“The Blessing of Obedience”
January 27, 2002
v.1 We have here an instance of the universal practice of the Bible of including the children in the membership of the church. “For of such,” said Jesus, speaking of children younger than many of these, “is the kingdom of God.” These children are seen as Christians who have an obligation to serve the Lord by obeying their parents.
The reason Paul gives is that such obedience on the part of children is right! In all likelihood the best interpretation of Paul’s words, “it is right,” is that Paul is appealing to the universal sense of right and wrong. “Does not nature itself teach us…” he says in another place about another obligation. And, of course, in this case, hardly anyone would have disagreed: Greeks, Romans, or Jews. It is right for children to obey their parents. Christianity does not do away with nature, it redeems it and purifies it.
v.2 “Honor” your parents, children, means more than simply obey them. It means to give them your respect and your love from your heart. You can obey grudgingly or moodily, you can obey with a frown, or because you have to and you are still not honoring your parents.
There was a great deal of emphasis placed in both Judaism and the Greco-Roman world on the authority of parents over children, especially the authority of father’s, and the sacred obligation of children to obey. There was nothing controversial about what Paul says in v. 1 in that time and place; virtually everyone would have said that it was right for children to obey their parents. But in v. 2 he places the obligation on a completely different foundation, the law of the living and true God.
v.3 This is one of any number of instances in the NT where the law of God is cited from the OT as that law which we must obey. The notion that the commandments of God have passed away or that they have been replaced by some general law of love – however common that idea has become in some Christian circles – never occurred to the Apostle Paul!
As you remember, the form of the fifth commandment as we find it in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is “so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” “The land,” as you know, is a very important idea in the OT. In fact, the Hebrew word, “land,” is the fourth most commonly used word in the OT. Land, in the OT, is, of course, a reference to Canaan or Israel. God’s blessing brought Israel to that land, her sin drove her from the land, God’s blessing brought a remnant back again. But the law of God, being universal in its authority and its applicability, is re-signalized or reapplied in the new situation. Jesus does it himself in the Sermon on the Mount when he takes a text from Psalm 37 and changes it from “the meek shall inherit the land” to “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Paul does the same thing in Romans 4:13 where the promise to Abraham that his offspring should inherit the Promised Land is altered to “inherit the world.” And, here, in Eph. 6:3 the promise to live a long life in the land is altered, according to the Gentile believers’ situation in Ephesus, to “enjoy long life on the earth.” These are the only instances of the use of an OT text with “land” used in the NT and in each case the idea of land is re-signalized. This re-signalizing of the term “land” is also possible, of course, because, as we know, the land in the OT was not as important for itself, as a piece of real estate, as it was for what it represented: the blessings of the kingdom of God and heaven itself, as we are taught in many places in the Bible. Those promises, being the same for Jews and Gentiles, the same for those who lived before and after the incarnation, are depicted in different ways, ways appropriate to each historical situation. And that is what we find in the Bible.
v.4 We considered the duties of fathers to nurture their children and not to exasperate them or embitter them at some length last Lord’s Day evening in connection with Absalom’s rebellion against his father David.
Now, the fact that we considered the ethics of child-rearing last Lord’s Day evening frees me to consider another important dimension of Paul’s ethical instruction here. As we have said several times now in our consideration of Paul’s instruction in the Christian life from 4:1 onward, Paul’s pattern is to tell us what we are not to do, what we are to do instead, and then provide some reason why we ought to live in this holy way. If you look back through this material you will find any number of reasons that Paul gives to motivate us to live obedient, pure, and holy lives before God and man.
If we live worthy of the calling we have received,
“we will grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ…”
We should love one another, and show compassion, and speak the truth to one another in love because
“we are all members of one body…” because
“…in Christ God forgave us.” and because
“…we are light in the Lord.”
We should not be coarse or impure in our speech because
“these are improper for God’s holy people” and because
“no immoral, impure, or greedy man…has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ…” and
“because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.”
We should make the most of every opportunity because
“the days are evil.”
Wives should submit to their husbands because
“the husband is the head of his wife” and
Husbands should love their wives because
“Christ loved the church and gave himself for her,” and because
“He who loves his wife, loves himself.”
You get the point. We are not simply told what to do, we are furnished with arguments of every kind to motivate us, to explain why we ought to live in the distinctly Christian way. There are reasons to live as Christians live, difficult as that life is to live, reasons that are entirely persuasive, convincing, and satisfying. The reasons Paul articulates, and there are many more, fully support and justify the way of life he requires of us in the Lord’s name, and root that way of life in the nature of things.
