The Apostle Paul took great care to address God’s intended order for relationships among believers. With respect to the family, the Bible instructs children to obey their parents, and parents bear the responsibility of training the children entrusted to them to love and obey God. Alistair Begg explores these commands, reminding us that our obedience is grounded in the Gospel and enabled by grace. Families that strive to follow this pattern in the strength that God provides demonstrate the reality of the Gospel through their lives.
We’re going to read from Luke chapter 2 and from verse 39, one of the few places in the Bible where we have any record at all of the growing years of the Lord Jesus. Luke 2:39:
“And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
“Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
Well, I invite you to turn to Ephesians and to chapter 6. And let me read for us the first four verses, and then we’ll pray:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’”—or, “may live long on the earth.” “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Father, as we turn to the Bible, we acknowledge how desperately we need the help of the Holy Spirit both to be able to read and understand and speak and listen and obey, and certainly in this most crucial realm within our day-to-day existence as children and parents. So, Lord, save us from error and from indolence or from overzealousness. Grant us great wisdom and grace, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, last time we barely touched on the verses that we read. We got as far as, I think, just simply saying, “Children,” which we made five comments concerning—which I’m sure you remember them all very well: that, number one, they are a heritage from the Lord; number two, they are on loan to us for a short time; number three, that they are flawed from conception; number four, that they, like we, are in need of the law of God; and number five, that salvation comes by grace through faith to them.
And now, as we come back to this passage, we realize just how clear and unavoidable and helpful it actually is: “Children, obey your parents,” because in doing so you are honoring God. And this, despite the fact that it is not regarded as being something that people aspire to in our culture, nevertheless, it is there stated as a duty—as a duty.
And we do well to remind ourselves that the pen that writes these words is the pen of a onetime Jewish boy brought up in a fine home under the tutelage, first, of his parents, and then under the wisdom of his teachers. He then, in the context of his home, understood what it was to love and to obey. There in the context of his home, like other children, he would understand his own personal identity—who he was and where he fitted, and particularly as made in the image of God.
One of the great benefits, I think, of that Orthodox Jewish context, even to this day, is that it establishes these facts as grounded in God the Creator himself. And it is for that reason that when you read in various pieces of literature, when you enjoy—as I’m sure many of us do—the work of those who have come from that kind of background, you realize how these things are reinforced.
I date myself by my references; I understand it. You should be pleased about that. It’s nothing worse than somebody of my age trying to appear that I’m really hip and I’m up to date with everything. My children make sure that I’m not. And so, when I mention Tevye, it’s only a certain group that immediately says, “Aha, here we go, Fiddler on the Roof again.” And that’s exactly right. When you have that wonderful piece, “Tradition,” that comes at us with great forcefulness, and then, particularly in the stage play, it comes across very effectively when Tevye stops singing and addresses the audience in the theater. And he says to them, “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you: I don’t know. But it’s a tradition! And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Now, there is far more in that than simply the traditional emphasis of a family background. The fact that when a young person knows that he was intricately fashioned in the womb of his mother; when he understands that his DNA was established by a creator God; when she understands that her life is sustained by that same Creator, and that the entire universe is under the jurisdiction of the God who has purposefully made them—that is a vastly different view of the world and perspective on life than the alternatives that are prevalent in our culture.
In a more profound way, when Paul is exhorting Timothy in his last letter, 2 Timothy, and he says to him, “You know, I want you, Timothy, to make sure that you continue in the things that you have learned and have become convinced of, knowing those from whom you learned them, and how from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures,” or “the sacred writings”—referencing the Old Testament—“which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Now, this is the Paul, you see, who is writing to the Ephesians and has come now, having dealt with husbands and wives, to this matter of children and their parents.
Now, there are a number of things we can note, and hopefully helpfully so. First of all, that in this opening sentence here, what we have is not a suggestion; it is an obligation. It is an obligation. The obedience of children to their parents is not a voluntarily act. It is both expected and it is demanded.
Now, remember that Paul is writing here to the believing community. He is not giving simply general principles about parenting or about marriage or about employment. He is addressing those who are within the framework of God’s covenant family and within the framework of gospel and of grace. And so he is appealing, then, to them in light of what is true of them on account of God’s grace to them and through them.
