By Jon Weatherly
How can the older generation pass along its faith to the younger? History—even biblical history—shows this is always a perilous proposition. And yet here we are, all these millennia later, still lifting up his name. A review of the Bible’s record can encourage us that it will be true again long after we have passed.
I am a baby boomer, barely. Too young for Woodstock or the Vietnam draft, I watched from the safety of childhood and early adolescence as older boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out to create the infamous generation gap.
Today, as survivors of the baby boom worry over the solvency of Social Security, I watch as another generation, including those I teach as a Christian college professor, rises to forge its own generational identity. And I watch as Christian leaders fret over how to deal with these restless, emerging adults who seem so foreign to those who came before them. History, as the cliché warns, is repeating itself.
As a student of the Bible, I hear echoes of those experiences in many of the Bible’s declarations. Biblical faith is grounded in God’s acts in history. The stories of those divine acts are the legacy of faith, passed from generation to generation.
But as in all intergenerational transfers, the passing on of faith is difficult. Heirs do not always receive what testators bequeath. The legacy can be ignored, abused, or squandered by those who transmit it and those who receive it.
The Legacy of Faith
The Bible’s first book, Genesis, uses “generations” as a refrain (Genesis 5:1; 6:9; 9:12; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). Its early chapters depict the world as infected with the heritage of rebellion epitomized by our first parents. Into that chaos God issues a call and a promise to Abram: to make him a great nation who will bless all nations (Genesis 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:17, 18). That covenant promise and its sign, circumcision, become the legacy of faith passed from Abram to later generations (Genesis 17:4-14).
The exodus and conquest expand and intensify that legacy. God gives Israel laws and customs that express the nation’s identity as God’s chosen, celebrating the mighty deeds God has performed. These include all kinds of cultural expressions: calendar, ritual, custom, institutions, food, clothing, as well as civil and moral instruction. These often come with the directive that they be observed “throughout your generations,” passed down so that faith in the God who performed the mighty deeds might remain vigorously alive (Exodus 12:14, 17, 42; 16:32; 27:21; 29:42; 30:10, 21, 31; 31:13, 16; 40:15; Leviticus 3:17; 6:18; 7:36; 10:9; 17:7; 21:17; 22:3; 23:14, 21, 31, 41; 24:3; Numbers 15:15, 21, 23, 38; 35:29).
As the nation settles the land, it erects a monument to remind coming generations of its unity as God’s people (Joshua 22:27). Its annual feasts and sacrifices serve to pass on the legacy of God’s mighty deeds to rising generations (Leviticus 23:43).
The legacy of Israel’s founding is perpetuated throughout Israel’s Scriptures. In exile, a new mighty act of deliverance is celebrated with a new annual feast (Esther 9:28). The Psalms, sung to express Israel’s experiences with God, also help transmit the legacy (Psalm 22:30; 45:17; 48:13: 71:18; 78:4, 6; 79:13; 89:1; 145:4).
Reflecting the intergenerational transfer of faith, the discourse of Proverbs is that of father to son (Proverbs 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:3, 10, 20; 5:1, 20; 6:1, 3, 20; 7:1; 23:15, 19, 26; 31:2). That point is underlined with repeated sayings among the Proverbs about the blessing that wise sons bring to their fathers (Proverbs 10:1; 13:1; 15:20; 23:24; 24:13, 21; 27:11; 28:7), about the parents’ sorrow over a foolish child (Proverbs 17:25; 19:13, 26), and about the parents’ responsibility to discipline children (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 29:17).
Israel’s Scriptures are tied together by the intergenerational transmission of faith in the God of Abraham. Personal and national identity depends on that transmission. It is the means by which Israel’s God forms the nation as the source of promised blessing to all nations.
The Legacy in Peril
With vivid accounts of God’s saving deeds and strong institutions to transmit them, we would hope that this intergenerational legacy would move from strength to strength. But the biblical narrative more often depicts the legacy in peril.
