The Lord's Day Evening
September 17, 2006
God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians (LIV)
God's Household Rules: Marriage and Family (9):
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn again to Ephesians…now chapter six, but still part of the section that we started back in Ephesians 5:22
One comment is probably going to be useful for you as you consider especially the content of Ephesians 6:5-9, which deals with the slave/master relationship – that this whole section from Ephesians 5:22 to 6:9 pertains to life in the household. It might be tempting to view the issue of husbands and wives, and children and parents as matters of the household, and then to come to this section on masters and slaves and think of labor outside of the home, but from Paul's perspective (and not only in biblical culture, but in the popular Greco-Roman culture in which Paul was living and writing) these things were all of a part. And especially these are the folks that are laboring alongside of the heads of the households in their own particular setting. This may in fact impact the way we understand that passage.
But we're still in this larger section on marriage and family, “God's Household Rules”, but tonight the subject focuses on the relationship between children and parents; and this week and next we’ll look at that sacred and significant relationship. This week we’ll concentrate on children's obedience to their parents, and next week we’ll look at parents’ responsibility to their children, following the order of the text. Ephesians 6:1-3, the passage we’ll look at tonight, speaks about the obedience which children owe to their parents in the Lord, and the passage that we’ll study next week in Ephesians 6:4 will speak of the obligations that God expects parents to fulfill towards their Christian children.
We should also say as we look at this passage that the issue of children's obedience to parents, like the issue of the way husbands relate to wives and wives to husbands, is seen by the Apostle Paul as a larger gospel issue. It's not just a matter of having children that don't embarrass you when they’re out of the home, and behave when they’re in school, and don't cause the neighborhood to think that you’re an out-of-control parent who needs to be hauled up before the Department of Social Services for an evaluation. No, there's a larger gospel significance going on here, for the Apostle Paul believes that just like the way a Christian husband relates to his wife and a Christian wife relates to her husband is the playing out of the realities (or the lack thereof) in the heart as to your understanding embrace of the gospel, so also the obedience of Christian children to their parents is an active display either of the reality of the gospel that has taken root in their hearts or of a contrary reality that pervades. And then of course in the same way how parents relate to their children reveals how deeply the gospel has permeated their own hearts in the way it flows out in their relationship to their children. So there's something again here bigger at stake than simply saving face, keeping from being shamed in the community, keeping your children out of jail, getting your children through high school and college and started in a career and marriage of their own. There are larger gospel issues at play. For the Apostle Paul the home, the marriage, the relationship of parents and children, are perhaps the most significant ground–they’re sort of ground zero for beginning to live out the gospel in one's life. One can say all kinds of things about what one believes, about what one professes. One can make all sorts of claims about one's own priorities and Christian experience, but those things really show in the context of the home, and the Apostle Paul wants us to remember that as we come to this passage.
Now I want to do basically two things. First of all, I want you to see the three specific motives or reasons, or arguments, that the Apostle Paul gives to children as to why they ought to obey their parents. Now, the Apostle Paul does this, as we're going to see in a few moments, because though he knows that in almost every culture there is an expectation that children would show appropriate respect to their parents, yet there are always circumstances– sometimes with the parents, sometimes with the children, and sometimes both–where that doesn't happen, and so he is ready to come with arguments in order to foster the proper relationship of Christian children to their parents.
Now as we come to a passage like this, we ourselves come to it just like we come to any passage on marriage: from multiple situations. Some of us come from homes in which there was a wonderful parental/child relationship and all of our memories of our parents’ dealings with us — our mother and our father — bring us great joy, and we wish that we could live up to those ourselves. Others of us come from situations where parents grievously erred in the way that they dealt with their children, or in which one or more of the children in the family strayed seriously. Some of us come tonight with broken hearts in the whole area of parent/child relationships, while others come with hearts full of gratitude to God for the good things that He has granted precisely in that same setting. We need to bear that in mind and pray for one another as we all attempt to appropriate the Bible's teaching about parent/child relationships.
