Anyone who's been a Christian for even a short time can answer some basic questions about who Jesus is — why He was born, and why He died.
Jesus is the Son of God. He died to rescue us from the guilt of our sins, to pay the penalty we all deserve.
When I ask the students in my classes these questions, they give good answers. They know why Jesus died, how Christians benefit from His sacrifice.
"Praise God!" I tell them. "Great theology." But then I ask them another question: "Why did Jesus live?"
This question is more difficult. Did Jesus really live just to get to His death — to tell us who He was and how He was going to die? If so, why does He so seldom talk about that?
As we teach our children about Christianity, we correctly emphasize the redemptive work of Jesus, that through His death on the Cross we have been restored to God. But we don't focus as often on why Jesus lived. He didn't become a human and then live among humans for 33 years just to explain His death. Rather, I think His life was a message: "When you figure out why I died, here's how you should live."
My class theme every year is "Whoever claims to be in Him must walk as Jesus walked." It has long been my passion as a teacher, and as a parent, to help young people more fully grasp the significance of Jesus' life and understand how His earthly ministry is a demonstration of God's mission for His people: to put God on display in every way.
Becoming the Word
The Jewish people have an old saying: "The word must become flesh." The meaning is that God intends people to be affected by His words when they see those words lived out in the lives of others. The Jews believed that this was the mission God had for them. They recognized that it's not enough to speak the Word or communicate it in some way. That's important, but the Word actually has to be in human flesh. It has to be demonstrated.
How interesting that the Gospel of John uses this same picture to describe the arrival of Jesus among people: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This is why Jesus lived. To be God's Word — His truth, His instruction, His will — in human flesh. It's as if God is saying, "You want to see the Bible lived correctly? Here's My Son. Watch Him."
The Word became flesh and healed and fed and taught the crowds. The Word showed love and grace to sinners without compromising truth. The Word was a servant to all. Most of all, God's Word in flesh showed us how we can become the Word in flesh.
As you teach kids about following Jesus, challenge them to consider what it really means to "become the Word in flesh." What does that look like today? How can we find ways to show what the Word looks like in our interactions with people at school, at home, out in public? What does it mean to not just understand and explain God's Word, but also become the Word?
Confronting the dark
Much of Jesus' ministry was done among a people who honored God's Word. They didn't always agree with each other, but their common focus was being faithful to God as their King.
Then one day, Jesus looked across the Sea of Galilee and said to His disciples, "Let's go to the other side." And so they crossed over to the Decapolis, an area of 10 cities that Jews of the time considered to be very pagan. Israel's God was certainly not recognized as King there.
Upon arriving, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, and then told him to return home to testify how God had helped him (Luke 8:26-39). Scripture says the people were amazed by the man's story. Later, large crowds from these pagan areas came to experience Jesus' teaching and healing.
This story is a powerful example of another reason why Jesus lived: to step out and confront the evil in our world. Jesus did not avoid people living in darkness. He went to them and showed them the light of God's love. This was a lesson many first-century Jews needed. In their determination to be a righteous and pure reflection of their King, they had isolated themselves, forgetting the larger point of their mission: to show others what God is like.
As Christian parents, we often have this same tendency to isolate our families from the evil influences of the world. We understand human nature, that when we are involved with people who don't follow God, our weakness and sinful nature make us susceptible to the same darkness that we seek to address. So we build safe places to raise our kids, trying to protect them.
Rules and community are absolutely necessary for Christian living. But help your kids recognize that God never meant either one to be an escape. Jesus said we are a city on a hill. We must live our lives in the broken world so that others see who God is.
Can you see how that principle could become a theme in your family's life? To truly walk as Jesus walks means, sometimes, we leave the familiarity of community to confront darkness and sin. What would it mean to take your family "to the other side"?
Building a kingdom
In Jesus' time, the kingdom of God was on a lot of people's minds. First-century Jews suffered bitterly under Roman rule. They knew God had been in control since Creation and that they were God's people, but they were oppressed by an empire of brutality, corruption and idolatry. They longed for the promised Messiah, the mighty King who would vanquish the wicked, redeem His people and establish His kingdom.
Jesus spent much of His teaching on the kingdom of heaven, but the kingdom He spoke of was unlike the world's kingdoms, which are built through power and bloodshed. No, Jesus' words and deeds pointed to a different mission, a different kingdom. He spoke of God's kingdom using the Jewish understanding of the concept of a kingdom — which generally referred to a place and a situation where the king's will is done.
This is another reason Jesus lived: to establish God's kingdom on earth by doing the King's will. And God wants to extend that kingdom through all of us — not through pursuing power and influence, but by simply doing His will. Challenge your kids to take up this mission. Every time we make a wise, godly decision — at school, with friends, on the sports field — we grow the kingdom of God by a small amount. We can either surrender a square inch that belongs to the King by refusing to do His will, or we can reclaim a square inch that the Evil One now has as we do the King's will.
Jesus came to build a kingdom not with castles and thrones and battlefields, but by leading His followers to love and serve and inspire others to do the same. Jesus lived to show us how to live.Ray Vander Laan is a teacher and historian and the creator of the popular "That the World May Know" video series.