Tag Archives: Children’s Bible Education

Laying the Foundations of Faith for our Children

Deuteronomy 11:18-19.  “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.”  When God commanded that His  words  be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch.  God fully intends for us to teach the Books of the Law to our children, and I believe those five fundamental books were meant to be taught to them first.  After all, He gave them to His own children first.  The Pentateuch is the foundation of all His revelation to mankind.  And yet, three out the five books are rarely taught to . . . . I started to write “to children”, but honestly, they are rarely taught to anyone who isn’t Jewish.  Even the first two are taught in a hit and miss fashion, leaving out whatever is difficult or “boring”.

There are several possible reasons for this lack in the Christian church.  One is the mistaken belief that, because we now have the New Testament, the Old Testament is obsolete.  But God gave the Old Testament to His people to prepare them for what was to come in the New Covenant.  It is arrogance to assume we are better than our forefathers and don’t need the revelations that were given to them. To try to fully understand the New Testament without any understanding of the Old  is to attempt to plant our faith in untilled soil.  The plants may grow, but they will be stunted, malformed, malnourished, weak.  The Old Testament is the plow and the fertilizer, preparing the soil of our hearts to receive the full bounty of the seed of the New.

A second reason for the neglect of the Pentateuch is a misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of the Law itself.  No one was ever saved by the Law.  The books of the Law serve as a mirror that we hold up to ourselves to see the lack within our souls.  Tip the mirror a bit, and there is Christ Himself, standing at our shoulder, waiting for us to notice Him.  The Pentateuch is filled with pictures of Jesus, if we only care to look.  The entire Old Testament describes God’s character and His plan for His creation, including His plan to send the Messiah.  We miss so much of the heart of God by bypassing the bulk of His Word to us, the first and second courses of His carefully planned dinner, and going straight for the dessert at the end of the meal.

A lamentable, tragic reason for many who refuse to study the books of the Law is simple prejudice.  Early on, the Christian church had striven to separate itself from its Jewish roots.  It did such a good job of it, that it comes as a great surprise to many believers to learn that the Christ they worship is Jewish.  To fully understand the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, one must have a fundamental understanding of Judaism.  But most Christians don’t have this knowledge, and many don’t care to acquire it.  How it grieves the heart of our Savior when His own people reject the forerunners of their faith.  It is the scorning of an older brother by a younger brother, and the Father of both longs for reconciliation between them.  But after persecuting the older brother for centuries, it is the responsibility of the younger brother to move towards that reconciliation, first by seeking understanding and knowledge of the truth, then by reaching out in love and gratitude to those who gave us our Messiah.

But admittedly, a difficulty in accessing the true worth of the Old Testament is a language and cultural barrier that has grown greater as the years have separated us from those first faithful men who saw and recorded the works of God at the beginning.  The Books of the Law were not written in a vacuum:  they were written in a specific language to a specific group of people at a specific time in history.  It is imperative to come to an understanding of this language, this people, this history,  in order to fully comprehend the Scriptures.  The cultural divide is easily recognized and easily surmounted:  there are many books devoted to educating minds trained in the thought processes of modern western civilization in the understanding of ancient Middle Eastern thought and cultural practices.  I can recommend many, easily accessible books to any who are interested in furthering and deepening their understanding of Scripture.  The language divide is less easily understood and overcome.  The most basic way to enter into a real understanding of Hebrew Scripture would be, of course, to learn to read Hebrew.  But anyone can begin the process of understanding Jewish thought by simply acknowledging that the Bible was not originally written in English and that no translation can ever completely and effectively convey the original meanings of the text.  The problem is not just that they are two different languages.  It is that English is a modern language and Hebrew is an ancient one.

I’m about to get technical, so please bear with me!  Modern languages in developed countries have huge vocabularies with many synonyms conveying various and subtle shades of meaning.  We who use a language of modern thought have been trained by our vocabularies to differentiate our thinking, to categorize our thought processes, to separate the literal meaning from the metaphorical.  For example, if I said, “the light came on”, you would want to know the context of my statement in order to determine whether I meant a physical light or a symbolic light.  In ancient languages, this barrier is unknown.  The symbolic and the literal meanings are one and the same.  Ancient minds, wiser than our own, were able to hold several different meanings in one thought without difficulty.  Their vocabularies were smaller, much smaller, but their ability to convey meaning was much greater, far deeper.  Hebrew is an ancient language rich in symbolic meaning.  Each word is in itself a little story, and using a particular word means using that story to express a complete thought.  You can see, then, the inherent problems of a  literal translation of Hebrew Scripture into English.  Every word would need its own explanation in order to completely explain the meaning behind it.

