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The Center and Scope of the Fifth Commandment


A Midweek Lesson

By Pastor Brian Wilbur

Date:   April 4, 2019

Note:   Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard   Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



The fifth commandment seems simple enough: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Without giving too much thought, we might conclude that the commandment means that young children should respect their parents and obey their parents’ direction. Now this commandment certainly includes this respect and obedience that children should render to their parents as the children are growing up in their parents’ home. But – and this really shouldn’t surprise anyone – there is much more to it.

To begin with, the command itself includes more than the words “Honor your father and your mother.” The full instruction says, “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) So there is the command proper: honor your parents. Then to the command there is attached a promise: “that your days may be long in the land.” Finally, this command with a promise has a larger context: the Lord is your God, and He is giving you this land, and there is something about honoring your parents that is key to God granting you long and continued enjoyment in the land.

Two Realms of Focus: God and Neighbor

Before we go any further, let me remind us about the overall flow of thought that we encounter in the Ten Commandments. As you probably know, Jesus summarized all the commandments in the Old Testament by saying that they all hinge on the two most basic commandments: love the Lord with your whole being, and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:40)

While every commandment at its core is meant to express our love for the Lord, some commandments have a more vertical or upward focus (with a direct focus on our relationship with the Lord), and other commandments have a more horizonal or outward focus (with a direct focus on our relationship with other people). We see these two realms of focus in the Ten Commandments: the earlier commandments focus upward, the later commandments focus outward.

The Godward Focus of the Fifth Commandment

The fifth commandment, the one about honoring our parents, might be sensibly placed in either category. I don’t disagree with Kevin DeYoung’s statement: ““Honor your father and mother” is the foundation upon which love for neighbor is built.”[1] True enough! Even so, I would contend that honoring our parents has primarily an upward focus on God. There are two reasons for thinking this.

First, Jason DeRouchie has pointed out that the recurring phrase “the LORD your God” runs through the earlier commandments, but not the later commandments.[2] This phrase indicates a God-centered focus. Notice how this phrase occurs multiple times in verses 2-12. Verses 2-3: “I am the LORD your God…. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3) Verse 5: “You shall not bow down to [carved images or idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). Verse 7: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Verse 10: “but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” And now in verse 12: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

After verse 12, however, the phrase “the LORD your God” doesn’t occur again.[3] After verse 12, the commandments are simply: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet….” (Exodus 20:13-17) Of course, obedience to these later more neighbor-focused commandments is still fundamentally an act of obedience to the Lord our God. Nevertheless, the language of commandments 1-5 points to a greater upward focus, whereas the language of commandments 6-10 points to a greater outward focus.

A second and stronger reason why I think the fifth commandment is primarily upward and Godward in its focus is because of the nature of the relationship that God established between parents and children. Simply put, honoring our parents is mainly about our regard for God’s authority and our loving obedience to God’s instructions. Let me attempt to show you this from a couple different passages.

The Godward Focus of Parenting

First, the second commandment in Exodus 20:4-6 helps us to see the parents-and-children relationship in terms of spiritual legacy. Beginning in the middle of verse 5: “… I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6) Among God’s covenant people, what ought to be passed down from one generation to the next is life under the blessing of God, which of course is life characterized by loving obedience to the Lord. But it is entirely possible for something else to be passed down, namely, life under the curse of God, which is life characterized by hateful disregard for the Lord. When the fifth commandment is conjoined to the second, here is what ought to happen: parents ought to be out in front worshiping, loving, and obeying the Lord, and leading their children to do likewise; and their children, in turn, ought to join their parents in the same worship, love, and obedience. This gets to the heart of the fifth commandment.

Second, and very important for understanding the upward focus of the fifth commandment, is the instructions given to parents in Deuteronomy 6. The Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5. Then in Deuteronomy 6 we encounter some very foundational instruction about how parents – particularly fathers – are to teach their children. This sheds light on the meaning of the fifth commandment. Listen to what Holy Scripture says in Deuteronomy 6:1-9.

“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. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 6:1-3)

Let me pause right there. According to Deuteronomy 6:2, what is the key to Israel living long in the land? Obedience to God’s commandments. According to Exodus 20:12, what is the key to Israel living long in the land? Honor to parents, which includes obedience to parents. Now what we must understand is that Deuteronomy 6:2 and Exodus 20:12 are not presenting Israel with two separate strategies for living long in the land. It is not as if ‘obedience to God’ is one strategy and that ‘honor and obedience to parents’ is an alternative strategy. They are the same strategy, and here is the link: God’s commandments, and obedience to them, are supposed to be handed down from one generation to the next. What is the vision of Deuteronomy 6:2? That “you and your son and your son’s son,” would “fear the LORD your God… by keeping all his statutes and his commandments.” How does this happen? A godly man leads the way for his son, who then leads the way for his son, and a godly son honors his father and his grandfather by living in the legacy of godliness that has been handed down to him. Do you see?

