The Fourth Commandment

August 29, 2010


Honor thy father and thy mother that it may be well

with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God that we may not despise our parents and masters, nor provoke them to anger, but give them honor, serve and obey them, and hold them in love and esteem.


“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12


The first three commandments teach us how we should love God.  These commandments are called the first table of the law, because they show us our first duty, which is to God.  The next seven commandments teach us how we should love our neighbor.  They are called the second table of the law, because they show us our second duty, which is to our neighbor.  We don’t decide for ourselves what it means to love God.  God tells us what it means.  It means that we have no other gods before him.  It means that we do not misuse his name.  It means that we gladly hear and learn preaching and his word.  That’s what it means to love God.


And we don’t decide for ourselves what it means to love our neighbor.  God tells us what it means.  It means we honor our father and mother.  It means we don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, tell lies about our neighbor, or try to deprive him of what is his.  Love is a verb.  It is an active verb.  And our neighbor is not the fellow down the street and around the corner.  He’s the one living in the same house with us, the one who works next to us, the one we deal with every day.  To love your neighbor is the most concrete expression of your love for God.


And, as they say, charity (which means love) begins at home.


There is a reason why God gave the Fourth Commandment as the first commandment in the second table of the law.  It is the foundation for what follows.  It is at home that we learn who our neighbor is and how God wants us to love our neighbor.  It is by learning to honor our father and our mother that we learn to love our neighbor.  And this is how we learn to fear and love God.


All government is God’s servant.  The most basic government that God has established in this world is the rule of fathers and mothers over their children.  This relationship is more than a biological one.  God himself wants us to honor him, our Creator, by honoring those whom he used to bring us into this world.  He wants us to see his own majesty, glory, honor, and beauty in the parents he has given to us.  He wants us to see beyond their sins, their mistakes, their frailties, their faults, and anything else in them that would distract us from our duty to honor them.  He wants us to see him in our fathers and mothers.  Look to your father and your mother and consider that they speak and act for God himself.


Yes, even when they make mistakes.  Even when they don’t understand or know what is best for you, they nevertheless hold a sacred office that God Almighty has given to them, and if we are to honor God we must honor our father and our mother.  God rules this world.  But he doesn’t do so through angels.  He does so through human beings.  First and foremost among those whom God has chosen to govern this world are fathers and mothers.


Honoring father and mother does not always mean obeying them.  The Fourth Commandment may not be used to compel disobedience to God.  The only authority fathers and mothers have is what God has given them.


The Fourth Commandment does not say, “Honor your parents.”  It says, “Honor your father and your mother.”  Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable.  Have you noticed how, in the last few years, the word “parent” has become a verb that applies to fathers and mothers in the same way?  But there is a difference between a father and a mother.  The father is the head of the home, not by human evolution, but by divine decree.  The Fourth Commandment places a heavy responsibility on fathers.  God expects you fathers to provide for your children.  He expects you to work so that your family will be cared for.  He expects you to feed your family also with his holy word, because that is the means by which the Holy Spirit creates new and eternal life in them.  The father is to be the pastor of his own home and family.  This is the real measure of a man.  It is not how well he holds his own in the presence of his peers as the guys get together and talk about what guys do.  It is how well he serves his wife and children by caring for their needs of body and soul.  This means that the Christian father must take care to set a good example for his wife and his children by faithfully attending the services of God’s house and leading his family in worship at home.  This is how children learn to honor their fathers.


The Bible teaches us to honor our mothers.  This requires fathers to treat their wives with respect so that their children learn from them how to treat a lady.  The best gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother.  It is the father who teaches the children – by his own example – how to honor their mother.


This commandment also requires mothers to submit with grace and humility to the leadership of their husbands because, as the Bible says, the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is also the Savior.  Christian mothers aren’t required by God to make money.  The father is required to provide for his family.  If he won’t, the Bible says he’s denied the faith.  But the Christian mother is praised when she manages the home, provides an example for the children, and teaches the word of God to her little ones.  Lois and Eunice received apostolic recognition, not for any great social or political contributions they made, but for the faith that they passed on to their grandson and son, Timothy.


