CDPCKL · The Fifth Word: Honor (Exodus 20:12)

The Fifth Word: Honor (Exodus 20:12)

So, a few weeks ago the Lord began speaking to his gathered people from the top of Mt. Sinai, outlining the conditions of the covenant that he wants to make with his people. 

Essentially, God has been writing the constitution that will govern his new nation. He is spelling out the foundational values and laws of his new family. 

But, over the last few weeks, as we have been reading through the constitution, we have discovered that it is also a road-map. We have discovered that, as God’s people learn to follow this constitutional road-map, they will find themselves actually travelling a real road leading to a real destination. As they follow this constitution, they will find themselves constituted — made — into something they were not before. 

We have discovered that this constitutional road is known as the Road of Love for God. 

And we actually learned this from the very first commandment, in which God said: “You are my only people. In return, I want to be your only God.“ 

Then the second and third commandments set up guardrails for us, guardrails designed to keep us on the road of Love. We learned that love for God means avoiding idolatry on the one side, and avoiding hypocrisy on the other. We learned that practicing idolatrous worship will end by destroying our families and our church community — which is not love for them or for God. We learned that practicing a hypocritical life will end by destroying our priestly witness to the nations of the earth — which is also not love for them or for God. 

And so, through the first three commandments, we discovered that the kind of love God wants back from his people is the same mind of love he first gave us: a kind of love called covenant loyalty. 

Which means the Road of Love for God can also be called the Road of Covenant Loyalty. 

Then, last week, the fourth commandment revealed that this road is leading us to a place of perfect healing from the trauma of our self-love. Our first parents began their lives together in a garden, but they lost it through their selfish covenant disloyalty to God and to one another. They passed on to us, their children, a psychology dominated and motivated by self-protective shame and fear. But now this newly restored road of covenant loyalty is set to lead us back into that garden — but fully renovated: a new heavens and a new earth, where every redeemed element of creation will have the chance to enjoy meaningful work and meaningful rest for all eternity. 

And throughout these weeks we have been learning that the key to staying on the road is remember. Remember that God’s covenant loyalty for us is infinitely greater than our covenant loyalty for him. Remember that, even though we do continue to run into our Father’s guardrails as we travel — we do continue to sin! — even so, our Father’s guardrails are strong enough to keep us on the road. And we have been promised that, as we practice remembering what road we are on, our healing will begin even now, even today. Even during this life we will begin to experience freedom from shame and fear. And as shame and fear begin to loose their hold on us, we will find it easier and easier to steer between the guardrails, we will discover that our capacity for love — our capacity for covenant loyalty — toward God will continue to grow. 

And so our lives will be transformed. 

So okay! Is that it? Are we done? We understand now that love=covenant loyalty, and that covenant loyalty≠idolatry or hypocrisy. We understand that our destination=perfect rest, which we foreshadow in our own lives by working for six days, not working on the seventh. 

That sounds like a pretty complete constitution! What else is there to cover? 

Well, it turns out the Lord is not finished speaking from the top of the mountain. He goes on: 

[12] “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” 

Well, okay. This seems like a bit of a departure, a bit of a change of theme. So far the constitution has focused on covenant loyalty for God, where we will end up if we opt out of the covenant, and where we will end up if we opt in to the covenant. 

But now: what is this sudden talk about father and mother? And what does this word honor mean? And why do we get to live long in the land if we keep this commandment? Does that suggest that we will not live long in the land if we dishonour father and mother? 

Let’s start with the word “honor” and see if we can’t figure out what it means. 

In Hebrew — the original language of this Book of Exodus — this word means “to give weight to”. 

But what does that mean? Most of us gave weight to our mothers when they were pregnant with us, but I don’t think that’s what God is talking about. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to look at another verse that says something similar, but in slightly different words. In the Book of Leviticus — the very next book after Exodus — the Lord says this: “Each of you must respect your mother and father.” That word “respect” is a Hebrew word that means “have reverence for, stand in awe of.” 

