Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise)
During this series through the Ten Commandments we have noted that God’s moral law has typically been understood as being structured in two tables: Commandments 1-4 (table one) govern our relationship with God and Commandments 5-10 (table two) govern our relationships with our neighbors. However, we must not push that structure so heavily that we fail to see how each of the commandments ought to be applied both to our relationship with God and our neighbors. For instance, while the Fifth Commandment addresses a child’s responsibility to honor parental authority, there is a far broader application of the commandment extending to all God-ordained authority. These authorities are ultimately an extension of God’s authority for it is God who establishes them (Romans 13:1). In this we see that being rightly related to man cannot be easily separated from being rightly related to God.
Ours is an essentially anti-authoritarian culture. We are an independent lot taught to question authority at every turn. Certainly we want to challenge tyranny and not blindly obey every person who presents himself as an authority. But our distaste for authority extends to those authorities which God has established. Parental authority, having been established by God, is the most basic and essential form of human authority. Yet, parental authority is undermined constantly in everything from entertainment to state and national legislatures. Parents are portrayed as lovable but incompetent fools in commercials and sitcoms. In more overt ways the authority of parents is attacked directly by laws which emancipate children from parental consent in obtaining abortions.
But more pressing than these attacks from without are the ways that the God-ordained authority of parents is attacked by the ordinary but wicked rebellion of children. God classifies disobedience to parents as a particularly grievous sin. It is placed alongside sexual perversion and violence as a sign of the “terrible times” of the last days (2 Timothy 3:1-2). In the former days, those children guilty of incorrigible disrespect toward parents were subject to capital punishment. That seems harsh to us. And certainly we are not to seek to re-institute those temporary civil laws governing Israel in the past. But God treats disobedience to parents is such serious ways because 1) it is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority and 2) it is a rejection of a key principle for the ordering of a healthy and decent society.
Jesus was the only example of life-long perfect obedience the world has ever seen. Though he was the eternal and everlasting God of creation, in his incarnation Jesus obeyed those earthly authorities of which he himself was ultimately the source. As John Fesko writes: “A Christ-centered approach to the fifth commandment teaches us that we, the people of God, who are being remade in the image of Christ, must honor our fathers and mothers and any other God-instituted authority because we are to reflect the perfect righteousness and love of Christ” (The Rule of Love, 76).