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Sermon Message

"Honor Father and Mother"

Exodus 20:12
Theme: God instructs us to reverence Him by honoring the authority that He places over us.

(Delivered Sunday, September 28, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)


There are a couple of stories in the New Testament that, I believe, provide us with a very good introduction to this morning's subject.

The first concerns the only story we have in the Bible about Jesus' days as a youth. Luke tells us that, when Jesus was only twelve, He went up from Nazareth with His mother Mary and adopted father Joseph to Jerusalem. They went to celebrate the Feast of Passover, as was the custom of that day. And after spending the appointed number of days there, Mary and Joseph began to make the journey home - supposing that young Jesus was travelling in the midst of all the other friends and relatives. But after travelling for a day's journey, and realizing that Jesus was not with them, they returned to Jerusalem to look for Him.

Luke tells us that, when the desperate parents came back to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph still had to search for Him for a while - perhaps as much as a full day. Can you imagine their anxiety? But after missing Him for three days, they finally found Him in an unexpected place - and their anxiety turned into amazement. They found Him sitting in the temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by scholars and teachers who were interviewing Him, and who were astonished at His wisdom and understanding.

Now; before we go any further with this story, stop and think of what that fact alone is telling us about Jesus. He had profound wisdom and understanding - wisdom and understanding that amazed the doctors and theologians of His day. But His wisdom did not come from the fact that He was simply a remarkable youngster who was learned beyond His years. Mary's Boy had such amazing wisdom and understanding because - as Luke explained earlier - He was the eternal Son of God in human flesh. Long before that time - long before time itself, in fact - the eternal Godhead held council together to form the plan for the redemption of fallen humanity. And in that plan, the Son of God - the second Person of the triune Godhead - would condescend to assume full humanity to Himself, be conceived in the womb of Mary, be born into the world of fallen humanity, and then die on the cross as our Savior from sins.

And so, the Bible teaches us that this same Jesus who was being so diligently searched for by Mary and Joseph, and who was astonishing the scholars and teachers with His wisdom, was none other than the eternal Son of God in human flesh. He who was sitting in their midst and before their eyes was the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. All things were made for Him and through Him; and He existed before all things; and by Him all things are held together. And long before this Boy walked on the earth, it was before His throne that the angelic hosts of glory lay prostrate in reverent worship. The very Boy sitting among them held exclusive Creator-rights over all dominions or principalities or powers or authorities - and even over those who then listened to Him.

That is what's in the background of this story; and I don't believe we can fully appreciate what happens next without keeping that firmly in mind. You see; when Mary and Joseph finally found Him - and when they got over their initial amazement and pulled Him away from the astonished scholars and teachers - His mother scolded Him. "Son," she said - and you can almost see her motherly finger waging - "why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought you anxiously" (Luke 2:48). And neither Joseph or Mary understood the answer He gave to them - "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" (v. 49). But notice carefully what Luke goes on to tell us; "Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth"; and particularly note His manner toward them - "... and was subject to them ..." (v. 51).

Now; don't you agree that this story demonstrates that Jesus was superior to everyone around Him? At twelve, He proved Himself to be not only wiser than His mother and adopted father, but even wiser than the brilliant scholars and intellectuals of His day - so much so that they asked Him questions! He was the Son of God in human flesh; and even as a youngster, His true nature and identity could not be hidden from those who encountered Him. And yet, as great and wise as He was, He willingly submitted Himself to the authority of humble Joseph and Mary. No child ever engaged in a greater act of parental submission than our Lord and Master engaged in toward His earthly parents.

* * * * * * * * * *

That's one story. But another occurs a little over twenty-one years later, at the end of Jesus' life on earth. Jesus had been crucified like a common criminal; and as He hung on the cross to die for our sins, His poor mother Mary stood before Him; and Jesus' disciple John stood with her. Apparently Joseph had died some time before this; and now she alone beheld Her first-born Son as He died - and as He bore the sins of the world upon Himself. When she and Joseph had searched for Him when He was a twelve-year-old child, she was in great anxiety because she feared something had happened to Him. But can you imagine Mary's anguish as she beheld Him now? I believe that this was what the old man Simeon meant when he prophesied to her, "... Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also ..." (Luke 2:35).

Now don't you agree that if ever there was a time that a man could be excused from caring for his broken-hearted and widowed mother's needs, it would be as he was suffering and dying in such a horrible way? And Jesus could be excused even more than any other, because He at that time bore the sins of the whole world upon Himself - even Mary's and John's. But the Apostle John, in his Gospel, tells us, "When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold your son!' Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!' And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:26-27).

Even then - even at such a time as that - the Savior of the world saw to it that His precious mother's needs were met. He even saw to it that she'd not only have someone taking care of her, but that she'd have a "son" to love in His place.

