If you frequent the news media, the name Charlie Gard is probably familiar to you.
This baby boy was born on 4 August 2016 and, by all appearances, was healthy. A couple of months later, severe health issues became evident and Charlie was diagnosed with mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, a rare inherited condition that causes muscle weakness and loss of motor skills. Charlie was only the sixteenth person to ever be diagnosed with the condition, according to his parents.
As the disease progressed, Charlie became weaker, losing the ability to move his arms or legs or breathe, and soon he experienced seizures. He was then placed on a ventilator.
After several months, doctors at the hospital gave up all hope that he would ever recover and wanted to disconnect Charlie from the life support system. His parents refused, holding on to the hope that he would recover. Legal battles ensued and this little boy was subsequently at the centre of the world’s attention.
His parents fought for his life. Pope Francis likewise fought for his life. The doctors and the hospital administration in London saw no hope and viewed ongoing life support as an unwise use of resources.
I do not wish to argue the merits of the arguments, on either side. Rather, I want to make a pertinent observation: This child had value. His parents valued his life and they were willing to invest everything to improve his life.
I do not know if Charlie’s parents are Christians, but the immense value that they placed upon their child is very much the fruit of Christianity. The valuing of all of life, including children, is the social fruit of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the ancient world, children were treated as merely property, to be discarded at will. Roman law gave the father ultimate power of life or death over a child. Child exposure was common. Children were treated quite often as mere slaves. Human trafficking of children is almost as old as sin itself. Even the disciples, early on, displayed contempt for children (Matthew 19:13). But Jesus dramatically changed this (Matthew 19:14–15; 18:1–9). He healed many children.
We see the value of children in the text before us. Under inspiration, the apostle Paul addresses them in this amazing letter to the Ephesian church.
Children are considered as gifts from God, and we parents are to raise them that they in turn become gifts to God (see Psalms 127–128). As we continue our study in this passage, highlighting how the gospel changes our relationships, may God give us insight concerning the value of children and their fundamental importance to God’s purpose for his redeemed world.
I am addressing especially in this study. However, if you were brought into this world by parents—that is, everyone who is not synthetic or an extraterrestrial—you should also pay special attention. After all, technically, we are all children.
A cunning lawyer once asked the Lord, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “‘You shall the love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:34–38).
Where do you suppose is the best place to learn this commandment (and its corollary, to “love your neighbour as yourself”)? In the Christian home. This seems to be a major underlying idea behind Paul’s exhortation to children and to parents in Ephesians 6:1–4.
In our study of this text, we will begin to expound to apply this next section in Ephesians—one that is closely related to what has immediately preceded. And as we do so, I trust that we will all appreciate this foremost commandment to children.
Paul addresses “children” in this text (v. 1). The word for “children” here simply refers to offspring—to a son or daughter with no specific age in mind. But contextually, Paul is clearly speaking of those who are still in the home and therefore under the authority of their parents.
Having addressed husbands and wives, he now addresses the offspring of husband and wives (which is the normal biblical order).
There are many important observations that arise from this one word.
Paul is writing to children in the congregation. Some commentators jump straight to instructions to parents here, but Paul does not do so. He first addresses children. He puts responsibility upon them.
I recently went through our church directory and counted 133 children in our congregation—116 under the age of 13.
Paul expected that children would be present in the congregation. This implies the expectation that parents would have their children in church. Paul treats children as part of the community of faith (1 Corinthians 7:14). Wood notes, “He has the Christian family in mind: it is assumed that both partners together with their offspring recognize the lordship of Christ.” Story adds, “It is immediately noteworthy that he thinks of the local congregation as a ‘church family,’ consisting of both sexes and of all ages.”
The expectation is that children will take God’s Word seriously and that they will be held accountable for what they hear (cf. Joshua 8:34–35; Nehemiah 8:1–3, where children are included in the congregation of those to whom the Word is read). Church gatherings should be child-friendly.
The implied expectation is that children in the church will take its leaders seriously. The expectation is that children can be filled with the Spirit (see 5:18). The expectation is that there is no dichotomy between the home and the church. The one informs and reforms the other. It takes a church to raise a Christian.
Related to this, the expectation is that children will pay attention to the Word of God because they are watching their parents pay attention to the Word of God (5:22–33). The expectation is that children of believing parents will believe and give heed to the same Word and to the same Lord. The implication is that God saves households!
Law serves as preparation for gospel. The expectation to obey highlights the inability of children to obey God. This enables parents to point their children to the gospel. Parents should expose their children to God’s Word to prepare them for the gospel.
Let me point to some areas of application.
First, children need to be welcomed in the church. More importantly, we should want children to be a part of us! We should not underestimate the ability of children to grasp God’s Word, nor of God’s ability and desire to save them! I recently mentioned something in a sermon about the devil and his minions. A young boy chuckled and said to his dad, “Uncle Doug said ‘minions’!” He did not grasp some deep, theological truth in that moment, but he did at least understand something.
