August 22, 2021
The Christian father has a special, God-given role within his family to lead his wife and children. This responsibility, explains Alistair Begg, involves not provoking one’s children but instead reflecting the unmerited love and grace that our heavenly Father displays to us in Jesus. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Christian fathers can lead and discipline with grace in order that the beauty of the Gospel may captivate their children and be shown to a watching world.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, I invite you to turn with me to the Bible and to the New Testament and to the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 15, and verse 11. Luke 15:11:
“And [Jesus] said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“‘But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
“‘Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out [to him] and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”’”
Well, I invite you to turn to Colossians and to chapter 3. Colossians 3.
Father, as we turn now to the Bible, may the Spirit of God be at work to enable us both to pay attention and then to understand and believe and obey your Word, to heed its warnings, to trust its promises. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
Well, we come this morning to our fifth and final study on the Christian family, this brief lapse that we’ve had, or little time, separated from 2 Samuel. And once again, our text today is just as brief and just as clear as each of them has been since the eighteenth verse. You find it in verse 21: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
We’ve been learning—at least I hope we’ve been learning—how the instruction that is provided here and elsewhere in the Bible concerning the Christian home, how it benefits not only those who dwell within the Christian home, but it also benefits society, makes an impact on a culture, when it becomes obvious to people who look on that Jesus is actually the King, that Jesus presides over the family life and in the home.
Tertullian, who lived in the second century and just briefly into the third, is the one to whom the observation is attributed, “Look how these Christians love one another.” He was commenting on the way in which the environment in which he lived at that time in North Africa was such that men and women, generally speaking, hated each other. They were very glad to do away with one another. And so he writes to his people, and he says, “Oh, that it might be that a pagan world looks on and observes the radical difference.”
Now, I mention that because I wonder: Dare we imagine something similar being said in response to our testimony in our home life? If we imagine that people in the greater Cleveland area are actually saying, “Look at how these families get along with each other. Look at how these wives live in submission to their husbands. Look at how these fathers do not provoke their children. Look at how these husbands do not boss their wives around or treat them with harshness.” It’s very challenging, isn’t it, to put it in those terms? At least I find it so—to realize that it is our home life, our family life, set within the context of our church family life, that is then to provide a significant advertisement for the Christian faith , and not least of all in this express area concerning fatherhood.
Now, when we read the Bible, we read it in light of the then; we read it in light of the now. We do not live in Colossae; we live in Cleveland. I think we all recognize that, and some are visitors here today. We do not live in the first century; we live in the twenty-first century. And so we need to understand at least a little of what Paul, if you like, was dealing with, and then to apply that to what it means for us. And I say, just briefly: in Roman civilization, it was a tough and a dangerous place for children because of the father’s power—the patria potestas, as it was. It was absolute. The power of the father had complete control. He could make his children work in the fields in chains, he could punish them as he liked and as much as he chose, and he was even capable and able by Roman law to sell his children into slavery.
“Oh,” you say, “well, I can understand why Paul would have written this. It’s a grave concern, isn’t it?” Yes. And we come to it at a very different time and in a different place. Well, of course, we know what it is for fathers to be abusive towards their children and all that that means for children who are vulnerable in that context. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be fairer to say that children in our day are not so much endangered by the patria potestas, the father’s power, or by his aggression, but children in our day are endangered by the father’s absence. Not his aggression but his absence.
Studies continue to show time and again—and you don’t need to go looking very carefully for them, it comes up all the time—the studies show that children most prone to crime, along with many disorders that accompany this, are fatherless boys. Fatherless boys. Sheldon Thomas, a former gang member and the one who leads an organization called Gangsline, in addressing this, points to, number one, bad parenting; number two, absent fathers; number three, bad role models as the key contributory factors in young men drifting into the gang culture. Now, clearly, it is far more complex than that, but whatever else is involved, those things are almost inevitably there. So whether the context is first-century Roman culture or twenty-first-century American or Western culture, we need the light of the Word of God to shine into the darkness. And shine it does.
Now, as I say, the text is straightforward, isn’t it? “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” I think we can answer three simple questions: Who is being addressed? What is it that they are to avoid doing? And why is it so important?
