Family Matters | Exodus 20:12

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  • The Ten Commandments begin with a theological emphasis and then move to ethical issues. Exodus 20:1-17 assumes one must have a proper relationship with God to have a proper relationship with your neighbor. 

    • Theology comes before ethics. 
    • Religion comes before morality. 
    • Worship comes before community. 

    The Ten Commandments teach us to love God before they teach us to love one another. When the Decalogue moves from loving God to loving neighbor, the first commandment is: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Before the sanctity of life, sexual morality, respect for other’s property, the importance of honesty, or the curbing of jealousy, God commands us to respect our parents. 

    The command to honor your parents is the first ethical command. Or is it? In the first five commandments, there is a recurring phrase: “The Lord your God.” The Preamble in verse 2 says, “I am the Lord your God.” In verse 5, the second commandment says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” In verse 7, the third commandment says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In verse 10, the fourth commandment says, “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” In verse 12, the fifth commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” The repeated self-reference indicates this Fifth Word continues to teach us to relate to God. 

    God takes how you treat your parents personally. “Honor” is the word for the glory of God. Honor your parents as seriously as you glorify God. Do not break the first commandment to keep the fifth. Exodus 20:3 says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Parents make feeble gods. Do not worship them. Honor them for the glory of the Lord. 

    Why should you honor your parents? Let me offer four answers. First, Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Second, Deuteronomy 5:16 says, “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.” Third, Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this right.” Colossians 3:20 says, “Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” 

    This Fifth Word teaches five ways in which family matters. 

    The Priority of Family 

      I believe our society is under the wrath of God. It is not the cataclysmic wrath with which the Lord destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. It is the wrath of abandonment. Romans 1:28-30 explains: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless heartless, ruthless.” 

      One of the indicators of a society that has lost its way is children being disobedient to their parents. 2 Timothy 3:1-2 says, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy.” Times of trouble are always marked by disobedience to parents. The way out of trouble is to obey the Fifth Word: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

      J.I. Packer wrote: “The family is the basic spiritual unit, in which God makes parents their children’s pastors and teachers.” It is in the home that children are to learn to submit to authority. If they do not learn it at home, they will have problems submitting to authority figures outside the home. More importantly, if children do not learn to submit to their parents’ authority, they will be severely hindered from learning to fear God. Augustine asked: “If anyone fails to honor his parents, is there anyone he will spare?” 

      We are sinners. In our sinfulness, we rebel against God, desiring to rule over our own lives. But one of the practical ways the Lord works to show us ourselves as we are is by giving us parents. The fact that we have parents blasts the notion that we are self-made, independent, and autonomous. As great as you think you are, you have a belly button. You did not get here on your own. Your conception, survival, and maturation have resulted from others’ care for you. 

      Romans 13:17 says, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to all what taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” In the home, we learn to give honor to whom honor is due. The church should stand against any institutionphilosophy, or movement that undermines the priority of the family. Rebellion against God does not start with rebellion against God. It begins with rebellion against the parents. Luke 2:51 says, “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” In John 19:26-27, Jesus stopped dying on the cross long enough to ensure his mother had somewhere to stay. You cannot be like Christ if you dishonor parents, despise family, or rebel against authority. 

      The Order of the Home 

        Since Adam and Eve fell into sin and were expelled from the Garden of Eden, every family has failed to live up to the divine order of the home. We are now living in a culture that has formally rejected God’s order for the home. As a young pastor, I understood I would have to defend the Christian view of the home. I never thought I would have to define the Christian view of the home. Such are the times we live in. The traditional family structure is now considered outdated, offensive, and oppressive. Society has not offered a more excellent way. Instead, we keep trying to embrace biblical terms without embracing biblical truth. Without stuttering, God still says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

        The subjects to whom this fifth commandment is issued are not named. The objects are specified: “your father and mother.” It is not accidental or incidental that the father is mentioned first. This does not exalt men or devalue women. It acknowledges the fact that God has made man the head of home. Anything without a head is dead. Anything without more than one head is a monster. Yet this Fifth Word must not be written off as patriarchal. It also commands us to honor the mother as equal to the father. Leviticus 19:3 says, “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father,” mentioning the mother first. God has ordained that the father be the head of the home and the mother be the heart of the home. 

        This parental terminology is singular, not plural: “father and mother,” not fathers and mothers. This fifth commandment makes a twofold assumption. It is assumed the father and mother were married before they had children. It also assumed the father and mother did not end their marriage in divorce. Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” 

        Matthew 19:4-6 says, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Half of the children in America grow up in single-parent homes. That statistic is much higher in minority communities. The vast majority of all single-parent homes are led by mothers without fathers.

         The Lord has ordered that the home be led by father and mother, not mother and mother or father and father. We have already lost the battle for marriage in our society. We are rapidly losing the battle for manhood and womanhood. Failure to comply with society’s unbiblical, contradictory, and inconsistent definition of reality is said to be on the wrong side of history. But the church must be more concerned about being on the right side of eternity. Truth is not preceded by the definite article, not a personal pronoun. It may be my feelings, opinion, perspective, experience, or preference. It cannot be my truth.

        We have lost the ability to distinguish between truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil. Worse than that, our confusion is confusing our children. Matthew 18:5-6 says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” 

        The Calling of Parenthood 

          A father was zealous in going to synagogue and demanded the same from his children. Their religion was the center of their family life. His family was forced to move to another town in Germany. This new town was Lutheran and did not have a synagogue. The father announced the family would join the Lutheran church because it was necessary to help his business. His son’s anger resulted in lifelong bitterness. He went to study in England. He sat at the British Museum formulating his ideas and composing a book, which introduced a new worldview and movement designed to change the world. In the book, he described religion as an “opiate for the masses” that could be explained in terms of economics. His name was Karl Marx. Millions of people would live under the system this bitter man invented. The influence of his father’s hypocrisy is still being felt worldwide today. 