But take heart, English speakers!  There is a way to overcome these problems.  Using a good concordance, any English-speaking Christian can come to understand the Scriptures as it was meant to be read. It takes more time and effort, but the result is so very worthwhile.  To encourage you to give it a try, I’ll give you an example.  The word “Amen” is one of the most commonly used religious words in the Christian vocabulary.  But what does it really mean?  If you look it up in a Bible dictionary, you will find that it means “truth”, or “let it be true”.  But if you go back to the root meaning of this wonderful Hebrew word, it means “doorway”.  Think about that a minute.  I might say “God is good”, and you might reply, “Amen”.  To say “Amen” means to pray God will allow you to walk through the doorway of what has been said, in this case “God is good”, and enter into the truth of it.  Here’s another example:  The word “Atonement” is of major importance to Christian theology.  But what does it mean?  In Hebrew, it is the same word that is used to describe the pitch or tar with which Noah covered his ark in order to waterproof it.   The word in Hebrew means literally “to cover” or “covering”, but it paints a picture of a thick, sticky substance used as a covering of protection.  The Hebrews would have used this everyday word much as we might use the noun or verb “paint”.  It was not a religious word to them, but a common one.  To tell them that the blood of the sacrifice would atone for their sins “painted” a picture for them of the blood literally covering them to protect them.  Am I the only one who thinks this is really cool?

As people of the Book, we really can’t get away with just perusing the Bible as if it were a novel.  We must study it, using the tools we have available to us to help us gain a deeper understanding of the truth God so earnestly desires us to walk in.  We must make good use of these tools to help us teach our children the foundational truths of the Pentateuch and then the entire Old Testament.  And believe me, I know from experience:  kids love this stuff!  Just give them a chance to learn and they will devour the Word with enthusiasm.


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The Need to Read

“We all need literature that is above our measure–though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time.  But the energy of youth is usually greater.  Youth needs, then, less than adulthood, what is down to its (supposed) measure. . . .Therefore do not write down to Children or to anybody.  Not even in language.  .  .  . An honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.  A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group.  It comes from reading books above one.”

The above quote is from a letter written by author J. R. R. Tolkien, a man known best for his fantasy novels.  His book The Lord of the Rings was voted by scholars as the most important book of the 20th century.  But Tolkien’s main calling in life and chief identity was as an educator and philologist.  As Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then as Professor of English Language at Oxford; as one of the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary; and as the author of a number of influential treatise on language and writing, he was one of the leading authorities in English language education in his day.  He also knew 26 other languages, not counting the ones he invented himself.  In other words, I believe he knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching children language.

It is estimated that there are nearly three quarters of a million words in the English language, and that number is growing all the time.  But studies show that even well educated people in America tend to know less than 20,000 of those words, and that the average American uses only about 2,000 words in everyday conversation.   Why is this?  English is one of the richest, most versatile languages currently in use, but we utilize only a fraction of its incredible vocabulary.  I submit two possible reasons, each related to the other.

First, we speak down to our children; and read down to them, too.  Instead of helping them to increase their vocabulary, we encourage them to use only small, “simple” words.  My question is, who decided which words would be considered “simple”?  When a child is born, he knows no words at all.  Every word is equally new to him.  And he is born hard-wired to absorb language at an incredible rate.  He can and will learn any word that is directed to him in context.  It doesn’t matter if the words have one or five syllables:  he can learn to recognize them and understand them.  I am not, of course, implying that a baby can speak complex words;  but that is a physical, not a cognitive problem, and one he will grow out of swiftly.  The child may not be able to pronounce the words, but that does not mean he cannot understand them.  The point is to use words in everyday interactions so as to introduce them in proper context.  As the child grows older, he can be encouraged to ask the meanings of the new words he encounters and can be taught to discern the meanings of unfamiliar words through the overall meaning of the sentence in which it is used.  This is equally true in verbal communication and in literature.  Reading books that stretch and exercise the child’s cognitive abilities will have the same effect on his mind that fresh air and physical activity will have on his growing body.  Unfortunately, Americans in general no longer encourage their children to read good books.  Looking through the stacks of the local library will reveal shelf-loads of drivel written for children’s consumption, all written with a certain age group in mind and an artificially curtailed vocabulary meant to suit that age group.  Americans do not speak to their children as if they were intelligent human beings.  They talk down to them as if they believe children to be subnormal or incapable of learning normal speech.