I tell you those two stories to show you that no one was more obedient to the words of this morning's passage than our wonderful Savior. He is the perfect example of keeping the spirit of the fifth commandment; and yet, if anyone truly had a right to excuse Himself from this commandment's requirements, it would have been the incarnate Son of God.

That commandment says,

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).

And our Master kept it faithfully and perfectly - as shown at both the beginning of His earthly life, and at His life's end. And so, how could anyone else among us that claim to be His followers dare to think he or she had a right to be considered exempt from it?

* * * * * * * * * *

Think about this commandment with me in the context of the ten commandments as a whole. It immediately follows the last of the first four commandments - those four commandments that we call "the first table of the law". Those first four commandments govern our relationship with God Himself. And then, this commandment is the first of the last six - those six commandments we call "the second table of the law". Those last six govern our relationship with other people. The first commandment lifts us up to the heights of heavenly glory and tells us that we are to worship no other god but the one true God. And likewise, the last commandment takes us down to 'street-level' practicality and tells us that we are not to covet the things that God has given to other people.

And joining these two broad sections of the commandments together are these two commandments. The fourth commandment takes the theme of right worship of God as far as it can extend it to the realm of practical, everyday practice, and tells us to cease our work once a week and honor God's holy day. And the fifth commandment takes the theme of right dealings with other people as close as it can take it to the realm of reverence toward God, and tells us to honor the authority figures God has placed in our lives as His representatives to us.

In other words, these two commandments - the fourth and the fifth - serve as a bridge that joins lofty worship with practical living. God saw fit to join them together in one breath in Leviticus 19:1-3; "And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God."'"

This commandment to honor our father and mother is inseparably connected to right reverence toward God. And I believe it's because this is so that God commanded Israel to take the sin of breaking it very seriously. In the giving of His law, God says, "Cursed is the one who treats his father or his mother with contempt" (Deut. 27:16). One of the more unpleasant of the Proverbs expands graphically on this curse and says, "The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley will pick it out, and the young eagles will eat it." (Prov. 30:17). In fact, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 tells us just how seriously the people of Israel were to take this commandment:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear (Deut. 21:18-21).

In other words, a consistent breaking of the fifth commandment was a capital offense in Israel!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now this, of course, means that if we had been living under the theocracy of ancient Israel, several of us would be under a pile of rocks right now! And I'm not proposing that we make the persistent violation of the fifth commandment a capital crime in our day. But there's no getting around the fact that it is a profoundly grievous and serious sin in the eyes of God - even for us who live in the twenty-first century! Listen to the kinds of sins with which the apostle Paul says this one keeps company. Paul says God gave some over

... to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting: being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, DISOBEDIENT TO PARENTS ..." (Rom. 1:28-30, emphasis added).

Does it surprise you to see disobedience to parents listed among such things? We might not have included it in such a list; but the Holy Spirit - speaking through Paul - did! Paul told Timothy that, in the last days, perilous times will come;

For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, DISOBEDIENT TO PARENTS, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God ... (2 Tim. 3:2-4, emphasis added).

Do you see what vile company this sin keeps? Some may not think of this as such a bad sin; but God most certainly does - and if folks minimize it today, they must repent and see it as God sees it - or else find themselves arguing with their Creator! You cannot walk with God and, at the same time, embrace a sin such as this that He brings such a curse upon! You cannot live a life of holiness before God and have, in your life, a sin that is worthy to be placed in lists of things so vile as these! You cannot live in obedience to the first four commandments while, at the same time, disregarding the fifth!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; before we go any further, I want to recognize a very difficult problem in all this. I know that for a few of us - and for some very grievous reasons - this commandment is a hard pill to swallow. It would be easy to honor parents if parents always lived honorably. But the truth is that none of us have had perfect parents; and some of us have had parents who were profoundly imperfect. There are some here this morning who had parents who were inconsistent, or unfaithful, or irresponsible. Some have grown up under parents that had been unfaithful to one another, or who had abandoned or neglected their children, or who engaged in practices and habits that harmed everyone else in the family. Some have even grown up under a parent who was cruel, or controlling, or inappropriate, or abusive, or violent - and you bear the emotional and physical scars of such things even into adulthood.

Many such believing people still have to deal with their parents; and they will always struggle in their spirits with the idea of "honoring" them. But that's what God calls us to do; and we must obey Him. So how do we do this? How do we reconcile our sense of moral responsibility to obey God's commandment with the fact that we may have parents who have lived dishonorably and hurtfully toward us?

