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The Fifth Commandment: Honor Parental Authority

Series: Exodus

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 14, 2002

Exodus 20:12

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Exodus 20:12
#5 — Honor Parental Authority

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Exodus 20, as we continue to make our way through these ten words. These ten commands, spoken by God Himself directly to His people at Sinai, recorded by Moses in his five books of the law are given to us for our instruction, Paul said, "Upon whom the ends of the ages have come for our profit, for our reproof, for our correction, for our training in righteousness." God's word is not simply relevant, God's word is absolutely necessary for growth in grace. And this word too, the first four commandments, which we have already studied, have a Godward tendency. They focus on our duty to God, our love to God. They tell us who we are to worship, how we are to worship, how we are to revere His name, and when we are to worship. So, they are focused on the duties of piety.

The second table of the law, the second set of commandments, have a focus on our relations to our fellowmen. We are, of course, to bear in mind even in those duties that our relations to our fellowmen are an expression of our love to God. We will see evidence from within the commandments themselves to see the kind of continuity that exists between really loving God and loving your neighbor. John will say, for instance, "that you cannot love God and hate your brother." There is a connection, an inseparable connection, in our duties to man and our love to God. Right relation with man flows out of right relation to God, and that will be apparent even in the study that we attempt today. But we do come now, today, in the fifth commandment, to what is called the second table - those duties especially with reference to our fellowman. So let's hear God's word in Exodus 20:12:

"Honor your father and your mother, that you days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you."

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God we pray that by Your word You would teach us wonderful things from Your law, You would enable us by the grace of the Holy Spirit to walk in them, and that You would help us to see that to do this is not only pleasing to You, but is the proper response of reverence to the Lord Jesus Christ for those who call themselves His disciples. These things we ask in Jesus name. Amen.

We live in a culture that doesn't like authority. You've seen the ubiquitous bumper sticker "Question Authority." That may be an issue that you wrestle with. We also do not live in a culture that has a high regard for old age. We are greatly interested in eternal youth in our culture. We work very hard to be eternally youthful, and we do not look with great relish to the days when our heads are crowned with hoary hairs. Age is not something that we have a particular veneration for in this culture. There are other cultures where seniority and eldership mean something. These things mean less in our day and age. We may be in a subculture that has a greater regard for the authority of parents than some parts of our broader culture here in the western world in the United States, but even we are under the assault of our general culture. Parental authority is disregarded. We have seen increasingly, just in our lifetime, the reality of young people suing their parents over issues like discipline and authority in the home. And so there are crises that are impinging on us with regard to this commandment.

You may think, "Well, why do we even need to study this command? This command comes to me as instinctive. It's second nature. Of course, I honor my father and my mother." And why would this particularly impact us? We seem to have weathered the storm of our culture on this. And yet in our own day and time there is an unprecedented assault upon the family and upon authority in our culture, and we need this commandment.

I'd like you to see today, first the commandment that is given here in Exodus 12 and the first few words of verse 12, and then I'd like you to see the promise that is attached to it. As we look at the command I'd like you see the positive and the negative side of the command. I want to illustrate that command to you from the New Testament so that you will see how Jesus and His apostles applied this to the Christian life, and then I want to talk about some specific circumstances in which we may want to give especial attention to the application of this command in our own time.

I. Honor parents.
The command begins, "Honor your father and your mother." It is a command to respect, to revere, to obey, and when necessary to care for our parents. Now you say, "Boy, you sure got a whole lot out of 'Honor your father and your mother.'" I'll have to demonstrate to you that I'm not reading this into this command but drawing it out of the command by appealing to the words of Paul and of Jesus to show you how they explicitly applied this command in their teachings in Ephesians 6 and in Matthew 15. You can keep your fingers there. We are going to turn to them in a few moments. But this command does indeed call us to respect, to revere, to obey, and when necessary to care for our parents. It is a command that calls Christians to respect their parents because of our respect for God. We respect our parents, Moses says. We respect our parents, God says in Exodus 23:12, because of our fear of God. And God shows us the importance of this commandment in several different ways.

First of all, notice that He puts it first in the list of our horizontal responsibilities. Our vertical responsibilities are addressed in commands one through four to Him, but when He begins to express our horizontal responsibilities, our responsibilities in our human relations with one another, the very first thing He says is, "Honor your father and your mother."

Secondly, it is interesting. If we were to go ahead and read the laws all the way up through Exodus 24, you would find that God attaches the same penalty to disobedience of parents that he attaches to blasphemy and idolatry and the worship of false gods. In both cases, blasphemy and idolatry, worship of false gods, and in the case of disobedience to parents, in the laws of Moses the death penalty is given. Amazing. God is highlighting the importance of this command.

