“The Fifth Commandment”
Deuteronomy 5:6, 16
October 16, 2022
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We continue this morning through the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy, as we come now to the fifth commandment. Our text will be Deuteronomy 5:6 & 16.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
The Lord said to his people:
6 “‘I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
16 “‘Honor your father and your mother, as Yahweh your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, be gracious to us, your servants,
that we may live and keep your word.
Open our eyes, that we may behold
wondrous things out of your word.
Let your testimonies be our delight,
and our chief counselors.
We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:17-18, 24]
Once again, we come to a commandment which could easily support a whole sermon series. But for now, we are limited to one sermon. And so there is much that could be said this morning, that will have to be left unsaid.
Instead, we will limit ourselves this morning to three questions:
- First, why are we so resistant to this commandment?
- Second, what is the gospel’s basis for obeying this commandment?
- And third, what does a lived-out response to this commandment look like, in light of the gospel?
So first: Why are we so resistant to this commandment?
And we need to break that down to two elements: the fact of our resistance, and the heart of our resistance.
The Fact of Our Resistance
First: the fact of our resistance.
And to see that more clearly, we need to consider a few things.
The first is that this commandment is not limited to children. In fact, it’s not primarily given to children. While children would be included among those who received the Ten Commandments, the primary audience being addressed here is adults, and the command is applied to adults. Adults, as well as children, are called on here to honor their father and mother. [Wright, 76; Block, 165]
Second, the commandment is not limited to what we think of as the separate sphere of family life, as distinct from all other areas of life.
Christopher Wright points out that when the fifth commandment was given, and for the centuries that would follow, the authority structures of Israel’s economic, political, and ecclesiastical life, heavily overlapped with their family life. Politically, Israel’s judicial and military power was organized along family, clan, and tribal lines. Economically, the land, which was the major means of production, would be distributed by tribe, clan, and family, once again overlapping economic life with family life. Spiritually, the structures of Israel’s ecclesiastical life were linked to tribal designations, tribal elder leaders. And so, to command an ancient Israelite to honor their father and mother was not only a command to honor those in authority within the sphere of the family, but also, it was functionally a command to honor those in authority within the spheres of their economic, political, and ecclesiastical life as well.
And later on, when those spheres began to diverge more, the Scripture called on the people of God to honor those in authority in each one. It continued to call on us to honor our father and mother [Colossians 3:20; Ephesians 6:1-2]. But it also calls us to be subject to those in authority over us in the sphere of work [1 Peter 2:18, Ephesians 6:5-7; Colossians 3:22-24], to honor those in authority over us in civil government [1 Peter 2:13,17, Romans 13], and to honor those in authority over us within the church [1 Peter 5:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Corinthians 15:16-17; Hebrews 13:17].
And the Church has historically recognized this by seeing the fifth commandment as applying not only to the family, but to all relationships of authority, and the honor that is due within each of those relationships. [WLC #123-133; WSC #63-66]
That’s the second thing we need to recognize up front.
The third thing we need to recognize is what kind of honor is being commanded here. And it might be helpful to think of there being two different kinds of honor: ascribed honor and achieved honor.
Achieved honor is the kind of honor you earn by what you do – by your accomplishments. Ascribed honor is the kind of honor someone receives because of their position in relation to other people.
And as modern Western people, in a hyper-individualistic culture, achieved honor makes sense to us. But we often struggle to understand ascribed honor. We tend to find it odd and puzzling. Because ascribed honor is honor that is due to someone for a position they hold in a relationship or in society, regardless of their achievements or merits.
So Jeff Bezos primarily has achieved honor. King Charles primarily has ascribed honor.
Now, the Bible would certainly promote the value of achieved honor – we see that especially in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature. But the fifth command is, at root, about ascribed honor. Of course parents often earn the right to be honored as well, as the Apostle Paul [1 Timothy 5:4] and the Book of Proverbs remind us. But even so, the focus of the fifth commandment is especially on ascribed honor. We are to honor our father and our mother because they are our father and our mother.