So when we combine “have reverence for, stand in awe of” with “give weight to”, I think we begin to get a sense of what “honor” means here: this is a very weighty word that involves qualities of humility and bowing down as if to a king or to God himself. 

And this word is often used in the bible to describe how we are to treat God. There are verses that say, “Honor the Lord,” “honor him,” “honor the name of the Lord,” just as it says here, “honor your father and your mother.” 

So what we are discovering here is that this word “honor” is another aspect of what God means by ”love”. The first four commandments taught us that love=covenant loyalty. This fifth commandment is teaching us that love also=honor. Which also means that honor=covenant loyalty. 

Which also teaches us that our relationship with our earthly parents is a kind of covenantal relationship, similar to the covenantal relationship we have with our Heavenly Parent. 

Which does help explain why there is this blessing attached: “so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” — and the implied curse on the other side: that if you dishonour your father and your mother you will not live long in the land. 

It makes sense that God should highlight this blessing — and implied curse — at this point. When we look back at the first four commandments, we see that they speak quite clearly about the benefits of covenant loyalty to God, and the costs of breaking the covenant. So when this fifth commandment now starts talking about the benefits of loyalty to parents — and the costs of disloyalty — this is God’s way of confirming for us that our relationship with our parents is also a covenantal one. 

But what does this blessing mean? What is the connection between ”honor for parents“ and ”living long in the land”? Does this mean obedient children get to live to 100, disobedient children die young? 

Mmmm…not quite. This blessing is not meant to apply to individuals, it is a collective blessing to the nation of Israel. 

We have already learned earlier in Exodus that God has declared Israel his ”first-born son”. He sees this nation as a body; the tribes are like the different organs in that body, the families and individuals are like cells. So when he says, “so that you may live long in the land” he means “so that you as a nation may live long in the land.” If individuals begin to break covenant with their parents, this will produce families in the next generation that will break covenant with previous generations. When enough families have stopped remembering the covenant with their ancestral fathers, whole tribes will end by rejecting the covenant with their Heavenly Father. 

In short: covanental disloyalty is like a cancer that begins with just a few cells rejecting their parents, and then spreads from there to a point where whole organs end up rejecting God. And after that, of course, the whole body dies. 

Okay. But what is the connection with the land? 

Well, if you recall, God promised Abraham that he would give the mountain country of Canaan to Abraham’s children, who will also be God’s children, adopted by God through this covenant ceremony. The land is God’s gift — God’s inheritance — for his children. 

But if the nation of Israel develops the widespread cancer of covenant disloyalty to their Father, they are actively opting out of the covenant. They are saying, “Hey, God, thank you for adopting us for a while. That was very helpful. But now we are going go away and be our own thing. We don’t want to be your children anymore.” Well: 

Since the land is God’s inheritance for his children, and if his children decide not to be his children anymore…it is fair for God to take back the inheritance, isn’t it! Why would he waste all those riches on a first-born son who has rejected him? Far better that he take it back and hold it in reserve for some second-born son that might come along later. 


So it turns out that this is really quite a strongly worded commandment. It is very weighty. Apparently we are supposed to regard our earthly parents with almost the same reverence we accord to our heavenly Parent! The first four commandments have taught us that this road we are travelling is the Road of Covenant Loyalty to God; now this fifth commandment has taught us that this road is also the Road of Covenant Loyalty to Parents — they are the same road. 

But now we have some questions, don’t we! 

For instance, we want to know: why? Until now the commandments have been all about covenant loyalty to God. Why this sudden talk about covenant loyalty to father and mother? God deserves our covenant loyalty — we get that! But our parents don’t! — do they? 

Well, let’s look at the parallels here: 

This whole covenant ceremony began with God saying, “I love you — I am loyal to you. I have just proven that by rescuing you from Egypt. Now I want you to be loyal to me in return.” God is asking his people to accept him as their Heavenly Father, the one who gave them new birth when they passed through the Red Sea. 

Now, let’s compare that to the general structure of our lives. What role did we play in our births? Nothing. We were present, but that’s about it. And for the first few years of our lives, what did we contribute? Not much. We were pure consumers. 