I offer an example from my own children’s lives.  I ask my friends’ indulgence, as anyone who knows me well has surely already heard this story a number of times.  But it is a perfect anecdote to illustrate my point.  When my daughter Freya was seven years old, our washing machine broke down.  We had to gather up our five or six baskets of laundry and head to nearest laundromat for what I knew would surely be an adventure encompassing the entire afternoon.  Accordingly, I brought some of Freya’s schoolwork with us so that we could pass the time in useful pursuits.  I set her up on a folding table with math problems to solve, and proceeded to fill five washing machines.  Just then, she discovered the vending machines and loudly requested a snack.  I called back to her, “Whether you get a treat is contingent upon how quickly you finish your schoolwork.”  Instantly, a middle-aged harridan swooped across the room at me and cried, “How dare you speak to that child that way?”  I was bewildered, and not a little angry!  Was this woman objecting to my withholding treats from my child?  She went on, “How do you expect the kid to understand you when you use words like ‘contingent’?  I don’t even know what that means!”  Apparently I was guilty of child abuse by using a word of more than one syllable.  Many retorts came to mind, including one that questioned her innate intelligence and another that questioned her right to insert herself into my business.  Instead, I turned to Freya and asked, “Did you understand what I meant by “contingent’?”  “Not exactly,” my seven-year-old replied, “but I figured it out from the context.”  My assaulting harridan turned red and slunk away.

Of course, my children are more intelligent than any others on earth.  But that’s besides the point.  Any child can learn to discern  the meanings of new words by placing them in context.  The best way to teach them to do this is to read good books to them.  Many Americans make the mistake of reading to their children only until they are able to read for themselves.  We must continue to read to our children until they are at least 10 or 11 years old.  And the books we read to them should be well-written and contain a vocabulary that will challenge them.  For example, I read The Lord of the Rings to my son when he was nine.  He devoured it, and before he turned ten, he was ready for The Silmarillion, a book many adults have a hard time wading through.   I believe every  eight- or nine-year-old should read, or have read to him, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, and other books of the same caliber.

This brings me to the second reason I believe our working American vocabulary is so pitifully small.  Adults don’t read good books, either.  Many of the modern novels that seem to be popular have inferior vocabularies and simplified sentence structures.  Some are so badly written they are actually detrimental rather than otherwise.  Adults in America seem unable to rise to the challenge of “reading above their measure”, as Tolkien puts it.  Whether out of sheer laziness or from a shortened attention span, most Americans cannot bring themselves to read good books.  And so they impoverish themselves, satisfied with the crusts of cultural experience and deliberately avoiding the meat and potatoes, the nourishing fruits, and the rich delicacies that our amazing body of English literature freely offers anyone who desires the best.  Our children learn from this example and so grow up so starved and so ignorant of all that is available to them that they cannot see the abundance that they could possess if they would only reach out and take it.

Why is it important to increase one’s vocabulary?  Why does reading good books enrich us both mentally and spiritually?  The fact is, humans are virtually incapable of thinking about ideas for which they have no words.  A limited vocabulary means a limited ability to think and reason.  Limited reading material means limited access to ideas and experiences.  It also means having to make do with an inadequate vocabulary to try to express complex thoughts.  There is a reason there are so many synonyms in the English language; each individual word carried a slightly different shade of meaning.  To illustrate:  the other day I was sitting in on my daughter’s art lesson, and the teacher was showing them how to prepare a canvas using a wash of burnt sienna.  She objected to the use of burnt umber or raw umber, insisting on burnt sienna as the best color to use for this purpose.  Now, I would have looked at all three of these colors and called them “brown”.  However, even my unpracticed eye could detect the differences in these three shades of brown, although I could not have explained what made them different.  For an artist, however, the use of exact words to describe the exact shade of color desired helps to circumvent all manner of misunderstanding.  Can you imagine if we only had the word “brown” to describe every shade of brown?  “Now class, use your brown paint to make the wash for your canvas.  No, that brown is too orange.  It must be more yellowish.  No, that’s not quite it, either.  Less red and more black.  No, no, that was too much black.”  It could take years to rediscover the color called “burnt sienna”, with each student having to recreate it every time it was needed.  There are shades of meanings in every word we use, not just the words for colors.  If I said I had a “good” time this weekend, I would have conveyed no information whatsoever.  Did I have a pleasant time?  Or was it unpleasant but informative?  Interesting? Life-altering?  Or was it simply restful? Peaceful?  Or busy? Satisfying?  Useful?  The more words we have at our disposal, the more accurately we can convey information and the more productive our thinking will become.  We should be diligent to equip our children with a vocabulary they can use for a lifetime of thinking, speaking, and reading well.


