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The Old Testament story unfolds gradually, spanning centuries of sacred history. It carefully documents God's progressive revelation to man. And it gives us a series of pictures: images of the differing conditions under which human beings have been called to work out a faith relationship with God.
We're familiar with most of these Old Testament images.
In Eden, a single command enables Adam and Eve to demonstrate daily their faith in the God who meets them at evening.
For silent centuries, tradition enables men like Job to do right and honor the Lord.
God speaks to Abraham; a promise is given and believed.
Moses brings a detailed revelation of God's moral character, and law defines a lifestyle that will enflesh love.
The theocracy is shattered by repeated sin during the era of the judges, after all too brief obedience in the days of Joshua.
The monarchy that follows fails to bring the nation to godliness. Despite flickering revivals, the southern kingdom follows the northern into depravity and rushes headlong toward exile.
The humbled few return to the promised land, to live subject to a series of Gentile overlords. New institutions are developed to refocus the life of the community on the Word of God: the synagogue, the scribe, and the school emerge.
By Jesus' time, Israel flounders in turbulent unbelief. Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is trampled on by the tradition-bound crowds who rush to demand His crucifixion.
And so the Old Testament record stands. A record of life lived under many different conditions. And a monument to unbelief. At no time did Israel respond in faith to become that holy, loving community that alone could reflect God's character in our sin-darkened world.
As we search the Old Testament we must keep this image of shifting conditions and of failure in mind. It will help us to realize that there is no single, simple "Old Testament nurture system" to be found. At different times through the course of the centuries different approaches to nurture emerged. More importantly, at no time were these approaches successful in shaping a holy community. Individuals were touched. But the people as a whole continually fell short.
Why is this important to remember? Because the idealists of today still dream their dreams. If only human beings were brought up in a just moral community! If only children were enfolded in supportive love! Then, they believe, truly good persons and a just society might emerge. But human beings are not blank tablets on which environment writes. Neither children nor adults are passive. Each acts and is acted on. And the consistent testimony of the Old Testament reminds us that our active nature does not natively turn toward the good.
What we have to look for, then, is not some perfect nurture system that will guarantee success with individuals or groups. Our search in the Scriptures is both more narrow and more significant. We realize that God has designed the nature of man, and that God understands the way we come to faith and grow in faith. And so our exploration must be limited to discover how to help people grow in faith. Our exploration must be limited to understand those conditions that encourage openness to the Spirit of God and encourage the free choice of good.
Understanding the factors that facilitate growth in faith will not guarantee success in ministry with children. But it will provide vital insights into the way God calls us, in families and as the church, to live with our children. By searching the Scriptures we will have a much fuller grasp of what it means when we speak of "ministry to children."
THE SHINING IDEAL: A JUST AND LOVING COMMUNITY
Of all the images cast in the Old Testament, perhaps the most important to us is the unrealized vision of the Mosaic ideal. When we look at the ideal community sketched in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, we find little explicit instruction on child rearing. But we do find a clear expression of the social context that God designed for the nurture of faith. That context can be simply defined. Children are intended to be brought up as participants in a loving, holy community.
The Community Shaped by Law
Whatever our attitude toward law in this age of grace, it's vital to keep law's intention in perspective. Law was never just a statement of impossible standards, designed to condemn. For the believer law was the window to a joyful vision. Law unveiled a loving lifestyle that God could and would bless.
We see the beauty of the lifestyle marked out by law when we glance at the community law describes. Drawn boldly in the words of the Old Testament is the blueprint for a society without poverty. Here is a community in which people are valued more than things. Here each Israelite is to be willing to lend to a brother without interest, whenever there is a need. Here land-owners leave part of their fruit on the trees and vines for the less fortunate to gather. Here, every seventh year, unpaid debts are freely forgiven.
Here is a community without a police force. Not that there is no crime. Instead, justice is the responsibility of all. A man's neighbors are obligated to give honest witness to what they know; local elders are called on to settle disputes and give judgments. Only in the exceptional case are disputes brought to the priests, and through them God will give His own judgment. In the closely knit community envisioned in law, mutual responsibility and mutual concern for righteousness blend in perfect harmony.
The principle of responsibility is carried over into laws on restitution. The damages of sin are to be repaired. One who steals is to repay, several times over. Even inadvertent harm calls for restitution. A fire out of control that burns another's property calls for the one who kindled it to repay. And restitution has a positive side. Members of the community are to guard what belongs to others. The straying ox of an enemy is to be returned to him. The donkey of one who hates you is to be helped if it falls beneath its load. In the interwoven society of the community shaped by law, everyone is neighbor.
The community has a model for tender forgiveness in the pictures of forgiveness so deeply embedded in Israel's worship. Every act of unintentional sin can be cleansed by an offering. Hidden sins are recognized as the community comes together for the great sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. Here the nation stands together, bowing before God, each aware of his own imperfection and the necessity of receiving, and extending, forgiveness.
Many of the laws governing the community speak of the family and relationships between the sexes. In this community, which affirms the value of all persons, women are not chattels to be used and discarded. There is a trust that can grow as a couple makes a lifetime commitment, sure their covenant will not be violated by sexual adventure and unfaithfulness.
Excerpted from Children's Ministry by Lawrence O. Richards Copyright © 1988 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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