What does it mean to be a true saint of God?
Most of us are familiar with the Roman Catholic practice of praying to “saints in heaven.” Among those saints—people said to have been “holy” in their lifetimes, but who are now dead and supposedly waiting in heaven to receive prayers—“patron saints” are relied upon to petition God on behalf of particular cities, regions, or countries (“Patron Saint,” Britannica.com). These “saints,” chosen and honored by Rome to serve as advocates and protectors, became potent symbols of national identities.
But what does your Bible say about saints, and about their role in addressing our national problems?
Rome has credited the United Kingdom with four patron saints, one for each country in the Union. Facts about them, mixed with many traditions and legends, have been passed down through history.
Spring in the British Isles brings the recognition of “Saint David,” the patron saint of Wales, said to have been born in southwest Wales near the town that now bears his name, St Davids. Legends say that he founded multiple monasteries amongst the Celtic Christian communities in Wales and even east to Glastonbury in Somerset, England. He died around 589 AD and in the twelfth century Pope Callixtus II named him a “saint.” Many in Wales celebrate Saint David’s Day, March 1, with festivities and by wearing two symbols of Wales, the daffodil and the leek.
Northern Ireland—along with the entire island of Ireland—celebrates the day of “Saint Patrick” on March 17, said to be the anniversary of Patrick’s death sometime in the late fifth century. Celebrants honor Patrick for his legendary role in evangelizing Ireland for the Christian faith. Indeed, traditions about his past, and even his faith, vary—but his fame is wide and Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated widely even outside of Ireland, particularly in North America, where until recent times it was celebrated even more enthusiastically than in Ireland itself. Celebrants wear green clothes and shamrocks, and celebrations of Irish culture on this day often include drinking Irish beer.
“Saint George,” the patron saint of England, is honored on or close to April 23, the traditional date of his 303 AD death. George is said to have been a high-ranking Roman soldier, tortured under Emperor Diocletian because of his Christian faith. Because of his resilience under pressure and his death as a martyr, George was seen as the epitome of bravery and selflessness in the Middle Ages, particularly during the Crusades. He is often depicted on horseback, slaying a dragon. Britain’s King Edward III made him the national patron saint in 1350 after founding the Royal Order of the Garter, the most senior order of knighthood in the realm. Interestingly, however, George apparently never visited Britain!
“Saint Andrew” is identified as a fisherman, the brother of Simon Peter, and a disciple—later an Apostle—of Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:18–20). His role as patron saint of Scotland is thought to have begun in the eleventh century under Scotland’s King Malcolm III, but may involve a much earlier visit by Andrew to the Scots’ forefathers while they lived near the Black Sea. His feast day, November 30, is observed like the other saints’ days—with celebratory parades, traditional food, and drinking.
Historians trace Andrew as having visited the ancestors of the modern-day Scots in Scythia, near the Black Sea. In doing so, he is regarded as the first to bring the Gospel message to the region of modern-day Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania near the Caucasus Mountains, according to author Peter Peterson in Andrew, Brother of Simon Peter: His History and His Legends. Andrew was following the instructions of Jesus Christ, who, shortly before His death, told His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Andrew and others of the Apostles travelled widely, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6).
Andrew’s obedience is a sign of a faithful saint. According to Scripture, a “saint” is not someone who has died and is now waiting for our prayers in heaven. In fact, John 3:13 tells us in very clear terms that “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven,” meaning that only Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven. The dead will be resurrected at the “coming of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–15) and not before.
True saints, rather, are those who in this life “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). A saint must therefore be obedient to the Ten Commandments and have faith as Christ lives in them through God’s Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20).
Paul, in his epistles, writes to those he calls the “saints” in the cities of Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colosse (2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). These were living Christians who received Paul’s letters, not dead Christians receiving his prayers in heaven.
The Greek word hágios, translated in these verses of Paul’s letters as saint, is more often translated in Scripture as holy, meaning something or someone set apart or special to God. Scripture exhorts us that “as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16; see also Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2–4; 20:7–8). God wants those whom He considers saints to be like Him—to follow the example of Jesus Christ and obey His law in all aspects of this life.
If a person does not strive to live by everything Christ taught and follow the example He set, then by the biblical definition that person is not a saint. God’s true saints are those who live earthly, human lives in faithful accordance to God’s standards after genuinely repenting of their sins and committing themselves to Him in baptism (Acts 2:38).
The truth is that there are no patron saints of any nation who petition God in heaven about anything. Saints are human beings who have had their sins covered by Christ’s sacrifice, received God’s Holy Spirit, and committed themselves to following the biblically revealed way of life, turning away from the moral and ethical decline around them. Of course, these actual saints—unlike the powerless legendary ones—will consistently be praying to God in the name of Jesus Christ for the good of their nation and its leaders (1 Timothy 2:1–4) as part of the example they set of living their lives in full obedience to God. And when the saints die, they do not ascend bodiless to heaven; they “sleep” in death until the coming resurrection of the saints (1 Corinthians 11:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). Saints are not alive today in heaven to serve as intermediaries between physical individuals and God—only Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit occupies that role (Romans 8:26, 34; Hebrews 7:25).
Are you a true saint? If you want to know more about what it means to be one of God’s saints, please read What Is a True Christian? at TomorrowsWorld.org or request your free printed copy from the Regional Office nearest you, listed on page 4 of this magazine.