If children had perfect parents, they would gladly honor them.  They don’t.  And they don’t gladly honor them either.  This is why we need this commandment.  We need it, not because we are willing to obey it, but precisely because we don’t want to.  Yet today parents think their duty is to provide their children with the proper amount of self-esteem instead of to exercise loving but firm discipline.  Parents throw up their hands in helpless resignation to their parental failure, as they hire other people to raise their children.  Meanwhile, children are often set against their own parents, as what their parents teach them at home is deliberately undermined by institutions of education controlled by the State.  But the education of children is the duty of the parents.  God himself said so.  After giving the law a second time in the book of Deuteronomy, God said:  “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6)


Our children do not belong to the State.  They belong to God.  And God hasn’t given us the right to hand our children over to the tender mercies of an imposed State religion of secular humanism, socialism, moral relativism, evolutionism, or any other “ism” that contradicts the teaching of God’s word.  Our children will never learn to honor us as the representatives of Almighty God unless and until we act as if we really are representatives of God.  The best teacher of the Fourth Commandment is not the pastor.  It is the fathers and the mothers of the children.


The Fourth Commandment requires us to obey the rules whether of State, the school, or the place of employment.  We don’t obey the rules for the sake of the rules (which could be and often are foolish and unreasonable) but for the sake of the Fourth Commandment, that is, for the sake of honoring God. 


The Fourth Commandment has a promise attached to it: “That it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long on the earth.”  What is the average life expectancy of those who grow up fatherless without any clear parental authority?  It’s shorter than the average.  But God is not just making a sociological observation.  He is giving us a promise.  If you honor those whom God has given to you to provide you with the needs of this life, God will honor you with the blessings of this life.  Anarchy, or mob rule, cheapens life.  Government is a blessing from God, and he wants those in authority to be honored by his children.  This is why we remember our leaders in the General Prayer of the church.  We pray for them even if we didn’t vote for them.


When my family lived in Racine, we lived in an old city neighborhood that was rather poor.  Most of the children did not have fathers living with them.  It was heartbreaking to see so many young boys growing up without any clear direction from a father.  I don’t need to listen to the experts tell me why crime, drugs, sexual promiscuity, violence, theft, and blasphemous talk are so common in neighborhoods across America.  I know why.  The Fourth Commandment is ignored and denied.  The promise God attached to the Fourth Commandment is very earnest and sincere.  If everyone, including the government, the schools, and other institutions would support the Fourth Commandment, respecting as primary and fundamental the God-ordained relationship between fathers, mothers, and their children, God’s promise would be fulfilled.


But only for this life.  And a long life on this earth isn’t good enough.  There comes the time when we must look at the casket.  There we will see Dad.  There we will see Mom.  And while we may thank God for them, they will still be gone.  Buried.  Remembered, but not by most folks.  Our children may remember them, but our grandchildren probably won’t.  As the Psalmist wrote:


As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes, for the wind passes over it, and it is gone.  And its place remembers it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)


Only God’s word endures.  Only the promises guaranteed by Jesus Christ can guide you to heaven and to eternal life.  Your obedience is a rotten foundation upon which to stand if you hope to find your way to heaven on the last day.  But Christ’s obedience has passed the test of God’s law.  He honored his Father in heaven, obeying his holy will.  He willingly submitted to the death of the cross in obedience to his Father.  He did it willingly out of his pure, eternal, perfect, holy love for his Father.  And Christ also obeyed his dear mother, submitting himself to her, serving her, caring for her needs, even as he was bearing the sin of the whole world on the cross.  He entrusted to St. John the care of his mother.  As he was suffering for our disobedience to the Fourth Commandment, he was obeying it to the spirit and to the letter.  He offered to his Father his obedience to replace our disobedience and this is how he has gained for us the promise of the Fourth Commandment.  Specifically “that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”  But this land is not a small piece of real estate in the Middle East.  It is heaven.  It is a place of pure and holy joy.  It is where we honor our God with our whole hearts all the time and always find perfect joy in doing so.  It is where love forever blots out any memory of hatred, bitterness, guilt, or regret.  It is that home purchased for us by the obedience of Jesus.


It is yours, dear Christian.  It is your true home.  Remember that when your home life is not what it ought to be.  Remember that God himself covers the sins you commit against one another in the family.  And he calls you here on Sunday to take his word for it that you are indeed forgiven.  He wants you to know that he has a home prepared for you where your sins cannot enter, but you can, through faith in the One who purchased this home for you: Jesus Christ, the obedient One.  He is the One who will take us there.  He prepared that place as he took away our sin on Calvary.  He will return to take us there some day.  And for that day we, God’s family, pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!  Amen!