So, first of all, then, who is Paul addressing? “Well,” you say, “well, it’s very obvious, isn’t it? He’s addressing fathers.” Yes, but he is addressing specifically Christian fathers. Remember, we’ve said on each occasion that there were many charts like this within Greek/Roman/Jewish life, where people understood that for stability and so on, there needed to be rules and regulations. Paul was not simply adding to that, but he was giving to his readers the dynamic that is found in the gospel itself. And it’s very, very important that we understand this, and I want to take a moment to make sure that we do. Because he is not addressing fathers simply as fathers, but he’s addressing Christian fathers.
You say, “Well, is the distinction important?” Yes, it is very important. It is customary for God to be referred to as everyone’s Father, right? We think of that: that God is Father by creation. And it is true that God has a kind of fatherhood by creation. But interestingly, when you read the Bible, the Bible does not generally use the term “Father” of God as creator, but rather, it reserves it for those who have become God’s spiritual children through faith in God’s Son. Now, I want you to understand that. I’m not saying that it doesn’t. I’m saying that the general way in which “Father” is used in the Bible is not generically in terms of all people by creation but specifically in relationship to God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So we’ve said this morning, “We’re gonna trust in God.” What does that mean? Well, we’re gonna trust in God the Father. How are we going to do that? Through the work of his Son. How will we be enabled to do that? By the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only, the Bible tells us, as we come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, as we come to believe in him, as we come to receive him, that we are given the right—the right—to become the children of God .
Now, it’s very, very important that we understand that. And you can look for it, and you will find it reinforced not only in the record of the Gospels but as we read the Letters. So, for example, that is why Paul makes the point that we are “justified by faith”—“justified by faith” through the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re put right with God, even though we know ourselves to be sinners. When he writes later on in Romans, he points out the wonder of what has happened to us in that we have been adopted into God’s family. So, as we believe, as we receive the Lord Jesus, we are then welcomed into a family by grace to which we do not belong by nature. We are welcomed into a family by grace to which we do not belong by nature.
Are you listening? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’m speaking now to a father within earshot of me by whatever means, either as you look upon me or as you hear me through a box in your car. And here you are as a father, doing your best, aware of your failings, looking somewhere, everywhere, for ideas, for principles. You’ve even begun to come along to church in the hope that somehow or another there will be some religious pegs that you can lay hold of to help you. But you have not yet come to trust, through Jesus, in God as your Father. And to you I say, “Oh, come to the Father through Jesus the Son.”
Who is he addressing? Paul is addressing Christian fathers within the church family concerning their role in the physical family.
Secondly, what is it that these fathers mustn’t do? Well, you see it in the text before you: “Fathers, do not provoke your children.”
Now, don’t let’s get confused here. It’s not that mothers are allowed to provoke their children and only fathers are not allowed to provoke them. That’s not the point. Actually, we’re in this together, aren’t we, moms and dads? Course we are. Couples in this together. But the directive is given specifically here to the father. Why is that? Well, because of the special responsibility which falls to men, in the Bible, both in the home and in the church. Here, of course, is one of the great divides in our day, isn’t it? The whole place and the rise of feminism and everything that has come along with it over time, challenging it at its very heart God’s order—so apparently bright and enlightened and so on.
And yet, no, the Bible is very clear. In fact, leadership in the church is posited on a man’s ability to lead his own family. That’s what Paul writes when he says to Timothy, “Make sure that those that are appointed for leadership in the church are men who are able to manage their own households well.” Because if they’re unable to provide leadership in their own home, there’s no way in the world they should be providing leadership in the church. And that doesn’t mean perfect leadership. That doesn’t mean a hundred percent. It just means leadership. The people know: Dad’s dad. My father is my father. He’s not my mother. He’s not my buddy. He’s my dad. And the father needs to know that. And that’s why it’s pointed out.