Which means that, if you are here today and you are still alive, some people took the trouble to conceive you and then keep you alive while you were still quite useless. We call those kinds of people “parents”. And effectively, by doing all that, your parents were saying, “I love you — I am loyal to you. I am proving that by keeping you alive!” 

So: is it fair now for God to say, “I want you to return that covenant loyalty to your parents”? 

…yeah. That is fair. 

Without my father and my mother, I would not exist. So the fact that I am here means that I am under some obligation to respond to their loyalty with loyalty of my own — in almost exactly the same way I am obligated to respond to God’s loyalty. God is the life giver; my parents are my life givers; God gave me life…through my parents. So they are literally ”like God“ to me, they are the image of God to me. 

So, yeah: God deserves our covenant loyalty, and so do our parents. The Road of Love for God really is also the Road of Love for Parents. 

…but now we have some objections, don’t we! 

For instance, some of us are thinking, “Hang on, how is it fair for God to tell kids to honor their parents, but he doesn’t tell parents to be worthy of honour? Children are powerless, right? So why doesn’t God focus more time and attention instructing the ones in power, the ones who can really actually make a difference?” 

Well, he actually already did! 

Remember the second commandment? Avoid false worship. Remember the penalty? “I, the Lord your God, will punish the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” 

Remember the third commandment? Avoid hypocrisy — avoid false living. Remember the penalty? “The Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who lives in hypocrisy.” 

Remember the fourth commandment? Rest on the Sabbath day, and give your children rest. Remember the penalty? This is how Jesus said it: “God’s curse be upon you if you load your children down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves do not lift one finger to help them.” 

All the commandments up until now were written especially to parents and to people in authority, telling them how to be worthy of honor: 

Do you want to be a good mom or dad? Then do not lead your children into false worship — because it will cost them as well as you. Do you want to be a good parent? Then do not live a hypocritical life — because your kids are watching you, they will imitate you when they grow up, and God will not hold them guiltless. Do you want to be a good father, a good mother? Then point your kids to the gospel rest that we find in Jesus Christ — if you do not they will turn aside to legalism or liberalism, and they will end up dishonoring you. That is what good, honorable parenting is all about: practising covenant loyalty to God and to your children. So: 

The weight is not all on the kids here. Most of the weight is on the parents to act out their covenant loyalty to God by leading their children into pure worship, honest living, and gospel rest. That was the focus of the first four commandments. It is only here, in the fifth commandment, that God says, “Oh, and by the way, you children, after you are grown up, must respond to your parents’ covenant loyalty with your own covenant loyalty.” 

Which leads us to another potential objection: 

Some of us are thinking, “Okay, if parents do practice covenant loyalty to God and their children, responding with covenant loyalty does seem reasonable. But my parents did not practice covenant loyalty to anybody but themselves! Sure, they gave me existence and kept me alive when I was small — but then they led me into false worship, they modelled nothing but hypocrisy for me, they never gave me gospel rest. How does God want me to respond to parents like that?” 

Well, if that was your situation then it sounds like you were born into a family that already had the cancer of covenant rejection, a family that was probably the product of a cancerous culture. And you are right to reject that kind of disloyal upbringing. 

But now: how are you going to reject that upbringing? How are you going to break that family pattern? They were disloyal to you; are you going to pay them back now by being disloyal to them? What is the cure for cancer — more cancer? What is the cure for a family culture of dishonour — continued dishonor? 

Brother, sister, as you get married and begin Christian families of your own, you already know you want to raise your children differently than you were raised. You want to raise children who understand covenant loyalty. This may be a heavy word to hear, but this is the truth: a family culture of covenant loyalty must begin with you, the parents, because children are powerless, and they learn by example. The weight is on you to act out your covenant loyalty to God by leading your children into pure worship, honest living, gospel rest, and now: honor for parents. 

