The Bible calls Christians “disciples.” The word means student, trainee or apprentice. Christians are Christ’s apprentices. Our trade is living. That is to say, living life the way God designed it to work. A Christian is a person who is born again. We are new creatures. God’s Holy Spirit enables and empowers believers to relearn life. Jesus teaches us how to live in God’s world, God’s way, as God’s image, for God’s glory. He does that through the Bible, which is God’s personal words to us—“the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Without the Bible we are drifting through life making it up as we go along. Without the Bible we are lost in our own fantasies and wishful thinking. Everyone is aware that they are caught in a world that they do not control—a world that doesn’t make sense. Truth, justice, right and wrong, become unstable matters of opinion. Death is thought to be the end, except at funerals. Life seems pointless. It is not surprising that people become anxious or depressed. Mental health is a major challenge across the whole fabric of our communities.
Getting life right doesn’t mean prosperity and peace. It is about a life that is of eternal significance. It is ultimately about standing before God, our heavenly Father. We know we got life right when the Father says, “Well done” (Matthew 25:21, 23; Luke 19:17). That can only happen through faith in Christ, and the commitment to humbly learn from him how to do life.
Loving parents want their children to get life right. Teenagers struggle to work through the big decisions that set the course for their one shot at life. All of us at some point look back and reflect on our choices that resulted in the life we have lived. We know that we weren’t always wise. We know people who wasted their lives. We know people whose lives were damaged, or even demolished, by the choices of others. We also know people whose lives were restored and renewed.
God designed his creation to work, and to do so beautifully. Adam thought he had a better idea. Since then human beings have been vandalising themselves (the image of God), their relationships, God’s creation, and God’s reputation. It’s called sin, and it is always irrational and self-destructive. The only way to get life right is to know Christ.
God has given the world the opportunity to make an informed choice. He revealed himself and his plan of salvation through people and events over hundreds of years. He came to us in the flesh. He took our place on the cross. The sentence of death fell on him, and not on those who turn to him. He rose again, defeating death, and now rules as man and God. He gives back to his people the dignity and life that Adam threw away. That new life starts the moment we commit to Christ, and it continues for all eternity.
God ensured that what he has to say to us was written down for future generations. These revealed things are “for us and for our children” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Without them we are all lost in a very big place without any purpose, direction, or idea as to how to make life work. God sent his people out to pass his words on to every nation, tribe and language group. He told his disciples to make this the focus of their life’s work (Matthew 28:18—20).
There is an urgency to this task. Without reading and understanding the Bible, people live their lives unaware of what God has done to save us. Without reading and understanding the Bible, we cannot know how to make life work.
God told parents that loving their children included teaching them his Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6). This includes reading, discussing, answering questions, and practising life together.
It is one thing to set up methods for reading the Bible with others. It is quite another to be prepared to explain what it means, answer the questions that follow, and see how it applies. This project is designed to help mums and dads, Sunday school and school teachers, neighbours, and friends address these needs as they read the Bible with those who haven’t.
Children under five ask the toughest questions. It is harder to answer a four-year-old than it is a postgraduate student. You can qualify what you say to a postgrad. A four-year-old needs a clear and accurate statement that addresses their concern directly. First-time readers of the Bible respond the same way.
What God has to say to us is not always immediately obvious. We have to seek and search the Scriptures. Even the apostle Peter admitted that some parts were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). That’s why God gave some to be teachers (Ezra 8:16; Proverbs 5:12-14; Luke 2:46; Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:3; Hebrews 5:12). It’s also why those teachers bear so much greater responsibility (James. 3:1; 2 Peter 2:1).
Before we simplify the profound truths of God’s word for children and first-time readers, we need to understand what he is saying ourselves. We need to devour God’s words and digest them (Ezekiel 3:1—3). It isn’t helpful to be a brilliant teacher or communicator, if we brilliantly distort God’s word.
It has been my experience that churches (and Christian schools) spend more time training people how to teach, than what to teach. People skilled in communicating with children are rarely well trained in biblical or systematic theology.
Biblical theology traces the process of God’s revelation of the gospel from Genesis to Revelation. It trains us to see the themes and patterns that help us understand the depth and reach of the gospel into all aspects of life. Systematic theology answers the question “What does the whole Bible teach us about [whatever the question is]?” First-time readers of the Bible of any age go through these same processes as they engage with the text.
The truth is simple. It is the distortion of God’s truth that complicates and confuses our thoughts, attitudes and actions. We need to work harder on what we teach, before we think about how we will teach it.
I have had the privilege of knowing, and studying under, many of the great Bible teachers and pastors of our time, both in person, and in print. I have been able to enjoy these blessings because of a great movement of God’s Spirit among educated young people that started shortly after World War II.