Thirdly, notice that this command flows out of and is closely connected to what is said in the first four commands. The first four commands basically said, "Worship God only. Revere God only." And then the fifth commandment, what is the first word out of God's mouth to us about our parents? "Revere your parents." Isn't it fascinating that He could spend four commands, and especially the first two commands, claiming to Himself the exclusive right to our reverence, to our worship, and to our adoration. And then in the very first word out of His mouth to us in how we relate to one another, He can say, "Revere your father and mother."

In fact the only two things, the only two beings, the only two entities that Moses records for us - to revere, to honor, in the Pentateuch, in the first five books, in his books of the law - are God and our parents. In this way God points to the centrality of the family. Don't think that the assault of the family in our culture means nothing to you. Don't think that we can hold out in our culture, 25 years behind the bad curves and trends that are going on, and be untouched by the assault on the family in our culture. It is at the heart of God's design. He even defines it for us here in Exodus and elsewhere. And it is central to His plan, and when the authority and structure of the family and the form of the family break down everyone suffers. And so we ought to be, as Christians and as citizens, highly concerned about what is happening not only societally but governmentally and with regard to the judiciary and the issue of the family in our culture.

We have seen, in our lifetime, a 20-year turnaround on the view of the family that is absolutely unprecedented in the history of the world. And it is totally appropriate that in one of His 10 bedrock commands God would address the centrality of the family. But look at the two sides of this command. On the one hand, He calls us to revere, to honor, to respect, to obey our parents. On the one hand this command is calling us to a proper respect of parental authority. Turn with me to Ephesians 6, and while you're doing that I'll quote the parallel passage in Colossians, "Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord." And in the parallel passage in the book of Ephesians 6, Paul says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." Paul is calling for a positive response to the authority of parents on the part of their children. Now this commandment, I'm going to point out, not only refers to children who are still under the roof, children whose feet are under the table, children who are still on the payroll, but it also applies - and maybe even especially - to adult children. Older children who are now in the position of actually caring for their parents. Jesus makes that special command. But we'll come to that later.

What Paul is calling on here is a right response to parental authority. I think my son may have responded on this reverence thing a little too much. He's two years old. He's rewritten the "Holy, Holy, Holy." It goes like this, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God and Mommy." Anne likes the sentiment. She'd like to keep the words. I've got to correct that. I appreciate the sentiment, but there's a wrong doctrine of God there.

Paul takes this deadly seriously, and let me give you two examples. In Romans 1, and in the very last book that he writes, 2 Timothy 3, he indicates disobedience to parents as the example par excellence of sin run amuck and society fallen apart. In Romans 1 in the midst of this list of horrendous sins - go look - in Romans 1:28-32, what's stuck right in the middle of debauchery that you don't even want to talk about in polite public - he sticks "disobedient to parents." And in 2 Timothy 3, when he is wanting to tell Timothy, "Timothy, you are going to minister in a day and age where everything falls apart." And he talks about people being lovers of money and lovers of selves and alienated in their affections to one another, he sticks "disobedient to parents." Why? Because for Paul, a person who can violate this command of authority, of respect for the authority of parents, is a person who is capable of the most drastic spiritual error and who is in grave spiritual danger. This isn't just a moralistic thing where a child who is disobedient sort of embarrasses his or her parents. This kind of disobedience is reflective of a spiritual problem that sends one on the course of destruction. Read Proverbs. So on the one hand this command calls us to a proper respect to parental authority. On the other hand it calls us not to neglect duties that we have to our parents.

Turn back with me to Matthew 15. Here's how Jesus applies it. This is so important in a culture like ours, as the baby boomers grow older, those of us who are the children of the baby boomers have an enormous job in caring for them. Many of you are caring for parents right now. It's hard. It brings you back to the days and the stresses of when you had very little ones in the home who demanded lots of attention. But in some ways it's harder, because these customers can talk back, and they can disagree with you, and you can have tremendous tensions about how to deal with specific situations. But notice the general principle, not only of the Old Testament but of Jesus' application as we look at Matthew, chapter 15. The circumstance is this: The Pharisees have come to Jesus' disciples and they have asked Jesus, "Why do your disciples not obey the traditions of the fathers, the traditions of the rabbis?" And Jesus' response is, "Why do you disobey the law of God? Why do your disciples not obey the law of god?" And He gives the example of the treatment of parents. He says, "For God said," (Matthew 15:4), "God said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.'" Jesus points to that very call for the death penalty for disobedience. "But you say, 'whoever shall say to his father or mother, "Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God," he is not to honor his father or his mother.' And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition." In other words Jesus is saying that for these sort of quasi-spiritual reasons these people are being allowed by the Pharisees not to fulfill their obligation to care for their parents in their time of need. And He sees it as a critical violation of God's law.