The early chapters of Genesis depicted a human race passing its heritage of rebellion and violence from generation to generation with heightening intensity. A distressingly similar pattern appears among the patriarchs. Abram’s trickery (Genesis 12:10-16) is mimicked by his son Isaac (Genesis 26:6-11), whose son Jacob becomes the ace of tricksters (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:1-45; 30:25-43), only himself to fall victim to his sons’ deceit (Genesis 37:12-36).
In the wilderness, Israel’s memory of God’s deeds cannot preserve their faith for even one generation, as they seek to return to Egypt and resort to the worship of idols (Numbers 14:3, 4; Exodus 32:1-35). That generation in the wilderness becomes an infamous element in Israel’s legacy, the generation that saw the mighty deeds of God yet refused time and again to exercise faith in God. So came God’s judgment that the wilderness generation must die outside the promise, so that another, faithful generation could take its place (Deuteronomy 5:9).
Among the judges, the peril continued. Forgetting God’s mighty deeds, generations arose who forsook Israel’s God for idols (Judges 2:10-15). Brought to repentance by the nations’ oppression, they cried out for God’s mercy and deliverance (Judges 2:18). But when the deliverance was complete, generations that followed again forgot (Judges 2:19). No one epitomized this situation more than the priest Eli, whose sons presided over the Tabernacle more as gangsters than priests (1 Samuel 2:12-17). In Samuel, Eli had someone to whom to pass on the legacy of faith, but Samuel’s sons proved a disappointment like Eli’s (1 Samuel 3:1-21; 8:1-3).
Israel under the kings was no different. The story of Israel’s great King David captures the perilous situation well. Devoted to God, David nevertheless indulged in foolishly sinful behavior with women, taking multiple wives and ultimately covering his adultery with murder (2 Samuel 11:1–12:15). Those failures cursed his children, whose story involved rape, murder, and violent rebellion against their father (2 Samuel 13-18).
David managed to pass the throne successfully to his son Solomon, who, blessed with God’s wisdom, seemed to offer an instance of success (1 Kings 3:1-14). But Solomon reflected all the failures of the past, amplifying his father’s worst excesses and ultimately expressing Israel’s age-old desire to return to Egypt (1 Kings 11:1-8). Generations that followed experienced similar failure, as sons who rose to the throne squandered what was left of the legacy of faith they received from their fathers.
Israel’s “wilderness generation” had become infamous for its disregard for God’s mighty deeds (Psalm 95:10). The failure of Israel’s legacy ultimately made the nation a second “wilderness generation.” Israel’s exile was God’s just repetition of the experience of captivity in pagan Egypt (Deuteronomy 28:64-68).
The Promise of Renewal
This bleak narrative of failure is continually punctuated with God’s promise of renewal and fulfillment. Though generations fail, God’s faithfulness endures for a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Chronicles 16:15; Psalm 105:8).
God’s faithfulness can be seen amid a generation of failure, a faithful remnant can arise that keeps the legacy alive by rejecting the forgetful context that surrounds it and calling out to God for mercy (Isaiah 10:20-22). Most especially, God demonstrates his faithfulness amid failure by renewing his promises generation by generation. If kings should fail to lead God’s people faithfully, God will one day send his true King who rules forever in righteousness (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Isaiah 9:1-7). If Israel’s unfaithfulness should take it back into the judgment of captivity, God will again liberate his people in an even greater exodus (Isaiah 40:3-5; 55:12, 13).
This setting of failure and faithfulness is the frame of Jesus’ ministry. Claiming to sum up all the mighty deeds of God, Jesus sets the stakes high for people’s response to him.
Those who reject are like the generation in the wilderness that saw God’s mighty acts and failed to believe (Matthew 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19; Luke 7:31; 9:41; 11:29-32, 50-52; 17:25).
Those we would expect to be heirs of God’s promise will be excluded from the feast of celebration, while those we least expect will be invited (Luke 13:22-30).