I have also had the extraordinary privilege of spending most of my adult life teaching God’s word to children and teenagers. They have been as much of a blessing, and source of instruction and wisdom, as all these great pastors and teachers put together. I have wrestled with newly converted parents who want to teach their children the Bible, but who never had the opportunity to study it for themselves. I have had the privilege of writing and developing a Biblical Studies programme in a multicultural Christian school with an open enrolment policy. This involved bringing the Scriptures to children and families from over sixty language groups, representing every major religion, and many more lesser known traditions. In the process we have had to train a wide range of parents, young people, primary and high school teachers, who had no formal theological training, to teach the Bible.
I once assumed that we would have to work hard to generate interest in the Bible, particularly among high school students. The vast majority of my generation in Sydney attended Sunday School, church, and youth group, during their school years. Most of them then abandoned church completely. That is far from the case today. More than seventy percent of incoming year seven students at our school came from homes without any believer, or church contact. Very few homes possessed a Bible. Many of our students had never heard of the Bible. For them and their families the Bible was an exotic read, introducing events and ideas that were completely new to them.
Literature published for tertiary educated evangelicals has been enormously helpful in addressing the questions raised by our culture, and in answering hostile scholarship. Children, high school students, and first-time readers of the Bible ask different (often more challenging) questions. Christians today need resources of a very different kind.
Cultural questions and assumptions continue to change rapidly. First-time Bible readers don’t know or care about philosophical issues, literary theory, or hermeneutics. They just want to understand what the Bible says, and know how it works.
School students rarely encounter stories that are true. Their world is full of fantasy, super-heroes, and funny memes. It comes as a great surprise in a classroom to realise the power of a true story. Some years ago, we realised that the state syllabus for primary school English defined narrative texts as fiction. Students entering high school had no idea that a narrative could be about something that actually happened. “Narrative” is also used to refer to a person’s chosen set of beliefs or worldview.
The biblical narratives recount events that actually happened. They also tell those stories in ways that help us understand God’s character, and his plan of salvation. The Christian gospel is different from all other narratives, philosophies and religions in that it is grounded in actual events. It isn’t a collection of fantasies made up of mythological characters. It isn’t one man’s philosophy and values. It is God’s own record of his work to create, love and save his people. It has been written down by dozens of witnesses and writers over a period of fifteen hundred years.
Parents need help to be able to answer the questions that arise in the experiences of a child. These conversations are spontaneous. They often occur when we are busy or distracted. They happen during the morning rush, in the car, at the meal table, or on the bed at night. Whenever the Bible is read, discussions follow (Deuteronomy 6:7). We have to prepare for them by knowing the text well.
At Westminster Seminary, our hearts were often set on fire during Hebrew lessons with Professor Ray Dillard. He was a brilliant and passionate academic. He showed us how the Old Testament opened up new levels of understanding of the gospel. It occurred to us one day that Ray taught all the beginning classes in Hebrew, and left the postgraduate seminars to other lecturers. We asked him why he did this. He responded that teaching was like building a house. The most important level was the foundation. First impressions are highly resistant to correction. He advised all trainee pastors to put their best Bible teachers on the youngest Sunday School and newcomers’ classes.
The worst theology, and the greatest distortions of the biblical text, are to be found not in scholarly literature, bad as much of that can be. Those works are read by very few. The worst is found in children’s Bible Story books, or children’s Bible talks. When we retell the Bible in simplified form, distortions are added in order to either fill in the gaps, or make it more interesting.
This project is an attempt to support anyone who has the opportunity to work with first-time readers of the Bible.
As such footnotes are rare, except where there is confusion on a question of importance. Where there is a major issue, an appendix will attempt to allow the text to speak for itself, or describe the limits of our knowledge.
On issues of application this project will not seek to construct solutions to individual challenges, although some examples are offered. Rather this project seeks to help the reader to develop sufficient skills to search the Scriptures, and be able to work through such issues. The reader is the one who best knows the circumstances and challenges that they bring to the text. This project will resist the urge to answer before hearing the question.
1. How will you shape your individual daily routine in order to read and use the Bible as your handbook for life?
2. How could the reading of the Bible be included in the daily routine of your family or household?
3. What place does the Bible have at school or work?
4. At what age should a child have read the whole Bible for themselves?
5. Are there people you know who have never read the Bible? Think about asking one of them the question, “Would you like to read the Bible with me?”
 This is a commonly held understanding. See https://www.scribd.com/doc/79570122/What-is-Narrative-Text accessed 1MAY2019
 It is often explained this way, “The difference between literature and philosophy is that one of them uses narrative to carry its meaning, while the other uses meaning to carry its narrative.”