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.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. – Ephesians 6:1-4 ESV
One of the most important things for us to keep in mind when considering Paul’s call for believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, is that it is impossible to do without the power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, you could pull it off in your own power for a season, but it wouldn’t be long before your old sin nature raised its ugly head, causing pride and self-centeredness to take center stage again. For wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to sacrificially love their wives, the Holy Spirit is a non-negotiable necessity. He alone can provide us with the fruit we will need to “walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8 ESV).
Here in chapter six, Paul now draws our attention to yet another relationship in which the fruit of the Holy Spirit will be essential. He calls for children to obey their parents. The Greek word Paul uses carries the idea of listening and obeying. It infers the sense of submitting to the God-given authority of one’s parents and the obedience rendered to them is to be “in the Lord,” which is another way of saying “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 ESV). Just as wives are to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord,” children are to obey their parents with an awareness that they are really submitting to the will of God for their lives. Now, this is going to be very difficult for young children to comprehend. And even after a child comes to faith in Christ, they will have difficulty understanding what it means to obey in the Lord. That is where the careful, patient, and persistent training of godly parents comes in. Even very young children are naturally prone toward disobedience. Their wills develop quickly and their innate desires to do what they want show up very early on in their development. Obedience is not natural to children. They may not initially know that they are being disobedient, but their natural drive toward self-autonomy will cause them to choose their will over that of their parents.
In these first three verses, Paul seems to be addressing two different phases of childhood, starting with young children and moving up to adult children. After commanding children to obey, Paul reaches back into the Mosaic law and quotes the fifth commandment: “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 ESV). And he provides a side note that says, “this is the first commandment with a promise” (Ephesians 6:2 ESV). Rather than obedience, Paul calls for honor. The word “honor” carries with it the idea of reverence and veneration. In the Hebrew, it is kabad and it actually means “heaviness” or “weight.” There should be a weightiness or significance given by adult children to the God-given role of their parents in their lives. While young children will not be capable of grasping the significance of this concept, older children, especially adult children can and should. It is interesting to note that in Deuteronomy 6, Moses told the people of Israel, “Now this is the commandment — the statutes and the rules — that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2 ESV). Moses was calling the people of God to obedience, so that their days would be long in the land. Then Moses went on to give them the motivating factor that should be behind their obedience to God:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:5-9 ESV
Verse five contains the great shema. This is what Jesus would later say is the greatest commandment. Love is to be the primary motivating factor behind obedience to God. And Paul seems to be saying that, ultimately, love should be behind the obedience of children to their parents and the honor they give them in their later years. But for this to happen, Moses said that parents were to teach their children diligently. They were to talk about the things of God all the time. Obedience to God was to be a constant topic in the home. And parents were to be the primary source for instruction and illustration of what that obedience was to look like.
Which is why Paul addresses fathers. In God’s economy, fathers are held to a higher standard by God. They are responsible for the spiritual well-being of their household. So Paul warns fathers about provoking or exasperating their children. Nothing will frustrate a child more than inconsistency in the life of a father. His behavior toward and in front of his children will have a dramatic impact on their spiritual well-being. Hypocrisy in parents is one of the greatest negative influences on the life of a child. Fathers who say one thing and do another end up frustrating and confusing their children. Fathers who demand one set of standards for their children while living outside of those standards themselves, will end up causing anger and resentment in their children. Which is why Paul says, “Fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4 ESV). Another surprising cause of anger within children is a lack of discipline. Children need boundaries. They require supervision and discipline in their lives. This will require training on the part of the parents, and the father is ultimately responsible. A father who is overly strict or heavy handed in his discipline will end up exasperating his children. But a father who is lax and lazy in providing his children with loving discipline and godly instruction, will also provoke his children to anger. That is why Paul tells fathers to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. The goal of all believing parents should be to raise godly children. While we can’t cause our children to come to faith in Christ, we can provide an environment in which the truth of the gospel can be lived out in their sight and the love of God can be modeled in their lives.