It is not “Honor your father and mother so long as they are smarter than you.”
It’s not “Honor your father and mother so long as they are more accomplished than you.”
It’s not even “Honor your father and mother so long as they are more morally or spiritually mature than you.”
In other words, the command to honor our father and mother is not conditional on the accomplishments, gifts, or abilities of our parents when compared to our own accomplishments, gifts, or abilities. [Calvin, Institutes 2.8.36]
The fifth commandment is a command to give ascribed honor to those to whom it is due.
Yet we deeply struggle with this. Which is odd. By the nature of their position, our parents give us life. They provide for us. They raise us. On a basic level, of course we should honor them. Yet universally we struggle with this. Before the age of two we rebel against this. And while we do better sometimes than others, it remains a life-long struggle. I recently heard a stand-up comic comment on this, saying “I have no shorter fuse with anyone in my whole life than I do with my own mother.” Why is that? Why do we struggle so much to honor our parents, whether as children or as adults? And even if you do relatively well in honoring them with your words and your deeds, why do you so often struggle to honor them with your thoughts?
I know we have a multigenerational church here, and it may be awkward to ask yourself those questions if your parents are here right now. If it helps, my parents are here too. They’re visiting this weekend. Either it’s providential or they got a look at my preaching schedule and planned it that way – I’m still not sure which. But despite the awkwardness, let’s be honest at least with ourselves – in our own hearts. Where do you see this tendency in your own heart?
And let me exhort you, both now and for the rest of the sermon, not to let your mind wander into all the ways you should be honored by others and are not getting it. But instead, let me urge you to ruthlessly focus your mind and heart in this time on God’s call on you to give honor to others. That is what the command is all about: not on who we get honor from, but who we should give honor to. So that should be your focus.
But how should we think of this category of ascribed honor as opposed to achieved honor?
I remember an interaction in a political television drama that aired years ago that fleshed this out pretty well.
In the show, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the White House is meeting with a powerful Hollywood executive about planning an event. A conflict begins, and as it does, this distinction between achieved honor and ascribed honor begins to emerge.
The Hollywood executive clearly has achieved honor. They meet at his house, which is staggeringly large and opulent. They begin to talk, and from the beginning the White House official bungles the interaction, being terse and foolish where the Hollywood executive is more careful and calculating with his words. And the Hollywood executive then begins to verbally start smacking the White House official around: flexing the muscles of his money, stressing his great success, all in an effort to take the White House official down a few notches.
The Hollywood executive clearly has more achieved honor than the White House official does: he’s earned more money, he believes he is smarter than the White House official and that he has accomplished more, and he lets him know it – he uses all that to try to cut this White House official down to size.
It’s true that the White House official has more ascribed honor than the Hollywood executive, based on his role in the White House, but the Hollywood executive does not care about that – he disregards the official’s position and instead asserts his own personal superiority over him. And the White House official yields to him. It works.
But it’s not the end of the conversation.
Because later that day, the event they had been planning occurs. And over the course of the event, the President himself takes a few minutes alone with the Hollywood executive in a side room. And when he does, he confronts him for how he treated the White House official. And when he confronts him, he doesn’t argue that the White House official is smarter than the Hollywood executive. He doesn’t argue that the White House official has accomplished more than the Hollywood executive. He doesn’t argue that the official was wealthier or more capable or morally superior to the Hollywood executive.
Instead, he says to him, with anger in his voice: “Don’t you ever [do that] again. That [man] is the White House Deputy Chief of Staff.” [Sorkin]
What is the President saying there?
He’s saying that it’s not about the achievements or the abilities of the White House official. It’s not even about how well he handled the conversation earlier that day. It’s about the fact that he is the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. “He represents me,” the President essentially says. “I’m the one who put him in that position, I’m the one who designated him as my representative, and regardless of his personal qualities, good or bad, he serves as my representative, and when you dishonor him, you are dishonoring me.”
Now there are actually two things we see in all that.
