It took me a long time to succumb to the peer pressure of getting a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), but finally I yielded. Everybody had them. I would sit in meetings and colleagues on both sides of me would be scribbling notes with their styluses and beaming them to one another. Across the room, another individual would be typing away on one of those portable keyboards. I love toys, but I just could not see the advantage of giving up my trusty DayTimer for another electronic fad.
But the first time I played with a friend’s device sitting on an airplane, I was hooked. And after performing my first “HotSync” operation when I purchased my own unit, I became the top promoter for the company!
Of all the cool features my handheld possesses, I have probably benefitted most from the little “alarm” feature on my date book. My DayTimer never used to talk to me. But when I enter an appointment or an event into my PDA date book, I can attach a reminder to it. I can even determine how far in advance I want to be reminded. At the appointed time, a little alarm of three short beeps will go off reminding me of the event. And the really neat part is that it will just keep going off about every ten minutes or so until I acknowledge that I have been reminded!
The apostle Paul believed that the preacher is not only a reporter, but a reminder of that which has been reported.
The Task of Reminding
The Christian preacher is commissioned with a particular task, that of reminding people over and over again of God’s Word and its claim on their lives. We find this theme often in the New Testament, both from Paul and others. Paul told the Romans, “Nevertheless, brethren, I have written more boldly to you on some points, as reminding you, because of the grace given to me by God” (Rom. 15:15; emphasis added). To the Philippians he wrote, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe” (Phil. 3:1).
Even Jude got in on the action, and said, “But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5; emphasis added).
The apostle Peter probably filled the bill more than any other New Testament writer. He seemed to place a huge amount of emphasis on the preacher as reminder. In one passage he reminded us about reminding three times: “For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease (2 Pet. 1:12-15).
And again in another place: “Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” (2 Pet. 3:1-2).
Obviously, many of the New Testament writers saw themselves as responsible for reminding God’s people about things they had previously been told. They knew it was necessary if the human mind was ever going to embrace the truth and enable it to sink into the heart.
The Topic of Reminding
But of what exactly did Paul remind the Corinthians? To be sure, when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “I determined not to know anything among you except,” he put some pretty narrow parameters on his preaching topic. This claim almost suggests that Paul would have had to commit what some consider to be the unpardonable sin of delivering the same sermon over and over again! If that is the case, it must have been a doozie! And so it was.
His “testimony of God” is specified in the phrase “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (w. 1-2). This was Paul’s preaching topic in a nutshell! This is what he reminded the Corinthians of over and over. It was in fact a doozie of a message – the ultimate sugar stick sermon! In fact, this message from God was so important that Paul gave lesser roles to factors such as oratorical ability and thought processes in order to feature it in his preaching.
When you have a message from God instead of just the wisdom of man, it is worth preaching over and over again. Paul refused to dedicate one second of time to a discussion of men’s ideas or insights, including his own. His sermons were consumed with the crucifixion, resurrection, and redemption of Jesus Christ.
And Paul wanted us to know that he did not merely set Jesus up as the perfect teacher or the perfect example of what a man ought to be. While Jesus certainly was all of these and more, Paul constantly reminded his listeners that Jesus of Nazareth was both Savior and God who had earned the right to lay claim on every person’s life.
Such has been the heartbeat of Christian proclamation since Pentecost. The proposition and culmination of that first Christian sermon was set forth when Peter said, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). He and the other apostles continued to resound the same message in the coming days, saying that “the God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31).
When you stop and think about it, the lordship and saviorhood of Jesus Christ is the most significant and relevant issue for people in contemporary culture for at least two reasons. First, it is where all eternity is headed. After describing Jesus’ humility in submitting himself to the death of the cross, Paul said that “God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
All of eternity is going to wind up bowing at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ, all because of His saving act! Second, it is the only way anyone can head for eternity. Paul said to the Romans, “that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Salvation from sin, death, and an eternal life with God can be found only in the crucified Christ.
From beginning to end our Bible is a book about the Christ event. Jesus Himself claimed not to have come “to destroy the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). He told the religious hypocrites of His day, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39). To the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself’ (Luke 24:27).
Charles Spurgeon said that he would begin at any point in the Bible and make a beeline for the cross. Maybe Katherine Hankey summarized best what ought to be the confession of every preacher when she wrote:
I love to tell the story; ‘tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet . . .
I love to tell the story, ‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
If you are looking for a camp to be in when it comes to preaching trends, camp out on the “Old, Old Story.” Such is part of the mystery of preaching – the consistent reminder of the crucified Christ.
The Tension of Reminding
There is a very real tension, however, that the preacher as reminder must navigate. Certainly not everyone today recognizes the importance and relevance of the Christ event. Nor did they in Paul’s day. Yet he made it the heart of his preaching even though he knew it was a “stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Gal. 6:14). To be sure, the cross always offends! While the crucified Christ is a familiar concept to us, it remains a foolish and offensive idea to the world.
Sometimes the foolishness and offense of this message comes about because of familiarity and frequency. Reminding suggests repetition, and many preachers are afraid of repetition. In fact, it seems that many contemporary preachers shy away from the role of reminder because of the fear of repetition in the pulpit.