So, when we put that down, we then realize that it changes things quite dramatically. If it is, as we’re going to see in verse 4, the duty of parents to raise their children—to train their children—to love and obey God, it is equally the duty of children to obey and honor their parents.
Now, again, since we started musicals, I’ll give you one other musical. The picture that we have in mind here about this needs to be a biblical picture—the understanding of what it means to inculcate in our children a genuine response of obedience and of honor. The picture here must not be the Captain in The Sound of Music. You remember the fellow there, with that uniform that he has on, and how at one point in the proceedings he takes out a silver whistle and he blows it; he blows a siren-like summoning blast, and each of the children is supposed to step to attention immediately, responding to the signal, stepping forward in a military fashion, announcing his or her name, and then immediately stepping back into line. Now, that might appeal to you because you were bought up as a Marine or something and you think that’s the way to handle your children. I’m telling you that it isn’t. And it is not the pattern. And when we come to the parental responsibility, we’ll try and make sure that we’re able to reinforce that.
But let it suffice for now to acknowledge that a child is not a machine. And therefore, it is not some kind of mechanistic, external operation that is in view here in relationship to the responsibilities that fall to them. Listen to how Phillips paraphrases just the first verse or so: “Children, the right thing for you to do is to obey your parents as those whom [the Lord] has set over you.” Now, I like the sort of tenor of that. I found that quite helpful.
Now, in the second half of this first verse, what we see as an obligation is then clarified by way of explanation. Explanation: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” It is right. Now, we’re not going to get involved in “What is right?”—at least for the moment. But you realize, even just to use that statement is quite staggering in its implications. If you use that on a daily basis anyway, you say, “Well, of course this is right.” And then you probably spend the next hour of your life debating the nature of right and so on. But for now, let it sit: “for this is right.”
How is it right? In three ways. Number one: in, if you like, the natural order of things. In the natural order of things. The right thing for you to do is to obey your parents—in the natural order of things. Now, I’m not going to camp on this. I’ll send you in this direction; it’s for you to follow up.
When Paul writes to the church at Rome and he is establishing in the early part of the letter the fact that the whole world is accountable before God, he deals with the question of the fallen world; he deals with it in relationship to the particular privilege that his own people, the Jews, had concerning the law of God, but he also deals with it in relationship to the gentiles, whom he says did not have the law of God. But in the course of that, in chapter 2, he points out that although they did not have the law of God by way of revelation, they had what he refers to essentially as natural law—that, fashioned in the image of God, there is a law, he says, that is implanted within them that their own conscience testifies to. So that the sense of, if you like, natural law, which underpins—at least in Western democracies—the nature of jurisprudence and civil law itself—that, says Paul, is sufficient for people to be able to respond to an exhortation like this and find that their conscience says inside of them, “You know what? That is actually right.”
Because if you read at all in history, if you did anthropology at university, or if you fashion yourself as a sociologist, you know from your reading that virtually all civilizations have regarded parental authority and its exercise as an indispensable foundation to a stable society. So that whether it is Confucius, whether it is Japan, whether it is sub-Saharan Africa, whether it is in Western democracy, if you read and think, you will realize that man as man recognizes that when that link is broken between the child and the parent, in terms of what is the natural order of things, the stability of a culture begins to unravel. And you don’t have to be a genius immediately, as you sit there listening to me, to say, “Well, that would explain quite a lot about where we are right now in twenty-first century in America”—an explanation that people do not want to have expressed, because it calls us to account, every one of us, to the God who has created us, who sustains us, and to whom we are accountable.
So, it is then right according to the natural order of things. Secondly, it is right in accordance with God’s law—that what Paul is doing here is he’s referencing the Ten Commandments. And what we have in the Ten Commandments is, if you like, a summary of the way life is meant to be lived. A summary of the way life is meant to be lived. God has given to us this wonderful summary, and he says, you know, “This is how this thing works. This is how this program works.”
