The subject of honoring our parents is one of great import. One reason for its importance is that both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures command us to honor our parents.19 The Fifth Commandment states, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment must be taken seriously, not only because it is a matter of Old Testament revelation, but because the obligation to honor parents is one that is reiterated and reinforced by the New Testament:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3).
Thus, honoring our parents is a command, which we dare not ignore. But there is a second reason for carefully studying the Fifth Commandment. Honoring our parents is one of the highest callings and the greatest tasks we face in life. There are two great tasks in life to which most of us are called. The first is the bearing and raising of children, to bring them from the absolute dependence of the womb, to the independence of adolescence, to the maturity of adulthood. The second is the caring for our own parents in their declining years. Often this involves the deterioration of the physical body, and frequently of the mind. The raising of children has its pains, but it usually is accompanied by the joy of seeing our children grow up, become mature and responsible, and independent. The caring for our parents is seldom as rewarding. The culmination of this process is the grave.
Honoring parents confronts the Christian with numerous problems, most of which are the source of great agony, and frequently of much guilt. We may have to decide whether or not to have an elderly parent live in our homes with us, or to place them in a rest home. We may even be called upon to decide whether or not to “pull the plug” on machines that artificially preserve life (or prolong death). We may have to make decisions which our parents disagree with and for which they (or others) may accuse us of being unloving.
With all of these problems related to honoring our parents, one would expect a great deal of help from Christian literature, but this is not so. Much has been written and said to help Christians raise their children. While I have heard a great deal (sometimes, too much) about the responsibility of parents to their children, I have not seen anything definitive on the responsibility of children to their parents. At best, such teaching pertains almost entirely to the obligation of young children to obey their parents. At worst, the teaching on honoring parents is distorted. Some have taught that parental authority should always be exercised, if not in the form of directive statements, in a poorly defined form of “chain of counsel.” Some would have us think that placing a parent in a rest home is an unpardonable sin.
The third reason for a thorough study of the Fifth Commandment is that our culture most often hinders and opposes our efforts to honor our parents. In the culture of the ancient Near East, there was a much higher regard for those in positions of authority (in general) and for parents in particular. Even today, the Chinese, for example, undergird honoring parents through the unbiblical practice of ancestor worship. This is, needless to say, not a practice I would advocate. It does, however, encourage a deep respect for parents and the elderly which is not present in our country.
In America, several factors tend to undermine honoring parents.
(1) There is the impact of technology. In previous generations fathers were often craftsmen, who had learned their trade from their fathers. It took a son years to match his own father in skills, and he would only gradually pass him up. By this time, the father was advanced in years. Fathers died earlier, and did not have the life support systems available in today’s hospitals. Now, a child in elementary school may be learning things that parents never heard of. Who of us, for example, would want to try to explain some of the math our kids are being taught in school? Thus, each new generation quickly surpasses the preceding generation in the knowledge it possesses. There is much temptation for the younger generation to think of its parents as out of date, antiquated in thinking. In a society where knowledge is prized more than wisdom, the older generation is fortunate to be respected, let alone honored, by the younger generation.
(2) Because of the rapid increase of divorce, children are often called upon to honor one parent and to despise the other. Neither parent can seem to tolerate the thought of the former mate having the respect of their child. If this were not bad enough, Freudian Psychology has provided each generation with an excuse to blame all of its problems on its forebearers. Countless expeditions into the parental past has provided many individuals with an expensive excursion into past history in order to pin the blame for their sins on someone else, often one or both parents.
(3) If it is possible to pin the blame for our problems on someone else, it is also easy to pin the responsibility of caring for aging parents on someone else. Perhaps more than any other time in history, we are looking to the government to carry much of the burden families have borne in providing for the needs of their aging parents. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs are viewed as the means for handling our obligation as children to our parents.
(4) Honor is due to more than just parents.20 The New Testament requires the Christian to honor all men (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 2:17).21 Learning to honor parents is thus a significant step in the direction of honoring others.
The purpose of this message is to explore the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, not only for the Israelite of old, but for the contemporary Christian. We will begin by defining the term “honor” and then discovering how parents in the Old Testament were honored or dishonored by their children. We will next turn to the New Testament, to see from the teaching and practice of our Lord, how parents were to be honored, especially against the backdrop of the disregard of parents by the scribes and Pharisees. Finally, we will see how the Fifth Commandment was modified and applied by the apostle Paul. To conclude our study we will seek to distill the fundamental principles which should govern us in honoring our parents, and in dealing with some of the difficult problems associated with this obligation.
The term “honor” is one that has a kind of archaic ring to it, one that is seldom used in everyday speech. It is therefore necessary for us to come to terms with what is meant by “honor” as it is used in the Bible.22 We will first look at honor in its broader usage, and then narrow its use down to the honoring of parents as commanded in the Old Testament.
(1) Giving honor is personal. In the Bible, only persons are honored, not things. We do not honor paintings or great works of art, or things of value, we honor only people. We would also say that honor is rendered by people to people. More specifically, honor is bestowed by a person to a person. Honor cannot be self-designated, but must come from another: “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4).