As God’s true king who brings the promised second exodus, Jesus declares that he brings Israel’s legacy to its climax, leaving no room for a response of indifference (Luke 11:49-51).
Like Israel in the past, even Jesus’ closest followers prove unfaithful, even though they had seen his mighty deeds firsthand. That he welcomes them back demonstrates that God’s faithfulness has indeed triumphed over generational failure. Jesus warns that not all will believe, but he assures among those who do, God’s purpose comes to a triumphant conclusion (Matthew 13:2-9, 18-23).
The Promise Perpetuated
Commissioned to give witness to this story, the New Testament church moves from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth with urgency spawned from the promise that Jesus would return soon to rule. But cognizant of Jesus’ warnings about seeming delay in his return, the church likewise brought its witness to the past forward to a new generation. That generational transfer is prominent in some of the New Testament documents written at the end of the first generation of the faith.
Paul in Acts warned the Ephesian elders that he had given them an inheritance that they must now guard against those who threaten it (Acts 20:28-32). In his letters to his ministry associates, whom he addresses as his sons (1 Timothy 1:2, 18; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1; Titus 1:4), Paul urges them to transmit the gospel legacy intergenerationally (1 Timothy 1:3, 4; 5:1, 2; Titus 2:1-8), entrusting the message to faithful people who can continue its transmission (2 Timothy 2:2; 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9) in the midst of unfaithful generations that distort and reject the legacy (1 Timothy 1:18-20; 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:1-8, 12, 13; 4:1-5; Titus 1:11-16).
Peter’s words of farewell are little different, urging those who had not witnessed what he had seen to remain faithful to it (2 Peter 1:16-21), despite those who distort it (2 Peter 2:1-21), and as the final fulfillment of God’s promises seems agonizingly slow to appear (2 Peter 3:1-13). The Lord’s patience, he urges, is salvation (2 Peter 3:15).
John too, standing athwart the generations, reminds those coming after him of the legacy of his witness to Christ (1 John 1:1-4), the message proclaimed and now repeated (1 John 1:5). He addresses the readers as children (1 John 2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21), young men and fathers (1 John 2:13, 14), reminding them of a gospel that is now “old” (1 John 2:7) though still new (1 John 2:8), and warning them to stand firm in a context of unfaithfulness (1 John 2:15-26).
Preserving the Legacy Today
The Bible seldom provides us with a methodology for ministry. But it does provide a powerful perspective on ministry. That is the contribution the scriptural saga of faith’s intergenerational legacy has for us.
If we are puzzled at the problems of faith taking root among a rising generation, this biblical perspective should grant us some encouragement. We are not the first to face this situation, and ours is not the worst situation to arise. Granted that the pace of social change in our world is breathtaking, we can imagine the same seemed to be true when the newly arrived Philistines were smelting iron for their swords or the Babylonians were organizing their caravans of exiles for the east. Intergenerational transmission of faith has always been perilous. But God has always been faithful. We have more reason for quiet confidence than surprise and dismay.
As we look at what our biblical forebears did, we can perhaps learn that transmission of faith to a new generation is not a focus on that new generation so much as it is a connection between generations. It is the old and wise mothers and fathers in the faith who instruct the rising daughters and sons. The family of God’s people—brothers and sisters in Christ—needs close connections between parents and children in the faith.
It is perhaps an echo of this aspect of the Bible’s witness that some research today suggests faith is best transmitted intergenerationally when the young enjoy many formative relationships with older, mature exemplars of discipleship. Scripture tells us not to minister to a generation so much as between generations. That demands not alertness to trends as much as empathy of older for younger.
If it seems we are “losing a generation,” we must, like our sacred books, take the long view. The Bible shows us that as life for the unfaithful unravels, they can reject the twisted generation in which they live and return to the Lord who always calls to them in his mercy (Deuteronomy 29:22; Psalm 78:8; Philippians 2:15).
As we sow and water God’s seed, even on what seems to be bad soil, we trust God for the intergenerational harvest.
Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.