The first four commands centered on God and worship of him. You must have no other gods before him. You must not make any graven image that would be worshiped or treated as an image of God. You must keep God’s name holy. You must keep the Sabbath holy by stopping your work and focusing on God’s deliverance. The final six commandments center on the treatment of other people. But the first commandment regarding others is not about murder, stealing, or adultery. Rather, the first commandment after the commands directed toward God is about family. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12 ESV) This is a commandment that we know very well. Its location in the decalogue reveals that the relationship between the child and the parent is paramount. It is critically important. But what does it mean to honor your father and your mother? What does this look like?
The idea of honoring your parents includes respecting your parents. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people 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 you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:1–3 ESV) Further, honor your father and your mother means obeying what they tell you to do. When the apostle Paul quotes this commandment, listen to how it is understood.
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 ESV) In the Colossian letter, the apostle Paul spoke similarly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Colossians 3:20 ESV) But we should not read these commands about obeying parents and think that this is all that the command means. We honor our parents through obedience but we also recognize that obedience can be offered without honor. There must be the reverence and respect given to our parents because they are our parents. There is no other reason given. Because they are our parents, they must be given respect because they have that position in our lives. The scriptures contain many condemnations for dishonoring one’s parents.
For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him. (Leviticus 20:9 ESV)
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, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21 ESV)
The law taught children to not kill their parents (Exodus 21:15), curse their parents (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), steal from their parents (Proverbs 28:24), or treat their parents with scorn (Deuteronomy 27:16). We live in a sad time where parents are disregarded and are not honored or respected. Our society is a far cry from ancient societies and even modern societies in other regions where children obey their parents and give them honor because they are parents all the days of their lives. In those societies the children listen to and honor their parents all the days of their lives.
Honor Till Death
Now we may wonder if we have to honor and obey our parents when we are older. Is turning 18 or 21 the arbitrary line where this command no longer applies? I think it is important to notice that the command did not give an age limitation for this command. It is difficult to suppose that the first command given after the commands about obedience to God was directed merely to little children to obey their parents. But the scriptures confirm that this is a lifelong expectation of God’s people.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Matthew 15:1–6 ESV)
You will notice that Jesus applies the command to honor your father and your mother to these Pharisees and scribes because they were not caring financially for their parents. Please consider that the command for honoring parents was not nullified simply by age. The parents were to continue to be honored. We must recognize that children were the ancient social security and nursing care system. Care for one’s parents was to continue throughout their lifetimes because this is a way that we honor them. Today we see the opposite. I cannot tell you how many stories I have of people that I have seen in nursing homes and assisted living facilities whose children have no regard for them at all. Now I want to quickly admit that there may be reasons for this. When someone dies alone, I consider what the parent did to cause the children to have no regard for him or her. Perhaps they have lived selfishly and drove their children away. I understand the complexity of these relationships. I also understand that there can be a time where the children cannot physically care for parents any longer. It is not that they do not want to, but that they simply cannot because the needs of the parent are too difficult or complex and requires a facility to help. Please understand that I am not offering some absolute rule but the idea that God intended. Parents are to lovingly care for their children and love their children, raising them in the ways of the Lord. In turn the children will loving care for their parents and love them by helping them until they die. The command to honor our parents will not be easy because parents are human and sinful. If it was always easy to honor our parents then the commandment would not be necessary.
But the scriptures give limitations to this honor as well. This limitation was the very first declaration given to the marriage relationship. Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24 ESV) We often focus on the end of the declaration, as we see marriage instituted. But consider the beginning of the sentence because it is very important. Adam and Eve did not have parents. So this command was given for all generations that the man will leave his father and his mother. The man’s primary responsibility moves to your own family without negating the need to honor them. Now this new marriage relationship becomes the primary concern for decisions and the parents become the secondary concern. The parents are not cast aside but they cannot be destructive, invasive, or damaging to the marriage relationship. He is to leave his parents and cling to her. So we do not bend to selfish, manipulating parents but still give them honor and respect. We do not hurt our own family for their sake while at the same time ensuring that they have the care God desires them to have. I believe the reason why these commands to leave father and mother while at the same time to honor them are vague is by God’s intention, knowing that our circumstances are complex. Not all parties in the relationship will act as they ought. So we are sometimes left with tough decisions.
Raising Honoring Children
Listen to this concern for our children. “Youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, no respect for older people, and talk nonsense when they should work. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk to much in company, guzzle their food, lay they legs on the table, and tyrannize their elders.” Socrates said this 400 years before Christ. The problem then is the problem today. There is a grave sin that parents commit when they rear children to be self-centered by letting them get their way, letting their desires rule the family, order our world around their whims, sparing the rod, and spoiling the child. Children are not born honoring their parents but must be taught to do this. The reason is very important, which is declared in the commandment given by God. Exodus 20:12 says, “That your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
This is a corporate promise to Israel. Disobedient children would cause Israel to be cast out of the land of Canaan. Leviticus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (which we looked at earlier) reveal that dishonoring your parents is a covenantal crime. God says the evil must be purged from their midst. God is saying that if you want to stay in a blessed relationship with God and remain in the promised land, you will raise your children to honor, respect, and obey you. The reasoning should be clear to our minds. A life of sin stems from disobeying and disrespecting parents. Children will not learn obedience to God and respect God without first obeying and respecting their parents. Parents are the first and foremost representatives of the authority structures of life. If your children do not respect and honor you, why will they honor and respect the laws of the land? If you children do not respect and honor you, why will they honor and respect their teachers? If your children do not respect and honor you, why will they honor and respect God? If your children do not obey you, why will they obey the laws of the land? If your children do not obey you, why will they obey their teachers? If your children do not obey you, why will they obey God? So not only is this a corporate promise to Israel but also to individual children. If your children are not honoring, respecting, and obeying you now (as a toddler, preschooler, elementary school age, pre-teen, or teenager), then your children are not going to make it well in life physically or spiritually because they are not going to respect any authority in life. When your children are young, you must teach, expect, and demand respect and obedience because it will not come on its own later. That is why the scriptures are filled with instructions about training your children and how to teach your children (Deuteronomy 6; Proverbs 22:6; 2 Timothy 3:2). Disrespectful children are an abomination to the Lord, deserving of death by God’s economy.
God’s expectations for his covenant people are summed up well in Malachi. It is the final words of the prophetic book.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:5–6 ESV)
Parents cannot allow disobedience and must teach their children to respect them and honor them. We must train this into our children. Constant godly instruction plus consistent discipline must be merged together to bring this about. Honoring your parents is a lifelong expectation by God. Love your God and honor your father and your mother.