Now let's read Ephesians 6:1-3, and before we do, let's look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We are struck again by the practicality of Your truth. The Apostle Paul could be speaking one moment of the atonement, one moment of union with Christ, one moment of the decree of election, one moment of the mystery of the church, and the next moment he's talking to us about how children ought to obey parents. And we understand that for the Apostle Paul these things are all part of one fabric, and we ask, O God, that that reality would change the way we look at the Bible: that we would remember that there are no parts that are impractical, and there are no parts that are merely theoretical, but that all the truth is for the purpose of practice, and all the practical directions are grounded in truth about God. We pray that we would live our lives that way, and especially in this passage tonight we pray that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“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.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Now just a moment ago I was about to tell you that I wanted to do basically two things tonight, and I only told you the first thing that I wanted to do. I want to first look at these three reasons or motivations that the Apostle Paul provides, and you’ll find them respectively in verse 1, verse 2, and then the third one you’ll see at the end of verse 2 and going down to verse 3. So I want to look at these reasons or motivations for Christian children obeying their parents, and then I want to think about some of the different categories that children fall into, and some of the special circumstances that obtain in fleshing out this command, in living out this command, because we're all children. But we don't all always relate to our parents the same way at different ages and stages of life, so that the way a 12-year-old relates to his mother and father is not the same way a 25-year-old relates to his mother or father, or the way a 65-year-old relates to his mother or father. And there are different circumstances required for those different ages and stages of life. The grand biblical direction is always to honor your parents, but the question immediately comes, “How do I do that? How do I do that where I am, where they are? What are you asking me to do, Lord?” And so we’ll try and look at some of those circumstances. We can't even scratch the surface of all the circumstances in that regard, but we can look at the principles and outlines.
So let's first look at these three reasons or motivations to Christian children for obedience, and notice that the Apostle Paul here says that Christian children, in order to live out the gospel in their home, Christian children, in order to live out their own embrace of the lordship of Christ, must do three things: They must obey their parents because it's right; because it's commanded; and, because it's rewarded. Because it's right, because it's commanded, and because it rewarded. Those are the three motivations that the Apostle Paul offers to Christian children.
First let's look at verse 1. Here Paul's direction to Christian children in their obedience to their parents is rooted in the natural order, in the created order.
Paul knows that in almost every culture there is some due honor that is expected from children to their parents, and so he begins by saying ‘Look, Christian children, you are to obey your parents because it's the right thing to do, and everybody knows that.’ Even in our own day and age where the whole principle of the family structure is breaking down, when we hear, for instance, that in a country like Sweden that the idea of a parent punishing his or her child (or their child) is looked upon as a violation of the child's rights, and that corporal punishment is forbidden to parents under punishment of law, and that in the general culture more and more the idea that children are to be submissive to their parents, and that parents have some right of direction and guidance over their children is called into question. Even in our messed up culture, we know something is really messed up about that! And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Look, even out in the pagan Greek and Roman world, friends, the pagans know that it's right for children to obey their parents.’
It's very apparent in the natural and created order that in the very order that God established in creation there is to be a due deference to appointed authority, and first and foremost that's to be expressed in terms of deference and honor and obedience to parents. So the first thing that the Apostle Paul says is that Christian children are to obey their parents because it's the right thing to do, and consequently it's important for Christian children to understand that when they violate what Paul is asking them to do they are not simply violating an arbitrary situational ad hoc command that Paul came up with on the fly sometime while he was writing to the Ephesians 2,000 years ago. They are violating something that is actually woven into the very fabric of creation and it is written on to their hearts, so they have to go an extra mile to ignore this particular command, because God has woven it into the very fabric of creation.
The second thing that the Apostle Paul says, and you see it in verse 2, is that the obedience of children is not only based on this natural created order, so that they know it's the right thing to do…just like Romans 1, where the Apostle Paul says, look, even the pagans know that there's a difference between right and wrong, and they ought to do right and they shouldn't do wrong, even though they don't do that. Even they know that. And that's why Calvin could say that even the blindest of consciences are occasionally dragged before the throne of God so that they know that when they’re doing wrong they’re actually doing wrong, even though they try with all their might to deny that there is such a thing as right and wrong. They know there is a right and wrong, and occasionally they’re convicted of it. And so the Apostle Paul says it's not only that this is woven into the very fabric of creation, but God has explicitly commanded it. The express command of God is for children to obey their parents, and so Paul's point is that Christian children are to obey their parents because God has commanded it in His word. He quotes to us from the fifth commandment, out of Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and mother.” And so he goes right back to that great commandment, and it's so interesting that that is the first commandment following on the heels of four commandments that were all about — who? — all about God. The first commandment is about putting no one else before God, worshiping no one else before God. The second commandment is about worshiping God in the way that God has appointed. The third commandment is about honoring God's name. The fourth commandment is about honoring God's day. And then, right on the heels of that, before you get to murder, before you get to adultery, before you get to stealing or lying or coveting, you come to honor your father and mother. Do you see how important this is in God's economy? God's express command is: “Obey your parents.” It is the express command of God. He has commanded it in His word, and Paul offers it as an argument because he knows our hearts.