(2) Giving honor is preferential. When we honor someone, we distinguish them above someone else. Honoring someone sets them above others. “… give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). Honoring parents means to think highly of them, in contrast to esteeming them lightly: “Therefore the Lord God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the Lord declares, ‘Far be it from Me—for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed’” (1 Samuel 2:30).23
(3) Honor is positional. When people are honored in the Bible, they are honored largely because of the position they hold. Those whom we are commanded to honor in the Bible are most often those who hold a certain position of distinction. God is honored because He is the Sovereign God of the Universe. Kings, rulers, elders, and masters are all to be given honor. Parents, too, are to be honored for their position in the family. Thus honor has to do with the position, power, and dignity that a person has above and beyond others.
(4) Giving honor is practical. Honoring another requires more than mere lip service: “Then the Lord said, ‘Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote’” (Isaiah 29:13). That honor which God requires of man is an honor which translates into very practical terms, whether it be directed Godward or manward.
(5) Honor is public.24 The act of honoring parents begins with an attitude of respect for them. Thus we read in the Law, “Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father, and you shall keep My Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:3). The outflow of the attitude of reverence is the action of honoring, and action which is generally public. Thus, both husband and children are exhorted to give the godly woman praise in a public place:
Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying: “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates (Proverbs 31:28-31).
The evidences of a “dishonorable” child were public, and thus the persistently and willfully rebellious child was to be disciplined (executed) in a public ceremony:
“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear” (Deut. 21:18-21).25
The central passage on honoring parents is that found in the Ten Commandments:
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you (Exodus 20:12; also Deuteronomy 5:16).
Since this is really the first occurrence of the command to honor parents it would be well to make several observations about the commandment which is given:
(1) The commandment is given to children, specifying their obligation toward their parents. The terms “father” and “mother” are synonymous with “parents,” thus we have spelled out here the obligation of children to honor their parents.
(2) There are no indications here as to the age of the children who are to honor their parents. We would tend to think that this commandment is given to young children regarding their obligation to their parents, but this is not so. Other passages will apply this general command to specific age groups, but this command is deliberately broad in scope.
(3) There is no particular action required here. Children are not told here to do anything in particular to honor their parents. We should assume, and rightly so, that different actions will be required at different times, of different people. We must therefore look elsewhere in Scripture to determine how we are to honor our parents at any given point in time.
The Old Testament Scriptures fill in many of the details as to what constitutes honor and dishonor, with respect to parents. When parents are dishonored, they are cursed (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9; Proverbs 20:20), or, according to Proverbs, not blessed (30:11). This disregard for parents can result in physically striking them (Exodus 21:15; Proverbs 19:26), and even of robbing them (Proverbs 28:24). The child can dishonor his parents by living a lifestyle which is contradictory to that of his parents and of society, including disobedience, stubbornness, rebelliousness, drunkenness, and gluttony (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
(4) The Fifth Commandment is the first of the commandments which deal with our obligations to men. The first four commandments have dealt with the Israelite’s obligation to God. This commandment introduces those which specify his duty with respect to men. This commandment pertains only to the obligation between child and parents. It is also a positive command, followed by prohibitions.
(5) The Fifth Commandment is the first commandment which is accompanied with a promise. The promise, as I understand it, is two-fold. First, it is a promise of long life. Second, it is the promise of a long life, lived out in the land of Canaan.26 As it stands, the Fifth Commandment is given specifically to the Israelites, with a promise which pertains to them. The New Testament will adapt and modify this commandment to apply to the Gentile Christians and the church, leaving the commandment in nearly the same form as found here in the Old Testament.
The promise of long life in the land of Canaan is given elsewhere, but it is the reward for keeping all of God’s commandments, not just the Fifth Commandment:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).
Why is obedience to the Fifth Commandment linked with the blessings attached to the keeping of all the commandments? In addition to the fact that one must keep every commandment to keep all commandments, the Fifth Commandment plays a special role with respect to the rest of the commandments. The laws of God are to be conveyed to subsequent generations of Israelites primarily from the parents to their children. Thus, the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the teaching the Law to children. If children are going to listen to their parents and learn to love the Law, they must first respect and honor their teachers—their fathers and mothers. The honoring of parents is thus a prerequisite to the teaching of the Law from one generation to the next.
If children honor their parents they will heed their instruction. If they heed their instruction, they will keep the whole Law of God. If they keep the Law of God they will not do harm to their fellow-Israelites. Viewed negatively, honoring parents causes the child to be inclined to avoid the evils of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting. Viewed more positively, honoring parents has a high correlation with honoring others and caring for them. This is emphasized in two passages of Proverbs:
There is a kind of man who curses his father, and does not bless his mother. There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, yet is not washed from his filthiness. There is a kind—oh how lofty are his eyes! And his eyelids are raised in arrogance. There is a kind of man whose teeth are like swords, and his jaw teeth like knives, to devour the afflicted from the earth, and the needy from among men (Proverbs 30:11-14).