Well, what are we not to do? Well, we’re not to provoke our children or to irritate them. The King James version has “Provoke not your children to anger.” In other words, dealing with them in such a way that their response is clearly not submission but is rejection. No, the point is fairly straightforward—namely, that the love and grace which our heavenly Father has displayed in Jesus in dealing with us as earthly fathers… This is why it’s so important we understand this distinction. He’s not just addressing the idea of God the Father as creator. He’s talking about redeemed men, so that we know as fathers that the love that God has given us is an undeserved love, that the grace that he continues to provide for us is just beyond our ability to comprehend, that we are sustained by it and kept by it, because we’re wretched at heart; we’re sinful at heart. We haven’t been made righteous in Jesus; we’ve been set right before God in Jesus. We’re sinful. Therefore, we recognize that since God has loved us in this way, here is love. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the [atoning sacrifice] for our sins.” And so the point is straightforward: that if that is the way in which the Father has lavished his love upon us, that then is to be the hallmark of the treatment of our children.
Who is sufficient for these things? You see, this is Christian. This is the enabling of the Holy Spirit. This is not a long list of things you’re supposed to do—try your best, and see how many you can get out of ten. That’s religion. No, no, no. So instead of crushing them with our dictates, we are to cultivate them by grace.
Now, we’re going to stay entirely here. We’re not gonna flip over to Ephesians, where it balances out: “Don’t do this, but do this,” the positive side of it. Let’s just stay with the negative side. And I just made a list of ten things that are easily, at least in my understanding, a mechanism for provoking my children. And I think all of us may find ourselves far too quickly on the wrong side of this track.
One, straightforward, is overseverity. Overseverity. Just the father as an ogre. “Wait till your father gets home.” Instead of them going, “Yeah, we can’t wait!” they’re like,
“Oh, no, no.”
Secondly, inconsistency. It matters today; it doesn’t matter tomorrow. It mattered an hour ago. It’s important here; it’s not important now. The children don’t know where they are.
Thirdly, constant faultfinding. “Why can’t you…? Why have you…?” Constantly scolding our children.
Fourthly, favoritism. Favoritism. Whether we make the favorites the boy next door, the girl up the street, the person that you saw at the school program, whatever: “Why couldn’t you do something like that? Why did you sit around in here all day? Why are you always there? What the thing?” Provoking our children.
Fifthly, belittling their achievements. Belittling their achievements. You know, some of those little drawings matter far more than we even realize, all those little scribbles. You know, somebody—I don’t know where I got this from in the past, but somebody said that the key to being a father is being able to say that Soap on a Rope is your favorite present of all time. Right? Because that was the extent of it: “I did this. I made it myself. I attached the string.” And they see us as it’s set aside and we move on.
Sixthly—and it follows from it, doesn’t it?—failing to show appreciation for their attempts to please, for their kindnesses.
Seventhly, by our neglect. I don’t think these statistics really amount to very much, but every so often, someone will produce a piece that says, you know, the average American father spends x minutes with his children in a day or in a week. Now, don’t let’s confuse being in their company with actually spending time with them. Don’t let’s include sitting watching something as time spent. No, failure, neglect.
Eighthly, expecting too much of them. Expecting too much of them. Why do we do this? We’re not that great ourselves. Now, it’s one thing to set goals for our children. But it’s another thing to constantly be pushing the bar out and beyond them again and again, to the point where they just don’t know where to go.
Ninthly, restricting their freedom. Restricting their freedom. Well, yes, we have to protect them, but we mustn’t overprotect them.
And that actually would be the tenth one: overprotection. Overprotection. I think it’s a feature, isn’t it? Apparently. And it’s complex, I recognize. There are many factors involved in it. But it’s not unusual to hear people say, “You know, I used to get up in the morning in the summer days, and I’d go out, get on my bicycle; I’d be gone all day, and I would come back, and my mother was glad that I came back, and frankly, she was glad that I was gone.” You say, “Well, that’s terrific. That was a different day.” And it was a different day. And so, there’s been an inevitable correction in relationship to the strangeness of the society in which we live and so on, so that desire for a framework that is secure is entirely legitimate and entirely understandable. But the overprotection of our children is harming them and will provoke many of them to anger: “Why can’t I be free?”
You see, unless we allow our children to learn the principle of reaping what they sow, they never learn it. “Do not leave your bicycle in the park unattended or without the lock.” “Hey, who cares?” Come back: “Mom, my bicycle is gone. I need you to buy me another bicycle.” “Don’t you worry, honey, I’ll get you a better bicycle this time. What a shame! What a naughty person!” No! No. “I told you. You disobeyed me. There’s an impact.”