I read this past week a fascinating account in the journal First Things [No. 120, Feb. 2002, 77-82] of a debate between Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Singer, the controversial professor of bioethics at Princeton, famous for his views that animals should have the same rights as human beings or nearly so, that the logic of abortion should be extended to infanticide in the case of infants with birth defects, that euthanasia should be practiced, and so on. Indeed, he is quite willing to say that the idea of the “sanctity of human life is a discredited Christian imposition on clear thinking.”  And, according to Singer’s philosophy of what it means to be a human being and what it does not mean, and according to his “clear thinking,” our duties to our friends and family are not different from our duties to anyone else. But, then, the question came up about Singer devoting many thousands of dollars and elaborate care to his mother who had Alzheimer’s. Singer is reported to have explained, “Perhaps it’s more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your mother.” Well, that was always Francis Schaeffer’s argument. The problem with unbelief is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t explain the things one knows to be true, it doesn’t provide adequate reasons for what one knows is right or wrong. One cannot live with it. One must always borrow from Christianity either to make sense of life or to justify one’s code of conduct. Unbelief doesn’t satisfy either the heart or the requirements of clear thinking.
But, Christianity does. It explains why things are as they are, why things are right and wrong, as we know them to be, why we behave as we do and why we should behave in a certain way. It is entirely characteristic of Holy Scripture to interweave its instructions for life with explanations and rationales that are entirely consistent, appropriate, and persuasive. It is, we cheerfully and confidently claim, the only religion or philosophy in the world that can do this and that does do this. It is one of the most important reasons to be a Christian – that we never have to deny our principles in order to manage to live our lives as we should and know we should. Nor do we ever have to apologize for our convictions. We may fail to honor them, as we often do, but we never have to deny them or apologize for them.
Well, all of that to take note of the fact that Paul argues his moral imperatives, he gives reasons for them, and provides us with motivations. And here, in particular, he does that for children. He says that if they honor their parents, it will go well with them and they will enjoy long life on the earth.
But, what are we to do with that claim that Paul makes, that reason he gives for honoring parents? How are we to understand it? Is it even true? No one honored his parents more perfectly than Jesus Christ himself, and he died cruelly in his early 30s. The last of the covenanters martyrs, James Renwick, wonderfully honored his parents, but died for the cause of the gospel at an age of 26 years and 3 days. We know cases of dutiful and happy Christian children who died young. I know a family, a devout family, whose earnest, dutiful, and much loved Christian son, was killed in a traffic accident, driving to church one Sunday morning, shortly after his 16th birthday. And we certainly can point to any number of cases where rebellious children lived to a ripe old age. How then can Paul promise that obedient children would find things going well for them in life and that they would enjoy a long life on the earth?
Well, difficult as that question may be, it is hardly only Paul’s teaching that raises it. In the OT, frequently, those who are faithful to God are promised temporal and earthly blessings of all kinds. For example, in a general promise in Deuteronomy 28:3-6, we read the Lord promise that those who are faithful to his covenant with them, “will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock…you will be blessed when you go in and when you go out.” And there are, additionally, many specific promises such as the one made to those who keep the Sabbath holy in Isa. 58:13-14: “if you call the Sabbath a delight…and if you honor it…then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
But, lest we think, as some Christians have thought, that such a temporal and earthly and material view of God’s blessing was a defect of the Old Testament and something that would be corrected in the more spiritual world of the New Testament, we take note that the Lord Jesus said virtually the same thing and said it would be true of his disciples in the years to come.
In Mark 10:29-30 Jesus said,
“I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields – and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Sell a piece of land and use the proceeds for the Lord’s work and you will get one hundred pieces of land in return. How is that different from what we read in Deuteronomy or what we have read this morning from the Apostle Paul? Well, then, how are we to understand this promise of prosperity as the blessing of obedience?
Well the biblical answer comes in several parts.
- First, in the most literal sense of the words this promise of earthly blessing for those who honor their parents is true, as a generality.
The fact is, people who grow up in happy homes, who learn to obey cheerfully, whose characters are formed by love and discipline, do, as a rule, live happy lives, happier than the lives of those who grow up with a rebellious and dissatisfied spirit. God has made us and the world that way. And it is true as a principle across the board. A young person who grows up learning the virtues of hard work will do better in life than the person who grows up lazy. The person who learns while young to moderate his or her appetites does better in life than the one who is a slave to those appetites. The person who has not, by the discipline given him in his upbringing, learned self-control, is much less likely to live a long and happy life than the one who can say “No!” to himself. That is true with respect to such things as drink and drugs and sex, but it is just as true with respect to such things as money and relationships. It is not a difficult thing to look about the world and see in how many ways it is obviously true that, as the Bible says, “the way of the transgressor is hard” and “in keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward.” So, Paul’s statement in v. 3, his promise of a long and happy life to children who obey their parents is true, as a generality.
II. Second, we must accept that Paul is not making an absolute promise that has no qualifications attached. The Bible itself, elsewhere, furnishes qualifications that have to be attached to this promise of a long and happy life. God always leaves himself free to deal with his children in the sovereign freedom of his love.
It is entirely typical of the Bible’s teaching to give part of it in one place and part of it in another. There is even a term for this: merismus, from the Greek wording meaning “part.” Think of the promises that are sometimes made in the Bible regarding answers to prayer. “Whatever you ask in my name, it shall be done for you.” “Ask and you shall receive” and the like. But, in other texts, we are taught that those promises are qualified. Prayer must be offered with right motives, according to God’s will, importunately or perseveringly, and so on.