The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him. What, O my son? And what, O son of my womb? And what, O son of my vows? Do not give your strength to women, Or your ways to that which destroys kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Or for rulers to desire strong drink. Lest they drink and forget what is decreed, And pervert the rights of all the afflicted. … Open your mouth for the dumb, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (Prov. 31:1-5, 8-9).
In Proverbs 30:11-14 honoring parents is viewed from the negative point of view. The verses are all a part of one piece, one theme. The section begins by informing us about the dishonorable son, who curses his parents. It concludes by describing his oppression of others, particularly his preying upon those who are weak and afflicted. The son who does not hesitate to curse father or mother, will not hesitate to curse any man. The son who strikes or robs his parents will not find it difficult to oppress others. The son who dishonors parents will mistreat others. One’s treatment of his parents is directly related to his treatment of his fellow man.
In Proverbs 31, the matter is viewed from a positive perspective. In this text, king Lemuel’s mother is giving her son wise instruction. While this teaching is specifically related to the righteous reign of a godly king, it applies more generally as well. If the mother’s instruction is heeded, her son will avoid strong drink and “strange women,” and he will use his power to aid the afflicted. The son who honors his parents, then, will come to the aid of the weak, while the dishonorable son will oppress the afflicted. The Fifth Commandment, then, is very much related to those which follow it.
There is also a relationship between honoring parents and honoring God. Not only does the Fifth Commandment relate to and facilitate the keeping of the last commandments, it also is very much related to the keeping of those commandments pertaining to the worship of God. This is especially apparent in Malachi 1:6: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Thy name?’”
Those who would honor God must also honor their parents. Those who honor parents have already begun to honor God. Our earthly fathers are, on the one hand, God’s representatives, instructing and discipling their children in His place. On the other hand, parents serve to illustrate the way in which God is at work in the lives of His children, as a Father. This is seen, for example, in Proverbs chapters 2 and 3, where the father’s care for his child is likened to God’s fatherly care for His children.
Honoring parents was a vitally important obligation, signaled by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments, by the death penalty attached to its flagrant violation, and by the detail which we are given about the evidences of honoring parents or its neglect.27 Honoring parents was fundamental for the passing on of Israel’s faith from one generation to another. It was also important because it enhanced and facilitated the honoring of God (commandments 1-4) and others (commandments 6-10).
Our Lord’s teaching on the honoring of parents is fairly extensive. This passage provides us with great insight into the command as God intended it, and as the scribes and Pharisees sought to circumvent it:
And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF28 FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (Mark 7:1-13; cp. Matt. 15:1-9).
There are several important features of this text which we must observe and appreciate before we are able to see its contribution to the subject of honoring parents:
In dealing with the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord links three Old Testament texts, and from them exposes the hypocrisy of His opponents. The Fifth Commandment of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is joined with a parallel passage from Exodus 21:17. These are then linked with a citation from Isaiah 29:13. There are four key terms which are the binding force in these passages, which enable the Lord to combine these texts into one response to His questioners: “traditions,” “honor,” “father and mother,” and the terms related to speech (“speaks,” “say,” “lips”).
Of significance to our study is the fact that the Fifth Commandment is applied by our Lord to adult children, regarding their responsibilities to their elderly parents. The principle characters in this incident are the scribes and Pharisees. If in your imagination you conceive of these men as having gray hair and long beards, you are undoubtedly correct. These are not young men, as a rule, but the elders of Jerusalem. Jesus applied the Fifth Commandment to these older men, and condemned them for interfering with those who would care for their aging parents.
The fact that our Lord said, “you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother” (v. 12) is noteworthy. The tradition of pronouncing someone’s goods to be “dedicated to God” is one that was taught by the scribes and Pharisees, one that was imposed on the people, thus prohibiting the people from doing what they apparently wanted to do. It tied up their funds, making them inaccessible for acts of charity at home. And who, do you suppose, had control of this money? The text does not say, but my guess is that it was the Pharisees. The name of this asset holding group might have been something like the “Pharisee’s Investment Corporation.” The point seems to be that the Pharisees, once again, took advantage of the needy, the weak, and the helpless, by keeping children from having control over funds which would help their parents.
In this incident, our Lord taught that men dare not attempt to use “honoring God” (Corban) as an excuse for not honoring their parents. It all sounded so pious, so religious. The money which should have been available to help parents was “devoted to God” with the spoken formula “Corban.” How could anyone fault a child for placing God above parents?
This was a sham, a facade, as Jesus pointed out. This “tradition” of pronouncing something to be “devoted to God” was merely a means of setting aside the Fifth Commandment with pious appearances. True religion does not hurt the helpless, it helps them (cf. James 1:27).
Jesus also taught that “honoring parents” was no excuse for failing to “honor God.” There are those who will go to one extreme, while others go to the opposite extreme. If there were those who used “honoring God” as an excuse for failing to “honor parents” there were those who did just the reverse. Thus, Jesus frequently taught that following Him required putting Him above all others, including fathers and mothers:
And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-62).
