Ephesians 6:1-3 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’”
There was once an old man whose eyes were rheumy, his hands trembled and his false teeth were loose. When he ate he clattered the plates, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth. He lived with his married son having nowhere else to live, and his son’s wife was a modern woman who believed that in-laws must know their place in a woman’s house. “I can’t have all this,” she said. “I have a right to happiness in my own home.”
So she and her husband took the old man gently but firmly by the arm and led him from the dining area to a corner of the kitchen. There they placed him on a chair with high sides and gave him food, what there was of it, in an earthenware bowl. From then on he always ate in the corner, blinking at the distant table with wistful eyes. One day his hand trembled more than usual, and the bowl fell and broke. “If you are a pig,” said the daughter-in-law, “you must eat out of a trough.” So under her direction they made him a little wooden trough, and he had his meals in that.
The man and his wife had a four-year-old son of whom they were very fond. One suppertime the man noticed his boy earnestly working away at some pieces of wood. He asked his son what he was doing. “I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling up for approval, “from which I can feed you and Mam when I get big.” The man and his wife looked at each other for a while and didn’t say anything, and then they cried a little. They went to the corner and took the old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded him when he clattered or spilled or broke things.
That story, based on one of Grimm’s fairy tales, is quoted by George Philip in his book on the Ten Commandments, Freedom through Obedience (Christian Focus, 1993). The parable is a not-very-subtle way of saying: honour your parents, or else your children won’t honour you. That’s much the same point God makes in the Ten Commandments when he says, “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). That is the commandment that the apostle is quoting here. What does our text say?
1. CHILDREN ARE TO OBEY THEIR PARENTS.
That’s it, in all its naked directness. Will the thought police come and arrest me for saying that publicly? Will I be locked up for being a tyrant and inciting child abuse? The sentence sounds so irrelevant and old-fashioned in our child-centred age, “Children are to obey their parents.” Many people would get angry with such a biblical phrase, but the Bible says it, and adds simply that such obedience is proper – “for this is right” (v.1). It may not be politically correct; it may not make a child happy; many modern educationalists will dismiss it as primitive authoritarianism, but the word of God says that children obeying parents is right. I plead the example of God the Son who became incarnate 2,000 years ago and we are told that he was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51). They were imperfect, they were children of their own age, they were poor, their horizons were very limited and he was not at all like that, but still he was obedient to them all the time he lived under their roof – about thirty years. His apostle Paul says to us, “Children, obey your parents.”
You ask, “but what if my parents ask me to do something I believe to be wrong?” Then I say that there are limits to the demands that they can make on you. Over the parents stands God himself, and there may come times when Christian children have to choose the Lord rather than Dad and Mam. “Children obey your parents in the Lord,” says Paul. If your parents teach you that there’s no God, or that some other deity or an idol is a god, then grace has taught you better; you don’t have any obligation to follow the instructions of your parents. Your obedience is in the Lord. You might have to act without your parents. Abraham’s life really took on colour and life and fulfilment when he left his father’s house. Ruth became a very strategic woman when she left behind her family and her country. King Hezekiah rejected the upbringing his godless father Ahaz was giving to him and rather followed his ‘father’ David. John Calvin preached these sentiments to his congregation in Geneva , “if our parents spur us to transgress the law, we have a perfect right to regard them not as parents, but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father.”
Think of Saul asking his son Jonathan to help him kill David; “‘Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!’ ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David. Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the month he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David.” (I Sam. 20:31-34). Jonathan refused to help his father to sin. The Son of God even told his disciples it might be necessary to forego burying one’s own father in order to follow Jesus (Lk. 9:59&60). He said to them that if they loved their parents more than they loved him they weren’t worthy of him (Matt. 10:37).
I’m saying that if there’s a stark choice between God or one’s parents Christian children must choose against their parents and for God. That is so sad for the parents, and I hope you will disobey your parents with a broken heart, but the obedience you give to Dad and Mam is always obedience to creatures, whereas the obedience your give to God is to your Creator and Judge. Let’s say that your parents oppose your being baptized, then you wait until you are 18, or until you move out from under their roof. That won’t be an insufferable hardship. What if they have chosen a man of another religion to become your husband? You may choose rather to be killed in a horrible way – their punishment because you have brought dishonour on the family, or you may choose to marry him, and we will all pray for you that in the future he may be converted, and that your faith doesn’t fail. Think of the dilemma of the Syrian Chief of Staff, Naaman, cleansed of his leprosy, returning to Syria to continue to serve his anti-Jehovahist king. He is the only believer in that royal household and so he pleads with Elisha, “‘But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also – when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.’ ‘Go in peace,’ Elisha said.” (2 Kings 5:18&19). God understands the difficulties young converts from Hinduism and Islam face. What you deride yourselves for as being cowards and betraying your Saviour may in fact be prudence.
