Our study of the Ten Commandments is a study of God’s law-order. He intends the world to operate according to His rules. And the existence of those rules implies the existence, not only of the Ruler, but of rulers. Such authorities are parents, employers, government officials, police officers, headmasters and pastors. If there will be order in society then both rules and rulers must be obeyed and respected. We deduce this generally from the first four commandments and particularly from the fifth.
When the Lord commands us to honour father and mother, He is implying a synecdoche, in which the part represents the whole. For example, if I said, “He showed his faced in class,” you wouldn’t interpret this as a reference to a bodiless student (though some teachers may dispute this!). Likewise, the fifth commandment obliges us to honour all those who are in positions of authority over us.
Authority is not a very popular concept in our day; in fact, I doubt that it has ever been. We don’t like being told what to do. Recently, while I was having my teeth cleaned, the hygienist said to me, as she was giving me instructions, “I’m sorry if I sound like I am telling you what to do.” (I replied, “Don’t worry about it, I’m a pastor and that is how I spend a lot of my time.”) Clearly, I would have been foolish to dispute her instructions. The fact is, she knows a lot more about teeth and dental hygiene than I do. The health of my teeth, and thus the freedom to continue to use them (for many more decades, I trust), is dependent upon my following orders. When it comes to God’s law, the same principle holds—howbeit, it is of manifold greater importance than plaque and gums.
The Lord knows that our freedom to enjoy the life He gives to us is dependent on our obeying His orders. The Lord Jesus mandated that those who embrace the gospel be taught to “observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20). The Great Commission is rooted in authority (v. 18) and it therefore expects all who call themselves disciples to submit to His authority. To refuse to do so is tantamount to denying that you have been delivered from the bondage of sin and to confess that you are still so enslaved. Yes, the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament, expects for God’s people to respectfully submit to authority.
As I am sure we can all lament, such submission does not come easily. Like Eve, we still hear the hiss of the serpent as he tells us that freedom is found in autonomy, liberty in doing our own thing. Intellectually, we know that this is a lie, and yet the temptation persists. We will struggle with this until we are glorified and so, in the meantime, we need to remember the principle that God’s law (His Word) is given to us for our benefit, even when we feel that it constricts us. We therefore need to grow in our love for His authority. Our prayer needs to be, “Give me authority, thereby giving me life!”
One aid in this is to read, frequently, Psalm 119. This psalm comprises 176 verses, each one making some reference to God’s Word. It was written by an anonymous author (though I suspect it was David) who loved God’s authority. Only when we can say, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (v. 97) will we truly experience the liberty that we have in Christ, for such freedom is inseparable from living in submission to Christ’s law-order.
In a recent children’s talk, I spoke of how a goldfish is much safer inside than outside the fish tank. Though he may look through the glass and desire freedom from such restraints, such ideas are an illusion. The life of the goldfish is dependent on its God-ordained environment. Any tampering with that and, quite literally, its life goes down the toilet.
But so it is with you and me. The revolutionary cry, “Give me liberty or give me death,” may be true when it comes to unjust taxation, but it is a delusion when it comes to our relationships with one another and with God. The individual who is constantly chafing against God’s law-order will find his life being flushed into futility rather than fulfilled with freedom. Those who pursue liberty apart from God’s law-order are crying out for death.
Let’s get practical about this. Children, your freedom to enjoy life as God intends will never be found outside respectful submission to your parents. Employee, your liberty to develop your vocation will never be expanded by disrespecting your boss. Church member, your Christian discipleship will not progress if you are constantly criticising and disrespecting the elders. And further, if you constantly criticise God’s Word, rather submitting to its criticism of you, you can forget having any semblance of Christ’s offer of abundance of life.
One final application to parents: It is your responsibility under God to teach your children the principle of “give me authority or give me death.” As it has been well said, many things are better caught than taught. You must lead by example. If you want your children to show biblical respect to authority, make sure that you show them how. Be cautious of how you speak of your God-given authorities. If you backbite and rebel, then don’t be surprised when little Johnnie rolls his eyes at your commands, inviting the judgement of God (see Proverbs 30:17).