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Teaching Revelation to Children: Introduction

When the time came for me to write lessons for the children of our church based on the book of Revelation, I admit, I was intimidated.  There are so many different ways of interpreting this book, and I don’t feel it’s right to advance one interpretation as more valid than another, since there is simply no way for us to know all the answers until the prophecies actually come true.  I felt inadequate to the task–until I started actually reading the book!  There are so many cool visuals in Revelation that kids can appreciate and enjoy.  Now I wonder why there are so few teaching aids available based on this terrific book.  Kids love to see pictures of monsters and dragons and such wonders of God!  Somebody out there who can draw needs to do a picture book for children based on Revelation!  Anyway, here’s what I came up with for Revelation chapter 4.

While John the Apostle was in prison on the island of Patmos, God gave him a wonderful vision.  John looked up and saw the door to heaven was open and a voice invited him to come in.  What would you do if God invited you to come visit Him in heaven?  Well, John didn’t even have a choice; one minute he was in his prison on the Isle of Patmos and the next minute he was in heaven standing before the throne of God.  God said that John was to witness events that will take place in the future and write them down for all believers to read.
John was in the difficult position of having to describe the indescribable.  How do you explain what God looks like?  God is a Spirit, not a physical being with a body.  So the best John could do was describe God as colors.  He said that the person on the throne was like “jasper and carnelian”.  These are two kinds of jewels.  Jasper is kind of like a diamond and carnelian is kind of like a ruby.  The clear, brilliant diamond color reminds us of God’s holiness.  The red, shiny, ruby color reminds us of the blood of Jesus that purchased our salvation.  Both jewels are transparent–you can see right through them.  God doesn’t hide anything about Himself.  He can’t lie or deceive.  He’s all right there for us to see.  Both jewels reflect light.  God IS light–the light of truth, shining so brightly that we can see everything as it truly is.
John says that a rainbow of emerald circled the throne of God.  This is not the half-circle rainbow we see here on earth.  The circle is complete, symbolizing eternity.  A circle has no beginning and no end, just like God.  What color is an emerald?  It’s green.  The green of the emerald reminds us of creation and growth.  God created everything, and in the end He will re-create everything.  He will make everything new again.
From beneath God’s throne, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled and crashed.  God’s great and awesome power is under His control, but it’s there nevertheless, ready to break out any moment! Before the throne was spread a sea of glass, clear as water but still and peaceful.
Surrounding the throne were 24 thrones with 24 elders seated in them.  We don’t know who these “elders” are, but we do know that 24 is two twelves.  Twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel and the number of Jesus’ disciples.  Perhaps the twelve disciples were seated on half of these thrones and the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel were seated on the other half.  All we know for certain is that these elders were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.  They were pure and holy, dressed in the holiness of Christ Himself and crowned with His goodness.  Also before the throne were seven burning lamps, which John says are the seven Spirits of God that perform His works.  He doesn’t explain this statement at all, but we know that seven is the number of perfection.  All of God’s works are perfect.
The strangest thing of all that John saw, in my opinion, were the four living creatures who stood before God’s throne, constantly worshiping Him. These were the cherubim, intelligent beings with four faces each and covered with eyes.  They each had one face like a man’s, one face like an eagle’s, one face like a lion’s, and one face like an ox’s.  Each being also had six wings.  John says they have eyes all over their bodies, even under their wings.  They must be able to see everything!  It’s hard to imagine beings like that, isn’t it?  They sound kind of scary, like monsters.   But God created them to worship Him, and they do a good job!  John says that “day and night they never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come.’”  These creatures give glory, honor and thanks to God constantly without stopping, for ever and ever.  I might be afraid of these beings when I see them for myself, but I think I will also love them for the wonderful songs they sing to God.  I think they are singing to God in my place, and in your place, and in the place of every created being on earth.  I think that’s what the four faces are about: the man’s face represents all the humans who ever lived; the eagle’s face represents all the birds ever created; the lion’s face stands for all the wild beasts ever made; and the ox’s face represents all the domesticated animals that ever lived.  These cherubim, with all these faces, worship God in our place, since we aren’t there to do it for ourselves.
John then tries to describe a great worship service that takes place before the throne.  As the four living creatures continue their forever-song, the 24 elders rise from their 24 thrones and fall on their faces before God, laying their golden crowns at His feet.  And they all sing this wonderful song together:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being.”
Just think what it will be like, when we can stand before God’s throne ourselves and join in with the songs of praise!  Won’t it be beautiful?