You remember how we've been saying for a number of weeks now that God loves us very much, and so He gives us reasons or arguments to do the things that we know that we ought to do, because He knows our hearts and He knows (as we sang this morning) that our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.” And so He gives us arguments to use against those wandering hearts, to say ‘Lord God, how could I disobey such an express, explicit, obvious, clear, important command as You have given in Your word in relation to my parents?’
But Paul doesn't stop. He goes on and he gives one more argument, and you see it at the end of verse 2, and then throughout verse 3. He tells us here that the obedience of children is not only based on what is fundamentally right as is revealed in the creative order; it's not only based on God's expressed command in Scripture, but it is also accompanied by a gracious promise of God.
Isn't it like God to say ‘You have to do this…and when you do it, I’ll bless you’? This reminds us of the graciousness of God in His commands. He can't wait to bless us! And so He’ll say this is your duty, and I'm going to reward you for doing your duty, even though you don't deserve a reward for doing your duty. Remember what the Lord Jesus said to the disciples–that when they had done all their duty they were to say — what? — “I've only done what I've been commanded to do.” That's what our attitude is supposed to be — ‘Lord, when I've obeyed Your Law perfectly’… on those rare occasions we say, ‘Well, Lord this is the first time I've ever obeyed Your Law completely, and the last week I've only done what You told me to do in the first place.’ And God is here saying in Exodus 20:12,’ I'm just waiting there to bless you and reward you for what you ought to have done anyway,’ because He's gracious; and this reminds us that the way of obedience with God is always the way of blessing.
You remember Satan's words to Eve in the garden ran like this: If you want blessing, you've got to disobey. If you want to be like God, if you want what you want, if you want to achieve happiness, then what you have to do is disobey. And what does the rest of the Bible say in opposition to what Satan said? The way of blessing is right there in the way of obedience, because God loves to bless those who obey. We’re going to sing Trust and Obey, or a phrase or two from it at the end. What a great motto for the Christian life. Obedience brings with it blessing, because God is gracious. And so Paul is saying ‘Look, this command which we ought to do just because that's the way God created the world and because He said it in His word, He also accompanies with it a gracious promise. And so Christian children are to obey their parents because of God's gracious promise.
Now this command is a very important command in Scripture. I'm not going to go through all the passages that I've written down for you on the outline, but I challenge you to go home and to do two things. As you look through those passages, look at the column that says “Do and Don't” and write out the things that are accompanying those specific commands about children and parents, as to what those commands ask us to do and what those commands ask us not to do. And what you’re going to find is this: over and over in the Bible, children are asked to honor and respect their parents, to obey their parents, and in the Proverbs, especially to listen to their parents.
If you’re getting to be an older teenager, for the next several years you are going to think that your parents know less and less, and that you know more and more. And do you know what's going to happen? Something that's really weird is going to be happening. The day that you graduate from college, your parents are going to become the smartest people that you know, even though they were knowing less and less and less all along the time that you were finishing your final years of high school and going through college. And the reason is actually not because they’re knowing less and less, but because you will have grown enough to appreciate the wisdom that they were offering you that didn't seem like wisdom in the first place. So over and over the Book of Proverbs is saying, ‘Young people, do this: listen to your parents. They have wisdom that you need to hear.’
And of course, the Bible also has words about providing for parents. We’ll come back to that in just a few moments when we talk about the different ages and stages of life. The Bible also has “don'ts” with regard to parents. In the Old Testament children were not to attack their parents or curse their parents, or rebel against their parents, or mock their parents, or neglect their parents. And if they did, in some cases the law provided the death penalty for the breaking of this command. You see again how important this command is, because as far as God is concerned our living out under this authority structure affects the way that we approach authority in all of life, and especially, of course, in how we approach God's authority. So this is a vital command in a society like ours that is relativistic and just hates authority. We have a problem with authority. We have people riding around with bumper stickers that say “Question Authority”. That's just the culture that we live in now, and so this word is a radical counter-cultural word.