The fact is, the Bible itself often raises this very problem. How come God’s people, even his faithful people, suffer? And how come the wicked often seem to be prospering more than the righteous? Time after time that question is raised by biblical writers themselves. The book of Job and the immortal 73rd Psalm are just two examples of many. And the Lord Jesus, remember, said that the faithful would get their 100x as much, with persecutions! So, it is hardly the case that Paul thought that every obedient child would live to eighty years of age and have nothing but happiness along the way. It was Paul, after all, who taught us that we must endure many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. God’s children must endure affliction, they must suffer hardship, that too is the teaching of God’s Word.
- Third, we are often reminded in the Bible of the superiority of spiritual blessings to physical and, even, often reminded of this fact in images or worldly or earthly prosperity.
A very good example of this way of speaking and thinking in the Bible is furnished in Psalm 73. You remember that psalm. It is all about this very problem we are considering. The psalm-writer begins by confessing that his faith had been seriously shaken by the fact that he began to notice that the wicked and the unbelieving, in many cases, seemed to be doing better than the righteous. It began more and more to trouble him that in a world supposedly under the absolute control of the true God, the Lord’s own people did not seem to be faring as well as those who spurned the Lord and made mockery of his will. He began to envy the unbelieving people around them for their prosperity, for the ease of their life. He found himself for some time in a state of increasing doubt and declining spiritual commitment, so long, indeed, that he had finally reached the point of being very near to throwing over his faith in God as a bad job. The covenant, the gospel was a fraud, it didn’t work, its promises didn’t come true. He was virtually ready to say that!
And then, by the intervention of the Lord, he went to the Lord’s house one Sabbath day to worship, as had always been his custom – a very good reason parents for making sure that your children form the habit of being in church twice on Sunday, every Sunday – then they will be there when God draws near to help them. And that particular Sabbath day, in that worship service, the Lord met him – whether in the hymns that were sung or the sermon that was preached or the prayers that were offered – and the Lord drew near and wrote his truth once again on that poor man’s heart. And particularly this truth: you cannot judge a man’s true condition by his present circumstances, especially his material circumstances in this world. You have to consider larger and longer things. Does this man know God? Has he experienced the grace and love of God? What will happen to him after his life in this world is done?
“Then I understood their end,” is how this man put it. He came away from the house of the Lord amazed at himself that he had forgotten such an elementary fact – that no man is more miserable in fact than the one who does not even realize what he is missing and the man who does not have any idea that all that he now has is so soon to be taken from him and that he is about to fall under the wrath of God. As Bernard of Clairvaux put it, there are no greater miseries than false joys! Contrarily, no man is so happy as the man who knows that he is loved by God. And he walked out of church that morning six inches off the ground for the joy of the Lord.
Do you remember how that psalm ends? This man who remembered once again that the Lord himself and the Lord’s love is an infinitely greater blessing than anything this world can ever provide, sings to the Lord out of the pent-up emotion of his heart: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” What does that mean: my portion forever? The word is usually used with respect to earthly things, and most often used with respect to the land of Canaan and the portion of it that any Israelites received as his inheritance. The man who wrote Psalm 73 was a Levite, and in the Law of Moses certain parts of the offerings of meat and other food that the Israelites would bring to the tabernacle and later to the temple were called the Levite’s portion. Because, as you know, the Levites did not get any of the land itself for their inheritance. The term refers to a person’s share of the things of this world. But this man is saying, I would much rather have the Lord than land, much rather his love and the promise of eternal life in his fellowship coursing through my heart than earthly wealth, prosperity, or a long life in this world.
And so with the Lord Jesus and his promise of the one hundred fold. His apostles served the Lord very faithfully, they gave up houses, fields, and family for his sake. Everyone of them would have said without hesitation that they got their one hundred fold in return and much, much more. But not a one of them ended his life as a real estate mogul. And a great many Christians, born into Christian families, raised to honor and obey their parents as to the Lord, lived difficult lives, passed through many tribulations in their service of the Lord, even in some cases died violently and young, but would have said without hesitation that the Lord kept his promise and that it went very well with them and they enjoyed a long life on the earth.
My favorite illustration of this comes from the life and death of William Burns, the great Scottish revival preacher and then missionary to China. Burns was raised in a godly minister’s home, learned to honor his parents from his earliest years. So great a preacher and so honored by the Lord during the awakening of the later 1830s that he could have had any of Scotland’s great pulpits. Instead he went to China and labored through great difficulties, enjoying success only in the later years of his ministry there. He died of fever in China at 53 years of age one of the most respected missionaries in the history of Christian missions. A missionary in China was once asked if he knew William Burns. “Know him, sir?” he exclaimed. “All China knows him; he is the holiest man alive.” [Smellie, R.M.McCheyne, 101]
Did he enjoy a long life on the earth living only 53 years? Did he get his one hundred fold? After his death in China his worldly goods were sent home to Scotland in a single box. When it was opened it was found to contain: two shirts, one pair of trousers, his Bible, one other book, and a Chinese flag. Not so much to show for a lifetime, or is it?
Burns would have joined his voice to the generations of believers before him, those who lived short lives and those who lived long.
Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is he sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
“Whom have I in heaven but you. And having you, I desire nothing on earth. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”