One is the difference between achieved honor and ascribed honor.
But the other is the proper source of ascribed honor. Those with ascribed honor and authority have that honor and authority delegated to them from some other source.
In that TV show it was honor and authority that the President had delegated to his Deputy Chief of Staff.
But in our lives the Bible tells us that that honor and authority is delegated to human beings by God himself.
The Christian Scriptures tell us that regardless of the human means by which it happens, those put in positions of authority are put there by God – by his providence.
It is God who decides who our parents will be. And then, once they are our parents, he tells us that they serve as his representatives to us. That’s what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 3[:14-15].
A few chapters later, Paul also tells us that in our place of work also, we should serve those over us as we would serve Christ [Ephesians 6:5-7].
In Romans 13, Paul tells us that every authority in civil government has been appointed to their place by God, and is God’s servant [Romans 13:1-7], whether they recognize it or not.
And the Apostle Peter tells us that church leaders are to be seen as Christ’s shepherd-servants, serving under him as our chief Shepherd [1 Peter 5:1-5; also see Hebrews 13:17].
In each case, we are told that those in these roles are God’s appointed servants. And as such, he has delegated authority to them, and called on us to honor them as his representatives.
Their calling is to carry out that duty as faithful representatives of the Triune God of the Bible.
But our calling is to honor them for the position the Lord has placed them in, whether they do it faithfully or poorly. Because either way, they still serve as God’s representatives.
With that said, we might ask: What does this kind of honor look like?
John Calvin is helpful here. He explains that what is meant by honor in this context, consists of three things: reverence, obedience, and gratitude. [Calvin, Institutes 2.8.35]
Now, it is true that our calling to obey can vary depending on the details. But even when it does, even when the Bible might call on us to disobey a specific authority in a specific situation, still the other two aspects of calling remain obligations for us.
First, Calvin says that we owe reverence and respect to those in authority. And that is true even when we must disagree with them – even if we must disobey them. And then, with that, Calvin says that we owe gratitude and thankfulness for what they do. Even if there is much they do wrong, even if there is much about them that the Lord would rightly judge, by the nature of their position that the Lord has placed them in, we owe them gratitude and thankfulness for all that they do right.
Respect and gratitude. For the moment, let’s focus on those components of honor.
Have you shown that kind of honor – have you shown respect and gratitude – to those in authority over you, regardless of how you assess their personal merits when compared to your own?
Regardless of your age, have you shown honor to your parents in this way?
Regardless of your accomplishments, have you shown honor to your boss or supervisors at work in this way?
Regardless of your own spiritual maturity, have you shown honor to your church leaders in this way?
Regardless of your political views and affiliations, have you shown honor to those in governing authority over you in this way?
And on that last one – here’s a question that might help you assess your answer: Can you honestly say before the Lord that in 2020 you honored both Governor Inslee and President Trump?
I know a lot of people who can say yes to one of those, but not the other. I know some who would have to say no to both. But I know very few who could say that yes, they respected and expressed gratitude well for both Governor Inslee and President Trump in 2020. I know I didn’t.
And don’t revert to explaining why they didn’t deserve respect or gratitude. That is to shift back to thinking about achieved honor, and as important as that is, we’re not talking about that now. The Bible calls us to honor all human authorities – that is a command to give ascribed honor (not achieved honor). So the only question is: Did you do that?
And if we’re honest with ourselves, our answer is often no. We don’t do a very good job showing respect and gratitude for our parents. We don’t do a very good job showing respect and gratitude for our bosses (particularly when they are out of earshot). We don’t do a very good job showing respect and gratitude for our leaders in civil government or in church government.
Why is that?
The Heart of Our Resistance
What is at the heart of our resistance? Why is it so hard for us to follow this command?
Now, sure, there is sometimes a genuine concern we have with the sin or incompetence of those in positions of authority.
But I don’t think that’s all there is to this. Not by a long shot. Resistance to authority and resentment of leaders seems to be a much broader phenomenon than that.