Now let's think by way of application just very briefly to children in several different circumstances, ages, and stages of life.
Let's think for a few minutes about younger children in the home, and let me think of two categories here. The first category I want to think of is a young person who is in a Christian home with godly and wise Christian parents, or at least a godly and wise Christian parent. Let me just share a story with you.
There was a very intelligent 14-year-old young woman in a congregation that I served (not here in Jackson) many years ago who was giving her mother fits about coming to church. And her mother actually called me up and said, “I cannot get Sarah to go to church. She does not want to go to church with me. In fact, she's going to a Pentecostal church, and I just can't get her to come with me. What do I do?”
Now there were some interesting dynamics here. There was an uninvolved father, and there was a mom who was godly and doing the dead level best she could with her kids. There was a young woman who was 14 and was off the charts smart. The next year she took the ACT and got a perfect score, and she could argue the best lawyer in town until he would have been crying “uncle!” She was a force to be contended with.
But her mom said to me, “What do I do?”
I said, “Now, let me just ask a question. Let's see. She's 14. She's not driving. Right? Now how is she getting to this Pentecostal church?”
“Well, I mean, I'm taking her.”
“OK. Well, here's an idea about how you could get her to not do that and come to church: DON’T TAKE HER THERE!”
And the mom's response was, “I can do that?”
And the answer of course is, “Yes! You can do that. While she's on your chow line and under your roof, she salutes and executes. ‘Yes, ma’am’ is the right answer.”
But there are so many parents today who don't think that they can exercise that kind of parental authority over their young people. Now, that was a special circumstance. Smart kid, strange family dynamics going on there.
But then, let's think of another circumstance. I've had in another case a situation where a godly young woman was from an unbelieving family. She was a teenager, she was under her mother and father's roof, they were kind to her in every respect, they were good parents other than the fact that they were pagans. And it scared them to death that she was coming to an evangelical church. As far as they were concerned, she had joined a cult. She was asking, “How in this circumstance do I honor my parents when they don't want me to come to church? They don't want me to be a part of this.” And she had come to faith in Jesus Christ. Even in that circumstance, we tried to find ways that she could honor her parents’ appropriate authority.
By the way, that's a very dangerous circumstance for a Christian young person to be in, because when that Christian young person recognizes that he or she has a level of spiritual maturity that her parents -or his parents – do not have, there is a tremendous temptation to pride. Even when at an earthly common grace level the parents are very wise and have the best interest of the child at heart, it's a tremendously difficult dynamic. In those circumstances, that's where we really do need the communion of the saints. That's where I have to go to my elders and say, “Men, I need your wisdom. How do we work with this?” This is where we go to other parents and friends and gather around and try and be supportive, because we don't have all the wisdom to answer all the questions that crop up in a circumstance like that. But the general principle still obtains: She must show respect and obedience to her parents. So, while we're in the home there are only rare occasions when there are going to be exceptions to this rule. Yes, there will sadly be circumstances where there is physical abuse, and God forbid, yes, occasionally sexual abuse and other things of this nature which will require severe intervention and different relationships between child and parent for the protection of the child. But those are by far the exception to the rule. When the child is in the home, we want to strive in every way to foster obedience to parents.
What about grown children on their own? You know, one of the two big issues in this area often have to do with vocation and marriage. You know, SusieQ wants to do such and such; Mom and Dad (who've paid for college) don't want SusieQ to do such and such. She's graduated now. She's beginning to embark upon a career, and there are tensions between parent and child because of the direction she's going.
Well, again, in that circumstance, she is on her own, and there is a level of autonomy that she has that she's not had before. Nevertheless, she would be wise to listen to the wisdom of her parents. Even if her parents are unbelievers, they will often have insights into her that she does not have about herself. Perhaps she would want to counterbalance their insights, if there is some gap in their thinking or in their priorities, with the wise counsel of another adult who has her best interests in mind–perhaps a pastor or an elder, or a professor or a friend. But she's going to want to continue to listen to the wisdom of her parents even though she has a level of autonomy that she did not have before.
