by Norm Olson
Q: What did the Jews and early church offer in training compared with churches today? For example, they obviously didn’t have Sunday School. Are there things we can learn for the present from those past periods of time?
A: One who reviews Jewish and early New Testament church history will indeed discover many interesting perspectives and principles for today.
We will look at the Jews first, who had a special privilege: they received instruction directly from God concerning education. Asaph wrote, “For He [God] established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should make them known to their children” (Psalm 78:5). God gave His Chosen People certain covenants, and knowledge of those covenants had to be passed on to succeeding generations. Genesis 18:19 records God’s words to Abraham and His covenant with him: “‘For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him'” (NIV).
Further, God through Moses outlined His will concerning instruction: “‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates'” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
One can instantly see from Hebrew history that spiritual education rightly begins in the home. The home existed as a divine institution long before the local church, though this fact in no way reduces the importance of the latter.
In Old Testament times, children were taught by example, by listening to and watching their parents (Exodus 12:26, 27), including the performing of ceremonies and utilizing the altars of sacrifice. So the family was basically the educational institution of these people, at least until far later in their history, although the priestly tribe of Levi did go before the people to give the law, train others for the priesthood, teach people how to live in harmony, and interpret God’s will for the people. Later, prophets exhorted the people.
In many professing Christian homes today, very little spiritual education takes place, with parents expecting the local church to do the work. Sadly it has a negative effect on God’s institution in this dispensation, the Church Age. The spiritual level of a local church does not rise above the composite of the families in it, since the church is people.
Note carefully that both mothers and fathers were active in Jewish education (Proverbs 1:8). Mothers performed certain duties of the household (Proverbs 31:13-31) and of the Law, such as preparing Sabbath meals and also teaching the law and accounts of the patriarchs and other events while her children undoubtedly sat at her knee. Some prime examples of Jewish mothers and their influence were Jochebed, Moses’ mother (Exodus 1; 2; Numbers 26:59; Hebrews 11:24-29); Hannah, who brought her son, Samuel, to the house of the Lord for service (1 Samuel 1; 2); and Lois and Eunice, who faithfully taught their son and grandson, Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5).
Notice that in Moses’ case, the father was involved as well (“parents” in Hebrews 11:23). Fathers in Jewish homes had an important responsibility; they considered teaching their families their most important life work (Exodus 10:2). Practically all Hebrew education was “religious” in nature; however, another responsibility of fathers was to teach their sons a trade: Josephâ€™s teaching Jesus carpentry is a good illustration.
Hebrew education demanded that children obey their fathers and mothers (Exodus 20:12). Proverbs often refers to the father-child relationship: “Hear, my children, the instruction of a father, and give attention to know understanding; for I give you good doctrine: do not forsake my law. When I was my father’s son, tender and the only one in the sight of my mother, he also taught me, and said to me: ‘Let your heart retain my words; keep my commands, and live'” (Proverbs 4:1-4).
The apostle Paul made it clear that these precepts concerning parents and their children are just as applicable to our Church Age, as we see in passages such as Ephesians 6:1-4. Mothers and fathers must exercise their responsibility to rigorously teach in the home, and children must obey. It is mandatory that Christian education be prominent in the home. Again, a local church can be only as strong as the households belonging to them. That reality parallels the fact that the Jews, in time, failed at carrying out God’s commands concerning instruction. So, in time, the nation fell as well.
One great lesson we can learn from Hebrew education in the home is that children are our most valuable possession. This is the way Hebrews thought when their hearts were right with God. Psalms 127 and 128 speak of children being a heritage from the Lord, and the family who knows and follows God’s ways will be happy and productive. God Himself is pictured as a loving father. One example is Psalm 103:13: “As a father pities his children, So the LORD pities those who fear Him.”
Isaiah 28:9 contains yet another principle that we observe in the Jews: they began training their children very early-from birth. Too many parents start getting serious about training their children when they are about ready to leave the nest. By then it is too late.
Now we consider the New Testament church. Actually we must first focus on Christ, Whose work preceded the birth of the church. He was the Teacher of teachers. His work with His disciples is often used to show sound principles of teaching. The Gospels often contain such phrases as “He taught them.” He was generally called “Rabbi,” which means “teacher.” The disciples certainly called Him that, and even the Pharisees were forced to call Him that (Mark 12:13, 14). When Jesus had risen and was about to ascend into Heaven, He admonished the future church to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19, 20, KJV). He told them that without the Holy Spirit they could accomplish nothing (John 15:5; 16:13; Acts 1:8).
So in the early church we indeed find teaching going on, even when believers were thrown into prison: “So one came and told them, saying, ‘Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!'” (Acts 5:25). Thus the church grew as people heard the truth. God used the apostles to spread the gospel everywhere until the canon of Scripture was complete and people could read it.
The apostle Paul stands out as a master teacher. He himself had had quite an education under a great teacher named Gamaliel. Paul thought of himself as a teacher, and he taught everywhere. It is a massive undertaking to locate the dozens and dozens of geographical places where Paul taught and established local churches, not only specific towns and cities but such general places as riversides, markets, Jewish synagogues, and the like. He taught literally everywhere. Acts 17:1-3 is one passage that describes Paul’s typical way of teaching. He loved to reason with people, including Jews in their synagogues. He, of course, discipled special people like Timothy so they could, in turn, teach others.
What we do not find in early church history is an abundance of details about teaching specific age groups. It seems that believing households worshiped and learned together without separating the ages. Acts 16:30 and 31 mention the jailor who was saved under Paul and Silas’s witness. The verses indicate that children and young people were in this man’s family. Apparently the entire family grew together spiritually, as did many others, no doubt. This shows that we must be careful not to alienate members within families. While it is legitimate to separate family members for instruction pertaining to various age groups, this division can go too far. Quite a number of churches are closely reevaluating their programs with this danger in mind. Families must be united in purpose and spiritual life.
The past two or three centuries have brought about vast changes in spiritual education among believers in Christ. Your mention of the Sunday School is a great study in itself. We have advantages and opportunities that earlier people did not have. Yet lethargy, false teaching, and worldly practices can creep in and destroy these advantages’ as they have in many groups. We must keep in mind the basics of Jewish and early New Testament education. We must strengthen Christian education in our homes and utterly depend on the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches.
A personal concern I have is that too many senior pastors take too little time instructing their young people as a group or even one-on-one. The pastor of the church my family attends teaches the young people in Sunday School from junior high through senior high. By the time they leave that class, they have a thorough indoctrination of Scriptural truth and Baptist distinctives. The church I attended in my growing-up years had a Bible instruction class that met with the pastor each Saturday, somewhat similar in format to “Confirmation Class” in liturgical churches. The thorough instruction I received continues to bear fruit to this day.
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send your Bible questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.