Dishonoring of parents, whether by word, or by deed, or simply in our heart, is incredibly common. You have thought those thoughts. It’s true even when we have great parents. It’s true even when we know our parents have sacrificed so much for us. Still our tendency is to dishonor them. Why is that?
Why do we so often find ourselves resenting our boss, even when we think we have a good boss?
Why do we so quickly start spouting venom when it comes to those in authority over us in civil government?
Why is it that even if we like our church … even if we like every minister and elder of our church individually … why is it that when they make a decision – when they exercise their authority in the church – we still so often find ourselves agitated and annoyed by it?
We resent those placed in authority over us. We struggle with it even when they have obviously earned that position, but we struggle even more when it is a matter of ascribed honor rather than achieved honor. We struggle especially when we feel like we did not choose them: when we are called on to honor parents that we never chose, to honor a boss that we didn’t get to pick, to honor a civil authority that we didn’t vote for, to honor a session, most of whom were elected before we ever got here.
We especially struggle to honor authorities in our life that we feel like we didn’t get to choose ourselves.
And the Bible tells us that that resentment is rooted in our resentment of the ultimate authority in our lives that we did not get to choose.
Remember, the Bible tells us that those in positions of ascribed authority in our lives serve as representatives of God. They do it imperfectly, of course – and the level of imperfection can vary substantially. But they serve as God’s servants and representatives.
As such, they are reminders of God’s authority over us. And the truth is, we quite often don’t like the fact that God has authority over us. I mean, it’s one thing when God’s authority over us is vague and general – that we might be okay with. But it’s another thing when it gets concrete in the details of our lives, through his appointed servants. Then we feel quite differently.
Our earthly parents serve as representatives of our Heavenly Father, our bosses serve as representatives of our Heavenly Master, our civil authorities serve as representatives of our Heavenly King, and our church leaders serve as representatives of our Heavenly Shepherd.
And at least in part, we resent them because of who they represent.
At the heart of our sinful nature is the reality that we resent God’s authority over us. And so, instead of honoring him, we are tempted to scorn him, to disobey him, and to disregard his gifts to us.
After all, we did not choose him either.
And that resentment was written into our hearts in the rebellion of our first parents.
The first three chapters of the Bible tell us that after God made all things, including our first parents, Satan, in the form of a serpent, came to them and questioned whether God really deserved their respect, obedience, and gratitude.
Satan came and said, “Look … God isn’t worthy of our gratitude … in fact, he’s actually withholding good things from you. God isn’t worthy of your respect … in fact you too can be just as good as he is if you want. God isn’t worthy of your obedience … so don’t listen to his word, and instead, take this forbidden fruit and eat it.” And they did.
And as they did, that disposition of dishonor towards God – of disrespect, of disobedience, and of ingratitude was impressed on the hearts of our first parents, and all of their descendants.
And it remains impressed on our hearts in our sinful nature.
We resent God’s position over us. And we respond to that by dishonoring, disobeying, and being ungrateful towards him … and towards all whom he has appointed as his representatives in our lives – all he has placed in positions of authority or honor over us.
And the Bible makes it pretty clear that if we say we honor God, but we dishonor those he has placed in authority over us, then we don’t really honor him after all.
That is true whether it is our parents in our family, our boss at work, our leaders in government, or our officers in the church.
In this way each of us is prone to dishonor God. What then is the solution?
The Gospel’s Foundation
Well, the solution the Bible gives us doesn’t begin with our relationship to others, but with our relationship to God.
First, we must believe that God is in fact sovereign. God does not set the world spinning and then step back from it. He is in control over everything that happens, the Bible tells us, including who holds authority over us. It’s true that we may not have chosen those placed over us in our family, our workplace, our government, or our church, but God did.
And then second, we must believe that God loves us and works all things for our good. And we need to believe that even when we can’t see it.
Our root sin is disbelieving that second reality. That is what our first parents did. And they had so much reason to trust in God’s love and care for them. First, God by his very nature is good. And they knew that from experience. Second, God’s creation of them and provision for them should have assured them even more of his goodness and love.
