mission

Joseph and St. Patrick: God’s Unexpected Missionaries

When Patrick was fourteen years old, he was kidnapped during a raid on Britain and taken to Ireland to serve as a slave. After six years in captivity, he escaped, made his way back home, and eventually was ordained into the priesthood. Then, in His own ironic way, God sent Patrick back into the land of his former captivity to proclaim the freedom of the Gospel. The boy who had been a slave was used by God to bring His word of salvation and life to a people who had been living in the darkness of pagan unbelief.

Centuries before, however, the Lord had established this saving precedent. He used another teenager in another country to do His work. When Joseph was seventeen, his brothers sold him into captivity in Egypt. After thirteen years as a slave and prisoner, he was elevated to Pharaoh’s right hand. God used Joseph to preserve the life of Egypt, as well as the life of his own family, during a seven year famine.

But more importantly, the Lord sent Joseph into Egypt to bring the light of divine wisdom into that darkened land. Led by God, Pharaoh made Joseph “lord of his house and ruler over all his possessions, to imprison his princes at will, that he might teach his elders wisdom,” (Ps 105:21-22). Joseph, who was full of the Holy Spirit (Gen 41:38), taught Egypt about the wisdom of God. He instructed these Egyptian pagans about the one true God; Joseph became a missionary to his former masters.

In his commentary on Genesis, Luther speaks of how Joseph became God's spokesman of Egypt:

“David [in Psalm 105:21-22] looked more deeply into this account and saw how salutary it was for the kingdom of Egypt. How many fine people Joseph must have influenced! He taught the princes themselves and the king, and even converted the whole court to the faith. He showed them the true worship of God. He likewise appointed priests to lead the way for others later and to instruct them. In short, he is a Christ in Egypt and even more, as Christ Himself says, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these he will do,’ (John 14:12). Christ converted one little nation in a corner of the one land of Judah; He fed several thousand people with a small amount of bread. Joseph fed all Egypt and the neighboring nations and kingdoms, both physically and spiritually.” (Lectures on Genesis, AE 7:136).

In both Joseph and Patrick we see the Lord of life at work. As we see Him at work in our own lives. The God who can take two slaves, both of whom seemed destined for nothing but death, and use their lives to bring wisdom and light and salvation to the lives of so many others—this same God can and will work in our own lives. We may seem destitute of hope, but the hope of Christ is stronger than our weakness. As He was for Joseph and Patrick, so He will be for us: our companion in suffering, our life in death, our resurrection in the grave, and the Lord who uses us in His own way to bring blessings into the lives of others.

A Tattooed Angel

When he opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, the first thing I looked for was the knife. He had short-cropped hair, gray street clothes, a long scar on his right cheek bone. And tattoos. His body was awash in ink. The hands that toyed with the knobs on the dash had skulls on every finger. Russian script meandered around his neck. And in that language I did not know, he began questioning me. My three-week teaching stint in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was about halfway over. A group of young men studying for the ministry met with me for a few hours every day to learn the little I knew of biblical interpretation. God help them. I was barely older than they were, younger than a couple of them. A wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a soon-to-be-born son awaited me back in Oklahoma. If I made it back.

I had seen the oncoming van. The tires, screaming their black and burning song, foretold the crash. The van, and the half a dozen men in it, hammered my side of the car. By the time we pulled off the side of the road, they had spilled out and surrounded our vehicle. To a man, they looked like they’d just returned from job interviews with the mafia. And been hired. Taking a deep breath, the driver told me, “Stay in the car,” and the lamb stepped out into the pack of wolves. No need to consult my handy-dandy Russian-to-English dictionary to translate the cursing, anger, and threats that erupted as the group ringed round my friend.

Then the driver’s side door opened. And the tattooed stranger sat down. He looked at me, and smiled a crooked smile. And I looked for the knife that never appeared. I figured he was one of the guys from the van; he looked cut from the same cloth. But if there was a storm around us, he was the eye of it. There was no anger or accusation in his tone as he chatted on with me about God knows what. I knew how to say, “I don’t speak Russian,” in Russian, which he must have taken as a cue to speak even more. And so began one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had. He asked me countless questions in Russian, I told him all about myself and my family in English, neither of us having the foggiest idea what the other was saying. And all the while his skulled fingers twisted and turned the car’s controls.

I’m not sure how much time elapsed—five, ten, fifteen minutes. And then he was gone. The door opened, he got out, and my driver got back in. He’d had enough cash on him to pacify the men. “Who was that in the car?” he asked. “I don’t know. I assumed he’d been from the van.” “No, he wasn’t one of them.” “Then I don’t know where he came from.” And we drove on, safe and alive.

To this day, when I read in Hebrews about entertaining angels unaware, my mind goes back to a car wreck in Siberia, in which no one was hurt, to the furious young men, who laid no hand on my friend, and to a stranger who showed such concern and curiosity about me. And I wonder if angels, sometimes, have tattoos.