Second, the family needs the church and the church needs the family. This instruction to children comes in the context of exhortations to the church. The family is a microcosm of the church. Is your family healthy? Is it holy?
Third, church, let us make much of children. Let us invest in them.
Fourth, parents, be careful that you do not interfere with your child’s ability to listen to the Word as we gather. Beware of backbiting and negativity. Do not speak I’ll of the church over Sunday lunch. Rather, make much of the church.
There are two admonitions here: “Obey your parents” (v. 1) and “Honour your father and mother” (v. 2). When believing children obey, they bring glory to God.
We must realize that Paul wrote this admonition, as he did concerning marriage, not for the purpose merely of encouraging interpersonal and social harmony. Rather, he wrote because of the expectation that Christian families will be different from non-Christian, unbelieving families. The gospel makes all the difference in all the world—including in homes. “Ephesians reminds us how the gospel creates a new community,” writes Austen. “We must be careful not to engage in a practice which divide it.”
Children, do you realise that you have the responsibility to spread the fame of God’s name? One way that you do so is by obeying these two commandments—these two sides of the same coin.
The Action Required
The word translated “obey” means to hear under or to listen under. It speaks of listening carefully in order to heed and to conform to a command. Ferguson notes, “Its root meaning is … to listen as someone who places himself or herself ‘under,’ not ‘over’ what is being said.” This implies recognising that you are under authority and are therefore committed to listening to that authority.
Children, understand your place in God’s order. Understand boundaries. Trust your parents to teach you this. I was recently reading the book of Daniel in my devotions, and the heading in my Bible over Daniel 1 stood out to me: “Daniel and His Friends Obey God.” As I read those words, the thought occurred to me, where did they learn this? I assume that they were taught obedience by their parents. As Jesus was subject to his earthly parents (Luke 2:51), so Christian children ought to be subject to their parents.
Children, pay attention to your parents. Listen to them. Obey the first time. Building a culture of immediate obedience will shape your character for the future. If you don’t learn respect now, you probably will not learn it later. Prisons are filled with those who simply never learned respectful obedience to their parents as children. Most importantly, obedience now will prepare you for ultimate obedience to the gospel of God. Paul laid down obligations of law as a means towards gospel—which ultimately leads us back to obedience to the law (see Romans 8:1–4).
The Attitude Required
To “honour” means to prize, to place value on, or to revere. Salmond notes that “obedience is the duty” while “honour is the disposition of which the obedience is born.” Children are therefore enjoyed to respect their parents—to honourably obey them. Children must care for their parents and speak well about them. There is no place for Christian children to backbite their parents. As Stott says, “If we honour them as we should, we will never neglect or forget them.”
Children have the responsibility for the above. But parents have the responsibility to live in such a way that this is easier for them rather than more difficult.
Children are to obey their parents “in the Lord” (v. 1). This describes the sphere of the child’s obedience. Christian children should obey out of regard to their relationship with the Lord. They are to obey for the Lord’s sake. What is called for, argues Salmond, is “a Christian obedience fulfilled in communion with Christ.” The parallel text puts it this way: “Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is pleasing to the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). Hendriksen summarises: “The proper attitude of the child in obeying his parents must therefore be this: I must obey my parents because the Lord bids me to do so.”
This implies a response regulated by the child’s relationship to the Lord. Again, the implication and expectation is that children will be motivated not merely by “natural law,” but rather by the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). The further implication is that God saves households. Children are accountable to the Lord.
The obedience commanded here is commanded “for this is right” (v. 1). Sometimes, children want to know why they must obey a specific instruction, and parents reply, “Because I said so.” In other words, parents expect their children to obey them because they are in charge. There is much truth to this. Authority is the underlying view. But, ultimately, whose authority is in view?
The word translated “right” means “righteous.” It speaks of that which conforms to a standard, of things that ought to be a certain way. It describes divine rather than natural law. God sets the standard to which children are to submit.
Children, there are immoveable laws that you must obey. And if you ignore those laws, you will get hurt—like a cyclist who comes off his bike when he overlooks the laws of gravity! If you walk according to God’s straight way, you will get the right destination—and you will get their sooner. After all, “the word of the LORD is right” (Psalm 33:4).
Martin Luther said, “Spare the rod and spoil the child—that is true. But, beside the rod, keep an apple to give him when he has done well.” Paul here offers an apple: “which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth’” (vv. 2–3).
Luther’s counsel is sound. Children certainly are to be admonished to obey, and corrected when they do not obey. They should know the boundaries. But they should also know the blessings. When Paul’s words of blessing are properly understood, they shape our worldview and serve as a powerful appeal for submission to this admonition.
What does it mean that this is “the first commandment with promise”? It cannot mean that it is the first of the Ten with a commandment, for the second commandment also contains a promise.