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 presses home the high calling of parents to disciple their children:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God, the LORD is one. 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 eye. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Notice that the responsibility of the parents is not merely to transmit information. It is possible for parents who do not love the Lord and who do not obey the Lord to transmit biblical information to their children, but such transmission by itself is not faithful to the Deuteronomy 6 vision. The Deuteronomy 6 vision is for parents who first of all love the Lord, who treasure God’s words in their heart, and who reverence and obey the Lord. Such parents aren’t merely transmitting information, they are passing down a way of life – and they themselves are setting the example. Out of their own love and faithfulness to the Lord, they diligently and continually tech their children – at all times and in all situations.  

When you put together Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Exodus 20:12, it is clear that honoring your parents especially means following them on the pathway of heartfelt obedience to the Lord. In other words, parents teach their children the Lord’s commands, and when children obey their parents’ instruction they are, in fact, rendering obedience to the Lord. Obedience to the Lord begins in the home.  

To be sure, children are obligated to obey all of their parents’ instructions, including the really practical ones like ‘brush your teeth’, ‘wash your hands’, and ‘clean up your room’. Scripture says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20) Nevertheless, all of the practical instructions in the world, which are good and necessary to the right ordering of a household, are no substitute for the primary responsibility that parents have to rear their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).


So the heart of the fifth commandment is that children ought to honor their parents by following in the way of obedience that is handed down to them from their parents, who themselves had received it from their parents. At the heart of this obedience is faith in Jesus: we are sinners, but Jesus is the truly obedient Son who always obeyed His Father (John 8:28-29). Jesus gave Himself as the atoning sacrifice for our sins so that we could be forgiven of our sins, justified by His righteousness, and transformed into obedient sons and daughters of God. In a Christian home, godly children will love and highly esteem their parents and grandparents for leaving them the rich legacy of true godliness, which is grounded in the grace of the gospel.

With this foundational understanding in our mind, let’s now identify a number of ways in which the command to honor our parents should be practically expressed. And remember, even though the fifth commandment is first and foremost Godward in its focus, it also certainly calls us to practice neighbor-love by loving those near neighbors called family members![4]

How Parents Should Obey the Fifth Commandment

First, parents obey the fifth commandment by living honorably in God’s sight, by fearing the Lord and following His instructions. While it is true that children should in some real sense honor dishonorable parents (because even dishonorable parents hold the ‘honorable office’ of parent), wise parents do not want to put their children into that predicament. Instead, wise parents want to act in an honorable and exemplary way. They want to set a godly example for their children.

Second, parents obey the fifth commandment by teaching and disciplining their children to obey the Lord, which includes teaching and disciplining their children to obey them. The mindset of a healthy Christian parent is not: ‘I’m in charge around here; I get to throw my weight around however I please; and you my children had better get in line.’ Instead, a healthy Christian parent should think like this: ‘God is in charge of our household, and all of us are His servants. As a parent, I am called to serve God by exercising godly authority over my children: by patiently teaching them and patiently correcting them and patiently leading them in God’s ways.’

How Children Should Obey the Fifth Commandment

Third, children obey the fifth commandment by honoring, respecting, and esteeming their parents. Children ought to hold their parents in high regard, and they ought to show that they do so. Such honor should also be extended to grandparents. Just as a great spiritual legacy is to be passed down from generation to generation – from a man to his son and then from his son to his son’s son (as implied in the Deuteronomy 6:2 passage), or from a woman Lois to her daughter Eunice to her son Timothy (as is set forth in 2 Timothy 1:5) – so honor should be returned up to the generations who have come before us. Since Scripture calls us to show honor to the elderly in general – “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:32) – how much more ought we to show honor to our aged parents or aged grandparents, especially if they have cut a trail of righteousness for us to follow after.

Fourth, children obey the fifth commandment by listening to and learning from their parents. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” (Proverbs 1:8-9) A child’s life is beautified by his or her treasuring of godly parental instruction. Of course, to listen and learn rightly means putting what we learn into practice (e.g., Philippians 4:8-9), which leads to the next point.