But for whatever mysterious reason, they doubted his love for them. And they dishonored him, and turned from him, and fell headlong into sin and death.
And when that happened, … rather than turn away from us, the Lord instead gave us yet another reason to trust in his goodness and his love. Because it was after we fell into sin and death that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross, so that we might be saved.
The Apostle Paul writes “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” [Romans 8:32]
If God the Father was willing to give his own Son over to death, in order to rescue us … if God the Son willingly went to death in order to save us … if God did that for us, then how can we doubt his love for us?
If he’s already done that for our good, then when he places someone in authority over us that we find frustrating, or foolish, or incompetent, or faithless, or unjust … even then, how can we doubt his love for us? Even then, how can we not trust that this – even this – must be for our good … and that they are serving as God’s servants, in ways that they don’t know, and in ways that we may not, in this life, be able to perceive?
God the Father has given his Son for us. God the Son endured the cross for us. How then can we fail to give him honor? And how can we fail to honor those he has placed over us? How can we fail to trust that he has a loving purpose for us, and that our good will be found in honoring those he calls us to honor?
Responding to the Gospel
Which brings us then to our final point: Our response to this command in light of the gospel.
And what we see is that we should respond by honoring God, and by honoring his servants and representatives.
First, we should honor God. We should show him respect and reverence. We should show him obedience, by giving a deferential hearing to his instruction for us, and then doing what he calls us to do. We should show him gratitude by giving thanks to him for all the blessings he has given us in our creation, preservation, and redemption.
We are to do this every Lord’s Day in worship. But this is to extend to the rest of our week as well: in our prayer lives, our ethical lives, in our commitment to bear the Lord’s name with honor.
Honoring God’s Representatives
But then second, this calling to honor the Lord is not limited to our vertical relationship with God. It extends also to how we relate to one another.
It extends to how we show honor to those that the Lord has placed over us in this world.
And as we think of what that looks like, let me give three caveats, and then some thoughts on application.
First, saying that those in authority are God’s servants and representatives, does not mean that they have lived up to that calling well. None have done it perfectly. Some have failed abominably. All will need to seek God’s grace for the ways they have fallen short and misrepresented God. Some will face God’s stern judgment for the ways they have contradicted his goodness within the position the Lord has placed them.
Second, the call to honor is not here a call to willingly receive abuse from those in authority. Willingly allowing someone in authority to sin against you does not honor them, or the Lord, or the image of God the Lord has placed in you. The call to honor those in authority is not a call to treat abuse lightly.
Far from that, we see in the Bible that the Lord has placed multiple authority structures in our lives, in part so that if one authority becomes abusive, we can appeal to another authority for help. And so, if you are experiencing abuse from an authority in your life, I urge you to turn to another authority in your life for help – whether that other authority is in your family, in the church, through law enforcement, or through some other organization, please turn to someone for help. Because the call to honor authorities is not a call to accept sin and abuse.
Third, while we are always called to honor those in authority, we are not always called to obey. In light of this, John Frame helpfully divides Calvin’s category of “obedience” into two items: one we might call deferential hearing, and the other we might call acting in obedience. [Frame, 579-581] We always owe a deferential hearing to those in authority over us when they instruct us. But we don’t always owe obedience. We don’t owe them obedience when they command us to do something that would require us to break God’s commands. And we don’t owe them obedience when they command us in a way that is outside the authority the Lord has given them.
And so we owe both deferential hearing and obedience to our parents when we are children, but as adults, we only owe a deferential hearing – not obedience. In our legal system we have a whole process through the courts to determine whether a civil authority in the government has the right to issue certain commands, and Christians can avail themselves of that process. Similar limitations exist in the workplace. And in the church, the Scriptures restrict the authority of church officers. Our power is ministerial and declarative – we can only declare and apply God’s Word to our members. We can’t add to God’s law.
