Give Them Jesus, Not Morality

Part 3 in a 4 part series. View series intro and index.

If the whole Bible is about Jesus, then we must relate every Bible story, every character study, every thematic lesson to the person and work of Jesus. Also, we must present each story within the proper context in the drama of redemption. This is not “heavy theology,” so long as it is explained at an appropriate level. In fact, I believe that the earlier kids hear this “heavy theology” the sooner it will take root in their hearts, by God’s grace. Introducing this kind of teaching to a child when they are teenagers, after a decade or so of moralistic teaching, will not do them any good. We must start as soon as they are able to understand our speech and speak back to us (and even before).

Let’s look at three common children’s lessons, how they are usually taught, and how they should be taught.

Noah’s Ark
A quick Google search led me to a children’s lesson about Noah with this take away: “Noah was an obedient man. God saved Noah.” Another said, “Noah loved and obeyed God even when no one else would.” The problem with that is Genesis 6:5: every intention of the thoughts of human beings was evil all the time. The good news is Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” Noah didn’t earn favor. He found it. God was gracious to Noah. In Genesis 9:21, we meet Noah in a drunken, naked stupor. Noah did obey at times, but he wasn’t perfect. He was a sinner like everyone else on earth. Even after his salvation (in the ark), Noah had problems.

Hebrews 11 says that Noah had faith in God to save him from the pending flood. Did that bring about obedience? I’m sure it did, but he only inherited righteousness by repentance and faith, not obedience (v. 7). The story of Noah is not about being obedient (otherwise we might all consider opening up a zoo inside a large wooden ship). It demonstrates God saving the human race and thus preserving the woman’s seed (Gen. 3:15) so that the promised offspring would come to crush the serpent. Through Shem (Noah’s son, who was in the ark with him) came Abraham. Through Abraham came Isaac, Jacob, and eventually Jesus. Ultimately, our faith must be in Jesus, as Noah’s was. Only through faith in Jesus are we delivered from the flood of God’s wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).

David and Goliath
Here’s how this lesson usually goes: David had the courage to defeat a giant. What giants are in your life? What will you use (Bible study, prayer, evangelism, etc.) to kill the giant? The story is actually about an underdog shepherd, the anointed-king-in-waiting, who wins a victory for a cowardly people who are too afraid to fight (and indeed incapable of doing so). The point of the story is “victory by representation.” We are the cowardly Israelites who cannot and will not fight. Jesus is the Greater David who represents us and wins for us victory over sin, death, hell, and Satan—the only giants that can really hurt us. Jesus is the underdog, anointed Shepherd-King who was born of a teenage virgin and grew up in a podunk town. Yet he never failed, unlike David (e.g. sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah). He is the perfect King who wins for us an eternal victory over all our enemies. Only when we put our faith in this King who has conquered the giants of sin, death, hell, and Satan, will we be able to conquer the much smaller enemies in our daily lives.

The Golden Rule
Some people sum up the basis of Christianity in the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself. If you do this, God will bless you. If not, God will not love you.” What’s the problem? The gospel is about what God has done for us in his Son. The gospel is not “go love your neighbor.”

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is set against the backdrop of Jesus introducing himself as the Messiah of Israel, but also to the Gentiles (Matt. 4:12-17). The point of Matthew 5-7 is to pull the rug out from underneath Jews who want to gain acceptance from God through law-keeping. The Sermon, certainly, expresses what true kingdom living looks like and we should pursue these exhortations. True disciples do what Jesus taught (Matt. 28:19-20). But remember Jesus’ appeal: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The point? No one is perfect. But there is one who is. And he is the one who said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). He is the kingdom, in the flesh and he has come to bring all those who believe in him into the kingdom. God accepts us as his children because he accepts Jesus as his true Son (Matt. 3:13-17). Jesus vicariously does this for us in his obedient life and sacrificial death. Therefore, we are now free to obey knowing our failures can’t damn us and our victories do not earn anything for us. Through Jesus, the one who fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17), we are kingdom citizens and accepted by god, yet we know that when we fail, we can turn (i.e. repent) to God from our attempt to gain our own acceptance by works (whether by making our own rules or self-righteously trying to keep God’s).

The Sermon ends with a series of four “two options” stories (7:13-27): two roads, two trees, two disciples, two houses. The “two options” are not “good or bad” or “moral or immoral.” Throughout the sermon, he’s not attacking the “bad people.” He’s attacking the “good people,” the Pharisees, the people who obey and keep the morals! But the contrast is between mere external obedience and heart-level obedience. And that only comes with a new heart that has been saved by Jesus. Thus the point of these “two options” sections is that we must bank on  Jesus, not ourselves. 

I hope these three examples will help you as your teach your children the Bible story. Please do not underestimate your children’s mind! They can handle more than you think. It may seem impossible at first, but it will help them when they are teenagers—trust me.

The Common Thread
The common thread in these examples is three-fold: First, a moral is not taught, a story is told. Good stories always instruct. Second, context is not thrown out the window. Each context is recognized and appreciated. Contextualizing stories will help children see the big story of the Bible instead of using the Bible as a grab-bag of pointless trivia. Third, Jesus is the focus, and since he is the only hope for your kids (and you!), that is the most important thing. Practice reading and studying the Bible with these things in mind and it will transform the way you teach the Bible to your kids.

In the final post, I’ll talk about interweaving the gospel story with non-biblical stories. I will also recommend some resources to help yourself and your kids learn to read the Bible this way.

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