Let me suggest some basic things. First, it's important to remember that God understands that struggle and is compassionate toward those in it. God never calls us to pretend that terrible things did not happen to us, or that sins were not committed against us. And we certainly should never take this commandment to mean that anyone should remain in an abusive or dangerous situation. After all, to show "honor" to someone does not mean we must continue to be their victim, or allow them to persist in doing evil to us. We should always call sin for what it is - even when it's found in our own parents.

But second a second thing I think it helps to remember is that all true authority - including parental authority - is first of all God's authority; and that it flows down from Him to those He has placed over us. Paul explained this in Romans 13 - there speaking of governing authorities. He wrote; "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Rom. 13:1-2).

This means that all legitimate authority is "derivative" in nature. If we seek to faithfully honor the authority of those whom He has placed over us - even if they don't always act worthy of such honor - we are really seeking to honor God first. We honor God by honoring the authority He has placed over us. If our God-appointed authority ever orders us to do something that God says not to do, then our first obligation is to obey God; and we must say - as the apostles said - "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

So, we always owe honor to the parents God had placed over us - even if they acted dishonorably when we were under their direct authority, and even if they act dishonorably still. Our duty before God toward them is not set aside because they failed to perform their God-appointed duty toward us. Now, it may be hard to know how to do this in practice; and I suspect that it will mean different things in different situations. But I believe that we are on proper ground if we can pray, "God; You here command me to honor my parents. And even though I find it hard in my flesh to do so, I hereby do so first by submitting to You. And I pray that, in my desire to first honor You, You will give me the ability and the wisdom to honor them. Take my bitterness and resentment away. Help me to rebuke sin where I see it; and empower me to forgive sin when it is confessed. But in all of it, help me to honor You by properly honoring them to the best of my ability."

I believe God will help you and guide you, if you seek Him first in that way.

* * * * * * * * * *

All that being said, let's now take a closer look at the words of this commandment. We see, first ...


God says, "Honor your father and your mother". Here, God points to the most basic and foundational concept of human authority we ever encounter in life. Our whole understand of human authority finds its beginning point in our relationship to father and mother. It is from them that, ordinarily, we learn about all the other authority figures God places over us - and even about God Himself. I believe it's the very first commandment we learn to keep in life. I believe that's why the apostle Paul wrote to the young people in Ephesus and said, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother', which is the first commandment with promise: "that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth'" (Eph. 6:1-3).

You see; this is not the first commandment in the list of the ten commandments that has a promise attached; because commandments two, three and four all have promises attached to them as well. Rather, this one is the first commandment you and I ever learn in life; and it's the first with a promise attached, because it's our first experience in life with cause-and-effect relationships. Generally speaking, we learn very early in life that things will go better for us if we will obey our father and mother. That's why it's "the first commandment with promise". It's a foundational commandment connected to the foundational people in our lives; and from it, we learn that our lives will go better if we honor God above all else, and honor the authority figures He has placed over us.

* * * * * * * * * *

This means that we are right to see the words of this commandment as simply giving us the starting point; and to understand it as expanding far beyond its words to include all the authority figures God has placed over us. Who are these authority figures? The first, and most obvious is - of course - our fathers and mothers. But it would also include - in their proper and appointed realms of authority - such figures as our teachers, or our employers, or our civil and governmental leaders, and our spiritual leaders.

In other words, God - in this command to honor father and mother - is laying the foundation for His own rule over our whole social and relational life. This is why it is such an important beginning to the second table of the law. If God can teach us to acknowledge His authority through our fathers and mothers, then He can teach us to honor His authority through all of the other authority figures He has placed over us - and through them, to honor Him in the way we live among other people.

This leads us to consider, second ...


The command is to, "Honor your father and your mother ..."; and the Hebrew word used here basically means to "be heavy, or weighty". Metaphorically, it means "to give honor" or "reverential respect" to someone. Sometimes, we say that someone's opinion "carries a lot of weight" - meaning, that it is considered with esteem and is honored. That's the idea behind this word.

Now, what it means to "honor" authority means different things with respect to different types of authority. To honor our parents will mean, while we are young and living under their authority in the home, that we obey them and show respect for their rules. Colossians 3:20 says, "Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord". We're to follow the example Jesus set for us in the honor He paid to His own earthly parents. While living under their authority in the home, we're to respect them, never talk disrespectfully toward them, never talk badly about them to others, obey their rules without grumbling or complaining, and truly love them.

And if we've grown into adulthood and are no longer living under our parent's authority, and if they are older and in need, "honoring" them means that we also follow Jesus' example and provide for their care as they provided for us. Jesus was once rebuked by the scribes and Pharisees because He and His disciples did not wash their hands before eating in the traditional, ceremonial way. But Jesus responded by asking: "And why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?" (Matthew 15:3). The Jews had a tradition that allowed them to devote their goods or financial resources to God. If a scribe or Pharisee wished to avoid helping his needy parents, he could simply declare his money "given to God" - and thus, made unavailable for the meeting of their needs. Jesus said, "For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother;' and 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God' - then he need not honor father or mother. Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition" (vv. 4-6).