What about in the area of marriage? This is so often a difficult thing. You need to know that the first two questions I ask when young people come to my office for their first counseling session are, one, are you both Christians?–I want to know where they are, where they stand with Christ; and the second question is, are both families supportive of the marriage? Now if the answer is no that doesn't mean that at that point I cut it all off and no further discussion, but if the answer is no there's going to be a lot of groundwork done before we move forward. It is an enormous pressure on a marriage to have resistance from parents, even if the resistance is based on unwise priorities. Even if the resistance comes from unbelieving parents who have a completely different value set than the young couple, there are tremendous obstacles that that young couple faces when there is not a corresponding respect and approval from parents. And so even grown children on their own, out from under the family roof or off the family payroll, have to pay very close attention to the dynamics of the relationship with their parents.
One of the interesting things that will so often play out here is a young person who is relatively wise, with a fairly confident and aggressive will, will have a different set of values than his or her parents, and will not want to be controlled by the parents, and so whatever the parents say, that young person does the opposite. Now, that's freeing, isn't it? No! No. The young person may think that he or she is free, but if you do the opposite of what your parents want, what's happening? Your parents are controlling you. And so you have to work out how to wade through and sift through what is wise and what is not, and how to show honor and respect in every circumstance.
One final area, and this is a difficult area, and that's the area of grown children caring for aging parents. Let me just ask you to turn in your Bibles quickly to Matthew 15:4-6. The Bible is not silent on this issue.
It is a growing problem, and it's a growing privilege for our congregation, because people are living longer than ever before, and so more and more we have the privilege of caring for our parents the way that they cared for us when we were young. But along with that come all sorts of sticky, thorny, issues, and especially when parents’ judgment begins to fail, and they want something that's not good for them. It's so difficult for their children. No matter how old they are, they may have been successful in every sphere of their lives–as parents themselves, in vocation and in the church; they may be 65 years old and at the end of their own regular working career and getting ready to enjoy the fruits of their labors and throwing themselves into other kinds of ministry or something, and yet they still in their mind's eye they 12-year-olds relating to their parents, and it's so difficult to assume that position.
One thing that Jesus says is that we must never, ever allow self-interest to undermine our obligation to care for the parents of our youth. Isn't it interesting that that was happening in Jesus’ day? It was covered, of course, with a religious veneer, but the bottom line was these children didn't want to have to spend money on their parents in their old age, and Jesus is saying to these grown children, no, you have a biblical obligation to care for the ones who cared for you when you couldn't care for yourself, when they can't care for themselves. And that's a divine and a sweet obligation, and I am speaking right now in a room where there are so many godly people who have done this, and they've done it in very difficult circumstances. So if you are wrestling with this right now, please tell me or one of the ministers. We can put you together with people in our congregation who are doing this and doing it right, but who are also facing the same kinds of heartbreaks and heartaches and seemingly insolvable problems that you may be going through. But there are so many people in our congregation that are doing this, and they’re doing it right. And what a privilege that is…what a privilege that is, to be able to care for the ones who cared for you when you couldn't care for yourself, when they can't care for themselves. But, boy, is it hard…boy, is it hard!
And so this principle of honoring parents carries all the way from childhood in the home all the way to the last days of our parents’ lives, but how we honor changes. The way that we honor changes, but the principle is always maintained. Yes, when we're grown and on our own and married, we must leave and cleave. There's a new level of autonomy, but there continues to be that honor and respect and that care, even in situations where our parents are unwise and unbelieving; and yet at the same time we must never ever forsake our commitment to the principles that God calls us to as Christians, because one of the things that Jesus teaches us in Luke 14 is that we are never to honor our parents above God. Just like in every other sphere of Christian life, we must never prefer men over God. We must always honor God in the way we love and serve others.
Let's look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the privilege of thinking through this passage all too briefly tonight. We recognize all the challenges that exist in our congregation precisely in this area, and I want to thank You for the privilege that I often have to peer into the lives of families in this church that are doing this so well. I learn from them. I'm humbled by their care. I'm grieved by their griefs, but I'm instructed by their lives and their hearts. And we pray that more and more we would be a mutual help to one another in precisely this area, whether it's parenting young children or parenting teenagers, or parenting children who are now out of the home and beginning their lives and marriages and careers, or whether it's parenting our parents. We pray for heavenly wisdom in doing this, and we ask that You would be honored and that we would understand that the gospel is at play in all of these things, too. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.