Basically, your children will only really learn about covenant loyalty to their parents by watching you practice covenant loyalty to your parents. The fact that your parents do not deserve your loyalty does make it much more painful and difficult…but there is also an upside to your situation: your covenant loyalty even to your disloyal parents could also be your most profound preaching of the gospel to your children. Because as your children see you practise covenant loyalty even to those who do not deserve it, they will be learning that God’s covenant loyalty is only for those who do not deserve it. 

But now we run into another potential objection: 

Because now some of us are thinking, “Yeah, okay, I can see how showing honour to parents who really do not deserve honor is a powerful expression of the gospel of grace. But in my culture ‘honor’ means absolute respect, absolute obedience to everything my parents say — even obedience to things the bible says are ungodly. Is that the kind of covenant loyalty God wants me to practice toward my parents?” 

This is a difficult objection to answer. 

Because it is true that some cultures totally do not value loyalty to parents, elders, ancestors — and it is very easy to see that this is very bad: every society in history that has totally rejected loyalty to tradition has always collapsed within a very few generations. So it is obvious that we, as Christians, ought not to submit to disloyal cultures like that, we ought to practice covenant loyalty no matter what the rest of society does. 

But cultures that teach extreme loyalty to parents, elders, and ancestors are very, very stable; they can last for hundreds or even thousands of years. And stability is better than collapse, isn’t it? Order is better than chaos? So surely God wants Christians to fully support cultures that value honor so highly? 

…not quite. Just because a culture is stable and long-lasting does not mean it is good. 

See: the reason loyalty to tradition produces such stable, long-lasting cultures is because loyalty to tradition is actually based on a good thing. Cultures that teach their people to revere their parents understand at a deeply intuitive level that the parent-child relationship is supposed to be covenantal. Parents are supposed to be loyal to their small children even when their children are annoying; grown children are supposed to be loyal to their elderly parents even when their parents are annoying. That is biblical. That is the image of God at work in those cultures. That kind of covenantal honor for parents is obviously better than dishonor. 

But when a culture takes the concept of covenant loyalty and turns it up to eleven, so that loyalty to parents is greater than loyalty to God, then the covenantal relationship itself has become an idol for that culture. People who demand unswerving, unthinking obedience to authority have come to believe that they can save themselves by practicing perfect filial piety, or that they can be saved if their children practice perfect filial piety. They have actually rejected God’s covenant loyalty, and decided to trust in their own godless cultural version of covenant loyalty. So: 

Because extreme loyalty to parents is based very distantly on God’s original idea of covenantal loyalty, cultures that adopt extreme loyalty tend to last for a very long time, but only because the base programming is so very good and stable. But idolatrous cultures like that are actually just as corrupt and damaging as cultures that despise history. Cultures that totally reject tradition tend to explode suddenly and hurt a lot of people all at once. But cultures that totally embrace tradition tend to grind on and on and on and hurt a lot of people over a lot of generations. 

Both of those extremes are absolutely godless. On the one side, God does not want us to respond with disloyalty to our parents’ disloyalty. But on the other side, God does not want us to practice absolute obedience to everything our parents say — especially not obedience to things scripture says are ungodly. 

So…if those are the extremes, where is the median? If those are the guardrails — do not pay back disloyalty with disloyalty, but also do not practice absolute loyalty — then where is the center of the Road of Covenant Loyalty for Parents? How can we show appropriate honor for dishonorable parents on the one side without going too far to the other side and honoring parents more than we honour God? 

Let’s start with the first question: how can we show appropriate honor for dishonourable parents? 

Well, Jesus himself actually tells us what base-line honor for parents looks like: 

In the New Testament both Matthew and Mark tell us about an episode where the Pharisees — the local Jewish ustaz — got upset because Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands in the proper ritual way before dinner. They accused Jesus of teaching his disciples to reject the tradition of the elders. This is because the Pharisees worshiped tradition, and demanded unquestioning obedience to authority. 

But Jesus says, “You know, it’s funny that you should mention tradition. Because I have noticed that when a man vows to give money to support your ministries, and then later when his parents get sick and he needs to keep that money to support them, you refuse to release him from his vow. You claim that tradition says that keeping his vow to give you money is more important than keeping God’s command to ‘Honor father and mother.’ Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition!” Jesus was basically pointing out that the Pharisees actually practiced extreme dishonor for parents — something Jesus hates — but justified that dishonor through extreme loyalty to tradition — something Jesus also hates. Jesus hates both extremes: dishonor and hyper-honor. 