And so when an authority issues a command contrary to God’s or oversteps the bounds of their authority, you do not owe them obedience. But you do still owe them respect, gratitude, and a deferential hearing.
And, of course, in many other cases when they act within their authority, you do owe obedience as well.
With those qualifications in mind, how can we show honor to those the Lord has placed over us in our family, our workplace, our political structures, and our church?
In your family, think of how you relate to your mother and father. They have served as the Lord’s representatives in your life in so many ways. How can you show them respect and reverence? How can you do a better job listening to them with deference, even when you disagree? And if you are still a minor at home, how can you better obey them, even when you think you know better?
Whatever your age, how can you show them gratitude? Gratitude looks different in different stages of life. As children we give hugs and say thank you. As adults, when our parents reach old age, the Apostle Paul reminds us that gratitude may look like supporting them financially, or overseeing the care they receive from others, or even caring for them ourselves. [1 Timothy 5:4-8] Between those two, there is a range of ways for us to express our thanks to them. How can you do that now?
How can you show respect, deferential hearing, gratitude, and when appropriate, obedience to your father and mother?
And then how can you show those same things to those in authority over you in other areas of life?
There is so much we can say here … but consider just a few examples.
In the workplace, what might it look like for you to give a more deferential hearing and heartfelt obedience to those in authority over you? How might you more intently listen to your supervisors, even when you find them frustrating – even when you’re pretty sure you know better than them about something? And how might you seek to obey them not just when they’re looking, but when no one else can see? How might you better honor them, and thus better honor the Lord?
Or when it comes to civil government, how might you show respect and reverence to all in authority over you, even when you strongly disagree with them?
Years ago my wife and I were part of a pretty conservative church in a pretty liberal state back East. And I remember one couple telling us about a conflict they were having with a non-Christian family member over politics. But the conflict wasn’t because they had different political views. It was because of how they spoke of their shared political opponents. You see, even when this couple expressed their strong disagreement with those in authority over them, they refused to speak disrespectfully or slanderously of those in civil government over them. Their non-Christian family member was frustrated because she wanted them to speak more harshly about their shared political opponents. But they explained to me, despite their strong disagreement with some of their leaders, as Christians they could not speak in a dishonorable way about those the Lord had placed in authority over them – those the Lord had called them to honor. How might we follow their example?
Or what about when it comes to the church? Let’s leave the ministers aside here, and let’s ask: How might you show gratitude to the ruling elders that the Lord has placed over you here?
I can tell you someone is always ready to tell our ruling elders when something is wrong. They often hear when someone is upset. But it is far less common for someone to reach out and express gratitude to them for their work. And that has especially been true the last few years. And of course the same can be said of our deacons, who do so much that is not seen. And it can be said as well for the lay leaders in our church: for the board and the principal of Covenant High School, for our children’s Sunday school superintendent and leadership, for the director and leadership team of our Women’s Ministry of Faith, and for many others. These men and women, in different ways, keep watch over your soul, and the souls of your children. How might you express gratitude toward them for that?
What if you, in the week ahead, picked one ruling elder, and one deacon, and one lay leader in our church, and intentionally thanked them in a specific way? Might that be a way for you to honor both them and the Lord who has placed them in that role?
If God is not loving and if God is not sovereign, then there is reason to panic and to attack those in authority over us.
But if God is sovereign, and if he loves us, then that changes everything. If he tells us that those he has put over us serve as his representatives, that changes things even more.
Our God is worthy of all honor, reverence, gratitude, and obedience.
Let us extend that honor to all whom he calls us to.
For in honoring them, we also honor him.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Edited by John T. McNeill. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.
Leithart, Peter J. The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.
Sorkin, Aaron. “20 Hours in L.A.” The West Wing. Season 1, Episode 16. February 23, 2000.
Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.
 It is, of course, true that in many ways the 21st century employee enjoys a very different status than a first-century bondservant. But I would maintain that there are principles that extend from Paul’s words to bondservants to modern employees, with the necessary changes and adjustments being made.
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