When Joshua dismissed the people, the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land. And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work which the Lord had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of one hundred and ten years. And they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnathheres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were round about them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They forsook the Lord, and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them; and sold them into the power of their enemies round about, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies.
A Word for Us All
I would like to speak this morning on behalf of the children: the children in our church families and the ones not yet born. They can't speak for themselves, and so God has spoken for them. And I want to apply what God has said for the children to our church family. I know that some of you don't have children and never will. Others have children who are grown. Nevertheless, I speak to you all because it is crucial that what God has to say about children be part of our shared Christian view of life. It is important that old people know what God says concerning children, and that children know what God says concerning age; that men know the word to women, and women the word to men; that the rich know the word to the poor, and the poor the word to the rich; and so on. Because everything God says for the good of one group will shape the way all the others live in relation to that group. And every group must assist in the preservation and transmission of all God's revelation to the next generation. So even though I speak for the children and speak mainly to parents and parents-to-be, the word is needful for all of us.
A Generation That Did Not Know the Lord
Joshua died when he was 110 years old, according to Judges 2:8. He had brought the people of Israel into the promised land of Canaan, had led them through many victories, and had set them a good example of faith in God. After his death, others of his generation lived on for a while, but then they too died out. While they lived, the people of Israel served God faithfully, because the memory of his greatness was preserved. Verse 7 says, "The people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work which the Lord had done for Israel." While the memory of God's greatness and the work he did for Israel was alive, the people maintained their devotion to God.
But verse 10 says that after the death of Joshua and those who had seen God's mighty acts, "there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel." And the result of this ignorance is given in verse 11, "The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt." And then verse 14 describes the divine response to this idolatry. "So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers."
In summary, there was a sequence like this: first, the people revered and served the true God because Joshua and his generation kept the memory of God's mighty acts alive among the people. Second, a new generation arose who for some reason did not know God or his work for Israel. Third, this new generation forsook the true worship and turned to other gods. And finally, God brought the judgment of his wrath upon them. The three lessons for us that I want to draw out of this text are simple, but so needful. First, when the knowledge of God is preserved in a community, especially by those who have personally experienced God's power, faith is nourished and obedience flourishes. Second, if we parents allow our children to grow up without this knowledge of God, we serve not only their ignorance and unbelief, but also their destruction. Third, therefore it is the solemn duty of all parents to teach their children about God and his saving work, so that the next generation will know and be saved.
Since the first two of these lessons lead to the last one, this is what I want to talk about mainly. It is God's will that parents assume responsibility to teach their children what God has revealed about himself. It is we parents who have the first and foremost responsibility to see that our children think correctly about God. The most important school a child should ever attend is the home. And the most influential theological teachers he should ever have are Mom and Dad.
The Biblical Testimony to Parents
First, I want to give some more biblical evidence for this admonition to parents, and then try to answer some common objections. The most important text from the Old Testament is Deuteronomy 6:4–9. The most important commandment in all of Jewish Scripture is: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Jesus said that was the first and great commandment. And every Jew knew, just like I want every one of you to know, what comes next in this great text. "And these words which I command you shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children." The first assignment a parent has after loving God is to store God's Word in his heart and teach it to his children.
These same two priorities (to your own heart and to your children) are also commanded in Deuteronomy 4:9: "Take heed and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children." (A word to grandparents too!) And again in Deuteronomy 11:18, 19: "You shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul . . . And you shall teach them to your children." God's design for the preservation of historical revelation is the family. Within the Christian community the main link between what this generation knows and what the next generation will know is the link between parent and child. Joel 1:3 puts it in a nugget: "Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation."
When we come over into the New Testament, there is not much talk about parents and children. But the importance of parental instruction about God shines through. Jesus rebuked his disciples in Matthew 19:14 when they tried to send the children away. Instead, he received them and blessed them, and in doing so, commended the parents for their concern. One of the implicit lessons of that text is: Parents, bring your children to Jesus. Today the way to Jesus is through his Word. Therefore: Parents, make Jesus known to your children through his Word.
Then when the apostle Paul instructed parents and children how to relate to each other in a Christian household, in Ephesians 6:1–4 and Colossians 3:20, 21, he simply reaffirmed the Old Testament pattern: Children obey your parents; fathers bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
So I conclude from these Scriptures that it is God's will that the family be preserved and that parents assume primary responsibility under God for getting biblical and doctrinal knowledge into the heads and hearts of their children. Evidently when Judges 2:10 says that another generation arose who did not know the Lord, it is because many parents had neglected their God-ordained responsibility. The result was that the new generation forsook the Lord and brought judgment on itself. It is clear, then, that if we parents neglect this duty, we serve not only the ignorance and unbelief of our children, but also their destruction.
Are We Wrongly Prejudicing Our Children?
O how I want the mothers and fathers of our church to be teachers of the Word of God in your homes. So let me try to answer three objections which may come to your mind. First, some might say that parents have no right to prejudice a child regarding what he will accept as true. It is better to leave all religious options open, and then when he chooses one, it will be owing to authentic commitment, not to parental authority. There are four problems with that objection.