However, you understand this, that defying your parents, saying no to them at one point, no matter how serious that issue is, cannot imply total rejection of Dad and Mam. Your lifestyle as a Christian will be very different from your parents, but it mustn’t be because of your initiative that you grow apart from them. Paul was asked about a Christian spouse being married to a non-Christian spouse and he never suggested separation. He considered them staying together until God separated them in death. You foster and encourage all natural ties with your parents; you often call them, and care for them, and spend Christmas and the New Year with them. You welcome them to your home and encourage your grandchildren to love them. You seek to out-do your unconverted brothers and sister in the obedient love you show to your parents. I say you encourage all natural ties, but still you are aware of a spiritual rift that does exist while they’re not bowing to God in repentance and faith. Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
2. HONOUR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER.
“‘Honour your father and mother’”(v.2). The word used for ‘honour’ is one whose basic meaning is ‘heavy.’ In other words, your parents carry some weight in your life. Media stars like David Beckham don’t; they are as light as a feather; the beliefs and activities of Hollywood personalities and sportsmen are as light as bubbles, but Dad and Mam are weighty people as far as you’re concerned. A daughter sent me a Father’s Day card which said, “You loved me, fed me, kept me safe, watched me grow up, and even . . . shared your chocolate.” But seriously, they gave birth to you; they provided for you and they cared for you. More than that, it was God himself, your Judge, who placed them over you; he holds you especially accountable for your relationship with them because they share something of the honour of God himself. It is interesting to go back a few chapters and read what Paul wrote about God. He said that he bowed his knees before his Father God from whom every ‘fatherhood’ – as it says literally in chapter three verses fourteen and fifteen – in heaven and on earth is named. In other words, fatherhood derives its existence, its concept and its experience from God. The name and office of ‘father’ didn’t ascend from us to him so that men chose to give to God the title of ‘father’ from their experience of fathers, but rather it came down to us from above. We are in a family and are under a father because God himself designed men and women in his likeness and created marriage and the family. So fathers are to be especially honoured.
Let me say a word about mothers. The Bible continually promotes a view of motherhood that is beautiful and exalted. The very physical aspects of motherhood, today so often despised and joked about, are the object of awesome wonder in the Bible. Ecclesiastes 11:5 says, “As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” The mystery of the formation of a person within a mother’s womb stands as the mystery that deflates all human arrogance and pretence. The Bible speaks with wonder as it describes the intimate relationship that exists between a mother and her infant.
The Bible also provides us with many examples of mothers who exercised decisive influence in the lives of their children. Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel , though adopted in a pagan household, didn’t ignore the influence of his mother. She taught him the fundamental doctrines of Jehovahist religion, doctrines that never left him and made it possible for him to become the great leader of the people of God. Again it was Jacob’s mother who helped burn into his soul a passion for the promises of God. Jacob was willing to move heaven and earth to acquire the blessings of the covenant. Hannah was a mother who prayed for a son from God and she was given Samuel who became a great prophet and judge.
Even Jesus Christ appears in the Bible as the Son of the Virgin Mary, according to the flesh. That the Son of God would have a mother is almost impossible to imagine, but it was so. We meet her frequently on the pages of the Gospels, often in the background, but there she is, somehow contributing to the events of Jesus’ life. When the sword finally tore her son’s body, she felt it in her own bones, because she saw it happen on Calvary . The evidence for the high glory of motherhood is overwhelming in the Bible. When God bestows upon a woman in the marriage state the gift of motherhood, God is honouring her and calling her to a high vocation.
Motherhood provides a woman with the greatest challenge she’ll ever face. It will require all her wisdom; it will demand all her emotional qualities; it will put to work all her other skills and she’ll develop new ones. It is from their mothers that children acquire basic attitudes and points of view. It is mother who molds them and directs them. Ultimately a mother holds within her hands the very destiny of the world. Honour your mother as well as your father.