We’ve moved from the helicopter parents of Chinese fame to what I mentioned last Sunday or two Sundays ago, the curling parents. Curling! Whoever came up with curling as a sport, for goodness’ sake? Who came up with that? It is a sport in which players slide stones on a sheet of ice, trying to get them into a target zone of four concentric circles with a button in the middle, which is the real “Hey, presto!” Who came up this? Where was it first discovered? Medieval Scotland! Yes. Yeah. That’s why people were getting out of Scotland. “What do you do?” “Well, we take rocks, and we slide them along the ground.” “Wow, that must be terrific! That’s wonderful.” “Yeah, and we have these little brushes, and we sweep.” You’ve seen this. You’ve seen it in the Olympics.
What are they sweeping? Well, they’re clearing the debris—or the “duh-bree,” I think, as you say—they’re clearing the debris from the ice so as to secure the trajectory. “Come on, honey, I’ll do it for you. Come on, I’ve got it covered. Come on, now, don’t worry about that. No, I’ll make your bed. No, oh…” You want to talk entitlement? The Bible is so obviously clear. And the command is so straightforward. And the challenge is huge. Because it is all too easy to fall down on the wrong side: to either indulge and spoil our children or to humiliate and suppress the children.
And that’s why, actually, as we’ve said from the very beginning, we desperately need one another. The husband needs the wife. And there’s a peculiar challenge in being a single parent. And some of you know that. And as a church, we care about that. And that’s why I’m saying—that’s why the Bible is saying—that the only way that we’re gonna be able to raise our children in a Christian ethos is when we understand that what’s happening in our family is set within the context of the church family, so that there are uncles and there are aunts and so on. And someone’s an only child, and maybe the lady is widowed now, and the child is growing up alone like that—well, where are the people that will come around and say, “I can invest my life in this, I can be a part of this”? Who’s gonna take on the challenge of mentoring in a culture that is increasingly filled with gangs?
Well, “Don’t do it; do the reverse.” And sometimes the husband has to acknowledge that his wife’s coercion, direction, encouragement, is absolutely vital. And so, we recognize that to be the case.
Benjamin West, who, amongst other famous paintings that he did, did the painting of Benjamin Franklin where he’s pulling down electricity from the sky or whatever he’s doing—I don’t know if he’s sending it up or bringing it down, but, zshzoom! But that was Benjamin West. And he tells in his history how he became a painter. His mother left him to look after his little sister while she was gone. His little sister was Sally. While the mother was gone, he found a whole bunch of colored ink, and he decided that he would make use of it. And so he began to paint a portrait of his sister. When his mother came back, the place was a complete and utter shambles. Stuff was everywhere. And she looked at it, and she saw the picture. And she picked it up, and she said, “Oh wow. It’s Sally.” And West said, “She bent down and kissed me. And my mother’s kiss made me a painter.”
Who is it that’s being addressed? The fathers. What is it that they’re not to do? Provoke their children to anger. And thirdly and finally, why is this important? Well, we’re told: “lest they become discouraged.”
If you come down too hard on them, you’ll crush their spirits. If you overcorrect them, they’ll grow up feeling inferior and frustrated. By our provocations, we may actually cause them to be discouraged and just give up. So the warning is clear. It’s inherent in what is being said, albeit briefly: the danger of rules without love, of law without grace. Realizing that these things are to be understood and applied because it’s what the Bible says. Because it’s what the Bible says. The culture doesn’t really buy this at all. It never actually has, but in our day more so than ever.
Now, I gave you ten. I’m gonna give you six, and I’m not gonna elaborate on them. I’m just gonna make six statements concerning our children. What are they? Well, in no particular order: number one, they’re special—special—they’re sinful, they’re silly, they’re selfish (“It’s mine!” “No, you’re not getting it.”), they’re sensitive, and they’re souls. They’re souls. The arrival of a child confronts us with an existence that is now commenced for eternity. For eternity. That’s our great concern: their eternal well-being.