1) It goes counter to all the teaching of Scripture that parents are to teach truth about God.
2) It is impossible not to teach children about God, because not to teach them is to teach them plenty. It teaches them that Jesus does not matter much, that Mom and Dad don't consider him nearly as important or exciting as new furniture, or weekends at the lake, or Dad's job, or all the other things that fill their conversation. Silence about Christ is dogma. Not to teach the infinite value of Christ is to teach that he is negligible.
3) It is not true that teaching children about God has to make them close-minded and irrationally prejudiced. It might if the parents are insecure and have their own faith built on sand. But if parents see compelling reasons for being a Christian, they will impart these to their children as well. Nobody accuses a parent of prejudicing a child's cosmology because he tells the child the world is round, and the little stars at night are bigger than the earth, and the sun really stands still while the earth turns. Why? Because we know these things are so and can give evidence to a child eventually that will support this truth. And so it is with those who are persuaded for good reasons that the Christian faith is true.
4) And, fourth, it is simply unloving and cruel not to give a child what he needs most. Since we believe that only by following Christ in the obedience of faith can a child be saved for eternity, escape the torments of hell, and enjoy the delights of heaven, it is unloving and cruel not to teach him the way. When I look at my three sons in love, I say, "O Christ, let me not be delinquent in bringing them with me to glory."
What If I Don't Know Enough?
A second objection some parents may raise is: I don't know enough about the Bible and about doctrine to teach my children and to answer their hard questions. There are two reasons why this should not stop you. First, it is never too late to begin to study and grow in your grasp of Bible truth. You may be a better teacher than a veteran because you are learning it fresh yourself. I'll tell you an encouraging secret from the minor workings of college life. Most college students don't realize that when they take a course from a teacher who is teaching it for the first time, he often knows very little more than they do and is staying just a step ahead. He has two advantages: he knows what's coming and can plan a day ahead, and he has a little more experience in how to solve problems. If that's your situation in relation to your children and the Bible, then do like the college teacher: just stay a day ahead. Remember the God-given duty of parents to teach their children is far greater than the duty of a college teacher to teach his students.
The second reason your sense of inadequacy should not stop you is that some tremendously valuable things can be taught when you don't know the answer to a child's hard question. I can think of two. You can teach your child humility. If you are secure enough in God to show your ignorance rather than bluff and be a hypocrite, your child learns the beauty of humility. Second, you can teach your child to take some initiative of his own in solving problems. If you are reading 1 Samuel (like we are now) and you don't know what Ebenezer means in 7:12, you can say, "Let's stop at the church library and look it up in the Bible dictionary," and so teach your child how to use the library and communicate your own seriousness about answering his questions. Don't let a sense of ignorance and inadequacy stop you. God wants you to grow, and he will help you do what is right.
What If My Children Won't Behave?
One final objection some parents may raise is: My children won't sit still long enough to listen to a Bible passage or receive instruction. This is a real problem in the church today. In visiting other places, Noël and I see it again and again. Many parents seem to have lost their bearings when it comes to handling the disobedience of their children. It is a strange irony that intelligent parents who have strong and good convictions in most areas often seem to be nonplussed as to what to do when their children disobey. It seems as if many Christian parents have absorbed the notion that you can't really (or shouldn't) expect obedience from a child. So, if the children don't do what you say, you try to humor them or bribe them or pen them up.
I believe God's word to this situation is that we parents need to recover the expectation that our children obey us, and that in all love and humility we administer firm and just discipline to secure that obedience. Nothing has changed in the nature of children to make the Word of God from Proverbs unwise. Proverbs 13:24: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." Proverbs 19:18a: "Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction." Proverbs 22:15, "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it from him." Proverbs 23:13, 14: "Do not withhold discipline from your child; if you strike him with the rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol." Proverbs 29:15, 17, "The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother . . . Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart."
As soon as a child is old enough to understand your command and has the physical ability to do it, he should be taught what is right to do and then punished for not doing it until he will obey at home and in public. If I thought that I was talking to a group of child abusers, I would say many other things. Hugging and kissing, and tumbling, loving, forgiving, and spending time with your children are all just as important as spanking. I may be wrong, but my pastoral judgment is that among Christian parents in their 20s and 30s the tendency is to have expectations of obedience that are too low and too late, and discipline that lacks firmness and rigor and consistency. I am no expert in child psychology. I speak from my understanding of Scripture, my experience with three sons, and my observation of others.
I close with two admonitions and a promise. First, parents, ponder seriously how close the connection is between teaching your children about God and teaching them to obey you as God's representative over them. Second, and this is the main point of the message, it is the solemn duty of parents to teach their children about God and the greatness of his saving work. Their salvation may hang in the balance, but so does your joy. And so I close with a promise from Proverbs 23:24, 25. "The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice; and he that begets a wise child shall have joy in him. Your father and your mother shall be glad, and she who bore you shall rejoice."
May God fill our families with this joy in the years to come.