Some say that the fifth commandment is the first of the second table of the law with a promise. However, the Jews included the fifth commandment in the first table. Further, since there are no other commandments in the rest of the Ten Commandments, this would be the only commandment (of the second table) with a promise, not the first commandment.
Still others say that this is the first commandment of all other commandments in the Pentateuch that has an attached promise. But that is debatable.
Finally, many interpret this phrase as the foremost of the commandments that contain a promise. In other words, the fifth commandment and its consequent blessings, which attend obedience, is the foundation for what results in well-being in all other relationships in life. Obedience to this commandment is crucial to a Christian society—and that is good for us all! Deviation from it results in chaos. I believe that this view is the correct one.
As goes the home, so goes society. Further, as goes the home, so (often) goes the church. (Though it is equally true that as goes the church so goes the home.) Stott says, “Then what is promised is not so much long life to each child who obeys his parents, as social stability to any community in which children honour their parents. Certainly a healthy society is inconceivable without a strong family life.” In other words, children, listen up—because an awful lot is riding on your shoulders.
Consider that, when Paul begins his thesis on what is the gospel in the book of Romans, he notes that one of the evidences of an ungodly society is the unrighteous conduct and attitude of children towards their parents (Romans 1:30). Later, he reveals that one of the characteristics of the last days of the old covenant era would be disobedience to parents (2 Timothy 3:2). He is not describing a simple I-ate-a-forbidden-cookie-before-dinner kind of disobedience (though, children, do not try that at home!), but rather a contemptuous treatment of one’s parents. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul said that those who profess to be Christians but do not care for their own are worse than unbelievers. This no doubt would include a refusal to honourably care for one’s parents.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting the honour due to their parents when they boasted that they had contributed money to the temple that should have been given to take care of needy parents (Matthew 15:3–9). He calls them hypocrites and pronounces woe upon them.
The old covenant made it very clear that a child who consistently defied their parents, or a child who cursed their parents, could receive the death penalty (Leviticus 19:1–3; Deuteronomy 21:18–21). A child who physically struck his parent was also subject to the death penalty (Exodus 21:15). The wise author of Proverbs warns the disrespectful child, “The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley will pick it out, and the young eagles will eat it” (Proverbs 30:17). These are sobering words!
On the other hand, Scripture also emphasises the blessings that fall upon the child who obeys and honours his parents. We read this in Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16, conflated here in Ephesians 6:3. The promise of well-being accompanies obedience to the fifth commandment.
But why? Why is obedience and honour to parents such an obviously big deal? Because, apart from it, one can never love God or, consequently, his or her neighbour. The command, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord,” really is the foremost commandment. If one goes wrong here, they will go wrong elsewhere. It has been well said that “when the bonds of family life break up, when respect for parents fails, the community becomes decadent and will note live long” (Foulkes). Conversely, “unlike the distorted counterparts of the fallen world, the redeemed family will live out the life of blessing which has been made possible by the work of Christ which should result in all ‘going well’ and living a ‘long life’ on earth” (Austen). Christians, our families are to be distinctively different. The Bible tells us so.
The Gospel Makes the Difference!
This promise was never meant merely individualistically. It was corporate in nature. The land promises (the original context of the promise here) were to the nation of Israel. If the children in the families of Israel—as a whole—failed to obey the fifth commandment, the nation would not be able to fulfil its mandate (Exodus 19:6–7; Deuteronomy 4:1–8; 6:1–9ff; etc.). However, if they did, then God’s blessings would come upon the nation as a whole in the Promised Land. Once we grasp this, we can understand the significance of Paul’s appeal.
Wellbeing of the Child
Children, as you obey your parents—as you obey the Lord—you will be blessed (Proverbs 1:8–9; 2:1–5; 3:1–2; 4:10; 5:1–4; 7:1–3; etc.). You will avoid destructive behaviour and activities. You will avoid debilitating influences. You will avoid those things that waste your life. Obedience is good for you!
Wellbeing of the Community
As we have seen, obedience to this admonition has huge implications, not only for the child and his immediate family, but also for the wider community and culture. In fact, it can have an impact on the continents!
Children, as you obey, those with whom you are connected are blessed. On the other hand, if you will not obey your parents, you burden those around you.
The church is frequently burdened by disobedient children. Churches experience the heaviness of parents whose children will not obey. Churches may be forced to discipline disobedient children, and conflict can arise in a church because of disobedient children.
Entire societies can experience the repercussions, negatively and positively, of children who either do wrong or who do right. The criminal justice system is often burdened by children who live in disobedience. On the other hand, children who learn obedience early on can be a tremendous blessing to the society in which they live. In short, the way in which you treat your parents has wider repercussions than you might think! Just think of Christ: How he obeyed and honoured had everything to do with whether he could save us.
The Gloriously Global Good of the Gospel
Do you see, children, how God can use you to literally change the world? As God saves you, and as you then live for him—beginning with honourably obeying your parents—others, along with you, are blessed.
So, children, out of love for the Lord Jesus Christ, obey your parents.