“Every one therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it. He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Matthew 10:32-40).
Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life. But many who are first, will be last; and the last, first” (Mark 10:28-31).
“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).
No earthly relationship can have higher priority than that of one’s relationship with God. Putting God first means putting Him ahead of family.
Our Lord’s practice with respect to honoring parents serves as a commentary on His teaching.
And when He became twelve, they went up there [to Jerusalem] according to the custom of the Feast; and as they were returning, after spending the full number of days, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And His parents were unaware of it, but supposed Him to be in the caravan, and went a day’s journey; and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. And when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for Him. And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” And they did not understand this statement which He had made to them. And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:42-51).
I must say that as a parent my first inclination is to identify with the frustration and distress of Mary and Joseph, a frustration which is evident in the text. At first glance, it does look as if it were Jesus who was wrong. Had Jesus not failed to stay with His family and relatives? Instead, He was preoccupied with the Temple and with the religious leaders. At least, one might contend, Jesus could have had the courtesy to tell His parents what He was doing. Jesus appeared to be wrong. How could He have been separated from His family for at least three days, and perhaps more, without doing something about it?
We cannot come to this conclusion for at least two reasons. First, Jesus was God and He never sinned. Thus He could not have sinned here. Second, the Lord’s answer to his mother’s rebuke is, itself, a gentle rebuke directed at them. Mary and Joseph were wrong, here, not Jesus. Let us seek to see why this was so. Jesus’ reply to his parents was, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” If Mary and Joseph had assumed Jesus was with their relatives when they departed, then it was they who were mistaken. Once they had left, what was there for Him to do but remain, and where better than in the Temple? Jesus’ words here were not directed toward the issue of why He had been left, without notice, but as to why it took His parents so long to finally look for Him in the Temple. Why had they looked for Him elsewhere? Did they not know that He would naturally have been drawn to the Temple, His Father’s house? In the absence of His earthly parents, He went to His Father’s house. Where else would they have expected to find Him who was the Son of God than in God’s house?
The final words of this account are especially interesting: “… and He continued in subjection to them …” Matthew, by using the word “continued,” indicates that here, as before, and later, that Jesus was in subjection to Mary and Joseph, His earthly parents. It was their error, not His. He was in subjection to them, but even more so He was intent upon being in His Father’s house.
Still Mary and Joseph did not understand. Nevertheless, Jesus had clearly distinguished between His relationship with His heavenly Father and His earthly parents. This was but a taste of what was yet to come, when Jesus began His earthly ministry.
Years later, apparently after the death of Joseph, another incident took place, which John’s gospel reports, which bears on the honoring of Jesus’ parents. “And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it’” (John 2:3-5). The fact that Jesus deliberately addressed His mother as “woman,” and used the expression, “what do I have to do with you,” indicates that our Lord’s granting her request was based upon His compassion for her as a woman, and not on His obedience to her as His mother. Now that His public ministry had commenced, His mother has no claim on His supernatural power. Roman Catholicism must look much more carefully at this text in the light of their exalted, exaggerated view of Mary as “the mother of God,” as somehow making her the mediator between man and God.
It is also in John’s gospel that we find one of the last acts of our Lord upon the cross was done in fulfillment of our Lord’s obligation to honor his mother.
When Jesus therefore 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 into his own household. After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:26-28).
Mary, the mother of our Lord, is once again referred to as “woman,” rather than as mother. Jesus is about to finish His earthly work, and thus Mary will cease to function as our Lord’s mother. Because Joseph has apparently died and Jesus was the oldest son, a greater obligation for the care of His mother would fall on Him. Thus, in one of His last earthly acts, Jesus appointed John to carry out His earthly obligations. In this final act, Jesus honored His mother.
The apostles also spoke to the responsibility of children toward their parents. Particularly, Paul did. In the first place, Paul understood that due to the depravity of man, children would not necessarily be inclined to obey or honor their parents: “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy … ” (2 Timothy 3:2; cf. also Romans 1:30). Paul’s teaching is also confirmed by Peter and Jude, who speak of those apostates who will disregard authority, thus refusing to give honor to those to whom it is due.
And especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties (2 Peter 2:10).
Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties (Jude 8).
It is not without good theological and practical reason that Paul gave this instruction to children:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), That it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3).
In this passage, it is noteworthy that Paul does specifically apply the Fifth Commandment to younger children. While the commandment itself is general, the application of it will be specific. For young children who are believers, one primary way in which they will honor their parents is to obey them. This obedience, as all earthly submission, is only within those parameters of what is pleasing to God, and thus the qualification, “in the Lord.”
Paul does not hesitate to base his instruction on one of the Ten Commandments, and thus, on the Old Testament Law. He does, however, modify the Old Testament text, so as to make the promise attached to this command relevant to a Gentile Christian audience. The statement of Exodus 20:12, “that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you,” has been changed to, “that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3). Thus, long life and divine blessing is promised, but not life in Canaan, as was promised to the Israelites.