Fifth, children – particularly children who have not yet passed into adulthood – children obey the fifth commandment by obeying their parents. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Ephesians 6:1) “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20) The obedience envisioned here is comprehensive in nature: children ought to obey the spiritual and moral instruction that they receive from their parents, and they ought to obey the practical instruction that they receive from their parents. Children ought to obey all parental directives immediately and cheerfully, as long as those directives do not contradict God’s Word. For their part, parents must seek to be commanders who are gentle, patient, and wise – like our heavenly Father. “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21)

Sixth, children – particularly children who have passed into adulthood – children obey the fifth commandment by taking care of their parents and grandparents as needs arise. “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” (1 Timothy 5:4) We should not think of ourselves as stand-alone individuals who belong to no others. Instead we must understand that we are relational persons who belong first to God and then to the communities in which God has placed us. The first ‘community’ in which God has placed us is a family, and that even includes the extended family. Our family has a rightful claim upon us: “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them.” (1 Timothy 5:16) And how high the claim is, if the widow is a mother or grandmother!

Two Other Important Ways We Should Obey the Fifth Commandment

Seventh, we obey the fifth commandment by honoring the older men and older women in our congregation in ways that we would honor our own father and mother.[5] I am taking this point from Albert Mohler’s chapter on the fifth commandment, though he himself drew the insight from passages like 1 Timothy 5:1-3. Paul told Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father. Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity. Honor widows who are truly widows.” (1 Timothy 5:1-3) It is a sad state of affairs when a subset of the church doesn’t want the great-grandfather’s generation or the grandfather’s generation or the father’s generation present, or when a subset of the church doesn’t want the children’s generation or grandchildren’s generation present. Happy and healthy is the church that has three or four or five generations strongly represented, with a rich legacy being handed down, and with great honor being returned up, and all of them bound together in a spirit of Christian love. How else shall we as a church family live the vision of Proverbs 17:6? Proverbs 17:6 says, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers.” (Proverbs 17:6)

Eighth, we obey the fifth commandment by honoring our spiritual forebears.[6] Mohler makes this point as well, but before Mohler made it, Scripture made it. After the instruction to parents given in Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Moses looks back: “And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you” (Deuteronomy 6:10) – and then more instruction follows. We rightly esteem Abraham who is the father of those who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had” (Romans 4:12). We rightly esteem the faithful men and women who are highlighted in Hebrews 11 (the hall of faith!). Then Hebrews 13 tells us: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) While this certainly points to leaders known to us – whose voice we heard in the pulpit or in a discipleship class or in a Bible study, it also applies to long-ago leaders who have ‘spoken’ to us or whose example has been shown to us through the written page. Rightly does Mohler say:

“Think of the heritage we have from the halls of church history. We respect the patriarchs and matriarchs who are God’s gifts to us….

“We look back to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, to Paul and Peter and Stephen, to Ruth and Lois and Eunice. We look back to Athanasius and Augustine, to Zwingli, Knox, Luther, Calvin. We look back to Edwards and Wesley and Whitefield. We look back to Carey and Spurgeon and Moody. We look back because we dare not look forward without first looking back.”[7]

We must, of course, look forward. We have our own sons and daughters, our own grandsons and granddaughters, our own children and grandchildren in the faith, to love and care for. But we are glad to look back, because it is back and upstream where the blessings came to us. We receive the legacy of God’s covenant before we hand it down; we learn before we teach; we behold honor before we become honorable.

So then, let us take our place in the rich heritage of the fifth commandment – as parents and as children, as parents who may also be grandparents, as children who may also be parents, as child-like disciples and as parent-like disciple-makers. Here in the fifth commandment is the heritage of godly obedience which befits the heirs of eternal life: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”



[1] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Words from the Fire: Hearing the Voice of God in the 10 Commandments. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009: p. 46.

[1] Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them (Foundational Tools for Our Faith). Wheaton: Crossway, 2018: p. 80.

[2] Jason DeRouchie, “Counting the Ten: An Investigation into the Numbering of the Decalogue,” p. 103, 110-112. An offprint from the book For Our Good Always: Studies on the Message and Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block. Eds., Jason S. DeRouchie, Jason Gile, and Kenneth J. Turner. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2013. The chapter/article is available online: The fact that DeRouchie numbers the commandments differently than I do is irrelevant to the point at hand.   

[3] Ibid., p. 103.

[4] See Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them (Foundational Tools for Our Faith). Wheaton: Crossway, 2018: p. 80-81.

[5] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Words from the Fire: Hearing the Voice of God in the 10 Commandments. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009: p. 108-109.

[6] Ibid., p. 109.

[7] Ibid., p. 109.