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Out of the Mouths of Babes

An eight year old child had the courage  to stand up in church and speak when our pastor asked if anyone had anything to share.  She told of a dream she’d had.  It was an abstract dream filled with symbolic imagery, and she wanted to know what it meant.  We have an amazing church body:  her dream and her request were taken as seriously as any grown-up’s.  We prayed for an interpretation, and it was not long in coming.  I will not go into what the dream was or what it meant in this venue.  But it was meaningful and relevant to everyone present and I am so thankful that our people in our little church body have learned what children are capable of.

Unfortunately, it is a lesson most of America has yet to learn.  Just a few days ago, I received a “learning chart” during a teachers’ training session which outlined what children are able to learn at what ages.  I wanted to pull out my hair and scream.  We short-change our children in this country because we’ve bought into the myth that children are incapable of learning until it’s too late to teach them.  By the time our schools, and yes, even our churches get around to teaching deeper truths and thinking skills, the prime time for learning these things has passed.

From where did this insidious belief that children are not capable of abstract thought until they have reached puberty come?  I have no idea.  Certainly it was not invented by anyone who has ever actually spoken to a child!  Children are born hard-wired for abstraction!  This is the reason, as everyone knows, that the younger the child, the easier it is to teach him languages.  What is language but mutually acknowledged symbols in a given culture?  What is an alphabet but a series of symbols associated with certain sounds?  And what is make-believe but highly abstracted thinking?  Our children are being encouraged to be stupid by our society’s refusal to train their natural abilities at the optimum age.  Instead of teaching them what they need to know, we set them in front of a TV and let them learn to have short attention spans.  We send them to school at ever-younger ages but do not allow the schools to teach them what they are capable of learning until that capability is gone.  I offer the most obvious example of this: teaching foreign languages in high school.  By the time a child has reached puberty, the optimum age for learning language has passed.  But we refuse to “inflict” such learning upon children until they are just old enough to be frustrated by it.

The most frustrating aspect of this cultural mentally to me personally is that this thinking has permeated Christian education.  Children are taught the same, tired watered-down Sunday School lessons over and over until they are old enough to have learned that the Bible is boring and irrelevant.  Just how many times can we teach a child, for example, about Noah’s ark (emphasis on cute, furry animals) without actually getting into the horror and tragedy of the story?  This story is told with all the realism of a fairy tale without the symbolic language, leaving out the most important points: mainly, that the ark itself, while perfectly real, was also a symbol of Christ.  Then when they are older,  we try to get them to study the Bible on a higher level, usually when they are teens.  By that time, they have passed the age of easily grasping abstract thought and must be taught how to think abstractly again.  Many times, these teens have not the patience to relearn such skills, or are not able to do so.  The deep symbology of the Scripture is lost on them.

Children have so much potential.  God has built into them the ability to learn and grow at an amazing rate early in their lives.  We squander His gifts to our children by our neglect of them.  We should be encouraging our children to be “seen and heard” in our churches.  We should be taking them seriously, listening to them, giving them opportunities to serve and take part in the body.  Most of all, we should be teaching them from the cradle the things of God.  ALL the things of God, not edited, prettified versions of the things of God.  I have previously posted my recommendations on how to teach young children theology in this blog, specifically in my first two offerings: “Teach Your Children Well–Even the Little Ones” and “Teaching Theology to Children.”  I hope to hear the ideas of others who teach children.  We need to spread the word!

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