Have you ever really thought about how children are taught about the death of Jesus? When they are young, the story is sanitized quite a bit. Even if the beatings and other horrific aspects are mentioned, they are told in story form. A child who has never been exposed to the things in the story will have little understanding of what really happened.
Teens may get exposure to one of the more realistic movies that act out the details very graphically. The problem is when older children reach the age of accountability (which differs from child to child), they are often too young to see these “R” rated movies and only have the sanitized version of the cross in their minds.
Part of becoming a Christian for many is understanding the depth of the sacrifice Jesus made so we can have forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. If the sacrifice Jesus made was no big deal, they may feel perhaps faith isn’t really that important. Think about it. God could have chosen a much less horrible way for Jesus to take our place and yet He didn’t. There is something in the details of what happened that is important to our faith.
So how can you help older children and young teens understand the details of the cross and the sacrifice Jesus made a little better? A few affordable visual aids and some basic facts can help them begin to understand the enormity of what happened to Jesus. We did this in a Bible class of 5th and 6th graders recently, but they are things you can easily do at home:
- Triumphant Entry – I like to start here because in many ways it sets the stage. If you have access to see or ride a donkey, give your children that experience. (Make note of the cross on the back of the donkey – in the hair on the back of the neck.) Take palm branches and jackets and lay them on the ground. Read the verses about what the people said and explain this entire incident was the people telling the world they believed Jesus was their king, the Messiah. (Granted their understanding may have been a bit fuzzy, but they got it.) This of course sent the Jewish religious leaders into a frenzy. They stood to lose a lot of money and power if they acknowledged Jesus was the Messiah and especially if he took control in some way.
- Last Supper – Wash the feet of your children. Explain this was a task normally performed by servants. Want to get realistic? Have them go outside and get their feet really dirty and gross before you do it. Explain the example Jesus was setting for serving others. Find or make some unleavened bread and grape juice and eat it. Talk about the meaning of the elements of the Last Supper and how they became the basis of our communion.
- Judas, praying on the Mount of Olives and the arrest of Jesus – Read about these incidents. All of them are different ways the people who were supposedly closest to him, let Jesus down. Judas, to the point that he was willing to exchange the life of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Talk about what it would feel like to have people you invested that much time and energy into for several years disappoint and abandon you in the ways the various Apostles did Jesus.
- The beating of Jesus – A lot of significant things happened during the various trials and audiences of Jesus. For your purposes at the moment, focus specifically on the things that happened to Jesus. For starters, indications are the Jewish leaders were conducting a trial that was definitely unorthodox and technically illegal. They also couldn’t sentence Jesus to death, but they manipulated circumstances and people to get Pilate to give them the death penalty they wanted. It’s important for children to understand the severity of the beating Jesus endured. The scourge was a multi-stripped whip with bits of metal and bone tied to the end of each strip of leather. I made a mock scourge using a thick dowel from the craft store and attaching strips of leather with metal or bones at the end of each strip. My scourge was probably not as wicked as the real thing, but the kids definitely got the point. Talk about how Jewish rules at the time insisted that beatings with such a whip were never more than 49 lashes because the 50th would most likely kill the person. (They also usually had a doctor observing and checking to stop the beatings if the prisoner’s life was being taken.) We aren’t sure how many lashes the Roman soldiers gave Jesus, but with the Roman reputation for cruelty, it was most likely severe. (Note: My husband wanted to take the scourge to a watermelon to show the damage it could inflict, but we decided not to try that!) Explain that after the beating, Jesus was probably not only bruised and bleeding, but also could have exposed flesh or muscle.
- The crown of thorns – Take a vine with large thorns and show your kids how it would have been made into a crown of sorts. Explain the crown would probably have been shoved into the forehead of Jesus. Remind them how much even a simple head wound bleeds. Talk about how the blood could have even dripped down his face and into his eyes.
- Carrying the cross – The cross would have weighed about 300 pounds. If your children weigh about 80 pounds, have them try to drag an object that weighs about 150 pounds. Discuss how even though that may be possible under normal circumstances, Jesus would have had no sleep, probably no food or water, been beaten to the point of extreme pain and was probably struggling to stay upright at all by this point.
- Jesus nailed to the cross – Those tiny nails often sold to represent the nails on the cross aren’t very realistic. More than likely it was similar in size to a large metal spike. You can purchase one at a hardware store for a couple of dollars or less. Discuss how that would have been hammered through the hands and feet of Jesus. Talk about the difficulty of breathing on the cross and the need to push up on nailed hands and feet to take a breath.
- Vinegar offered to Jesus – There is some disagreement whether this was vinegar or a watered down wine. Some scholars also think the word “gall” was mistranslated for myrrh, which was commonly mixed with wine or vinegar and offered to crucifixion victims as a pain killer. Either way, it wouldn’t have tasted good. A sponge or rag would have been dipped in the mixture and lifted up on the edge of a stick or pole for the liquid to drip into his mouth. Have your kids smell vinegar and myrrh if you have it. Some may even want to taste the vinegar (I would not suggest ingesting any myrrh you may have as the quality and safety would be suspect.)
- The Tomb – Have your kids touch some linen cloth. Explain this would have been wrapped around the body of Jesus before he was placed in the tomb. If you have access to frankincense/myrrh and aloe, explain to your children the frankincense/myrrh would have been used to mask the odors and the aloe was probably used as a type of fixative for the other spices. The 75 pounds of spices provided by Nicodemus was the amount of spices that would have been used on a very wealthy person or royalty. It is interesting to note that not all of the Pharisees were supporting the death of Jesus as Nicodemus had evidently become a follower of Jesus. Also, isn’t it interesting that the same spices given as gifts to Jesus by the wise men at his birth are also featured in his death?
Taking the time to help your children understand what Jesus endured on the cross for their sins will also hopefully create an appreciation for the love and sacrifice it meant from Jesus. This is an important building block in the faith foundation of your children. It’s worth taking the time and a little bit of money to help them understand.