Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Exodus 20:12 ESV
In our study of the Ten Commandments, we enter now the second table of commands. Commandments 1-4 comprise the first table, which describes how we are to love God, while Commandments 5-10 form the second table, explaining how we are to love one another. This set of commands naturally begin with our first human relationship: father and mother.
HONOR FATHER & MOTHER
In order to properly understand this commandment, we must first establish what is meant by honor. Honor is not a synonym for obedience. Paul does command children to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1); however, this commandment was not given specifically to children. The Ten Commandments were spoken by God to the entire nation of Israel. The Fifth Commandment, therefore, is for the young, the old, and all ages in between. For children who are still under their parents’ household, obedience is an immediate application of this commandment, but honor entails far more than simple compliance to commands.
Instead, honor means to revere, to esteem, to respect, and to value. Both Calvin and Watson, although using different wordings, describe three components of honoring our parents.
First, we revere them. We give them a place of value in our hearts and minds. We do not relegate them to the background of our concerns.
Second, we obey them. As I’ve already noted, children under their parent’s home have an immediate command to obey. For we who are under our own household, this still means, as Watson says, “harkening to their counsel” (130). We are no longer bound to obey our parents directly, but we should still give ear and value to their words.
Third, we are to love them. We should have affection and compassion towards our parents throughout life, yet we could especially consider the necessity of loving and caring for them in their final years. Just as our parents loved and cared for us throughout our earlier years, so should we love and care for them throughout their last ones.
The Fifth Commandment, therefore, is directing us to value and esteem our parents. But why? Not every parent is worthy of being valued and esteemed. So why would God give this command a place among the Ten? Why, according to the law, did God deem this commandment so significant that continuous rebellion against one’s parents was punishable by death in Israel?
Consider Calvin’s view of this command:
God, however, explicitly commands us to revere our parents who have begotten us in this life. Nature itself teaches us this. For everyone who, through contempt or rebellion, violates parental authority, is a monster, not a man. That is why our Lord orders that those who disobey father or mother be put to death. And for good reason, for since they do not acknowledge those by whom they came into this life, they surely do not deserve to live.Institutes, 146.
The honoring of parents is crucial, in part, because, as Augustine said, “If anyone fails to honor his parents, is there anyone he will spare?” Our parents are our first neighbors, our first relationship with other human beings. The adage that how a person treats their father or mother reflects how they will treat their husband or wife may be too narrow in scope. How a person honors their parents will indicate how they also honor others.
Now, of course, the question arises about parents who are in many ways dishonorable. First, we must remember that no parent will ever be fully honorable because we are all stained and marred by sin. In fact, perhaps the most honorable action that a parent can ever take is to repent. Repentance acknowledges failure and sin instead of sweeping them under the rug. Second, honor is still due, at least in part, to dishonorable parents. Even the worst of parents still give their children life. This is especially true in our age of abortion. We, therefore, should be able to find gratitude for this action at the very least. Furthermore, this ability to find something to honor in even what may appear to be mostly dishonorable will almost inevitably point toward a thankful disposition.
Even so, this commandment should also serve as an encouragement for parents to act in an honorable manner. In Ephesians 6, after commanding children to obey their father and mother in the Lord, Paul goes on to warn fathers against provoking their children to anger but instead to raise them in the Lord’s instruction and discipline. This is honorable parenting, a firm, steady hand and gentle spirit in the Lord.
Yet even though this commandment applies directly and specifically to honoring parents, theologians throughout history have long applied the same principle to all positions of authority. For instance, Peter commands us to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). The emperor at the time of his writing was likely Nero, who was among the most notorious persecutors of the early church. Even Nero, however, deserved honor as the emperor because “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). God alone has absolute authority, so all figures in authority are given their authority by God. Whenever we honor those in authority over us, therefore, we are in some sense displaying our confidence in the sovereignty of God over all things.
Now that we have briefly addressed the command itself, let us consider the promise that God gives for obedience: that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments adds the phrase, “and that it may go well with you.” What are we to make of these promises, since indeed Paul calls them such?
This promise, I believe, is similar to the promises within Proverbs. It is obviously not a direct guarantee, as not all every individual who honors their parents and other authority figures will necessarily live a long life. Instead, this is referring to a pattern of wisdom that God has woven into the fibers of creation.
For instance, we can testify to the truth underlining one of Mark Twain’s famous alleged quotations:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in 7 years.
In his usual tongue-in-cheek fashion, Twain describes how our parents’ wisdom often seems to grow with us as we gradually begin to understand how ignorant we had been. As a general rule, we should listen to the wisdom of those who have gone on before us. Receiving wise counsel can greatly diminish having to learn many lessons via the painful tutor of experience.
Solomon’s son Rehoboam is a great example of this. After Solomon’s death, the people of Israel came to Rehoboam to ask for an easing of their burdens. The new king takes some time to speak with his counselors. The counselors of his father suggested that he concede to the people, but his friends urged him to deny the people’s request and promise even heavier work for them. From this one act of foolishness, ten tribes separated from Judah and Benjamin causing Israel to be divided into two kingdoms to be formed, Israel and Judah. Likewise, things will generally go well for us whenever we honor our father and mother by genuinely hearing their wisdom.