The Bible commands that, if a man has a widowed mother, he is to provide a living for her; "But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 4:8). We are to "honor" our parents by obeying them when we are young, and by providing for them in their time of need when we are older.

We're also to honor our employers as authority figures God has placed over us - and for young people, I believe this would also include teachers. The Bible says,

Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; and not with eyeservice, as menpleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Eph. 6:5-8).

To honor our employer or our teacher means to do faithfully what we've been called to do for them. It means to do our work for them faithfully - not just when they're watching. It means fulfilling their expectations in a way that pleases them. It means doing what they've called us to do heartily - as if we were doing our work for Jesus Himself.

We're also to honor our governing and civil authorities. Peter said, "Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king" (1 Peter 2:17). He said, "... Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good" (1 Peter 2:13-14). Paul said, "I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all those in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior" (1 Tim. 2:1-3).

To honor our governing authorities would mean to respect their positions of authority as having been given them from God. It would mean that we not speak against them or blaspheme them; because God says, "You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people" (Ex. 22:28). It means we support them with our prayers. It means we obey their laws - so long as they don't violate a clear command from God. And if their laws do violate a command from God, it means that we disobey in such a way as to maintain respect for the leader - not in a disorderly or rebellious manner. It means that we faithfully pay our taxes to our federal, state and local governments.

We're also to honor our spiritual authorities. The writer of Hebrews says, "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct" (Heb. 13:7). He writes, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (v. 17).

To honor our spiritual authorities would mean to recognize them as holding that position by the authority of God, and not to unduly resent them or resist them. It means to pray for the church leaders regularly. It means to seek their council, and obey them when they speak by the authority of God's word. It means to support them in their work financially, and to exercise our spiritual gifts under their direction and exhortation.

You see; what it means to "honor" the authority figures God has placed over us is going to mean different things with respect to different positions of authority. God gives us the broad principles, and we need to seek His leading in the specifics. But in all cases, we're to honor them as having authority over us by God's divine appointment; and we're to honor God through honoring them. We're to start by honoring God's authority in our lives; then to honor our father and our mother; and then also honor all God-appointed authority.

In the original language, this commandment speaks as if to the second person singular; that is, not as if addressing a group but as if addressing an individual. Each one of us, as individual men and women before God, are to honor "our" father and mother - not all fathers and mothers as if they were our own. And I take this to be a reminder that we are not bound to authorities God has placed over other people, but strictly to those He has placed over us. And I notice that this commandment speaks of showing honor to both father and mother equally - not showing preference for one over the other in our honor. I take that to be a reminder that, though we don't "honor" all our authority figures in exactly the same way, we are nevertheless bound to give - without bias - the appropriate honor due to each of them.

* * * * * * * * * *

And finally, notice ...


God says that we're to do this "that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you".

These words were specifically spoken to the people of Israel, who were delivered from their bondage in Egypt so that they may enter into the land God was giving them. Long life on the land was a symbol of God's blessings; and so, God is here promising a great blessing to those who honor the authority He places over them.

This is based on a general principle of blessing that follows obedience to God's commandments. God told the people of Israel,

Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged (Deut. 6:1-2).

Peter reflected this principle when he wrote,

Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. For "He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek pease and pursue it. For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His hears are open to their prayers; but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil" (1 Peter 3:8-12; see also Psalm 34:12-16).

God's blessings rest upon those who reverence Him by honoring the authority He places over them; and here, these blessings are presented as "earthly" in nature. Now we have to recognize this as a general principle; because sometimes God's blessings on someone do not necessarily mean a long life on earth. As Arthur Pink has written, "... All promises of earthly blessing ... must necessarily imply this condition: they shall be literally fulfilled to us if this would promote our eternal happiness - otherwise they would be threatenings and not promises. In His mercy God often abridges this promise and takes His beloved home to Himself."1

The greatest blessing we will ever enjoy, of course, is to be eternally in God's presence. But as far as earthly blessings go, you can be confident of the general promise that - as Paul has said - that honoring your authority figures will be "well pleasing to the Lord" (Col. 3:20); and you should do so in order that "if may be well with you" (Eph. 6:3).

* * * * * * * * * *

The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wrote, "Disobedient children stand in a place where all God's arrows fly." May we, instead, stand in the place where His blessings surely come. May we, by God's grace, follow the example of our Savior; whose food it was to do the will of His Father (John 4:34). May we, like Him, honor father and mother.

1Arthur Pink, The Ten Commandments; from The Best of Arthur Pink (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 237.

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