How do we honour our parents? Certainly we have to take to heart the instruction they give us; take it seriously as from people who’ve got greater experience of life than ourselves. It means that we’ll show deference to them, and that’s illustrated in various ways in Scripture. Rachel addressed her father with the phrase, “my Lord”; Solomon bowed down before his mother when he visited her although he was the king of Israel . In the USA children call their father and older men ‘Sir’ and their mothers and mature women ‘Ma-am.’ You also honour your parents by letting them speak first, and answering respectfully, being quiet when your parents are speaking to you, saying ‘thank you’ when you receive things from them. You always put brakes on your behaviour when you’re with older people; that is what courtesy and good manners do, and that’s part of your honouring your parents. You pray for your parents, and thank God for them; you talk to them frequently; when you are young you submit to their corrections. You maintain and support them in sickness and old age. You bear with their illnesses and cover their faults in love.
Part of honouring your parents is to recognise the wisdom that comes with age. Mark Twain famously described his own teenage years and his attitude towards his father. He said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around, but when I got to be twenty-one I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain first thought his parents were out of it, that they were way behind the times, that they just didn’t get it, but once teenagers grow up and make it through that stage there develops a new respect for the wisdom of parents.
The Bible takes this very seriously. If children ‘diss’ their parents, if they disrespect and dishonour them, the future is bleak. Listen to what the Bible bluntly says, “Cursed is the man who dishonours his father or his mother” (Deuteronomy 27:16). “If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness” (Proverbs 20:20). “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures” (Proverbs 30:17). Ravens and vultures feast on dead bodies, so this is the Bible’s way of saying, Diss your parents, and you’re dead meat! You’re buzzard bait. This warning is the flip side of God’s positive command to honour your father and mother and his promise that you may live long and flourish in the place God gives you. According to the Bible, honouring your parents is a life and death matter.
3. EVERYONE HONOURS SOMEONE OR OTHER IN AUTHORITY.
As teenagers, many of our instincts are not good; many of our desires are destructive; many of our values are selfish and immoral. Our experience is limited; our vision is restricted. If you ignore your parents it’s not that you’re then free from authority, you’re simply submitting to other different authorities. If you defy Dad and Mam it’s not because you’ve discovered liberty and strength and independence in making your choices. It means you are more eager to please the in-group than Dad. You want to go with the flow – like a dead fish. You want to wear what the crowd wears; and get enthusiastic with their enthusiasms, and get the ‘look’ of kids your age, and ape them. They all rave about certain comedy programmes so you’ve got to watch them too. You want to use their language and listen to their music and do the kind of thing they do. You’ve not become more independent in defying your parents, and certainly you’re no more free.
You believe what the gang believes about drugs, and about living together, and about ‘real ale’ and about the good life, and humour, and purity, and modesty. When the pressure is on what’s going to be your response? Let me ask you girls this, when the fellow you’re dating wants you to go to bed with him then is it because he is concerned about your long-term happiness? Has he got your well-being in mind? I’m saying that it helps a lot if you have parents who give you considered counsels especially if they’ve had a happy, long marriage. You’re to honour them by giving their counsels some weight.
David Feddes of the Back to God Hour has pointed out that behind your crowd – the group you hang about with, and their tastes and excitements – there exists a whole bunch of manipulating adults. Those grown-ups know how to pull the strings, like a puppeteer. We’re saying that behind every fad in clothes, and shoes, and hairstyles, and singers, and so on there are marketing men and women who are targeting you. So when you think you are free from the control of your parents who love you and give to you, you have in fact come under the control of other men who don’t love you at all and just want to take from you.
Most of the so-called youth culture isn’t run by youth at all. It’s dominated by adults whose only interest in you is exploiting you and using you to make money. For every group of kids seriously heeding an agony aunt writing in a teenage girly magazine, there’s a sleazy adult millionaire snickering all the way to the bank. For every film or TV show that shows a steamy sex scene and gives kids the feeling that this is what love is all about, there’s a production studio and a corporate sponsor who are counting their money, even as teens get pregnant, catch diseases, and lose all respect for sex and love and marriage.
For every kid that smokes a cigarette because other kids think it’s cool, there’s an advertising executive and a tobacco company gloating over the millions they’re making in the youth market. For every kid who takes drugs or booze from another kid, there’s an adult drug dealer or an adult brewing company executive who’s getting richer and richer. For every kid buying the albums of messed up, immoral, suicidal rock singers, there’s a record company executive somewhere watching his bank account growing. Those are the people you’re now honouring when you stop honouring your parents.