But the main point we are focused on right now is the base-line Jesus just set for us: 

Honor for parents, at its most basic level, means caring for them when they are sick or elderly. They kept us alive when we were small; the very least we can do in return is keep them alive when they are old. We “give weight” to their lives — we “give weight” to the reality that they gave us our lives — by helping them live for as long as our Heavenly Father wills. 

In other words — and let me say this clearly — God does not require us to have deep warm filial affection for parents that were abusive or absent or unfaithful, especially if they have not repented of those sins. Covenant loyalty does not depend upon our feelings. Biblical love is not fundamentally about emotion, it is about commitment to doing what is right, no matter how we may feel about it. 

That is how we show appropriate honour even for dishonorable parents: we care for their basic social and physical needs. If we do that, then we know we are at least steering clear of that guardrail on the Road of Love for Parents and God. 

Okay, let’s continue with the second guardrail: how can we keep from honoring our parents more than we honour God? 

Well, here again Jesus himself defines the limits for us: 

At one point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said this: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Then, in the Gospel of Luke, he says it again, but even more strongly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother…such a person cannot be my disciple.” 

Whoa! What? Jesus is preaching hate for parents! How is that not a violation of the fifth commandment? 

Well…first of all, remember that when Jesus uses these words “love” and “hate”, he is not using them in our modern emotional sense. Remember, biblical love is not fundamentally about emotion, it is about commitment to doing what is right: it is about covenant loyalty. 

So this what he is really saying in these verses: “If your parents force you to choose between loyalty to me or loyalty to them, and you choose loyalty to them, then you are not worthy of me. If you do not choose disloyalty to them, you cannot be my disciple.” 

If it comes down to a contest between the commandments of parents and the commandments of God, we must obey God’s commandments. 

So, to get specific here: 

If our parents command us to join them in idolatry or any form of false worship…we do not obey them, we obey God’s second commandment instead. 

If our parents command us to join them in hypocrisy or any form of dishonest living…we do not obey them, we obey God’s third commandment instead. 

If our parents command us to give up the gospel rest we enjoy through Christ’s work on the cross…we do not obey them, we obey God’s fourth commandment instead. 

And to sum up those three commandments: if our parents command us to have other gods before God…we do not obey them, we obey God’s first commandment instead. 

This is how we keep from honouring our parents more than we honor God: we follow God, not the godless traditions of men. If we do this, then we can know that we are steering clear of that other guardrail on the Road of Love for Parents and God. 

But now let’s be honest with ourselves, and with each other: whether we have had godly parents or ungodly parents, we all have failed to keep this commandment. Some of us were raised in cultures that taught us to despise history, tradition, and authority. And so our tendency is to dishonor God by under-honoring our parents. Some of us were raised in cultures that taught us to worship history, tradition, and authority. And so our tendency is to dishonor God by over-honouring our parents. 

Now, it is useful for us to know what our culturally trained tendencies are, so that we can deliberately steer away from whichever guardrail is nearest to us. But on a fundamental level, under-honoring and over-honoring are really the same sin: they are both violations of this fifth commandment to honour our parents, and they are violations of the first four commandments which tell us to have no other gods before God. The Road of Covenant Loyalty to Parents is also the Road of Covenant Loyalty to God: failure to honour parents appropriately is failure to honor God. 

Which means that the implied curse here ought to apply to us: because of our sin, we will not live long in the land, we will not live long on the earth. God promised the land of Palestine as an inheritance to the nation of ancient Israel, but when Israel rejected him as their Father, and Jesus as their Messiah, God took the inheritance back. In the same way, God has promised the whole earth as an inheritence to us, the nation of Jesus Christ — but in view of our constant failure to honour him as our Father, and Jesus as our Messiah, shouldn’t he take our inheritance back? 

