How to Bring the (Whole) Bible to Life for Kids
A couple years ago, my wife stumbled on a blog by a mom who had been reading the Bible to her children, one chapter a day. Not a children’s Bible. TheBible. She started when they were young, and eventually worked through all 66 books. I was inspired.
That same week, I sat my three- and four-year-old daughters down and opened up Genesis 1. The Bible has 1,189 chapters (929 in the Old Testament and 260 in the New). If we read one chapter each day, it will take us a little over three years. As I write this article, we are twelve chapters into 1 Kings. And it has been one of the most surprisingly fruitful spiritual disciplines we have done as a family.
I say “surprising” because reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, can feel daunting even for adults, much less for children (especially for those not yet old enough for grade school). Many of us have started strong in those familiar Genesis stories only to putter out at the tabernacle construction in Exodus 25 or the census lists in Numbers. So, it can feel unrealistic and too ambitious to walk our young ones through such difficult or seemingly irrelevant texts. What would a four-year-old possibly learn from the dimensions of the altar of incense?
More than we think!
The Bible is a gift from God to your children through you. All of it. The creation account and the levitical purity laws. Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant. John 3:16 and Nahum 3:16. God breathed all of Scripture and intends every word of the Bible to profit us (2 Timothy 3:16). There is good reason, therefore, for us to share with our little ones the full counsel of God’s word. When we read the whole Bible with our kids, we multiply a precious gift: signposts.
The Gift of Signposts
The covenants. The manna in the wilderness. The water from the rock. The tabernacle. The Day of Atonement. The sacrifices. The scapegoat. All signposts. All pointing to Jesus. All easily passed over if we only give our kids the easily understood or more “exciting” parts of the Bible.
For instance, last night over dinner we read of Solomon’s sin, decline, and death in 1 Kings 11. My now seven-year-old chimed in that it seemed like all the kings of Israel just end up bad — a low-hanging-fruit moment as a parent. We discussed how sad it must have made Israel that they couldn’t find one truly good king to rule them. That paved a clear path to Jesus — God’s promised and final King, who would do good for his people and always honor God. And unlike these other men, his rule would never end.
My kids became legitimately excited about this news. Suddenly a new side of the gospel diamond shone for them — and out of an often unread and overlooked chapter deep within the pages of the Old Testament.
Four Ways to Engage Children
Perhaps you can see why the whole Bible matters for children, but you’re still intimidated by how to read it with them. How can we possibly engage the attention of young listeners with complex levitical purity laws and seemingly endless genealogies?
Take heart. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar or read ancient Semitic languages to walk your children through the Scriptures. You just have to be eager for them to see the beauty and glory and wonder of God on every page. That, and a little creativity on your part, will help make God’s word come alive to even the youngest readers.
Below are just a handful of ideas for how to keep your child afloat as they swim in the deep waters of the Bible.
1. Turn Them into Cast Members
In case you weren’t aware, Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. It quickly became apparent as our family worked our way through the book of Genesis that keeping track of the many characters was going to be an issue. By the time we got to Jacob and his twelve sons, I knew I had to get creative to help them understand who was who.
One of my girls played Leah, and the other played Rachel, and they grabbed a stuffed animal for each son born to Jacob. Every time a new child was named, that son’s “mom” had to run down the hall, grab a plush toy, and add it to the pile. We eventually had a mountain of unicorns, baby dolls, and Hello Kitty cats stacked high in front of our couch — a helpful and vivid (and soft) memory of the patriarchs of Genesis.
As you read the biblical narratives, let your living room become a theater for your kids to act out the word of God (even the parts that seem less theatrical).
2. A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Once we hit the passages about the temple construction in Exodus, I knew I was going to lose them unless I did something to show them what the temple looked like. So, every time a new article of priestly clothing or a new furniture piece for the Tabernacle was mentioned, I simply googled the item and showed them an artist’s rendering of what the object looked like.
They were fascinated. We marveled together at how shiney the all-gold ark of the covenant must have been. They asked questions about the angels that were fashioned on top of the mercy seat. They wondered at the interesting decorations on the priests’ garments. The passage suddenly had depth and color and texture.
Finding images either online or in your study Bible (or drawing pictures of your own) can really help spark and feed your child’s imagination as you read.
3. Make Genealogies a Numbers Game
One book I was particularly nervous about was Numbers. Just the title of this book is enough to scare most adults off. How was I going to keep preschoolers engaged? Then it hit me: “Numbers” are what my kids deal with every day at this age. What if we turned this book into the world’s holiest counting game?
Both girls were given their own cup. We filled a separate jar with beads. They were instructed to withdraw one bead out of the jar and deposit it into their cup every time I read a person’s name. Chapter after chapter their cups got fuller and fuller. At the end of the book, we counted how many beads they had drawn. We were easily in the hundreds, and after all the genealogies, they still hadn’t lost focus.
What would have been a dreadfully dull list of ancestries became an engaging activity. They listened and listened for the next name.
4. Draw the Story Out of Them
Stories are great opportunities for kids to use their imagination. My girls love to draw, so whenever we’re in a book that’s largely story-driven, I’ve been giving them a sheet of paper and a pencil. I commission them to simply draw what they hear.
Halfway through 1 Kings, my daughters’ pages are already full of five-year-old renderings of an elderly King David (insert white beard and cane), his son Adonijah (complete with an angry face because of his desire to usurp Solomon’s throne), Joab, Bathsheba, Abishag, and more. This page becomes our reference guide as we read on so they can remember the people and their stories.
Let your child illustrate their very own Bible. It will help you make connections for them as you read, and create more opportunities for you to tie in the gospel to the things that they see and draw.
Young Enough to Understand
As we lean into these things, let us always remember: Jesus alone is our children’s Savior. Salvation belongs to the Lord, not our methods or disciplines. But that doesn’t discount the incredible value of faithfully and regularly setting the truth of Christ before our little ones in hopes that God will use our efforts to draw them to himself. The Book is how they will see Jesus.
The apostle Paul says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14, 17).
Consider this an invitation to be surprised by the powerful word of God in your child’s life, and by your child’s capacity to understand more than you expect. The kingdom of God is apprehended, after all, by such as these.
By Jimmy Needham