Not only does Paul apply the principle of honoring parents to young children, he also instructs adult believers to assume responsibility for caring for their needy family, including (in the context) parents: “Honor widows who are widows indeed … But if any one 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 Timothy 5:3, 8). Here, as in the Old Testament and in the teaching of our Lord, failure to honor parents by caring for their needs is spoken of as a most serious offense. In the Old Testament it was a capital offense. In the New, it is a denial of the faith, making one worse than an unbeliever. Thus, Christianity does not abolish Old Testament obligations to honor parents, it ratifies and further clarifies them.
Beyond this, the same honor which is to be shown to parents, is to be shown to others who are older as well: “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers” (1 Timothy 5:1). This instruction is significant because it suggests that the same honor (or at least respect) shown to one’s father should be shown to the older man. Beyond this, since Timothy is instructed to correct an older man like a father, Paul suggests that a father, too, is not beyond rebuke, but that any rebuke must deal with him in a respectful way.
As we conclude, let me suggest several governing principles which I believe are biblical and relevant to the honoring of parents. These principles will give guidance in the agonizing choices which we children will have to make regarding the form which our honor of parents is to take.
(1) If children must give honor to their parents, then parenting must be an honorable occupation. One should hardly have to make such a statement, but in today’s world it is necessary to do so. The fact that women line up at abortion clinics around the country and in various parts of the world suggests that bearing and raising children is viewed as something far less than a blessing. This rejects the clear teaching of the Bible, such as is found in Psalm 127. Those who would leave the home and seek fulfillment in the working world in order to gain dignity and respect have also turned from the truth of God’s Word. Let those who would seek to avoid parenting be reminded that in God’s Word parenting is a most honorable occupation.
(2) Honoring parents takes different forms for different people, and in different circumstances. Since the Fifth Commandment is very general, we should expect that the application of this command is not the same for everybody. The Old and New Testaments provide us with many positive and negative applications of the command to honor our parents. The young child will honor his parents as he obeys them (e.g. Proverbs, Ephesians 6:1-3).29 The older child will honor his parents as he (or she) is obedient to God. The child whose parents are dependent upon him will honor his parents by providing for them (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:3, 8).
It is very important to realize that honoring parents takes many different forms at different times. This means that one cannot honor parents by some kind of “token act.” It means that the way one person honor his parents may differ from the way another person does. It should caution us about those who have a very simplistic formula for honoring our parents. It means that we must carefully and prayerfully come to our own convictions and conclusions as to our personal responsibilities to our parents, based upon the principles of God’s word. The next three principles underscore three of the more dramatic changes in the relationship between children and their parents, which affect the way in which honor to parents may be manifested.
(3) The way in which one relates to parents changes with conversion. When a person comes to Christ as his personal Savior, there are a number of significant changes (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). When a person becomes a child of God by faith, God becomes a Father to them in a new and previously unknown way. From this point on the Christian relates to God as His child (cf. John 1:12; Matthew 6:9). While God was once denied, and His authority rejected (Ephesians 2:1-3), now He is our Heavenly Father, with final authority, authority which has priority over all others, including fathers and mothers. As we have seen from our Lord’s teaching, faith in Christ may alienate children from their parents.
(4) The way in which one relates to parents changes with marriage. Marriage is usually the first of several dramatic changes in the child’s relationship with his parents. In the Book of Genesis, God revealed that marriage was to bring about a change in the way a child relates to his parents: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Several important changes are signaled here, as I understand this passage. First, the son leaves the authority structure of his parents home to establish a new home, under his authority. This passage draws the son out from under his parents’ authority, as he had once been. It is my personal opinion that the teaching which modifies the “chain of authority” between parent and child to a so-called “chain of counsel” is not a sufficiently adequate separation from parental authority after marriage. Second, the son is to leave home so that his devotion and affection will be primarily focused upon his wife. Certainly the son’s affection toward his parents is not terminated, but leaving his home lessons the competition between a man’s father and mother and his wife for his devotion and attention. Finally, the instruction in this text suggests to us that the parent-child relationship is temporary, the husband-wife relationship is permanent.
(5) The way in which we honor our parents changes when we become a disciple of Christ. Some Christians seem to think that until or unless a child marries, the strong authoritative role of the parent remains in the older single life of the child. I think this fails to take seriously enough the teaching of our Lord on the change which occurs with a decision to follow Christ as His disciple. In the passages already cited (Matthew 10:32-40; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 14:26), the Lord clearly demanded that disciples choose to follow Him above all others, especially including family. Our Lord will not rival fathers or mothers for the affection and obedience of His disciples. One further passage underscores the change which discipleship has on family relationships: “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Thus, children must not only leave father and mother when they marry, they must also do so (while not necessarily literally) when they decide to be a disciple of Christ.
(6) Honoring God as our Father is not an excuse to dishonor our parents. Some, like the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13), had used religious “conviction” and practice as an excuse to avoid their obligation to honor their parents. For those who would wish to do so, the passages about putting God above fathers and mothers can be perverted and distorted to excuse irresponsibility, but let it be remembered that our Lord stripped away the veil of spirituality, showing this to be a most abominable sin.