Yes. He really should — if our inheritance was based upon our performance as his children. Fortunately, it is not based on our performance. 

But how? How is it possible for us to dishonour our Heavenly Father and yet live long in the land? 

This is how it is possible: Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, honored his Father, and proved it by doing exactly what his Father commanded him. He was obedient all the way to death — even death on a cross! Because of Jesus’ obedient faith, the Father raised him up to eternal life. And because Jesus had become the firstborn from among the dead, the Father gave him the inheritance due to the firstborn: not just the land of Palestine, but the whole earth — all of creation, actually! 

And then the Father offered mankind a deal: if we accept that Jesus’ obedience is enough to win God’s approval, and if we accept his sign of baptism, then Jesus will bind us together in covenant with his Father, and his Father will become our Father. And through that covenant, all of the benefits of Jesus’ obedience will be passed on to us: his inheritance becomes our inheritance, his eternal life becomes our eternal life. 

Jesus honored his Father. Jesus kept this commandment perfectly. And he has offered that perfection to us through a covenant. That is the only way we will have a chance to live long in the land the Lord our God has given us. And not just long! Forever. We will live forever in the creation the Lord our God is giving us — if we are joined to Jesus in covenant. 

In short: our inheritance of the new creation is based on a covenant, not on our performance. 

So look, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, this is what you should do: join yourself to Jesus through the covenant he has offered you here today. Believe and be baptised. And God will become your Heavenly Father. And here is the Good News that comes with that: our Father’s covenant loyalty for his covenant children is infinitely greater than our covenant loyalty for him. Our Father’s covenant with us is infinitely greater than our parents’ covenant with us. And this is what that means for you: even though you will continue to under-honor or over-honour your earthly parents — even though you will continue to dishonor God himself — his guardrails are strong enough to keep you on the Road of Love. Our Father does not promise instant peace with our parents, you may continue to struggle to honor them appropriately all your life…but he does promise instant peace with him. 

You really should accept this offer! 

But what about those of us who are Christians, what should we do about this commandment that tells us we are in covenant with our earthly parents whether we want to be or not? 

Well, I think we all know where the guardrails are now: on the one side we must not under-honor them by neglecting their social and physical needs when they are old; on the other side we must not over-honour them by following them into false worship, hypocrisy, or works righteousness. 

And because we know where the guardrails are, we will be held accountable for these things. 

So here is a warning for us who call ourselves Christians: if we continue to deliberately under- or over-honor our parents, then we are deliberately dishonouring our Heavenly Father — which is something no true child of God would ever do. 

Now, some of us are from cultures where estrangement and neglect for elderly parents is almost normal. Well, this is what scripture says about that: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own houshold, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” So if you come from that cultural background, reject your culture! Do your best to honor the covenant with your parents, and in this way you will honour God, preach the gospel, and prove that you really are a Christian. 

But some of us are from cultures where flattery for elderly parents is normal; we will do anything to keep the peace, even practice idolatry. Well, this is what scripture says about that — these are the words of the Lord — “I myself said, ‘How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’ I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me. But…the children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger. But am I the one they are provoking? Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?” So if you come from that cultural background, reject your culture! Do your best to honor the covenant with your parents by honouring your covenant with God, and in this way you will preach the gospel and prove that you really are a Christian. 

Brothers and sisters, let us take these warnings to heart. 

But let us also take this Good News to heart: our Father’s covenant loyalty for us is infinitely greater than our covenant loyalty for him or for our parents. Even though we will continue to under- or over-honour our earthly parents — even though we will continue to run into the guardrails — those guardrails are strong enough to keep us on the Road of Covenant Loyalty. Our Father does not promise perfect performance for us in this life, but he does promise perfect peace with him. 

But more than this, he has also promised that, as we practice looking ahead down the road to our destination, our steering will improve. We will find it easier and easier to steer between the guardrails. We will discover that our capacity for covenant loyalty to God will continue grow — along with our capacity for appropriate covenant loyalty to our earthly fathers and mothers. 

So let’s keep looking forward to that, pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus. 

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