As I listen to some preachers today, I get the impression that they feel like they have to come up with something new every week that no one else has ever come up with before. And the aversion to repetition on the part of many listeners as well as their expectations of “new materia” doesn’t help. The spirit of the Epicureans and Stoics has found its way into the pulpit and the pew, “for all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).
This fear of repetition combined with an affinity for “fresh stuff” impacts preaching adversely in a number of areas. For example, it sometimes causes preachers to maximize secondary application and minimize the primary intent of certain passages. In the Gospel of John, for instance, the writer is very clear that his purpose in recording the events in the narrative was so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Even though every passage in this Gospel is not necessarily directly addressed to unbelievers, the preacher is responsible for approaching – and preaching – every passage with this understanding. The fear of repeating the same thing over and over again forces many preachers to resort to secondary application of various passages without ever even acknowledging the overarching evangelistic intent in relation to the larger purpose of the Gospel.
Another example of maximizing secondary application and minimizing primary intent is the failure to follow the purpose of various miracle passages in the Gospels. A large number of those events were intended to validate the deity of Jesus. Consider Mark 4:35-41, for instance, where Jesus calms the sea. Close consideration of the text reveals that such a supernatural feat could be accomplished only by God Himself. The physical quieting of creation is something only God can do! But an aversion to repeating the proof of Jesus’ deity in the Gospel forces many preachers to allegorize the passage and talk about the “storms of life.” The fear of repetition leads us to promote a hermenuetical paradigm that we would otherwise shun!
The fact of the matter is that the Gospels (and the gospel!) are text-books in repetition. They are called the “Gospels” for a reason – because they primarily are about the good news of the crucified Christ, not about the daily plight of mankind. And for some reason God determined that we needed four of them! Maybe it’s because He knew that repetition is the pathway to learning!
The aversion to repetition also affects preaching adversely by creating a fear of systematic series. Some preachers refuse to preach through books because of the necessity to stay with a particular theme for an extended period of time. Also, systematic series usually require some degree of “review” each week in order to establish the connection between individual passages. A preacher’s neglect of such an approach robs the church of an important aspect of Bible teaching.
Probably the biggest tension created by the call for repetition in preaching comes in the pastoral pulpit. Many pastors shrink from preaching Christ and the cross because of the awkwardness of saying the same thing over and over to basically the same group of people. This element of awkwardness exists with all true gospel preaching. In the local church especially, a pastor will be preaching to some of the same faces week after week and year after year. The awkwardness sets in when that sameness is coupled with the biblical demand to continually preach the familiar theme – the crucified Christ.
I, along with many others in our community, enjoy walking and running for exercise. The oval-shaped perimeter of our seventy-five-acre campus in New Orleans makes a great exercise area, and people are always moving around it both directions. If you have ever made laps around a track, a gym, or in some other kind of circular pattern, you probably have experienced an awkwardness that I frequently encounter. Do you know what the toughest part is for me? Its not the discipline it takes to get out and do it. It’s not having enough strength or breath to complete the laps. It’s not even the frustration of trying to determine whether or not it’s doing any good. The toughest part of that whole deal is trying to figure out creative ways to greet the same people moving in the opposite direction every time you pass them!
We have to be honest here. There are only so many ways to sincerely greet the same people within a ten- to twenty-minute time period. And depending on where you enter the circle, you might pass the same people just going around once or twice. This is a real problem!
Now my limited observation has led me to conclude that people respond to this awkwardness in three ways. Some of these serious health nuts never acknowledge that anyone else is on the planet! Or, if they do, they stop acknowledging them after the first greeting on the first lap. It’s as if they were on a mission for God, and no one or nothing else matters. Others, who are more recreational in their journey, make small talk after the first greeting which serves as a token acknowledgment. After the first lap on which they say “Hello,” “Hey,” or “Hi,” they offer comments like, “Beautiful weather today, huh?” “Nice shorts!” or “How ‘bout those New Orleans Saints?” But there are always those social exercisers who find a variety of creative ways to offer a token greeting every time they pass you. They wave, they nod, they speak, all in a potpourri of attempts to be cordial. All three of these responses are simple attempts by human beings to overcome the awkwardness of repetition.
While figuring out how to greet people doing laps creates some element of tension, choosing how to respond to the awkwardness of gospel preaching in the local church is a far tougher and more important assignment. But the options are the same. First, the pastor can stop talking about Christ and the cross after he’s been on the field for a short while. That would be apostasy. Second, he can make small talk in the pulpit with extra-biblical material clothed in “practical and relevant” rhetoric, giving only token acknowledgment to the person and work of Jesus. That would be compromise. There is a difference between Jesus as a good example or pattern and Jesus as the crucified Lord who lays claim to every person’s life.
Third, the pastoral preacher can find creative ways from the plethora of biblical literature to preach the same old story of the crucified Lord and His claims on the lives of people. For Paul and for us, only the third option is acceptable.
Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee. From the book The Passion-Driven Sermon by Jim Shaddix. Copyright 2003.
Jim Shaddix is Dean of the Chapel and Assoc. Professor of Preaching at New Orleans Baptist Seminary. He is also Pastor-Teacher of Edgewater Baptist Church.