(7) We honor our parents most when we obey and honor God in our lives. The highest goal of parents is to raise the child God has entrusted to them in such a way as to encourage and promote trust in God and obedience to His Word. Whenever a child trusts in God and obeys His Word, He honors his parents. Even an unbelieving parent is honored by a believing and obedient child.
(8) We honor God when we honor our parents. Not only do we honor our parents when we honor God, but we also honor God when we truly honor our parents. There are two primary reasons why this is true. First, we honor God because we are obeying His command to honor our parents. Honoring our parents, when it is act of obedience to God’s Word, is to honor God. Thus we see that the norm is that honoring parents accomplishes two things at the same time: honoring our parents and honoring God.
But what if a person has parents who are hardly worthy of honor? We know of many children whose parents seem to have done their best to ruin their lives. Children who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused will have to deal with the effects of this for their entire life? How can such children honor their parents?
The answer to this question is found in the second way in which honoring parents honors God. When we honor our parents, we acknowledge that they have been ordained of God to be our parents and to receive our honor. Honoring parents who are not worthy of honor can only be done as one recognizes that God has appointed them to be parents, and thus they are honored for their God-given position of parent, not for their performance as a parent.
Let me illustrate this principle with another person who is to be honored by us—a king. We are told in the Scriptures that we are to honor kings (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17). In the context of these commands to honor the king, he is to be honored by virtue of his position as king, not for his performance as king. In Romans chapter 13, Paul makes it clear that kings are to be honored and obeyed because they have been appointed by God. The fact that they hold their office is evidence of God’s appointment (Romans 13:1-2). Thus, honoring a cruel, ruthless, king is done, not because that person is worthy of honor, but because that person holds his position (a position of honor) by the sovereign will of God.
When a child honors an unworthy, unkind, parent and does so because he or she recognizes that God has appointed them to hold this position of authority and honor, they are submitting themselves to the sovereign hand of God. And because they know that God causes all things ultimately to work for good in the believer’s life, they realize that while the parent may do something for an evil purpose, God has allowed it to happen for a good purpose (cf. Genesis 50:20). Honoring an unworthy parent thus opens the door for one to see the good hand of God in giving a poor parent. It is often the weaknesses of the parent, in such a case, that brings about corresponding strengths in the child.
(9) Honoring parents does not always mean that the child does what his parents want. Father and Mother are not to be honored because they are perfect, but because they are parents. They, like their children, are plagued with the fallenness of mankind. They, like their children, sin. They will therefore make many mistakes in the parenting process. They will command that their children do the wrong things, at times. At times they will also forbid their children to do what is right.
A young child must assume his parents are right, because they have more experience and wisdom. If all else fails, they are bigger! As a child begins to mature, he may begin to question some decisions. This must be done very carefully. I can envision a child’s disobedience only when the Bible has spoken very directly to the matter at hand. For example, I would expect a child to refuse to cooperate in any form of sexual abuse by parents or other adults. At some point in time, a child will even find that the parent is sinning, and will find it necessary to rebuke them. In this case, Paul’s instruction to correct an older man as a father (1 Timothy 5:1) instructs us that parents (and older people) need to be rebuked with gentleness and respect.
Those whose parents have aged to the point of becoming confused, disoriented, or even “rebellious” find themselves in the awkward position of having to discipline their parents, much like their parents once disciplined them. The way one honors his parents surely does change.
(10) Honoring parents may someday require parenting parents. It is an irony indeed, but those who were once parented by fathers and mothers often find themselves parenting their parents in their final years of life. The parent that once fed and diapered the child may in the last days of their life be fed and diapered by their children. The new baby that did not recognize its parents may someday look upon his elderly mother or father and not even receive in return a look of recognition. The child who was once parented now becomes his parent’s parent, making decisions for them, sometimes having to make choices against their will, even deciding how long to allow artificial, life preserving devices to maintain some semblance of life. There is no thought less pleasant than this, but for many it has been, is, or will be a reality.
Some parents will become cross and unreasonable. They may make demands of us and of our family which are impossible to fulfill. They may, if allowed to do so, destroy our home life. They sometimes become incoherent or unmanageable. Physically, aging parents may not be able to care for themselves or to live alone. The decisions which we must make at such times are the most painful ones of our life.
When the time for decisions comes, it must be determined whether any clear Scriptural commands are involved, and, if so, how these must be implemented. The impact of various choices on the family as a whole must be taken into account. And, naturally, the best interest of the parent(s) must be carefully thought through. I believe at least three factors are involved in the determination of what course of action will be best for the parent.
First, we have an obligation to preserve life. This does not necessarily mean that we must artificially prolong the death process, but it does mean that the necessities of life are provided. Food (nutrition—it may come from an I.V.), oxygen, and life sustaining fluids must be provided. All too frequently, these necessities are being withheld, with the inevitable result—death. Withholding the necessities of life constitutes murder, in my understanding of Scripture.