I was thinking in between services if I could remember a movie that I saw a long, long time ago—I’m sure I’ve quoted it before. But there’s a moment in the movie—I think it’s Cher that’s in the movie, but it could have been somebody else—and she’s having this great contretemps with her daughter, who’s opposing her at every front. And she does such a job on her mother that eventually the mother bursts into tears and says, “You know, you never came with a set of instructions!” And the fact is, she did come with a set of instructions. Neither she nor you are prepared to pay attention to them.
It is right according to God’s law. He’s conflating Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5—putting these pieces together in such a way as to reinforce this fact. He is reminding them that in that context, when God speaks to his people through his servant Moses and gives to his people his law, he does so in a way that is to establish them as a unique group in the context of a panorama of notions and ideas and concepts and lifestyles. And he says to Moses, “Tell my people, ‘You shall be holy even as I am holy.’” That’s Leviticus chapter 19. Now, when you check, you will discover that the very next thing he says is, “Every one of you shall revere his mother and … father.” That’s number one! What would it look like to be a holy child? Dressed in a certain way? No. Just obedient to your mom and dad. That would be it. More than any other thing! Just in the same way as we said, “What would it mean to be a godly, evangelistic wife?” Living in submission to your husband. And the husband!
You see, what is happening here as Paul moves to the end of his letter is, he’s bringing home something that was there at the very beginning. He said back in chapter 1 that in the fullness of time God has a plan to “unite all things” under Christ—to unite all things in and under Christ. That’s about Ephesians 1:10. But that’s not an abstract concept. What he’s talking about there is that he is going to actually bring the United Nations together. That he will bring together people from every tribe and language and so on, so that all of the racial discrimination and the hate and all of that stuff is dealt with by Jesus in the gospel. He is going to bring together the warring factions within family life, as parents do as they’re told and as children do likewise.
You see, the question is, how can a child love and obey a God whom he has not seen if they won’t love and obey their father and mother whom they have seen? Paul is actually underscoring the fact that the child’s obedience, love, respect for his parents’ authority, is in the awareness that the parents’ authority is divinely delegated. The child is not called to obey his parent because his parent is a genius or because his parent has figured everything out, for they are neither genius nor have they figured everything out. Or because they are always on form and do everything correctly, ’cause they’re not and they don’t; we don’t.
Paul is saying the reason that this is to take place within the Christian home is not because the parent is infallible but because God’s Word is infallible—and that the parent, within the framework of the Christian home, is in the place of God in relationship to the children in their infancy. Therefore, the Word of Truth that is in the Scriptures, which is to be the foundation of instruction, is then held up in such a way that it’s not about anything other than the fact that God, who loves us so much, has given us a book showing us how everything works, and since he loves you and wants the very best for you, he’s given you all of these signs and wonders and stop signs and one-way streets and everything, and they’re all here in this book, and, “Honey, I love you, and I want you to know that I am responsible to help you with this, and you are responsible to pay attention to what I’m telling you.” That’s the Shema again, isn’t it? “These words that I give you today…” What words? The very sacred writings of Scripture. “These words that I give you today are to be upon your hearts, and you will teach them to your children when you walk along the road, and when you lie down, and when you get up.”
Listen, you’re going to come and see what was happening in the junior high on Tuesday night? I’ll tell you what it’ll remind you of: this. There is no way, no matter how good our junior high pastor and pastoral team is, that they’re going to be able to compensate for the absence of our instruction of our children in our own home. The church has a child for maybe one percent of a week in comparison to the family.
No, you see, the reason that it is right is because it is true by the nature of things, it is true according to the law of God, and it is, thirdly, true in the Lord: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” I take it that what Paul is doing there in that phrase is providing the equivalent of what he has used in terms of his instruction to wives back in verse 22. Remember, he said, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
Now, he’s already given the instruction that the Spirit-filled Christian is to display a spirit of submission, in a general way and then in the specific ways that God has intended. That has implications in a marriage, and it has implications within the family. So here the picture is of the Spirit-filled child, bearing testimony to his or her relationship to God by their obedience to their parents. And the context, then, is, if you like, gospel centered and grace enabled. This is not an ethical suggestion. This is a divine imperative that is based upon a divine indicative: that God has brought you to himself, has given you the Holy Spirit, has quickened you according to his Word, and provides for you the impetus necessary in order to do what he asks of you—so that when he unites all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, there ought to be evidence of that in a child’s bedroom.
