I was baptised as an infant in an Anglican Church in Singapore. My parents were committed Christians and so I went to church faithfully since I was a baby. When I was in my teens – around 15 to 16 – I started to hate going to church (God soon transformed me in a Pentecostal Church). Sunday school wasn’t very interesting. I can’t say I remembered much. But I don’t think the message of Jesus dying for my sins was an emphasis throughout my Sunday School days. I don’t remember the gospel of Jesus Christ being taught then. Rather, I remembered being taught values and character and stuff like that.
I think many Sunday Schools are like that. They teach children how to be good children, using stories from the Bible. And I think that’s one reason why you get so many children from Christian families growing up and feeling the same way as I did. For me, when I was a teenager, church was just a place I went out of routine. Jesus wasn’t real and He wasn’t the focus of what I learned. If He was, it was about Him being a person I should imitate, not about how He loved me and died for my sins. After all, we all want to teach children to be good at home and in school, don’t we? And so we get a lot of Sunday School teachings that focus on being a good Christian. And hey, there are tons of Bible stories that can be used to enforce this point – the point that God wants us to be good and that we should aspire to be good children of God like so many of the heroes in the Bible.
In his book on how to interpret the Old Testament, Gospel and Kingdom, Graeme Goldsworthy talks about how a Sunday School teacher applied the story of David and Goliath:
The fellow dressed up as Goliath had progressively revealed a list of childhood sins by peeling cardboard strips off his breastplate one by one, as the speaker explained the kind of ‘Goliaths’ we all have to meet. Then a strapping young David appeared on cue, and produced his arsenal – a sling labeled ‘faith’ and five stones listed as ‘obedience’, ‘service’, ‘Bible reading’, ‘prayer’, and ‘fellowship’ (p. 8).
The above is probably similar to many typical Sunday School teaching. The above story is applied in such a way that children are exhorted to have more faith and obey, serve, read the Bible, pray and fellowship more. The Bible is used to teach good “lessons” and “principles”. The children are taught how to be good Christians. And they grow up believing that Christianity is all about being good and doing spiritual things and stuff like that.
What’s wrong with the above interpretation and application? Goldsworthy says that
we must not view these recorded events as if they were a mere succession of events from which we draw little moral lessons or example for life (p. 25).
David is the one who, immediately prior to the Goliath episode (I Samuel 17), is shown to be God’s anointed king . . .So when it comes to his slaying of Goliath it is as the unique anointed one of God that he wins the battle (p. 27-28).
Therefore, the application shouldn’t be that we ought to be more like David so we can defeat our Goliaths. Rather, the story ought to point to Jesus, God’s greater anointed King, who would come and defeat the greater Goliath! The story points to Jesus and such an interpretation encourages awe and faith in its hearers, rather than making them feel defeated that they lack obedience, faith, etc (which we all do). Through the story of David and Goliath, we see the gospel of Jesus Christ and we become thankful and desire to live for Him. The Bible is not primarily about moral lessons and principles. It’s primarily about Jesus Christ – even in the Old Testament.
Children who grow up with Sunday School messages of how we can be better Christians or better people are totally missing the message of the Bible. And parents and Sunday School teachers are totally missing it too if they use the Bible to teach children primarily about character development. If we do that, we will end up with grown ups who are just like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son/Father – i.e. 2nd generation Christians who think that Christianity is all about being good Christians and who have totally missed the main message of the Bible which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Going back to the article I mentioned in my previous post. I’m so glad it mentioned two books for children I’ve recommended to, and bought for, others before. Parents who are reading this, be sure to get them for your children! They are The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible. The unique thing about these two books isn’t in their pictures or words. It’s in their content. The subtitle of the first book is Every Story whispers His Name. In every story, it’s clearly explained how it relates to Jesus and His finished work. Children reading it will thus understand that the Bible isn’t about helping us to be better Christians, but about Jesus and His death and resurrection.
Because I think it’s so beautiful and true, let me quote the beginning pages of The Jesus Storybook Bible:
Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.
No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!
…There are lots of stories in the bible but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.
It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle – the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together; and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.
I’ll finish with excerpts from the book on how the stories of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11), of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 22) and of Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 37-46) end. Notice how every story whispers Jesus’ name:
Tower of Babel: You see, God knew, however high they reached, however hard they tried, people could never get back to heaven by themselves. People didn’t need a staircase; they needed a Rescuer. Because the way back to heaven wasn’t a staircase; it was a Person.
People could never reach up to Heaven, so Heaven would have to come down to them.
And, one day, it would.
Abraham and Isaac: Many years later, another Son would climb another hill, carrying wood on his back. Like Isaac, he would trust his Father and do what his Father asked. He wouldn’t struggle or run away.
Who was he? God’s Son, his only Son – the Son he loved.
The Lamb of God.
Joseph and his brothers: One day, God would send another Prince, a young Prince whose heart would break. Like Joseph, he would leave his home and his Father. His brothers would hate him and want him dead. He would be sold for pieces of silver. He would be punished even though he had done nothing wrong.
But God would use everything that happened to this young Prince – even the bad things – to do something good: to forgive the sins of the whole world.
Isn’t it so beautiful when we read all the stories in the Old Testament as primarily pointing to the gospel of Jesus Christ? When we see these stories not primarily as instructions on what to do and what not to do in order to please God and be good Christians, but primarily as stories pointing to the Big Love Story of the Father sending His one and only Son to rescue us from us sins, our hearts cannot but be encouraged and moved. And I think if more Sunday Schools were to teach the Bible like this, more children would be established in the love of God in Christ and grow up understanding what Christianity is truly all about.
PS: Another good children’s book written from a redemptive-historical perspective (i.e. one that focuses on God’s redemption plan in Jesus Christ) like the above two mentioned books is Mighty Acts of God: A Family Bible Story Book.