These adults are in the game of making money off kids, and they know what buttons to push. They know that rebellion, anger, sex, violence, and peer pressure have an especially powerful pull for confused teenagers, and these adults skilfully push kids’ buttons in order to make money for themselves. Meanwhile, parents who simply want to help kids get past these problems and obsessions and grow to maturity seem to be out of touch.
If you’re a teenager, you need to know what’s happening here. The question isn’t whether you follow the lead of adults. You’re going to be influenced by adults whether you realize it or not. The only question is which adults – the ones who put a financial value on your soul, or the ones who gave you birth and love and support and . . . chocolate . . . and want to help you become wise and strong and good? Honour your father and your mother, and then there’s some hope that you’ll be able to resist manipulators.
The direction of your life is determined by whose voice you listen to. Where you spend eternity – heaven or hell – is determined by whose voice you listen to. You may want to think for yourself, but none of us does our thinking in a vacuum. Our thoughts are shaped by the voices we listen to. If you reject your parents’ voices, you’ll be shaped by the voices of others, many of whom don’t love you or care what happens to you.
Ultimately, your destiny is determined by whether you listen to the voice of Satan or the voice of God – just as it was in Eden . In God’s design, listening to your parents is a training ground for listening to the Lord himself. If you won’t listen to parents who know what’s best and want what’s best for you, how can you listen to the Lord who knows what’s best and wants what’s best for you? You may get a thrill out of songs that glorify rape or beating up homosexuals or planting bombs. You may think it’s exciting to do bad things. But are you really doing your own thinking? Or are you letting other sinners and even Satan himself do your thinking for you?
Why listen to the voices that want to rip you off and ruin you instead of the voices that want to give you life and happiness and fulfilment? “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” says Jesus. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus didn’t come to grab your money and wreck your life, and neither do parents who love God and love you. They want you to have life, and have it to the full. That’s why it makes sense for you to honour that Lord, and that’s also why it makes sense for you to honour the parents God has given you.
4. YOU CAN EVEN HONOUR THE WORST KIND OF CHILD ABUSING PARENTS.
There are parents who seem to say continually to their children, “O you’re such a failure! You never can do anything right! What a waste of space you are! You’ll be good for nothing!” Anything the child does is sneered at so that he stops trying, because he’s believed what his parents said about him when he was young. He withdraws into himself; he lives behind an invisible wall; he becomes crippled in his spirit.
There are, however, worse kinds of abuse than that. My friend Steve worked on the streets of a south Wales city evangelizing and gathering converts into a church. He befriended teenagers who came from unspeakably ugly homes. A girl would show him her arms bearing scars from the many times she’d cut herself with a razor blade. It was the worst thing for Steve after the evening service to drive her back to the home where she was being sexually abused. You say that she should go to the police, and that is an option. She might want to put her father away in prison for seven years, or for her and for the sake of her mother that might not be an option. You say that Steve needed to talk to her parents, and I am sure he did, or take her in to live with them, and that’s tough in a little house, and there are other teenagers like that. The issue I’m bringing to you is this, if she became a Christian, as a number did, how does she honour her father and her mother? How does an abused girl love her abusing father and mother as herself?
That’s such a tough question, and I would get into it by reminding you that God is our loving heavenly Father who doesn’t just slap down a rule and sit back waiting for us to obey it, but whose rules are there for our good, and that he gives us strength and grace to keep his word. Do we want to obey all his commandments? Not just the ones we find easy, but the really tough commandments? So you start there, by asking God to help you to love your enemies and forgive those who abuse you. Here is a Father in heaven whom you can trust totally. He is absolutely consistent in his love. He knows all about you, but he’ll love you for ever and ever and he is preparing you to go and live with him in his home. Now believing that God is a super Father who loves you with a never dying love may be extremely difficult for you to believe. I am thinking of those people who’ve never known what it is to receive genuine, pure affection, but what I’ve said is wonderfully true, and so you must start by saying to God, “I want our relationship to be good and holy and helpful. I want to learn to obey you, so please help me. Never stop helping me.” That’s where it starts and soon God will make some move in answering you, and changing you, and healing you.
I would guess it must be a terribly difficult thing to talk about abuse, even to God, but perhaps he is the easiest one to talk to as he is wonderfully forgiving and patient. I understand some children feel guilty for being abused imagining that they’ve encouraged this behaviour in their fathers. They feel themselves to be dirty, wicked children. I am saying to you to take it all to God your true Father, real guilt and imaginary guilt. Tell him about it.