Second, we must seek to provide as much physical and emotional comfort as necessary. The setting should be one that is as familiar and as pleasant as possible. This may, or may not, mean keeping the parent in our own home, or placing them in a facility where professional care is available.
Third, I believe that honoring parents requires that we maintain as much dignity for our parents as possible. The terms “honor” and “dignity” have a fair bit of overlap, and it would seem to me that we honor our parents by seeking to preserve as much dignity for them as possible. For example, I am aware of certain situations in which patients are not able to feed themselves and are “force fed” (by literally pushing the food down the throat). In such situations, I would opt, if at all possible, to have “I.V.” feeding as an alternative. The indignity of force feeding is great, and should be avoided, if possible. These three issues, life, comfort, and dignity, may lead some to care for an elderly parent at home, and others to provide care in a well-run institution.
(11) Honor cannot be earned, nor can it be demanded. Since honor is due on the basis of position, and not performance, we should realize that honor is not something which another person can demand of us. A king can demand that we obey him, but not that we honor him, at least in the fullest sense of the term. So, too, a parent cannot really demand honor of their child. In one’s older years there will be a temptation for the parent to prescribe for the child exactly what form their honor will take, but I believe that this is contrary to the nature of honor itself. Honor demanded is not honor at all.
(12) Since we must honor all men, this means that parents must honor their children. Much has been said and written about developing self-esteem in children. I think I would differ with some of this teaching, based upon the fact that much self-esteem is simply renamed pride, and the Book of Proverbs has more to say about the need for humility in a child than self-confidence (and certainly than self-love). We must, however, deal with our children in a way that not only manifests our own dignity (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4), but also reflects the dignity of the child as a creation of God, one for whom Christ died. Thus, we must honor our children, as we must honor all others.
(13) If we must honor all men, then we must prioritize those whom we must honor above others. We have already seen that we must honor God, kings, elders, parents, and so on. When we must honor all men, and cannot do so to all men equally, or at the same time, then choices must be made. For example, as husbands we must honor our wives, and we must honor our parents. I believe that if one or the other must have priority, it is the wife who should be honored above the parent. Making these priority decisions ahead of a time of crisis is best, for surely these priorities will be put to the test.
(14) Honoring parents is so important, and potentially so costly, it is something which we must plan to do in advance. Honoring parents will require much more than an occasional Hallmark card. If honoring parents involves caring for them in their old age, this is a costly matter, and one for which we must prepare ourselves in advance. A friend of mine suggested that this is something which we may need to provide for in our wills. Suppose, for example, that we were to die before our parents. This was the case with our Lord and His mother, and we have already seen how He made provision for her care. In addition to having our children in our wills, we may need to prepare for the possibility of us dying before our parents. This may mean that extra insurance is to be purchased to meet our parents’ needs in our absence.
In some cases, it may be necessary for Christians, or perhaps the broader Christian community, to provide facilities for the elderly, which not only meet their special physical needs, but which also provide them with an environment of beauty and a sense of dignity. We must avoid like the plague, pushing our parents off into a dingy, dismal dwelling where they simply wait to die.
This only scratches the surface, but I hope that it broadens our vision beyond that which Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will afford our parents in their older years. A commandment as forcefully put forward in both Old and New Testaments must not be lightly considered.
19 The following Scriptures are important to our understanding of honoring parents. I highly recommend that you study these passages carefully: Central Passages for Honoring Parents: Exodus 20:12 (Deut. 5:16); 21:15, 17; Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; Leviticus 19:3; Ephesians 6:1-3; Proverbs 30:11-14; 31:1-9; 1 Timothy 5:1, 3, 8; Isaiah 29:13; Malachi 1:6. Related Passages on Honoring Parents: Genesis 2:24; Matthew 10:32-40; Leviticus 19:32; 20:9; 21:9; Mark 10:28-31; Numbers 22:17, 37; Luke 14:26; Deuteronomy 4:10-12; 6:4-7; 33:8-10; John 5:22-23; 8:48-50; 12:26; Joshua 2:12-13; Romans 1:30; 2:7, 10; 12:10; 13:7; Judges 13:17; 1 Corinthians 12:23-24; 1 Samuel 2:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; Proverbs 1:8; 3:9; 4:1-5; 19:26; 20:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; 28:7, 24; 1 Timothy 1:17; 5:3, 17; 6:1; Ezekiel 20:30; 2 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 5:4; 1 Peter 2:17; 3:7; 2 Peter 1:17; Jude 8; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 21:24-26.
20 In my study of “honor” in the Bible, I discovered the following people (which generally involve a position) are given honor: God, the Father—1 Timothy 1:17; Proverbs 3:9; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 19:1; 21:24, 26; God, the Son—John 5:22-23; Hebrews 2:7, 9; 2 Peter 1:17. Those in positions of authority over us: Kings—1 Peter 2:17; Higher authorities—Romans 13:7; Elders—1 Timothy 5:17; Masters (by slaves)—1 Timothy 6:1; Those not in a superior status to us—Husbands to honor wives—1 Peter 3:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; All men—1 Peter 2:17; One another—Romans 12:10; God will honor us—John 12:26; Romans 2:7, 10.