Now, the Bible is our guide, as I say. And in this little series of studies, we have been confronted by the fact that our failure to believe this, or to apply it, and to apply it in a timely way, in a Spirit-enabled way, in a grace-filled way—our failure to do so may actually find us losing out to the power of a rebel heart. The power of a rebel heart. We are by nature rebels—rebels against the authority of God, rebels against those whom God puts in authority over us, and so on.
As I was thinking this week, I remembered two things, and with these illustrations I close. One was, I remembered, in something that my old boss had written, he told the story there of Stephen Anderson—Captain Stephen Anderson. He was a military guy, and he retained that title even in his days back in civilian life. But he was an evangelist with the Church of Scotland, and he worked very, very effectively amongst young people, and teenagers in particular, and he was the leader in camps and so on. And Derek recounts how on one occasion, Stephen Anderson had, in dealing with the leadership team that he had in the camp, sensed in one of the young ladies who was part of his leadership team a lack of peace and a lack of assurance. She just seemed somehow or another to be off-kilter.
And he said that he felt led to say to this girl—without knowing anything—he said he felt led to say to this girl, “Listen: your father, your earthly father, only really loved you as a success. But your heavenly Father loves you for yourself.” The girl dissolves in tears, and she tells Stephen of how disappointed her father had been that she had been born a girl, that she had not entered into the family business. And the unconditional love of our heavenly Father flooded over her to bring her a new relief and an unutterable joy. Some of us need to find peculiar hope in that kind of illustration.
The final one is from a book that I read in the last two years, Born Standing Up. It’s a biographical piece on Steve Martin, the comic. Fascinated by his ability to do what he does. He’s very crazy, but nevertheless. And so I wanted to know what drives this guy. And in the course of it, in the early part of the book, he talks about growing up with his mom and dad, and he describes a dreadful situation where his father flies into a rage that is an uncontrollable rage, and he beats him severely, so much so that the following morning, he has to wear long pants to go to school because of the welts that are on his leg. And then he says that
[I resolved], with [an] icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between [myself and my father], and for perhaps thirty years, neither he nor I did anything to repair the rift.
The rest of my childhood, we hardly spoke; there was little he said to me that was not critical, … there was little I said back that was not terse or mumbled.
“Oh,” you say, “well, it’s gotta get better, hasn’t it?” Well, after he had made his way through all of this part of life, was famous everywhere he went, was hailed by people hither and yon, he is being celebrated in Hollywood in relationship to a movie:
The movie played well, and afterward[s] my friends and I took my father to dinner at a quiet, old-fashioned eatery that didn’t offer “silly” modern food. He said nothing about the film; he talked about everything but the film. Finally, one of my friends said, “Glenn, what did you think of Steve’s movie?” My father … said, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.”
Fathers, let’s not provoke our children, lest they become discouraged. That’s why I read Luke 15. What a royal mess with those two boys: one lost in the backyard and one lost way down the street. And the express love of the father towards his sons points us to the love of the Father expressed in Jesus. I say again, I think perhaps some of us need to settle this issue of knowing God in a personal, living way as Father, in embracing his love to us in Jesus, in accepting the provision that he has made for our own sinful, foolish hearts, and then resting upon the direction of the Bible and the enabling of the Holy Spirit to seek to do what we’re called to do.
Well, Father, thank you that you are our Father in heaven. Thank you that even when our earthly fathers have messed it up, whether they acknowledge it or not—when we have messed it up—that we can guard and guide our children and point them to the one of whom we’ve been singing, “How great is the Father’s love, how mighty is his hand, to guide me through this world. And though I am weak, in him I stand. And you will hear me say, I’m gonna trust in God.” I’m gonna trust God to raise my children, to obey my mom and dad, to love my wife, to submit to my husband, not simply because it will be well for us but because the good news of the gospel is to be advertised widely so that people might have occasion to say, “Look at how this family loves each other.” Hear our prayer, O God, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 208.
 Romans 3:28; 5:1; Galatians 2:16; 3:24 (ESV).
 See Romans 8:15.
 Fanny J. Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).
 1 Timothy 3:4 (paraphrased).
 1 John 4:10 (KJV).
 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 178.
 Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (New York: Scribner, 2007).
 Steve Earl, “Gonna Trust in God” (1997). Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.