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Human flourishing depends in large measure on the faithfulness and happiness of families, and this depends, in its turn, on the honor rendered to the parents by the children. This is, the apostle Paul tells us, the first commandment with a promise. The promise originally applied to the land of Canaan, as it was spoken here at Sinai. The apostle Paul speaks the same words from the heavenly Mt. Zion, and he says that the words of promise apply to the entire earth—whether Ephesus, or New York, or Beijing. So what does it mean?
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12).
“Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth” (Eph. 6:2-3).
Summary of the Texts
The Ten Words given at Mt. Sinai are God’s summary of His entire law, just as the two greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor) are a summary. The Ten Word summarize the whole, and the Two Words summarize the ten.
Honor must be shown, and it must be shown to both father and mother (Ex. 20:12). The reason that is given is so that those who show this honor might have a long life in the land that God was giving them (v. 12). This was spoken to Jewish children at Mt. Sinai. Centuries later, the apostle repeats the command, only this time to Gentile children in Ephesus (Eph. 6:2). He points out that the command is the first one with a promise (v. 2), and he reiterates the promise—extending it to the whole earth. We are no longer limited to the land of Canaan, but this promise now applies to any place where Christians might live.
A Brief Word to Mothers
There are two things that need to be said as an aside to mothers. First, you may have noticed that the text this morning is just as insistent upon the honoring of mothers as it is of fathers. So why this long series on father hunger? The answer has to do with how men and women sin differently, about which more in a minute. It is not that mothers are unimportant, or that a series of messages for them would be out of place. A doctor might talk to you for a long time about the importance of Vitamin D, and you should not conclude from this talk that he hates Vitamin E. We can’t talk about everything all the time, and in our generation, in this moment, we need a particular focus on fathers, a particular word to fathers.
But while we are here, the second thing is that women can’t compensate for father hunger by being more motherly. Women are gravity, and men are centrifugal force. Women cluster, and men escape. Women overcommit and men under commit. Women are soft and men are hard. This is why we don’t have a comparable phenomenon like “mother hunger.”We have mother troubles—frequently—but it is a different ball game. If men under engage and women over engage, they can both key off the sins of the other sex, which then makes them double down in their own problems.
As we consider this, always remember that honor must start in the heart, but if it ends there, it isn’t honor. Honor must be expressed through words, symbols, actions, or gestures. Honor is among the most incarnational of the virtues. It must have feet and hands.
Teaching the Showing of Honor
A father can teach and lead his children in how to show him honor, and the first thing to recognize is that this must be done because he seeks the blessing for his children that this command promises. He doesn’t need the honor himself, he is not being an honor-hound. He is seeking the blessing of having the kind of children who show honor, along with the subsequent blessings that come from that. If the father is being a needy bucket, and he demands honor in order to fill up his internal ache, then he will suffocate his children with intolerable demands. There is a kind of seeking honor that is destructive (John 5:44).
The first rule of teaching something is that you must demonstrate that you know how to do it yourself. You teach your children to honor you by showing them how you honor their grandparents. If your parents are alive, show them in real time. If your parents are deceased, then honor them in the telling of stories. All of you fathers have fathers. Model what you would like your children to grow up into.
Small children show honor through cheerful obedience (Eph. 6:1-4). Not only must children obey, but they must do so “as unto the Lord.”This means that obedience must be quick, it must be heart-felt, it must be cheerful, it must be immediate. How would you respond if Jesus Himself asked you to do whatever it is? You might be tempted to say that Jesus would never ask you to stay inside on a Saturday morning to clean your bedroom . . . oh, but He did.
The duty of obedience passes as children grow, but the duty of honor never does. The Lord Jesus teaches us that grown children with financial resources have a duty to honor their parents that way (Mark 7:10-13).
Honor Knits Generations Together
We are disciples of Jesus in the first instance. He tells us that we have to hate father and mother (Luke 14:26), and the account in Matthew explains this as not loving father or mother more than we love Jesus Christ (Matt. 10:37). If we love Jesus Christ above all things, then we are in fellowship with the source of all the love in the universe. If we refuse to do so, then it doesn’t matter what we make into our idol, we are not in fellowship with the source of all love. And if we are not in fellowship with that love, then even if you idolize your father, he will be get less honor, respect, and love than if he were number two.
So we are called to Christian honor, honor rendered as part of our discipleship. This is not honor rendered blindly in a tribal, patriarchal way. As intelligent honor, it is used by God to knit each generation to the next one.