For a brief time after college, I worked in a nursing home. That job was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, because I worked with elderly people for whom I was not only a caretaker but also a friend and companion. I worked on the dementia unit, and at first I expected to be seeing the children of these lovely people visit often. Sadly, after only a couple of weeks, I soon realized that these elderly folks rarely received visits from their children, most of whom still lived in the vicinity. I was convicted by my experience to never forget the loving care my parents have given me when they one day might need the same care and attention.
The fifth commandment tells us to honor our father and mother. But how does this command play out in real life when children are under their parents’ care, as well as when they become adults? Let’s see what the Bible has to say about the fifth commandment.
1. The fifth commandment is rooted in God’s structure of creation.
God has given authority to various offices within the structure of his created order, and one of those offices is the office of parent. The family was built into the fabric of creation from the beginning with Adam and Eve. They were given the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). This was reiterated after the flood when Noah was also commanded to repopulate the earth. The family structure not only provides for the population of the world but also is for the good of children and society in general. Thus, the fifth commandment is crucial for us to study and understand, because it relates directly to how God has ordained and ordered this world.
2. Honoring our parents is one way we honor and love God.
Obeying parents is one way that children honor and obey God. The fifth commandment comes with a promise, namely "that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Ex. 20:21). Honoring parents was tied to the promise of a land that would belong both to parents and their descendants. For Old Testament believers, living and flourishing in the promised land was contingent upon obeying God's commandments (Lev. 26:3-13). Children were included in God's covenant with Israel thus they too were called to obey God in order to live in the promised land.
Children who honored their parents would be rewarded with peace and long life in the land God gave to Israel. The punishment for children who continuously and unrepentantly disobeyed their parents was death by stoning (Ex. 21:15; Deut. 21:18-21). When Paul reminds the Ephesians about the fifth commandment, he purposefully leaves out the reference to the land given to Israel (Eph. 6:2-3). This is because Christians today do not have the promise of a specific land which the Lord gives them on this earth, but rather look forward to the promise of the new heavens and the new earth (Heb. 12:18-24).
Keeping the fifth commandment is part of the Christian's call to love God and love neighbor as the good fruit of faith in Christ. Still, the family unit remains fundamentally one of God's providential gifts for the flourishing of humanity. In God's wisdom, obeying the fifth commandment will profit children in a general way (1 Tim. 4:7-8). Honoring parents often leads to good and peaceful family relations and listening to parent's good counsel can keep a child from making mistakes in life he or she might otherwise make.
3. Honoring our parents means more than doing chores.
The Heidelberg Catechism is helpful in fleshing out what it means to honor one’s parents. Question 104 asks, “What does God require in the fifth commandment?”
Answer: That I show all honor, love and fidelity, to my father and mother, and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction, with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.
Honoring our parents doesn’t stop when we turn eighteen or twenty-one. The fifth commandment is a lifelong command that includes respecting, loving, and faithfully bearing with our parents. Although the way in which a child honors his or her parents changes over time, the command remains. Here are some verses that show us what honoring parents means:
Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching. (Prov. 1:8)
Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (Prov. 23:22)
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Eph. 6:1)
These verses do not mean we should obey our parents even when they command us to do something sinful. Our obedience is first and foremost to God. However, if the parents are doing their job correctly, they are raising children in the instruction of the Lord and this is what we need to listen carefully to.
4. The fifth commandment has implications for parents as well.
As Paul explains, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). God has given parents authority over their children; however, to mistreat one’s children is to abuse the authority God has given. Parents are given to children for their instruction and protection, particularly to train them in the commands of God (Deut. 6:7). Any behavior that contradicts this God-given role is an abuse of authority and a corruption of what God intended to be for the good of children and society in general. It is wise to listen to parents’ good counsel for our own well-being (Prov. 1:8).
5. Family relationships have been rocky and difficult ever since Adam’s fall (Gen. 3).
Toddlers scream and throw tantrums, teenagers rebel against the rules their parents have set up, and parents get angry and treat their children unfairly. This is true not just of parent/child relationships but of any authority structure God has set in motion. As sinners, we don’t like to do what we are told, and submitting to authority figures in our lives is difficult for our independence-seeking wills.
The best example of this is the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). In the story of the prodigal son, the wayward son dishonored his father by asking for his inheritance early and running off to squander it. It showed a lack of respect and love for his family, the people who cared for him and fed him when he could not feed or care for himself. Are we not all like the prodigal son in various ways? We take our parents for granted, demanding that they take care of us, give us money, and then leave us alone so we can do what we want with it. We turn around and abandon the very arms that worked for and cared for us. Ultimately, this is a reflection of humanity’s rebellion against God, our heavenly Father. In Adam, we all ran away from his loving care and provision and struck out on our own. We squandered our wealth on sin and are now left with nothing.
6. Christ was the perfect child by honoring his earthly parents and heavenly Father.
Jesus was born into a family structure, and he obeyed this commandment perfectly even as God incarnate. He honored his earthly father and mother by submitting to their care and authority (Luke 2:51). When he was grown, Jesus provided for the future care of his mother right before he died by telling his disciple John to treat her as his own mother (John 19:26). Jesus obeyed his heavenly Father by keeping the whole law perfectly and submitting to his will even to the point death. His death on the cross was Jesus’ ultimate act of obedience to his Father. Christ’s obedience provided the way for every son and daughter to be adopted into God’s own family where they are welcomed just as the prodigal son was welcomed home by his father when he returned in repentance.
Even though we all fail in keeping this commandment, God provided the way for us to be reconciled to himself and adopted into his family. Christ was the perfect son so that all who repent and believe in him might be covered by his perfection and hear the Father say “For this my son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).
As children made alive in Christ, believers are called to honor their parents now out of love and gratitude to God for the care he provides through parents. This is a huge blessing and one that children need to remember their whole lives long whenever they are tempted to take their parents for granted.