the Gospel in Ephesus and are duly impressed, but not quite to the point where we expect the Lord to do something similar in our city, community, region, state, or nation. We seem to regard stories like the one told in Acts 19 as Bible stories, true events restricted to times circumscribed by the pages of Scripture, but not to be expected – much less sought – in our own day.
We would think differently if we knew Jesus like a fifth-century runaway slave from Briton.
The Gospel in Ireland
Patrick had been stolen into slavery from his home in the west of Briton when he was sixteen years old. For six years he was made to tend sheep in the west of Ireland. And for all of those six years, day and night, he repented of his lackadaisical trust in God, and pled with God for forgiveness and deliverance.
And then one night a voice instructed him to flee. He obeyed, and thus began a movement of God’s Spirit which brought the knowledge of Jesus to some of the most hardened pagan people the world had ever known.
Pre-Christian Ireland was a rough place. Hundreds of Celtic tribes, divided into family fiefdoms, ruled and fought and stole one another’s cattle and let one another’s blood and caroused with false deities in unspeakable ways for centuries. Yet when push came to shove, they could rally together with such ruthless force that not even the Roman legions dared to confront them. So when bands of Irish raiders took to robbing, pillaging, and kidnapping along the shores of neighboring Briton, there wasn’t much anyone could do.
Yet as Paul might say, “But God…”
Patrick’s return to Ireland, supported only by his inheritance, began a movement of God’s Spirit that so far outstripped what He did in Ephesus and Asia that one historian has described the result of Ireland’s conversion to Christ as the saving of Western civilization. Kuno Meyer, one of the great modern historians of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD) wrote, “The charge that is so often levelled against Irish history, that it has been, as it were, in a backwater, where only the fainter wash of the larger currents reaches, cannot apply to this period. For once, at any rate, Ireland drew upon herself the eyes of the whole world, not, as so often in later times, by her unparalleled sufferings, but as the one haven of rest in a turbulent world overrun by hordes of barbarians, as the great seminary of Christian and classical learning, ‘the quiet habitation of sanctity and literature,’ as Doctor Johnson called her in a memorable letter written to Charles O’Connor. Her sons, carrying Christianity and a new humanism over Great Britain and the Continent, became the teachers of whole nations, the counsellors of kings and emperors. For once, if but for a century or two, the Celtic spirit dominated a large part of the Western world, and Celtic ideals imparted a new life to a decadent civilization” (Ancient Irish Poetry).
Much to learn about Jesus
The conversion of pagan Ireland to a nation of believing Christians, comprised of communities flourishing in literacy, culture, and law, which sent from their best families thousands of missionaries to England, Scotland, and Europe, is one of most remarkable and least-known stories from the history of the Christian movement. It is proof that the miracle of Ephesus can still happen, and testimony to the transforming power that flows from knowing and loving Jesus Christ.
The contemporary witnesses to this period – in written materials, devotional histories, poems, art, and speculative theology – have been largely overlooked by Christians today. But the study of this period – combining the disciplines of historical and spiritual theology, history, and the arts – yields refreshing insights to the Lord Jesus Christ and His power to turn the world rightside-up again. In the records and artifacts from this period we discover saints who risked their lives to take the Gospel to far places; missionaries who defied pagan kings and status-quo-protecting church leaders; artists so devoted to glorifying Jesus and spreading the knowledge of His glory that they would not allow their names to get in the way of their work; poets of sublime beauty; and people from every walk of life who saw in everything they did a summons to prayer and a prompt for praise.
In the remaining installments of this study, we’re going to see how using various of the disciplines available to us for increasing in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus, we can tap into some of the spiritual perspective, incentive, and energy that allowed the people of ancient Ireland to save civilization and turn their world upside-down and rightside-up for Jesus. We’ll go to medieval Ireland looking for Jesus. We’ll discover the light of God’s glory emanating from many people and places. Hopefully, we will repent of our unbelief and doubt, seek holy and courageous affections, and put on Jesus in new and transforming ways.
And we’ll learn that the Jesus Who transformed Ephesus and Ireland is able and ready to do that same work in our midst today.
1. Why don’t Christians today expect God to work like He did in Ephesus in Acts 19?
2. How much do you know about St. Patrick and the Celtic Revival?
3. In which areas of your life would you most like to be transformed more completely into the image of Jesus Christ? How will you be different as that transformation occurs?
Next Steps – Preparation: Pray that God will put a hunger in your heart to increase in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. How will you prepare to improve in this matter?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.