Yet this promise can also stand for the collective people of God as well. A society in which honoring father and mother is common will generally do well because, of course, to honor parents requires an honoring of the family unit. Many studies have shown time and time again that children thrive best in a stable home with their father and mother. The foundational value of the family for both individuals and society, however, is rapidly being discarded. Now that progressive symbolizes morality and traditional represents oppressive, the idea of a family consisting of, at its core, a father, mother, and children is marketed as a toxic concept. Instead, the message of our age can be fittingly summarized by an eight-year-old:
Anyone can do what they want in life. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you want to be a drag queen and your parents don’t let you, you need new parents. If you want to be a drag queen and your friends don’t let you, you need new friends.
This kind of thinking is uprooted. By discarding the necessity and value of family, particularly of father and mother, in favor of exalting the supremacy of self, we become virtual orphans. Such mindsets are constantly shifting, as evidenced by the landslide changes of what we consider to be morally normative behavior over the past decade.
And shift they must. What stability could they possibly have? Combining an identity crisis epidemic with the golden rule of do what you want is a recipe for disaster. Self is not solid. We truly become ourselves together, not separate. No man is an island, and this connection begins with our parents. Family can be utterly infuriating, but they are not gadgets to be swapped out whenever we feel like it. Being connected and rooted together with those who literally gave us life, even when those relationships are hard, is a fundamental part of being human as God has formed us to be.
Of course, our self-inflicted orphan status need not only apply to our separate from our immediate family; it can also describe our rejection of our ancestors throughout history. I’ve listed this quotation from Tim Challies during the Apostles’ Creed, but it worth repeating here:
One of the great weaknesses of the contemporary church is its detachment from its own history. Few of today’s Christians have a clear sense of how the church came to be. They know of Acts and Reformation and Billy Graham, but the rest is a blur. They do not know their forebears, the ones who faithfully proclaimed and finally handed down the faith. They have no grounding in history—their own history… There are many reasons we ought to teach believers their history. History gives us purpose. History gives us hope. History gives us theological grounding. But as much as anything, history reminds us that we live in the shadow of those who have come before and that those who follow will, in turn, look back to us.
Because Jesus’ church is the family of God, church history is full of the accounts of our fathers and mothers in the faith who have lived and died before us. Even if we do not know the names of all of our brothers and sisters throughout the ages, we are here today because of their faithfulness. We are standing upon their shoulders. Consider the contributions of Martin Luther. The Lord used him mightily to awaken the sleeping church. Such a dramatic transition of history required a person with as much tenacity as Luther. It is right, therefore, for us to honor him as our forefather in the faith.
Of course, as with our actual fathers and mothers, our family within church history are far from being entirely honorable. Luther was well-known for his often shockingly harsh speech. Calvin, for instance, (who belonged to the generation below Luther) held him in honor while being very conscious of his faults. To Heinrich Bullinger, he wrote of Luther, “Often have I been wont to declare, that even although he were to call me a devil, I should still not the less hold him in such honour that I must acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God. But while he is endued with rare and excellent virtues, he labours at the same time under serious faults.”
We must have similar views of history (and our present day). Honor can be given without ignoring the serious faults in an individual. It is good and right to show honor to those before us, both immediately and in ages long passed, but we do so knowing that they all suffered under the same curse of sin that plagues us still this very hour.
THE GOD WHO IS OUR FATHER
While our earthly parents are infected with the disease of sin just like us, our Father in heaven is not. He alone is worthy of absolute honor as He is only ever honorable. More than we owe reverence to any human authority, we must esteem the sole Authority who formed the heavens and earth with the very words of His mouth.
Indeed, this God is worthy of our reverence, obedience, and love not only because He is God but because He has rescued us from the eternal death of our sin. Through the sending of His only Son to die in our place, He has erased all of our rebellious acts of treason against Him away and has imputed upon us the perfect righteousness of Christ. By the work of Jesus, we have been reunited to God so that we are now called His children.
Soak in the wonder of this thought, if you are a Christian: the Creator has adopted you. As I said previously, there is thanks to be given for having been brought into the world by our parents. But there is also a tremendous amount of gratitude to be seen in being by your father and mother, even though someone else actually gave birth to you. By birth, our sin separated us from God, but He chose to make us His own. He rescued us. He delivered us. He redeemed us. And now we know Him as our Father.
Our honor is supremely given to this Father. Yet our honoring of Him must inevitably result in our honoring of our earthly father and mother and those around us. In the same way, these final six commandments are predicated upon the first four. We cannot properly love others without first properly loving God. Likewise, we cannot properly honor our father and mother without first properly honoring our Father in heaven. In all things, we begin with God, but the domino effect never stops with God. We seek His kingdom first, but the rest never ceases to be added as well.
Do you, therefore, honor your heavenly Father? In what ways do you revere Him? Obey Him? Love Him?
Do you also honor your father and mother, esteeming them, obeying them, loving them? What about other authorities over you?
If you are a father or mother, are you leading your child or children in an honorable manner?