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Humility, the Key to Honor

The Fifth Commandment in the Epistles

5 min

We have seen in previous weeks how honoring our parents must not be merely outwardly expressed by words alone. Honor should also spring from a heart of genuine humility.

Throughout the Bible, pride is often identified as the root of rebellion. According to Proverbs 18:12, “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honour is humility.” Lucifer’s pride preceded his rebellion against the Most High God (Isaiah 14:12–14). While in the wilderness, the children of Israel first “dealt proudly” and then “hardened their necks” in rebellion (Nehemiah 9:16–17). Absalom’s pride motivated his rebellion against his father David (II Samuel 15:1–6).

If the root of rebellion is pride, then the only solution to rebellion is repentance and genuine humility. It takes humility for a man, especially a grown man, to humble himself and submit to his parents. But God has promised to bless this humble step (I Peter 5:5). Sometimes a man may think that he knows more than his father, or that he walks with the Lord more closely than his father, or that he has made fewer mistakes than his father, and, therefore, he does not need to honor his father. But this thinking or comparison is the very attitude of pride that hinders God’s fullest blessing (James 4:6). If Jesus, the sinless Son of God, could humble Himself by becoming a human infant and then submit Himself to imperfect earthly parents, surely we as imperfect men can humble ourselves and admit that, in many things, experience has proved our parents right.

Twice in his epistles, the Apostle Paul made direct reference to an important aspect of the fifth commandment: the relationship between honor and obedience. For emphasis, Paul used slightly different wording in his letters: in Ephesians he wrote “obey your parents in the Lord,” while in Colossians he said “obey your parents in all things.” Together, those two verses give a complete picture of how we, as New Testament believers, have a rightful and continuing responsibility to honor our parents with a humble spirit of submission and respectful obedience.

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1).

The first reference comes in a list of domestic duties between husband and wife, parent and child, and master and servant (Ephesians 5:21–6:9). Note that each of these relationships calls for humble submission which doesn’t honor an authority only, but also honors the Lord. Husbands must humble themselves to love their wives, esteeming their wives above themselves. Wives must humble themselves to submit to their husbands. Masters must humble themselves to treat their servants with dignity. Servants must humble themselves to heartily work for their masters. Parents must humble themselves to lay aside anger and not provoke their children to wrath. So, also, sons and daughters must humble themselves to obey their parents.

A common misunderstanding exists that this verse applies only to little children. The Greek word here translated “children” is not restricted to little ones at home. In Matthew 21:28, the same Greek word is used of the two sons who were old enough to work in a vineyard. Therefore, all of us are “children” in this sense of this particular word.

The word in this verse that is translated “obey” comes from a root word that means “to hearken.” The first step to obedience is to have a listening ear. Having a listening ear requires humility. A son or daughter who is willing to give a listening ear to a parent must first have a listening heart—a heart that is willing to receive instruction.

Notice that Paul profoundly stated that husbands and wives are to submit to one another “in the fear of the Lord,” and that wives are to submit to their husbands “as unto the Lord,” and that children are to obey their parents “in the Lord,” and servants are to submit to their masters “as unto Christ” (Ephesians 5:21–22; 6:1, 5). However, remember the Hebrew midwife slaves who served Pharaoh and resisted his immoral command to slaughter baby boys? In the same manner, we must never obey a religious authority, a government official, an employer, or a parent who commands or pressures us to do something that God forbids. “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).

The same example as the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh is true for married couples. While they are commanded to submit to one another, when one goes against God’s will, the other is not to comply. In Acts 5:1–11, Sapphira complied with her husband Ananias when he was filled with Satan’s deception. Together they lied to the Holy Spirit. When individually confronted by Peter, each one volitionally lied. Sapphira, even though she submitted to her husband’s plan, was sinning by lying to God. Thus, she suffered the same severe consequences as her husband (Acts 5:1–11). God, as in both examples, is always the highest Authority.

Some people assert that, in honoring our parents, we only need to obey them when they are repeating a direct Biblical command, such as to avoid drunkenness. But what about matters involving parents’ preferences or their personal convictions? For example, what if a parent requires that an adult son or daughter still living at home dress modestly or in a way that is clearly gender specific? What about a parent who tells his son or daughter to avoid music that is worldly in its origin, lyrics, or sound? Lest we think that this phrase “in the Lord” provides us an excuse to disregard our parents in “gray areas,” the Apostle Paul referenced the fifth commandment again in Colossians 3:20.

“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).

The wording in this verse is very clear. Coupled with the necessary restriction that we cannot obey our parents when they command us to do something against God’s expressed Word, we are to humble ourselves and obey them “in all things.” As children grow older, a natural part of the maturing process is that they form their own opinions which may differ from their parents’ opinions. Due to pride, contention may soon develop in the relationship. God promises a special blessing to us when we are willing to humble ourselves (Isaiah 57:15), including humbling ourselves to honor our parents’ desires in these important areas.

What does Scripture teach about adult children living on their own, apart from their parents, or married with their own children? Should young (and older) adults continue to honor their parents by obeying them “in all things”? Well, the Scriptural command to honor one’s parents certainly lasts for a lifetime. If obedience is a tangible way to demonstrate honor, the answer to this question is yes—at least to the extent possible, practical, appropriate, and balanced by other Scriptures that apply. Note that to utilize this article to dogmatically itemize the expectation of this verse in every situation is ill-advised! The key is to see the principle in the command, and this article attempts to show the overall concept that remains intact. An adult who loves the Lord, God’s Word, and his parents will find wholesome and beneficial ways to humbly fulfill this command.

This obedience from the heart requires a great deal of humility. Sometimes we must set aside our own opinions and personal preferences in order to honor our parents. But isn’t this the key to every successful relationship? Doesn’t a husband have to lay aside personal preferences to honor his wife? Doesn’t a wife often make sacrifices for her husband? Doesn’t a good parent set aside pleasures and hobbies to spend time with his children? Learning to honor our parents will yield blessings in every relationship. More importantly, our obedience in this matter of the fifth commandment is “well pleasing unto the Lord.”

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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