The new Pope is enjoying great popularity with many members of the media. Apparently journalists see in him a champion willing to challenge the traditional conservative morality that is usually promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. They also seem to love his criticism of capitalism.
On a recent FRONTLINE aired by PBS, Pope Francis was presented as a reformer trying to turn the church back to its main mission: helping the poor. First of all, Roman Catholicism and The Church are not the same. Nevertheless, the Pope’s new tone is highlighting an important question. Is social reform the main mission of Christianity?
The Apostle Paul was in prison when he penned a letter to the believers in Colossae during the first century. Despite his personal hardships, he focused on the Church’s mission. Early in his letter he gives a description of the work that he carried on with Timothy and other members of his missionary team.
“We proclaim Christ,” the apostle wrote (Colossians 1:28). The heart and soul of Paul’s ministry was a proclamation, an authoritative announcement. He was following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples focused on proclaiming a message about God’s Kingdom.
The gospel proclamation is not just disseminating certain information, or promoting a philosophy, or even advancing a system of belief. This proclamation is an announcement about a person: Jesus, who is the Christ. By using the title “Christ,” Paul reminds us that Jesus is God’s Anointed, the Chosen One.
God’s Kingdom is revealed through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, so the gospel proclamation is an announcement about Jesus and his work. The Church’s mission today, like that of Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church, is centered on proclamation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
After Paul’s general statement, “We proclaim Christ,” he goes on to give more detail. First of all, he writes that he and his team proclaim Christ by “admonishing everyone.” To admonish is to warn.
The presence of God’s Son in the world was a warning about how terribly broken our world really is, so broken that we need nothing less than God’s personal intervention. Jesus was sent by God the Father to bring the solution: to bring salvation for lost people.
To proclaim Christ is to warn people that something is seriously out of order; something that requires a radical solution. The problem in our world is more than hateful and oppressive relations between different classes of people. The problem is a broken relationship between every person and God.
Paul wrote, “admonishing everyone.” Everyone needs Christ. The gospel is not one good message among several, or many. It is the only message with God’s seal of approval, and so it is God’s word for every tribe, tongue, language and nation.
Jesus broke through cultural barriers by reaching out to all kinds of people: privileged, powerful, sinners and outcasts. In order to be faithful to the Lord, the Church must warn everyone possible about the great tragedy that people face: sin, death, and hell.
Paul did not stop at warning. Next, he writes, “and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” After warning about what was wrong, Paul taught about the solution. The message of Christ comes with more than just a warning that sin leads to death and eternal condemnation. Christ is the hope of glory.
The proclamation of Christ includes Good News that faith in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection gives the believer access to God and to his eternal blessings, access to a new life in Christ. Paul’s proclamation of Christ combined warning about the tragedy of sin with teaching about God’s forgiveness from sin.
Again Paul adds “everyone,” emphasizing the fact that his message of hope was for anyone and everyone. And he explains that his teaching of everyone was “with all wisdom.” Notice that he did not say that he was teaching them about all wisdom. Paul used wisdom as a tool in order to teach Christ. The focus was not wisdom, but Christ.
Paul was wise and creative in his efforts to proclaim Christ, always searching for the most effective manner of communicating the gospel truth to the particular audience he happened to be addressing (see Acts 17:16-34 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-27). Contemporary and innovative methods can be used effectively without altering the established and authoritative message.
The Church today is called both to warn about sin and to teach about salvation. Like Paul, we must be wise and creative in our efforts to proclaim Christ, teaching about a life of following Jesus with innovative and relevant methods that do not alter God’s ancient and reliable word.
After giving two descriptive phrases about how he proclaimed Christ (warning and teaching), Paul finished his thought by revealing the purpose for proclaiming Christ. “We proclaim Christ,” he wrote, “so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” The ultimate goal is to present people “mature in Christ,” that is, to present them to God on the Day of Judgment.
The Bible assures us that all believers will give an account of their life’s work at the bema seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-17; 2 Corinthians 5:10). The crowns we will present to our Lord on that day will be the lives of people whom we helped to follow Jesus and to grow in Christ in this life (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Paul’s statement makes it clear that our goal is more than leading people to faith in Christ. True, the salvation of one soul is marvelous beyond words, inspiring great celebration in heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). Nevertheless, salvation is not an end but the beginning. Proclaiming Christ through warning and teaching should continue in order to bring about transformation until we are all mature, conformed to the image of our Savior Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
Paul continues, “For this I also labor, struggling by his operation, which is operating in me with power” (Colossians 1:29). When he says “for this,” Paul is referring to the previous verse in which he revealed the purpose for proclaiming Christ. He labored that everyone possible might attain spiritual maturity.
By using the word “labor” he reminds us that Christian ministry is work, but he was not complaining. Earlier in the letter he said, “Now I rejoice in the things suffered for you all” (1:24). Gospel work is a labor of love.
Notice that Paul’s “we” (v. 28) has shifted to “I” (v. 29). Now he is getting personal. “I also labor,” he asserts. Paul was not one to stand back and direct others, letting them do the hard work. He was personally involved and fully invested in the gospel work. Paul risked his freedom and his life for the work of the gospel. He never expressed regret for all that he suffered in service to Christ.
Paul does not, however, pretend that he is capable or talented enough to succeed at the gospel work by using his own natural abilities. In fact, doing God’s work with human power is a sure way to get worn down, burned out, and to fail. Paul labored, “struggling by his operation, which is operating in me with power.” “His operation” is a reference to the power of Christ working in him, that is, the working of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit.
Gospel work, done right, is not easy. In fact, it is impossible. But with the power of God’s Spirit working in us we can be used by God to do the impossible.
From these brief remarks in the Book of Colossians we are reminded that the Church’s mission is to proclaim Christ. Proclaiming Christ includes both warning about what is wrong and teaching about God’s solution, the Good News about faith in Jesus. Warning and teaching are done in order to bring everyone possible to maturity in Christ, not just to salvation.
Gospel work is labor, but it is not to be done in our own power or natural abilities. By the power of God’s indwelling Spirit we can be an important and successful part of God’s great Kingdom work in the world today.
So what about Pope Francis and the media? One of the results of authentic gospel ministry is a genuine concern for the poor, the poor in spirit in addition to the poor in money and power. Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church all made efforts to alleviate suffering and injustice, but they focused primarily on a proclamation that encompassed far more than political or economic equality.
Does Pope Francis see social reform as the primary focus of Roman Catholicism? Time and patience will reveal his positions with greater clarity than Western journalists who can barely conceal their own personal political agendas. Meanwhile, the Church cannot waste precious time and energy on anything less than God’s Spirit-endorsed and Spirit-empowered gospel mission.
The gospel mission is clearly revealed in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus proclaimed freedom for the captives, not just those held captive by oppressive political and economic systems, but captive to sin and, yes, to Satan.
The Church must hold tenaciously onto her main mission, remembering that any justice gained for the downtrodden is illusory apart from true, eternal, spiritual freedom. And only Christ Jesus can break all the chains that bind us. So we proclaim Christ.
Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Camden, Arkansas, March 2014