We have looked at the sweet blessings God promises to those who heed the fifth commandment and we have looked at the terrible judgments he promises to those who do not. We have seen that children have a lifelong duty of honor toward their parents. But while we have learned whywe ought to honor our parents, we have not yet considered how. Our question for today is this: How do we show honor to our parents, especially when we are adults? Today we will arrive at an early answer sufficient to begin to direct us. In a future article we will look for help from others to find specific, concrete ways we can extend honor.
Honor and Obey
In both descriptions of the Ten Commandments—those found in Exodus and Deuteronomy—, God commands children to “honor your father and your mother.” There is not a word about obedience. Yet when we read the applications of the commandment scattered throughout the Bible, we see obedience as a key component of the honor children owe their parents. This raises a question: Is obedience to parents permanent or is it temporary? Does honor always require obedience? If I want to honor my parents do I need to continue obeying them throughout my life? To answer these questions we need to examine honor and obedience, looking for what makes them similar and what distinguishes them.
What the fifth commandment does not require is as important as what it does require. The fifth commandment is not “Obey your father and your mother.” Rather, it is “Honor your father and your mother.” Still, it is clear the Bible places a great deal of emphasis on children obeying parents. We encounter the language of obedience in many of the interpretations and applications of the fifth commandment. Yet as we dig deeper, we find something interesting: the language of obedience tends to come in passages speaking to young children who are still dependent upon their parents. When we come to passages speaking to adult children, we find a subtle switch to language of respect and provision. Thus obedience is a particular form of honor—a form of honor for young children.
All children are to honor their parents at all times. But when children are young, honor most often takes the form of obedience. This is why when Paul interprets the fifth commandment to young children (Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20) he says, “Children, obey your parents.” To obey is to submit to the will of a person who rightfully holds a position of authority, to comply with their demands or their requests. It is, as we teach our children, to “do it now, do it right, and do it with a happy heart.” Obedience is a child’s display of honor.
Parents are right to expect and demand obedience of their children and children are right to show honor to their parents through that obedience. It is obedience to parents that trains children to be submissive to every other authority, including God himself. It is under the training and discipline of parents that children are prepared to live orderly lives in this world. John MacArthur says it well: “Children who respect and obey their parents will build a society that is ordered, harmonious, and productive. A generation of undisciplined, disobedient children will produce a society that is chaotic and destructive.”
As it pertains to parents and their young children, obedience is meant to be a temporary measure that lasts as long as children are under the authority of their parents. Childhood is a period of training under the tutelage of parents. Parents force their children to obey so children will learn honor and then spend the rest of their lives honoring parents, teachers, bosses, and governments. A parent’s training in obedience is returned in lifelong honor.
But what is honor? Biblically, the word honor refers to weight or significance. To honor our parents we are to attach great worth to them and great value to our relationship with them. John Currid explains, “The point is that a child must not take his or her parents lightly, or think lightly of them. They must be regarded with great seriousness and value.” We can learn what honor looks like by examining the passages that describe the judgments befalling those who dishonor their parents. These are the passages from the civil law and wisdom literature we looked at last time: Leviticus 20:9, Proverbs 30:17, and so on.
What do we find? Children who dishonor their parents are rebellious and stubbornly resistant to the discipline that would lead them out of that rebellion. They may be verbally abusive, mocking and cursing their parents. They may even be physically violent toward them. If we turn to the New Testament we find that their dishonor may take the form of refusing to care for their parents or provide for their physical and monetary needs (Mark 7:8-13, 1 Timothy 5:8).
Thus to honor our parents we are to respect and revere them, to speak well of them and to treat them with kindness, gentleness, dignity, and esteem. We are to ensure they are cared for and even to make provision for them when necessary. Dennis Rainey says, “Honor is an attitude accompanied by actions that say to your parents, ‘You are worthy. You have value. You are the person God sovereignly placed in my life.” All of that and much more is bound up in this little word.
Obey Today, Honor Forever
We need to consider why the basic requirement of the fifth commandment is not obedience but honor. I am convinced there are at least two reasons: Eventually we are no longer obligated to obey our parents and, even before then, there are times we cannot or must not obey them. To say it another way, there are times we can disobey our parents while still honoring them.
The end of obedience. There comes a time when obeying parents is no longer appropriate. The task of parents is to raise their children to become independent, to function outside of parental authority. In most cases, the parent-child relationship will be permanently altered at the moment of marriage when “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (Genesis 2:24). As a child becomes independent of his parents he leaves their oversight and authority. He no longer owes obedience in the same way or to the same degree.
The sin of obedience. There may also be occasions when obedience is sinful, such as when parents command their children to sin or when they command their children to disobey God or government. When this happens a child must disobey mom and dad in order to obey a higher authority. Another occasion for acceptable disobedience is when parents demand obedience of their adult children or when their demands for obedience become overbearing or abusive. In such cases the child is under no God-given obligation to obey.
God’s basic command to humanity is not “obey your father and mother” because obedience ends and at times can even be sinful. Instead, God’s command is “honor your father and mother” because honor never ends and is never wrong.
Perfect Honor, Perfect Obedience
We are not without a biblical model of honor and obedience. We see them both perfectly displayed in Jesus. Though he was God, he was born to earthly parents and he willingly, joyfully, perfectly honored and obeyed them both. We see his childhood obedience in Luke 2:51 “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” We see his honor when, in the moments before his death, he ensured provision for his mother: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26-27).
And just as Jesus honored and obeyed his earthly mother and father, he honored and obeyed his heavenly Father. In all he did he spoke well of his Father, he directed glory to him, he carried out his will. And, of course, he obeyed his Father: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Without losing a trace of autonomy or dignity, Jesus honored and obeyed. If we want to honor and obey our parents we must learn about Jesus. If we want our children to honor and obey us, we must teach them about Jesus. He, as always, is the example of how to perfectly obey God’s perfect law.
In our next article we will look at matters related to culture to see how culture changes our understanding of honor. Later we will look at some of the hard cases in which giving honor is especially difficult. We will also dig up some practical helps to show even more clearly how we can honor our parents. And, of course, we will need to consider how we, as parents, can ensure we are worthy of honor.
Let’s end on a happy note. We know there are two great blessings wrapped up in honoring our parents: A long life and a good life. If we dig a little deeper into the New Testament we find there is one more great blessing. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). Our honor makes God happy. Why? Because in honoring our parents we are honoring the God who gave us our parents. So why not take some time today to consider how you can honor your parents. After all, your honor toward your parents pleases and glorifies God.