Engaging the mystery of the Bible
“Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery …” (Colossians 1:25-26a).
Teaching children to find the Redeemer’s fingerprints throughout the Bible is like uncovering clues toward the greatest mystery of all time. Kids love mysteries. They want to know the answer to the riddle and what lies beneath the “X” that marks the spot. And, they want to be the ones to find it! Approaching the Bible for the mystery that it is can be powerful, in both teaching its truths, and training kids to study it for themselves.
Examine the Evidence
When I was a kid I got the bright idea to keep up with what I had read in the Bible by highlighting it—all of it. I wanted to be sure I understood the motive of the writer, so I left no stone (or page) unturned. (Plus I thought it would be cool to have a super colorful Bible.) So I went to it. Armed with a pack of neon markers and a new Bible, I went from color to color, and chapter to chapter, until every single word was doused in highlighting juice.
This process took months of daily reading. Unfortunately, I often found myself discouraged and disappointed at my learning. I encountered confusing passages, faced endless distractions (like the ice melting in the cup of water by my bed), and nodded off during tireless genealogies. While I often sat with eyes glazed over, partly due to being stuck in the minor prophets and partly due to the intoxicating highlighting fumes (maybe that’s why the ice was so interesting), I didn’t realize I was building a lifestyle entrenched in the Word. God used these early habits to create daily space with me to reveal more of Himself to me through the Scriptures.
Know the Unknown
More and more often as I read, I would have these divine moments—the kind where the Holy Spirit spoke through a passage of Scripture in such a way that only God could know how it would affect my heart—healing it, comforting me, and gently correcting my behavior. My Savior revealed Himself to me in powerful portions of light and life.
After accumulating a collection of these moments, I began to get a sense of what God sounded like to me. I started to distinguish between His righteous words of life, accusing lies of the enemy, and my own critical voice. His Words left familiar imprints on my soul that drew me back to Him.
Having the ability to identify His voice is pivotal in a child’s spiritual development. The miraculous thing about studying God is that He is not a flat character on a page, but a robust, living, engaging Being who deeply loves each child. He draws His children to Himself and awaits opportunities to reveal more of His character.
Interrogate the Witnesses
While learning to be a student of the Word on our own gets us there inch by inch, soaking up wisdom from those who are ahead of us allows us to skip ahead miles at a time. It’s not enough that students read the Bible consistently and learn to hear God’s voice; it’s essential that they discuss it with others. Students need clear, real feedback that what they believe accurately reflects the truths of Scripture.
Telling a spiritual mentor what you are learning can be like having someone show you the picture on the puzzle box while you’re lost amidst the pieces. I cannot recount how many times I’ve brought broken, discombobulated pieces of truth and lies to a Bible study teacher only to have him take one glance, sort out the pieces, and form a picture. What we cannot see in the midst of our foggy situations, others view with perfect clarity.
Spiritual mentors can give us a boost ahead in a lot of ways. Often they give us advice on practical matters. They help us see when our beliefs do not seem to align with our actions. On painful occasions they chide us for purposefully choosing against God’s best for us. They even swallow their pride to teach us helpful, though embarrassing, concepts that will increase our understanding of God’s love. (Thank you, Mrs. Hamilton, for the lesson on circumcision!)
Some of the most helpful guidance I have received has been when my spiritual advisors shed light on what God was already doing in and around me. Instead of telling me what they thought I ought to do, they taught me to seek out and recognize God’s activity. They dug through the mess of my situations to help me see what God was working on. These authentic men and women showed me the difference between the mess of my handiwork and the clues of His mastery.
Illuminating God’s work in my life confirmed my value to Him, brought clarity to what He was doing, and showed me how to get involved in the work.
Reveal the Mystery
Bring it to life. Truly it already is. The Bible says, “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). If we come to the Scriptures believing that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), then we come with much enthusiasm for the One about whom the Story is written.
Screenwriter J. J. Abrams ascribes much of his success in storytelling to the idea of his unopened box. “What are stories but mystery boxes?” he asks. Abrams also reveals that “withholding information is much more engaging.” If that is true, there are lots of unopened boxes that should keep students intrigued in the contents of the Bible.
Abrams declares that “mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” It’s funny that I am often so concerned that I answer every student’s question when I teach, squashing any space for wonder. But what if, instead of being ready to explain away any uncertainty in the Scriptures, I approached my lessons in such a way as to begin with an unopened box?
Too often I fail to give kids a chance to want to know the answer. In fact, the few times I actually stumbled upon this type of suspense in teaching caught me by surprise. But the most amazing thing happened! As God brought to light what was previously hidden, their wrinkled brows turned to tear-filled eyes over the awe of His glory! Those moments are priceless!
Risk the Cliffhanger
The best teachers leave students wanting more. Some of my favorite times in teaching have been watching the kids’ faces after they got Jesus-punched in the gut, because the Holy Spirit revealed truth to them during their own study times. They run in excited and proud to tell their teachers what clues about the nature of God they uncovered that week.
These teachers understand the importance of the mystery. They intentionally throw out some questions they know the kids won’t yet know the answers to, and they don’t succumb to the pressure to answer them. They never feel discouraged when no one in the room knows the answer to a question. They use it as an opportunity to show the kids that there is more out there than they know. Then, they ask the Holy Spirit to draw the kids to His mystery.
Each week the kids leave with some unfinished sentence or unanswered thought beckoning them to complete it. Sometimes these challenges are accompanied by competitions, rewards, or just affirmations for the students who retrieve the answer before the following week. Either way, students end up in the Word, discovering the excitement of solving another mystery by stepping into its light.
Pour on the Clues
Feed kids the Bible in bucketfuls! Building a foundational structure of the Bible is key. Kids have a unique ability to take in vast amounts of information. They do not begin life knowing how the Bible is organized, understanding that it is God’s message to His people, or having mastered a degree in theology.
If kids don’t have enough information to know that there is a box to open, they will not be able to wonder what’s in it. Constructing a framework of biblical history, rich theology, and foundational truths is essential in allowing each week’s lesson to take root. And don’t we want them to remember it?
God has granted us the privilege of teaching children during a time in their lives when He has given them sponges for brains. I believe we have a responsibility to pour in as much about the Bible as possible. At no other time will they be able to memorize verses as easily, take in spiritual truths with as much faith, or build their understanding of God and His Word from scratch.
As “we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery” (1 Corinthians 2:7), let’s teach our kids to examine the evidence, know the unknown, and interrogate the witnesses as we reveal the mystery, risk the cliffhanger, and pour on the clues. “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). Let’s give it to our kids!