Much has been said in recent years about teaching the Old Testament from a distinctly Christian perspective — seeing Jesus and the Gospel in all of Scripture. But in this video, John Piper raises an important concern about turning this perspective into a type of simplistic interpretative formula. He says,
… the danger in making a beeline to the cross too quickly and too methodically and regularly is, number one, it'll start to sound artificial. It'll start to sound monotonous. It'll start to be fanciful, because you'll come up with really clever ways of doing things that aren't really there and it'll keep you from seeing important things that are there.
I believe Pastor John’s concern needs thoughtful consideration. I fully share his appreciation for the renewal of Gospel-focused preaching and teaching in the church. As a Sunday school teacher and parent, I experienced firsthand the gospel-less, deadly moralism that characterized so much of children’s Bible curriculum. But with this wonderful renewed focus on Christ and the Gospel, comes a new pitfall we need to avoid when teaching children.
Piper’s example of Elisha and Naaman serves as an excellent example. We need to give our children and students the proper Bible study tools so that they can dig deep into the text — mining it for its treasures. This takes time. It takes step-by-step training. But by doing so, we are giving our children a priceless gift; a gift that will serve them for a lifetime and will provide a wonderfully rich foundation for making them wise for salvation through faith in Christ.
At Truth78, we structure our lessons to foster these essential Bible study tools. We slowly and carefully lead children to discover the meaning of the text — asking questions, looking at context, drawing conclusions, etc. Once we’ve done that, we then point the students toward Christian application. In a lesson on Elisha and Naaman we might ask: What does this story tell us about God’s character? What do we learn about man’s heart? How does the text apply to your own heart and life? Do you ever have a proud spirit? What does this look like? Is this pleasing to God? Why not? Has God provided us with an even greater blessing than physical healing? What is it? What does God call us to do in order to receive salvation through Jesus? etc.
This approach is more time-consuming in the classroom. And it requires teachers and parents to take the long view: We’re introducing children to the God of the Bible — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We're helping build a solid Gospel foundation beneath them. We're helping them learn to mine the immeasurable riches of the Word of God for a lifetime. We’re doing this because we want them to be able to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
We may not be making a beeline to Jesus and the cross in every lesson, but we are diligently training children as we acquaint them “with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
As we teach the whole Bible, we pray the children in our classrooms and in our family rooms will be made wise for salvation so that they may, like Timothy, be faithful to continue in faith.
To learn more about our approach to teaching the whole Bible, please see these resources:
The Great Story and the Single Verse by John Piper
Video Transcript (lightly edited) You asked whether every lesson needs to be a Jesus lesson. Like if you're in the Old Testament with Elisha, does it always have to go to the cross? That was the gist of the question. And it’s the same with preaching. I just wrote a book on preaching and I'm concerned about this. The Gospel Coalition is evidence of a renewal of gospel focus in the church and a lot of pastors think you've got to get to the gospel even if you're preaching on tithing or something. I would say the danger in making a beeline to the cross too quickly and too methodically and regularly is, number one, it'll start to sound artificial. It'll start to sound monotonous. It'll start to be fanciful, because you'll come up with really clever ways of doing things that aren't really there and it'll keep you from seeing important things that are there.
Let me give me give a quick illustration right off my front burners. I'm reading through the Bible, and this morning I’m reading in 2nd Kings 4 and 5, the story of Elisha and the leper Naaman, and Gehazi. Here's the gist of the story. This little servant girl says, “You should go to Israel and get the Prophet Elisha to heal you from your leprosy, Naaman.” And he goes to his king [of Syria], and the king writes a letter to the king [of Israel], and sends Naaman, and the king [of Israel] says, “I'm not God that I can heal this leprosy” – which gives you a clue what the story is about – and Elisha hears that, and he goes to the king and says, “I'll show him there's a God in Israel.”
Now that's the point of the story: “I'll show him there's a God in Israel. Tell him to come to me.” He goes to him; Elisha won't even go out the door. He sends a messenger out to tell this big shot from Syria, “Go wash in the Jordan, see you later.” This guy's ticked and he will not go. Now I think we ought to teach kids “pride keeps you from getting blessings.” I think that's in the text and intentional, because his sidekicks argue, “Look, he's asking you just a little simple thing. Would you just humble yourself and do it?” And when he comes up out of the water, it says his skin is like the skin of a child. This is about childlikeness receiving blessings from God.
So that's lesson one that you might miss if you say, “He got washed in the Jordan from leprosy; Jesus will wash you from a worse disease,” end of lesson. Not a good way to end the lesson and miss all the points.
Here's the second point: As soon as he sees he's clean, Elijah says, “I'm not taking any money for this. We don't sell good news here.” Now you're going to talk about gospel preachers on television with these kids, ok? “We don't sell we don't sell the gospel. I'm not taking anything from you — you go back and worship the true God.” Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, says, “that’s crazy,” and he runs after him and says, “My master said he did, by the way, want some clothing and some of your silver.” And he says, “Oh sure, give it to him.” And when he goes back, Elisha says to him, “Did you think this was a time for getting silver and clothing?” And Gehazi had leprosy for the rest of his life.
Greed. Greed and pride. The story is about greed and pride. And if we run to the cross from the dipping in the river, before we see the point of the story, and tell these kids, “You’ve got to be childlike, you’ve got to be humble, if you're gonna know God, you've got to not love money, and if you know preachers who preach for money, they're not real preachers.” You’ve got to say that. Now when you're done you can say – I mean the three songs you sang at the beginning of Sunday school might have been all about Jesus. That may be all you need. We’re about Jesus every weekend in this room. Nothing comes to you but with Jesus – if you say, “How do you become humble? How do you become free from greed?” Then you dig into sanctification, and the cross, and the blood, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and the glory of the Father.
So my caution with that movement, in preaching on Sunday morning, and in teaching kids is – there's a real good impulse behind it because we're not mere Jews and we're not mere Muslims, therefore we shouldn't read our Old Testaments and interpret them in a way that a Muslim and a Jew would be happy with our interpretation. Which means we've got to be Christian. And so you do get there. But how you get there – please, don't miss the awesomeness of Deuteronomy or 2nd Kings.