          In commanding children to honor their father and mother, the Fifth Word commands parents to live honorable lives. Parents have a divine obligation to live worthy of the honor God commands children to give. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”Who is to train them? Parents who know the way should train them because you cannot teach what you do not know. Parents who walk the way should train them because you cannot lead where you do not go. 

          Deuteronomy 6:4-6 reads: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.” With these words, Moses called Israel to devotion to God. Then Deuteronomy 6:7-9 reads: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Before parents are commanded to teach children, they must love God wholeheartedly.

          As a man and his son climbed a mountain, they came to a place where the climb was difficult. The father stopped to consider which way he should go. From behind him, his son said, “Choose the good path, Dad! I’m right behind you!” Our children are walking in our shadows. Choose the good path!

          The Duty of Children 

            What is the duty of children? Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and your mother.” The Hebrew word translated “honor” means “to be heavy.” In the ancient Near East, to be heavy was evidence that a person was affluent and worthy of great attention, due respect, and special treatment. The idea does not register with most of us. But in a land often visited by famine, drought, and pestilence, overweight people were treated like celebrities. God uses this word to say that our parents are worthy of great attention, due respect, and special treatment. Your father and mother deserve a ton of respect! 

            Honor your parents no matter how old you are. Many mistakenly view the Fifth Word as the “Children’s Sermon” of the Decalogue. But God is not just speaking to those who are under 18 years old, who still live under their parents’ roof, or who are dependent upon their parents. God is talking to children of all ages. You will always be your parent’s child, no matter how old you get. And they will always be your parents. Therefore, you have a responsibility to honor your parents all the days of your life.

            Of course, how you honor them will change as you get older. Growing children honor their parents by being obedient, showing respect, and appreciating what they do for them. Adult children honor their parents by ensuring their basic needs are met, living exemplary lives that reflect their parents’ teaching, and regularly affirming their love for them. The difference is merely one of application. The principle does not change. Adulthood, maturity, and independence do not give you license to disrespect your parents. 

              • If you are three, thirty, or three hundred, honor your parents. 
              • If you live in their house, or they live in your house, honor your parents. 
              • If they pay the bills, or you pay the bills, honor your parents. 
              • If they tuck you in at night, or you tuck them in, honor your parents. 
              • If they are caring for you, or you are caring for them, honor your parents. 

              Honor your parents no matter how bad they are. I recognize you may not have been raised in a traditional family structure. It seems your upbringing has been your downfall. However, no matter how unique, difficult, or painful your situation may be, you are not excused from this fifth commandment. 

               Honor your stepparents. Honor your adoptive parents. Honor your foster parents. Honor your legal guardians. Honor that relative who raised you as if you were theirs. Honor your parents who have died. Honor deceased parents by cherishing their memory. Honor them by living in a way that would make them proud. Honor them by repenting to God for things you cannot apologize to them. Honor them by moving on with your life. Honor your unsaved parents. Honor them by loving them. Honor them by praying for their salvation. Honor them by seeking opportunities to have gospel conversations. Honor them by making sure your lifestyle does not contradict your witness. 

              How do you honor parents who are not honorable? Honor your parents anyway. The thought of your parents may bring thoughts of abandonment, neglect, grief, incest, or manipulation. Forgive them. Pray for godly changes in their lives. Honor the position, not the personality. 

              Honor your parents because God thought enough of them to make them your parents. For God’s sake, look past their character and honor them for the position God has given them in your life. Trust that God is good, even if your parents are not. And remember that only perfect children have the right to demand perfect parents. Peter J. Leithart wrote: “Your parents aren’t God, but they are God’s gifts to you, as you are God’s gifts to them. The way you treat them should resemble the way you respond to God.”

              The Blessing of Obedience 

              As Paul noted in Ephesians 6:2, the Fifth Word is the first commandment with a promise: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land your God is giving you.” This promise is a subtle warning. It was a warning to individuals of the consequences of dishonoring parents. Exodus 21:15 says, “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” Exodus 21:17 says, “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” 

              It was also a warning to the nation about dishonoring parents. Ezekiel 22:7 explains why the punishment of God would come upon Israel: “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless are the widow are wronged by you.”  

              This promise is not merely a warning. It is a true promise. If the nation obeyed this command to honor their parents, it would ensure their longevity in the Promised Land of Canaan. The odds of a longer life were better for individuals who honored their parents. Paul understood the promise that way. Ephesians 6:3 says children should obey their parents “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” God blesses obedience. 

              If a poll were taken to select the most rebellious child in the Bible, the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable would probably get the most votes. But there was another son in the Bible who was even more rebellious: Absalom, the son of King David. Absalom had everything going for him. He was intelligent, handsome, and charismatic. He also had a proud heart that expressed itself in rebellious ways. Absalom’s half-brother, Amnon, raped his sister, Tamar. When his father David did not execute justice, Absalom took matters into his own hands and killed his Amnon. Then Absalom sought to take his father’s throne.

              David loved Absalom, even though his son waged war against him. As David’s soldiers prepared for battle, 2 Samuel 18:5 says David told one of his generals, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”  

              Absalom died in battle. When David received the news, he was inconsolable. 2 Samuel 18:33 reads: And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”No matter how much David’s heart ached, he could not die for his rebellious son. A greater King and Father also had his heart broken by his children’s rebellion. That King and Father is God. We are all rebellious sinners. However, when we rebelled, God did not merely wish that he could have died for us. God came in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He suffered, bled, and died in our place. He rose from the dead so that we may honor the Father in this life and for all eternity by faith in him! 


              H.B. Charles Jr.

              Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.