Teaching Bible Stories

By David Chilton

I listened with my four-year-old son to a talk that claimed to be a historical synopsis of the early chapters of Genesis on a child’s level. Within a few minutes, the narrator had reached the creation of Adam, and this is what he said, “Do you know why God made Adam? So he could have someone to talk to.”

I asked Nathan, “Is that really why God made Adam?”

“No,” he replied, “God made Adam for his own glory.” He thought a minute and continued, “That man doesn’t know very much about the Bible, does he? Why is he a teacher?”

One might respond that the talk was designed for children, not a seminary class. It doesn’t have to be theologically correct. That innocent-looking sentence contains the fundamental basis of all false doctrines and apostate religions: the notion that God needs man. It presents in reality a false god, a “God” who is lonely without man. Consider what Scripture tells us about the true God. “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isaiah 40:17). Could there be greater contrast?

But the Bible stories contained another error which was just as serious, as far as the child’s understanding of the Bible and nature of salvation is concerned. I suppose one way to state my objection is that the stories are just stories. They do not truly reveal Christ. The stories in the Bible are components of one history. They are not moralistic fables about the adventures of certain individuals who lived long ago. The Bible is about Jesus Christ. It is the history of the revelation of his redemptive plan and its fulfillment in him.

God didn’t take the trouble to record the story of Jacob’s ladder simply to give us an enjoyable children’s ditty. The revelation of the ladder took place in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, and was the revelation of the Son of God (John 1:51). If a story is ripped out of its biblical context and turned into an adventure story that centers on the individual who receives the revelation, its content as revelation is lost.

How, then, should you teach Bible stories? The best way to learn is by seeing how a really excellent teacher does it. One such teacher is S. G. DeGraaf, the Dutch theologian who authored Promise and Deliverance. He wrote this book specifically for Sunday school and Christian school teachers. It is a masterpiece, and yet, it is written in a very simple, easy-to-understand manner.

DeGraaf observes in his introduction: “Our aim in telling Bible history ought to be the same as God’s purpose in recording it for us in his word. God had the stories recorded ‘in order that we might believe.’ Accordingly, even in grade school, this aim must be kept in mind when imparting knowledge. It makes no difference at all that the children in your classroom already believe. In their case, too, the story is told to evoke faith, to deepen and broaden it.”

DeGraaf points out three requirements that we must keep in mind whenever we tell Bible stories. First, “we are to view the entire Holy Scripture as nothing more or less than the self-revelation of God.” This means that when we tell the story of Joseph, for instance, we must not focus on Joseph himself as the main figure in the story. The story is, instead, the story of God’s revelation to and preservation of his people. “Such an emphasis,” says DeGraaf, “teaches children to fear the Lord instead of looking to Joseph as a moral example.”

Second, God reveals himself as the Mediator. DeGraaf says, “We will always have a great deal of trouble explaining the history in Scripture if we do not proceed from the Mediator’s eager efforts to reveal himself.” The point is not that we should disregard the various individuals in the particular stories. It is that we are to see these people in their proper context: their stories are told in God’s word, and God’s word is God’s word—not man’s—in which God reveals Christ.

Third, too often the emphasis in our teaching falls on God’s saving this or that individual, rather than on God’s relationship to his people as a whole. As DeGraaf says about the story of Joseph, “The main point of that story is not what God meant to Joseph, but what he meant to his people through Joseph, a people whose development was just beginning in the tents of Jacob. God always draws near to his people as a whole—never just to individuals.”

Now, having said all that is not to have said everything there is to say about teaching Bible stories. The basic perspectives given here must be fleshed out in terms of the particulars of the stories we are teaching. Nothing I have said is meant to imply that we should treat our teaching of the stories as lectures in theology. If anything, lectures in biblical theology ought to resemble a storytime! As the Dutch storyteller reminds us, “As we tell a story, it should come alive; it should draw the children in and get them involved. The children should get wrapped up not just in the adventures of certain people but especially in the historical unfolding of God’s self-revelation and man’s response to it. We must tell the children of God’s great deeds.”

Writer: David Chilton

Publisher: Joel Belz

Editor: Norman W. Bomer

Published by God's World Publications Inc., Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802

Used by permission.