21 Since honor was required only with respect to those who had a higher status or position in the Old Testament, we may wonder why the change in the New Testament, requiring the Christian to honor all men. The reason why Christians are commanded to honor others who may even have an inferior status in life is due to the fact that the Christian is required to place others above himself:
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation (Romans 12:16).
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “For the reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me” (Romans 15:1-3).
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).
Thus, the Christian, unlike the worldling, honors all men, even when their earthly status is lower than our own, because the mind of Christ elevates others above self. For the Christian, then, all others have a status higher than our own interest. On this basis, they deserve to be honored.
22 The following is a summary of what is done to honor another in the Bible: By giving money or material things: Balaam—Numbers 22:17, 37; 24:11; Widows—1 Timothy 5:3; Elders—1 Timothy 5:17; Offerings to the Lord—Proverbs 3:9; Sacrifices (shared with the angel)—Judges 13:17; By our Lord giving glory to God—John 8:48-50; By beautifying and giving greater prominence—1 Corinthians 12:23-24; By giving respect, and obedience—Romans 13:7; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Peter 2:13-27; By giving God worship, Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 19:1; 21:24, 26.
23 Commenting on Deuteronomy 21:17, Jordan writes, “There are two words for ‘curse’ in Hebrew. One has as its basic meaning ‘to separate from or banish,’ and is used for the curse in Genesis 3:14. The second, which is used in Exodus 21:17, basically means ‘to make light of, or repudiate.’ As Umberto Cassuto has pointed out, this verb ‘to make light of’ is the opposite of the verb which means ‘to make heavy, honor, or glorify.’ For the Hebrew, to glorify or honor someone was to treat them as weighty, just as American slang in the 1970s and 1980s uses the word ‘heavy’ to refer to important or impressive matters.” James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 105.
24 This public dimension of honor helps to explain a great deal. First, it explains why the worship (honoring) of God requires a public expression of praise and adoration. It also explains why a husband is commanded to honor his wife, but the wife is nowhere commanded to honor her husband (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). The woman is to reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:33; 1 Peter 3:2, 5), because this is a matter of her (private) attitude. She cannot honor him publicly because her role is restricted with regard to public speaking, especially in the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:12). The husband, on the other hand, is to publicly honor his wife. He is able to honor his wife because of his more public role. He needs to honor his wife because of her more private role.
25 Jordan comments on Deuteronomy 21:18-21: “The fifth commandment orders sons and daughters to honor their parents, and the verb used is the verb ‘to make heavy, to glorify.’ Thus, to make light of, to despise, is the opposite. An example of this is clearly set out in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. …” Notice that it is an older child who is in view, not a little boy; he is old enough to be a drunkard. Second, notice the sin is a settled disposition to rebel, not a one time act of disobedience. Third, notice that the young man has given public witness to his rebellious heart; the parents can remind the judges that they all know he is a drunkard and a glutton. Note, fourth, that the parents do not have the power to deal with this rebel on their own; they have to bring evidence and testimony to the judges. This shows us how the Law was carried out, and what is involved in making light of one’s parents, ridiculing them, and repudiating them.
In 1 Timothy 5:3, 17, to ‘honor’ someone means to give them money, to care for them financially. In line with this understanding, Jesus applies the death penalty for dishonoring parents directly to those who refuse to care for them in their old age. The Law of the Covenant, pp. 105-106.
27 Jordan remarks, “Notice that Jesus sets Exodus 21:17 right next to the fifth commandment in binding force. Notice also that ‘cursing’ father and mother is definitely said to include verbally reviling them. Principally, however, this passage shows us that in the practical legal sense, refusing to care for parents in their old age is a capital offense.” Ibid, p. 107.
28 It is interesting that our Lord modified (or perhaps we should better say clarified) Exodus 21:17, rendering the term “cursing” “speak evil of.” Thus, cursing is more than speaking profanities at or about parents. Furthermore, I am inclined to believe that our Lord used the “of” in “speak evil of” in broader terms than we would expect. Our Lord was applying these two texts to the evil practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. To be more exact, the evil spoken by them. The saying of the word “Corban” in a traditional formula forced (or allowed) the child of elderly parents to disregard and disobey God’s command to honor them by providing for them. The evil thus spoken was not something evil said of (or about) the parents, but something evil spoken with respect to the parents. The evil spoken was the statement, “Anything of mine you might have bveen helped by is Corban” (Mark 7:11). Our Lord has thus broadened considerably the application of the Fifth Commandment.
29 As I have thought about it, I am not at all certain that a young child is really capable of honoring his parents. He is capable of obeying them, but not really of grasping the concept of honor. This is precisely why parents are needed—to care for the child until he is mature enough to live independently from them. As a child grows up, the more he should begin to grasp what honoring parents is all about, and the more he should honor his parents.