While we frequently assume that the fifth commandment is particularly for our children, there is no reason to assume that this word was any less directed at the rest of Israel than the others. In fact, if this command does anything, it actually assumes that all of Israel qualifies as children, and therefore the command is for all of Israel. This is still true for us: unless we are first children who honor God as our Father, we cannot hope to teach our children how to honor God or anyone.
“Honor” literally means “heavy” or “fat,” and it is frequently translated as “glory.” In Leviticus, the word is used repeatedly to refer to the “fat” of the offerings that are always offered on the altar to the Lord. In 1 Samuel, Eli’s house is judged because his sons have become “fat” with the offerings that should have gone on the altar. They have honored themselves rather than God (1 Sam. 2:29-30). In Exodus, the word is used many times to refer to the “hard” heart of Pharaoh, the “hard” plagues that fall on Egypt, and ultimately in the “glory” that the Lord gets when the Egyptian army has sunk down into the Red Sea (Ex. 14:17-18). The word is also used to refer to the “heavy” burdens that the pharaoh laid on the Israelites when he forced them to build his projects (Ex. 5:9), but by the end of Exodus, Israel is being taught how to build Yahweh’s house and lay the “fat/glory” on His altar (Ex. 29:13, 29). In other words, the story of the Exodus is the story of Yahweh’s son, Israel, being freed from a false, tyrannical father and being adopted by his true, loving Father, going from a false, burdensome glory to the true glory of their Father in heaven. In Deuteronomy, the word is used in the restatement of this command (Dt. 5:16) and in the summary of Israel’s covenant with God and their obligation to fear God’s “glorious and fearful” name (Dt. 28:58). The honor of parents and the honor of God is inescapably linked, and the honor of all other authorities in between. This is also true in a general way for all people because they are made in the image of God (1 Pet. 2:17). You can’t say that you are honoring God when you are not honoring those who bear His image all around you, and you can’t truly honor them without first honoring Him.
Starting with Our Father
In a congregation our size, we need to recognize that there are no shortages of failures and sin and brokenness represented in this room. But whatever the sin, whatever the abuse, whatever the brokenness, we must always start with our Father in heaven. Because we are the children of God, we turn to God our Father. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to pray to God as their Father and to hallow His name, to honor Him (Mt. 6:9). Every human family needs to be remade; every human family needs piles of grace and mercy. But it is only through being reconciled to our Father in heaven that we can begin to be reconciled to our fathers on earth or become faithful fathers on earth. It is only as we die and our lives are hidden in Christ, the only righteous and beloved Son, that we can be reconciled to our children or be faithful children. Only through being right with God can we hope to be right with one another. This is because God has the only perfect family. We need the Holy Spirit who is the perfect bond of peace and love between the Father and the Son; we need that Spirit who “proceeds from the Father and the Son” to fill us and our relationships. This is the difference between the house of bondage and the house of freedom. This is what Malachi foretold that God would come and do (Mal. 4:6).
A family may be able to function on the duck tape of momentum and effort for a while, but what is needed for a family to flourish is for the Triune God to be the common God of every member of that family. But when God is not honored as Father, there is necessarily idolatry. Idolatry always breeds strife and abuse because idols are necessarily at war with each other. Gods do not share their glory, and when the god is self, every “self” in the home is busy demanding glory, demanding rights, demanding authority. But that is always stealing from God, stealing the glory/fat that rightly belongs on His altar. Many Christian parents are functional idolaters by making their own whims and comforts and likes and dislikes the standard to which children are held accountable. Too many parents act and believe as though the fifth commandment places them on a throne, and makes their word the law of the land. This is to make mom or dad (or both) the functional godhead of the home, mini-pharaohs placing heavy burdens on children that they are not able to bear. You are lousy gods, and this will always provoke your children to wrath (Eph. 6:4). The point of having kids is not so that you can have people to boss around. The purpose of children is to give glory to God, to see God’s name honored, to assist God in raising up generations of faithfulness. Jesus commands His disciples not to carry authority like the gentiles do, lording it over them (Mt. 20:25), but instead His disciples are to be servants and slaves, imitating the Son of Man who did not come to be served but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mt. 20:25). Parents are servants of God and their children, and their job is to serve their children in order that they would grow up to worship and love and obey the Father, Son, and Spirit.
It is true that parents must teach their children to honor and obey them. But that is only practice for honoring and obeying God. The ultimate aim of parenting is not to try to get your children to obey you. The point of parenting is to get your children to love and honor and obey God. The “fat” isn’t for you. The “fat” belongs to the Lord. And they learn how to glorify God best as they see you doing it, as they hear you talking about it, as they believe that you mean it. It’s no accident that Paul exhorts all of the members of the church in Ephesus to imitate God like children (Eph. 5:1, 5:8), and then proceeds to command children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1). When you teach your children to obey, you are merely calling on them to imitate you as you imitate Christ, as you honor your Father.