The Ten Commandments: The Fifth Commandment

“Honour thy father and thy mother.”

The first four commandments established the need to love and honour God; the fifth commandment deals with family life, in particular the obligation of children to respect their parents. The term “honour” has the underlying thought of weight or glory. In other words, children should love and respect their parents; they should not regard them lightly or treat them shamefully. This applies equally to each parent.

While recognizing that stable homes are the foundation of a stable society, as God intended, it is noticeable today that some are intent on undermining and overthrowing the divine order. They despise the concept of the nuclear family – father, mother and children together – and seek to redefine it. Inevitably, they leave a trail of confusion and chaos in their wake. They perversely encourage children to be “freethinking” (to think as they do) and to defy authority. While we may be saddened at such rebellion, we should not be surprised; the apostle Paul reminded his younger colleague Timothy that “in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy” (2Ti 3:1-2).[1]

The Father and the Son

Fatherhood originates with God. He has always been the eternal Father of an eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Their mutual love was described in Christ’s prayer to His Father: “Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me” (Joh 17:24-25). In becoming a man, Christ came to serve and obey in a way that He had never known before.

From childhood, He was conscious of His pathway of submission and God’s plan for His life. At the age of 12, on a visit to Jerusalem, He was heard to say: “I must be about my Father’s business” (Luk 2:49). Returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, the Bible tells us that He “was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (2:51). Later He would declare, “And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him” (Joh 8:29).

We can confidently say that the Lord Jesus was the only perfect Son, uniquely untainted by sin. His supernatural conception in the womb of a virgin was by the Holy Spirit. This is one reason why Joseph is never referred to as His father. Even in the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, which traces Christ’s legal right to the throne, the list of names ends in this way: “And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom [that is, of Mary] was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (1:16). Joseph was Mary’s husband but only the guardian of her son. The Lord gave them both equal honour.

Joseph is presumed to have died before the public ministry of Christ took place. When Christ’s mother, Mary, stood at the cross, she had no husband by her side. But, even in His hours of agony upon the tree, Christ thought of His mother. He spoke to His disciple John and entrusted the care of Mary to him. The fifth commandment was being fulfilled in a poignant way as a faithful mother watched her son die.

Other Fathers and Sons

From the perfect example of Christ, we turn to others mentioned throughout the Scriptures. The Bible does not gloss over children who were disobedient, deceitful and rebellious. Neither does it cover up the reality that sometimes parents set a bad example. By God’s grace, there were those like the godly Josiah who rose above their family problems. As a young man, he was marked by devotion to God. His father, Amon, had been an evil man, and his son, Eliakim, also chose a sinful path.

This commandment is not negotiable, even in extreme circumstances. It means that parents are to be respected by their children throughout their lifetime. This will be difficult if a father is abusive or a mother neglectful; nevertheless, they are not to be disowned or forsaken. What if the parents are demanding a sinful course of action or encouraging an ungodly lifestyle? The Christian son or daughter’s first loyalty is to God. He or she cannot agree to condone or practice sin. At the same time, they will continue to seek to treat their parents respectfully.

King Saul was a difficult parent and an even more difficult employer. His insecurity, moody paranoia and jealousy meant that his son Jonathan and his friend David were hard-pressed to be respectful. And yet they both were! The last view of Jonathan is when he and his two brothers accompanied their father into battle and honorably sought to defend him from the enemy. All four of them were killed the same day (1Sa 31:1,2,6).

The teaching of the New Testament corroborates the fifth commandment and adds a note to parents, especially to fathers, not to provoke their children (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21). In Ephesians, Paul also reminds his readers that this is the first commandment with promise: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth” (Eph 6:1-3). Even when children have left the family home and established homes of their own, they are still required to honor their parents. Their responsibilities will change to include assisting and supporting them when they become elderly, frail and infirm.

This commandment is followed by a short addition indicating God’s blessing upon the obedient Israelite: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exo 20:12). This verse does not guarantee longevity in all cases; it states a general principle. As we know, the Lord Jesus Christ was cut off in the prime of life, and some of the godliest men and women have had short but fruitful lives. Nevertheless, those who care for their father and mother can be confident that God will care for them. God is no man’s debtor.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.