And that says something to us in a culture with a massive percentage of aging adults who are parents. These responsibilities cannot be shifted to the government. They cannot be wholly shifted to the church, though the church should be aiding and helping as it can. But they are fundamentally the responsibility of children to their parents. And so there is a positive and a negative side of this command - to show proper respect and not to neglect fulfillment of our obligations to our parents.

II. The person who obeys will be blessed
And there's a promise attached, and this is the second thing that I want you to see. If you look at the second half of Exodus 20:12, you'll see these words: "Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord God gives you." Now Moses and God are not telling you there why you should obey your father and mother - why you should honor or respect of revere your mother and father. God isn't saying, "Do this so that you will get this blessing. Do this because you will get this blessing." But He is pointing out the inseparable connection between obedience and blessing in His plan. In this passage He is telling us that the promise is always with regard to God's law, the one who walks in the way of obedience will walk in the way of blessing. Christians who honor this command, as with all God's law, will find that with obedience comes blessing. That's very important because this is not always easy to do. Notice also, by the way, the Lord Himself as He speaks to Israel includes in this command not only a command to honor our fathers (that would have been common in cultures around Israel), but a call to honor fathers and mothers. The parental authority of the home and the normal structure of the home are spoken of or elaborated in this particular command. And when we are obedient to it there is a promise.

So in Ephesians 6, if you turn back there again, you will see Paul draw attention to the fact, after saying, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." Because, "Honor your father and mother," he says, "is the first commandment with a promise." Now the fact of the matter is the promise that is given in the fifth commandment in Exodus 20:12, is repeated several times in the Old Testament in relation to our obedience to God's law. For instance, later in Exodus it's attached to the command to obey the Sabbath. The principal then is this: When we are faithful to what God has commanded us to do, He is faithful to bless us. Don't get all tied up about the exceptions to the rule here. The point is, the way of obedience is the way of blessing.
In obedience comes blessing.

Now we don't have much time together, and this command is exceedingly broad. If we were to undertake a study of the Old Testament and the New Testament, we would find that this command applies not only to our honoring of parental authority but also to those who are of age. If you look at Ephesians 5, Paul is concerned that younger Christians appropriately relate to older Christians and show them due deference. This command also applies, Paul says in Romans 13, to our relationship to civil and governmental authorities. It applies to our approach to church authorities. Elisha could call Elijah his ‘father in the Lord.’ Spiritual leaders in the New Testament were referred to as ‘fathers.’ And this command also has implications for our relationship with those who are our superiors in society - employers and others. We don't have time to do justice to even raising those issues. It's a study you need to undertake.

I want to focus particularly on the issue of our response to parental authority in four areas. The first area is that of the care of older parents. The second is the area of parents' proper relationship to children. The third is the area or the problem of children disrespectfully relating to parents. And the fourth is the exception area, the exception issue. What about the hard cases?

First I want to speak to you about the matter of our obligation as children to our parents. We live in a day and age where older people in our society are viewed as expendable. There is already a major ethicist at Princeton who argues that older people ought to be euthanized because they spend over half of the resources on health care in the whole of their life in their last six months. And so at a certain point we ought to automatically euthanize them. This is a respected ethicist at Princeton University. Our society does not regard older folk. But within that particular trend there is a problem of young people - relatively young people, adult children - who don't want to assume responsibility for their own parents. They had rather hand that off to someone else. Now how we assume responsibility is a different matter. I simply want to address the issue of the principle of our obligation to our parents. Jesus makes it clear: We have an obligation to help our parents in need. And there is no spiritual rigmarole that we can spout out that relieves that obligation. But I have noticed in counseling, especially younger couples, often tremendous tensions between either the husband and the wife or the wife and the husband about the care of parents. It seems that often that one party wants to honor the parents and care for them, but there is resistance and resentment from the other party. Now I realize that there can be details that bring about tension, but there should be no tension about the principle. The principle is clear. We have an obligation to care. That is an absolute, non-negotiable. We can get tense over the particulars, just like we can with rearing children. But there shouldn't be a whit, there shouldn't be a whit of argument over the principle of our obligation to our older parents if we're listening to the word of God. That's the first thing I want to say.

