“Honor your father and your mother.” This command is part of that perfect law that is holy, righteous, and good because it is a reflection of the one who himself is those things. It was once engraved on the tablets of stone, was exemplified in the life of Jesus, and it is now written on the heart of believers by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and affirmed by Apostolic authority. This command convicts, restrains, and directs the Christian life.
The fifth commandment is the first of what is often called the second table of the law. When Jesus was asked which was the great commandment he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:27-39). Love to God and love to neighbor are the two parts of God’s unchanging law. In the division of the Ten Commandments the first four teach us our duty to God and the last six our duty to neighbor. The priority is given to the first table as the greatest and out of a love and service to God we are to love one another. Love to neighbor consists, in part, in giving “honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7).
The fifth commandment establishes that by God’s design and order there are positions of honor and authority. After all, a part of what it means for children to honor their parents is obedience: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). But the authorities that God has established are not autonomous, boundless, or lawless. Rather, they are derived and contingent upon the authority of God: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Both authority and honor are a stewardship from God to be used ultimately for his glory.
The fifth commandment goes beyond the natural relationship of parents and children. For example, civil authorities are referred to as a kind of father and mother: “Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers” (Isaiah 49:23, see also Genesis 45:8 and Mark 11:10). On this basis we are “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Similarly, elders in the church are likened to parents. Paul wrote: “I do not write these things to make your ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15, see also 2 Corinthians 11:2 and 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). Therefore, we are told: “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). This commandment applies to all paternal and maternal relationships whether familial, civil, or spiritual.
The fifth commandment includes reciprocal duties. While grammatically it is written to the one showing honor or obedience, it includes the responsibilities of those in positions of authority and honor. The command isn’t simply that children honor their parents but also “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Civil authorities are to be a terror to bad conduct and not to good (Romans 13:3-4). Husbands are to love their wives and live with them in an understanding way (see Ephesians 5:25 and 1 Peter 3:7). Spiritual leaders are to speak the word of God (Hebrews 13:7), labor and admonish (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), and lead by example and persuasion (1 Peter 5:1-3). To put it simply, those in positions of authority or honor must protect, provide, bless, and love those that are under them, and do nothing that would detract or lessen the honor and authority God has put on them.
The fifth commandment also contains a promise: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). This promise is not set aside in the New Testament but is emphasized as a motivation for its keeping: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Ephesians 6:1-3). Where lawful authorities are not submitted to nor honor shown to those to whom it is due, or when those in such positions abuse and misuse that which God has given, no blessing can be expected. In fact, the Bible and experience shows the disastrous consequences of unruly children, domineering husbands, rebelling citizens, wicked rulers, and selfish shepherds. But there is temporal blessing and prosperity promised to the household, church, and society where the fifth commandment is obeyed.