Then cry to God that he’ll make you willing to forgive. It might seem utterly impossible, especially for those who’ve suffered the worse kind of abuse, but with God all things are possible (Mark 10:27). Bitterness may have sunk deep into your soul like an arrow, yet bring the situation before the Father of all mercies and talk to him about how impossible you are finding it to offer forgiveness to those who’ve destroyed your teenage years. Don’t be afraid of admitting to our Father that you can’t forgive your father. I know that unforgiveness is sin, but that’s defiant unforgiveness, that’s when we’ve set our hearts like flint and vowed that we’ll NEVER NEVER forgive those who’ve hurt us so badly. A child of God going to his Father for help with something she can’t do by herself won’t find an angry, threatening God with a big stick waiting for her. Here is the true Father of love whose heart is full of pity. He’ll help you forgive.
You know your parents; maybe your father was treated the same way himself in his childhood. He was neglected and beaten and abused and maybe his abusing you is the outlet of a tremendous build-up of anger. I don’t know why, but I do know that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and so go to our Father for help. Ask him to deal with the poison that’s been injected in your own heart and the poison in the hearts of your abusers. Pray for the salvation of your parents.
5. THINGS GO WELL WITH THOSE WHO HONOUR THEIR PARENTS.
Of all the ten commandments the one which is of foremost importance with a promise attached to it is this one, the fifth commandment to honour your father and mother. The promise is this, “. . . ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’” (v.3). Does it mean that if I honour my parents I will live until I’m 90? Can it mean that? Aren’t there people we know who honoured their parents and it went well with them through their lives? They served the Lord diligently; they loved their neighbours as themselves; they were a blessing to all the church of God and yet they died as relatively young men. Abijah the son of Jeroboam died young; he stood out like a light shining in darkness in Jeroboam’s family. All the rest of that family were rotten men except him, but Abijah was the one who died young. He died well, trusting God and keeping his commandments, but Abijah didn’t live until he was 90. Is a long life always a blessing? The Old Testament believers looked at godless people and saw many of them growing old and going peacefully to the grave. They saw righteous men who had honoured their parents being persecuted, and so you can never take this promise and say that it is the infallible key to living until you get a birthday card from the Queen. Sometimes God decrees a short life for his own glory in a man who honoured his parents. Jesus honoured Mary and Joseph but Jesus died at 33. So I am saying don’t absolutise this promise; it is not the master key that opens the door to long life for every single Christian.
I also want to say this; don’t downplay this promise. It’s important. Don’t make a long life the exception and a short life the rule! What is this Scripture telling us in both Old Testament and New Testament? Anyone who honours his parents will benefit from it, not only in heaven but here and now. Godliness is profitable for all things, because it holds promise for life, both this year and in eternity.
Here is a child and he honours his father when he teaches him, “Don’t hang around with thieves on a Saturday night when the pubs close to beat up men and take their credit cards and mobile phones. It may cost you your life. If you want long life avoid violent men; don’t join a gang. If a prostitute tries to seduces you don’t stop and talk. Keep going, and avoid her like a plague because her house will lead to death. Sexually transmitted diseases will shorten your life. Millions of people are not going to see long life because they’ve got AIDS. They didn’t listen to their fathers; they did not honour them in their counsels. Again, if you live a lazy life and think that the world owes you a living then idleness will destroy you. Those are the words of a father to his children and if you honour your father’s teaching you will live a long life. It’s fools who die through lack of understanding. The way of sin leads to death, but righteousness will rescue a man from death. Your father tells you to reject violent company, not to use drugs, not to play around with sex. That wisdom which is found in the book of Proverbs guarantees long life; stupidity ends in death.
If we as a congregation observe this commandment and honour our parents we shall survive, and grow, and prosper. Church growth is all about a congregation living holy and obedient lives; then God will honour us. God promises to bless the communities where duties to parents are taken seriously. We’ve been to homes where there is whining and arguments and rows and disrespect, and we were glad to leave that bedlam. We’ve also been in homes where there is an atmosphere of love and harmony flowing from respect. What kind of home is more secure? It is where there is humility towards those in authority, and honour, and mutual care and respect. It is the same in a church. Where there is a campaign against the minister to defy his teaching then that congregation won’t be blessed. Division and decay will follow in the steps of dishonouring those whom God has appointed to leadership.
23rd October 2005 GEOFF THOMAS