The second thing I'd like to address is the issue of how parents relate to children. In our society we see increasingly parents relating to their children as equals or peers, and even being encouraged to relate to their children as equals or peers - to be buddies with them, rather than those who are in authority. This is not only bad for the children, it's bad for the structure of society, and it does not uphold the structure which is set forth here in which parents are to be acknowledged as superiors by their children. It is something that we need to watch out for. There are many natural things that tug us to relate this way. But God has reminded us in this very verse that He has an authority structure which is ignored only at our peril and at the peril of our children.

Thirdly, there is the epidemic problem of disrespect for parents and other in authority. It is not uncommon for very young people in our society to be disrespectful in their words, and in their actions to parents and teachers and others. We ought to go out of our way to foster an attitude in our children not only of respect for us, but for others in authority. I remember in junior high school being given the privilege in an art class to go off with three of my classmates and do our block prints and our ceramic work and our painting on our own. We had an art teacher who trusted us and saw that we were pretty good at what we were doing, and he said, "I'm going to do the basic stuff with the rest of the class; you can go into my special room and do your work." We went in there. We worked for awhile, but after a few days we decided that would be a great time to play cards. I supplied the cards. I lost most of the time. But one day he walked in on us, in the middle of playing cards. He acquired the cards and told me that I could get them back at the end of the day by bringing my mother in to talk with him. I brought my mother in to talk with him, demanding to her on the way that she get those cards back from Mr. Marshall. She walked in, heard Mr. Marshall's story, and she said, "Mr. Marshall, you are never to give those cards back. You can do anything you want. You can sell them, you can burn them, you can make artwork out of them. Never give them back. And she taught me a lesson that day that she was going to uphold the authority of my teacher. And she taught him a lesson about her respect for authority. And she taught me a lesson about what my respect for authority ought to have been for him. And we need to cultivate that respect, because as Paul has said already in 2 Timothy 3 and in Romans 1, a disrespect for authority of parents is not just a moralistic problem, it's not just a socialization problem, it is a deep spiritual problem. A person who can be consistently sassy and irreverent in their speech to parents has a deep moral and spiritual problem. A person who can, without the slightest qualm of conscience, disobey parents, has a deep moral and spiritual problem to be dealt with.

Fourthly. What about the exceptions? And that's where we always want to run, isn't it. What about those circumstances where you've got difficult situations - parents that are dealing with you wrongly? Well I want to say first, don't be too quick to run to the exceptions. The quintessential question of Phariseeism is, "When does God's law not apply?" "Where's the loophole?" "When do I not have to do what God has said in the word?" Don't be too quick to run to exceptions. But there are exceptions. There are abusive parents. There are parents that call on you to do things that are against God's commands. There may be parents who have been extraordinarily neglectful and incompetent. They may have actually abandoned you in one way or another. How do you deal respectfully in that situation? How do you uphold this commandment? Well, there are several things to be said. The first thing is this. Don't think, don't think that the utter failure of a parent to relate to you properly as the Lord commands in His word and as Paul, by the way, specifically says in Ephesians 6:4 and following, don't think that that alleviates all obligation on your part to think through this commandment helpfully and carefully. If you do, you'll be wracked with guilt, I promise you. If you write it off and say, "They haven't dealt with me right so I'm not going to deal with them," you'll be wracked with guilt. You need to go to a godly older person in the faith and get good counsel on how to deal with the specifics of that relationship. But you also need to realize that Jesus Himself had to deal with that difficulty in His own upbringing. Jesus had parents who, in His major years, thought He was nuts. And Jesus had to manage honoring His parents in situations that were difficult. Remember that your Savior walked your way.

Remember too that there are ways of respecting the authority of a position without enabling bad behavior or approving it. And those are the difficult things to work out in counsel with others. These issues of honor of parents are not old fashioned, they are not out of date, they are timely for our day and time. And we would see with a revival of appropriate relationship to our parents along with it a revival of appropriate relation to God and in the context of the church to those in authority, because they are inextricably connected. And only Jesus Christ can enable you to live this way. This is not something that you can do pulling yourself up by the moral bootstraps. You need the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have been in a pattern of behavior which is out of accord with God's word you need the grace of the Holy Spirit. And so your response to this, if you are struggling in this area, is to avail yourself of God's word, God's Spirit, and the Lord Jesus Christ who saves from sin and gives newness of life. May God help you as you do.
Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God we thank You for Your word. We ask that You would teach us by it. And now as we come to Your table we pray that You would prepare our hearts to rejoice at the sacrifice of the Son who gave Himself that we might become sons and daughters of the loving Heavenly Father. In Jesus name. Amen.

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