It is a commandment of God. It is a commandment with promise, with divine blessings attached to it. It is a commandment positioned in a place of special honor and significance. It is a commandment pertaining to the whole life of every human being. It is a commandment with application to the home, church, and workplace, a commandment that provides a stable foundation to all of society. Yet it is a commandment that is sorely neglected today. It may not be overstating the case to call it the commandment we forgot. It is the fifth of God’s ten great commandments to humanity: Honor your father and mother.
Today I am beginning a short series on this commandment and mean to focus especially on an angle few of us have seriously explored: What does it mean to obey this commandment as adults? We understand that it applies to children and teaches them the importance of honoring and obeying mom and dad. But does the commandment stop applying the day we move out or the day we get married? Does it expire when our parents die or when they prove themselves unworthy of our respect? Does it apply to those who have been abandoned or abused? Does our adherence to this commandment change as we grow older and become independent? Maybe our questions are urgent and practical: What are my obligations toward my parents? Do I need to support them financially? Do I need to obey them even though I’m a full-grown adult? These are some of the questions we need to ask and answer if we wish to honor God by honoring his commandment.
I don’t mind saying that I have high hopes for this series. I want it to be biblical, to take the Bible as the ultimate source of truth and the only standard with the right to demand obedience and bind the conscience. I want this series to be practical, to answer real questions in real ways for real life. I want this series to be multi-cultural, to apply to people from different backgrounds and in different places in the world. I want this series to be convicting, to impact and perhaps even transform the way we live. This is true whether we are young or old, whether we are parented or parenting, whether we are dependent upon them or they are dependent upon us, whether we live under their roof or whether they live under ours.
Our key verse will be Deuteronomy 5:16: “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” That verse will springboard us to other locations in the Old Testament: Exodus, where we will discover the terrible consequences of disobeying God’s commandment, and to Proverbs where we will marvel at God’s promises of blessing to those who take his law seriously. And, of course, we will go to the New Testament, to the life of Jesus to see how he both taught and modeled the way to honor parents, and then to Paul’s letters where we will see how ancient commands apply (and, in some cases do not apply) to contemporary believers.
I hope you will join me as together we rediscover the commandment we forgot.
Three Reasons to Know and Obey This Commandment
We are going to begin right away with three reasons why it is crucial that we know and obey the fifth commandment.
We Are All Children. It is the most basic biology: every human being is the offspring of two other human beings. Some of us have always known and respected both of our parents. Some of us have only ever known one of our parents or have only ever known adoptive parents. Some even grew up apart from parents in foster care. Some of us have outlived our parents. Regardless, the fifth commandment applies to each of us for the simplest of reasons: We are all children. There is no human being outside of its purview because there is no parentless person.
Of course, we also know that God’s commandments are to be taken both literally and principially. The commandment’s stipulations go beyond the simple relationship of children to parents and extend to all other positions of authority and submission. The right ordering of family government, church government, and civil government all depend on this commandment. In this way, too, it is universal. We are all children, we are all under authority, so we all need to hear and heed it.
This Commandment Comes With Promise. Our second reason is that this commandment comes with promise. It is wise and good to obey the commandment so we can enjoy the promised blessings. Conversely, it is daft and dangerous to disobey the commandment and forfeit the promised blessings. When Paul writes to the children in Ephesus he reminds them of God’s promise for their obedience: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Ephesians 6:1-3). God promises a long life and a good life to those who obey this command. It pleases God when we obey, so naturally he dispenses his blessings to us (Colossians 3:20). We will explore the nature of these blessings soon.
God Gives This Commandment a Place of Special Honor. Now we add a third reason to understand and obey this commandment: God gives it a place of special honor. Believers have long divided the ten commandments into two groups or two tables. The first group explains our duty toward God and the second explains our duty toward our fellow men. This commandment falls squarely between the two and in that way reminds us that our parents have a unique role in our lives. Our parents are God’s divine representatives to us so that when we honor and obey our parents we honor and obey God. There is no obedience or love to God without obedience and love toward parents. If we remove this commandment, we have undermined all ten. We have fallen into serious, dangerous disobedience.
We are all children, we ought to pursue God’s blessings, and we need to give prominence to God’s prominent command. For these reasons and many others we can no longer ignore the forgotten commandment.
A Word of Warning
Before we conclude this opening article, I would like to offer a word of warning. There is something deep within us that hears a commandment and immediately searches for the exception clause. “But you don’t know my parents.” “But I don’t know my parents.” “But my parents disowned me.” “But my parents were abusive.” We will deal with exceptions, we will see that honor takes different forms and adapts to different situations. But we must deal with the principle before we deal with the exceptions. We will discuss what to do in situations where there has been abuse or where there has been an especially contentious relationship. I don’t mean to excuse or downplay horrific experiences. But before we can do anything else we need to understand and admit this: There is no if attached to the fifth commandment. We must honor our parents. There are no exceptions.
Let me close with a preview of what will follow as we progress through this series. Next time we will explore honor and obedience as the basic ways we comply with the fifth commandment. Then we will discuss the role of culture (such as honor/shame or guilt/innocence cultures) in understanding and obeying the commandment. We will consider the role of the parent in being worthy of honor and then turn to hard cases like neglect, abuse, and abandonment—cases where honor is difficult or obedience would be sinful. Finally, we will look at very practical ways we can all honor God by honoring our parents.
More in The Commandment We Forgot:
- Sweet Promises of Blessing, Terrible Threats of Judgment
- Momentary Obedience, Forever Honor
- One Man’s Honor Is Another Man’s Shame
- 6 Practical Ways to Honor Your Parents