Hi there, parents and teachers! (Kids, you can skip the boring grown-up talk and go to your own introduction on the next page).
Let’s get straight down to business: we’ve been getting the story of Jesus all wrong, and I think it’s killing our own walk with Jesus and our efforts to disciple our kids.
Sound harsh? Let me back up and explain. If your experience of growing up in the church was anything like mine, you probably remember Sunday School lessons with flannelgraph and cheesy songs and little moral lessons. Don’t get me wrong: flannelgraph is a brilliant invention, and I love cheesy songs (I’m the cheesiest person I know, just ask my wife). And lessons in morality are important. But the way I learned the Bible was mostly as a story of lessons with a moral point: David trusted God, so I should trust God. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and that’s bad, so I should obey God. Jesus loved people, so I should love people.
Now those are all true points, and valid applications of Scripture. Jesus did love people, and 1 John 4:19 says that’s why I should love people too. But in presenting the stories of Scripture as primarily moral lessons, what happened inadvertently was that the gospel ended up getting reversed. And the grand, unifying point of the Bible was no longer “This is what God has done for you in Christ.” Instead, it somehow became, “This is how you should live.”
I don’t think anybody set out to mess up my theology. Most of my Sunday School teachers were, I’m sure, godly people who loved Jesus. But somehow, without anyone ever intending it, this moralism had just become the default atmosphere of children’s ministry. And as I’ve talked to people, and visited churches, I’ve realized that this wasn’t my unique experience. This is how most people were taught the Bible: as a set of rules, and a collection of stories telling us to be better. Somehow, somewhere along the line, we got everything backwards.
Is it any wonder, then, that studies show that up to 70% of our young people, when they graduate high school, leave the church and don’t return—if they return at all—until they are married with children? The reason our kids are leaving is not because they didn’t learn how to be good; it’s because their hearts were never captured by the greatness and glory of Jesus Christ. We’ve made the goal of parenting and children’s ministry the goodness of our kids rather than the glory of Jesus wrecking and remaking their lives.
It’s not that it’s wrong to teach our children to obey God or to love others. Those are in fact important lessons. But our children are wired from birth as legalists and world-lovers, ingrained down to their DNA. And so all our efforts as parents and teachers and Sunday school teachers—whatever form children’s discipleship takes in your season of life—must be bent towards shaking them loose from their legalism with the radical grace of the gospel and wooing them from their world-loving with the superior joy of knowing Jesus.
That’s the point of the quadruple portrait of Jesus in the gospels: not simply that we would learn to live better, but that the glory of Jesus would shine off the pages and pierce our hearts with his matchless beauty. All true Christian transformation starts there. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into his likeness,” 2 Corinthians 3:18 says. Beholding is becoming; the more we look, the more we become like.
That’s the intention of this book. The book starts with an assortment of Jesus’ miracles and parables so that we would wowed by the utter uniqueness of the God-man. And then, beginning with the Christmas story and moving chronologically through the life of Christ, we see the unveiling of the gospel as the humble King moves relentlessly towards the cross and empty tomb.
A couple notes on how to read this book: I’ve tried to write in a way that would be accessible and helpful for elementary and middle schoolers, but the book is probably helpful in different ways to different age groups. For middle schoolers, this might be an effective tool for independent devotional time. For elementary kids, I envision adults reading this to them. I’ve kept each chapter brief so that this could work as a family or classroom devotional. I’ve also included the entire biblical text of each story, because I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that my retelling of the story of Jesus is more engaging than the Bible itself. The Word of God is the real story, and it’s only the Word of God that really has the power to change hearts and lives. My storytelling and exposition is merely an attempt to shine a light back onto the biblical text so that we could see more clearly the glory that is there. So don’t skip the biblical text at the beginning of the chapter: that’s where all the glory is.
A final note on a theme you’ll start to pick up on: I’ve deliberately highlighted one of the primary themes of the gospels, in particular the gospel of Matthew: that Jesus is the long-awaited King. The point of all his miracles is not merely a demonstration of his power, but rather an unveiling of the kind of kingdom he is bringing, and the type of king he is. You’ll see that again and again in these stories, and the point I’m trying to make to kids is really the same point that the gospels are trying to make: isn’t Jesus a great king, and don’t you want to be a part of his kingdom?
Because after all, isn’t that the truth that first drew us into the kingdom, and what we’re praying will capture the hearts of our kids? Jesus is a great king. And his already-present and still-coming kingdom is a great kingdom. Come on in.