This is not “Perfect Children Day.” There are no perfect children. This is not always-made-the-bed, always-took-out-the-garbage, always-did-the-dishes, perfect-little-Tommy, perfect-little-Julia, or whoever else it is. No. We’re talking here in the same way as is true of marriage. Anybody scoring a hundred percent on loving your wife as Christ loved the church? Step forward, I’ll let you sing a solo. Yeah, that’s good. Nobody’s going to sing. In the same way, one day everything will be perfect. Right now, everything is to be as God has planned.
So the obligation is to obey, and the explanation that is given is it is right by nature, by law, by gospel. But also, he tells them, that it is not only right, but this is activity which is rewarded. Rewarded! “([It’s] the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’”
Now, at Sinai, the Commandments were given special shape applicable to their immediate context. The NIV translates this, actually, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long on the earth”—trying, as it were, to make the point that we’re not simply talking about entry into the promised land, because now, fulfilled in the Lord Jesus, there is a blessing that accompanies paying attention to the commands of God and enjoying the promises of God.
Now, I don’t think it’s necessary to take this as a promise of personal longevity. Nor is it necessary to isolate this one particular promise to the exclusion of all the other promises—so that, for example, this says, “And it will go well with you.” Well, what happens when it doesn’t go well with you—even when you were seeking to do what the Word says? What are you going to do? Well, that’s, you see, why you need people to teach you the Bible.
See, the promise of God is also that when things go bad with us, that he promises to be with us—that he will be with us in sickness, that he will be with us in sadness, he will be with us in joy and in sorrow. But the general tenor of things is simple in its understanding, isn’t it? If you just stand back from this like you stand back from a picture, what is Paul saying? He’s basically saying that a healthy society—a healthy society, marked by well-being and cohesion and so on—is inconceivable without parent-child relationships that are marked by love and trust and obedience, all of which is grounded in the gospel.
So, if the obligation is clear and the explanation is accessible to us, what does it then mean for us to walk out into our world? The last word I’ll give you is just the word disintegration. It’s not a very positive word; I recognize that. But I’ve chosen it purposefully. Because we are at the present time living in a disintegrating culture. When Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire described the collapse of Rome, you will remember that he made it perfectly clear to us as readers that it was not on account of a superior power from outside of Rome that led to the destruction of Rome, but the destruction of Rome, the dissolution of Rome, came from the inside—that suddenly people became preoccupied with games, and preoccupied with themselves, and preoccupied with sex, and preoccupied with this, that, and the next thing. And before they knew where they were, these elements had begun to create a kind of internal rot in the structure of society itself, and to the very point where eventually it was gone. Gone!
Shakespeare’s Marcellus, you remember, he says, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” We can’t quite put our finger on it, but there is a rot that is setting in here. And I know it’s not a pleasant thing to say, but our culture has not simply neglected this; our culture by and large opposes this. Opposes it. It’s no longer prepared to say, “We don’t like that.” No.
And I know there’s such a danger in generalization, so let’s just retreat to, you know, “the [signs] of the prophets” that “are written on the subway walls.” Right?
So, I was eleven—eleven!—when I heard,
Come mothers and fathers
All over the land,
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand;
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command,
Your old road is rapidly fading;
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend a hand,
For the times they are a-changin’.
It so happens that I, along with some of the rest of you, have lived through the period in Western democracy that has witnessed the virtual collapse of any form of moral authority. So that the sense of oughtness, as it drains out of a culture, can only then be addressed in one of two ways: either by the power of the fist or by litigation. So, if somebody is told, “You ought not to do that,” the reply is, “Who are you to tell me what I ought to do? They’re my feet. This is my section on the bus. I like to put my feet up on the seat.” We have a problem here. How are we going to handle this? One of the ways we don’t want to even countenance; it involves a measure of physical intervention and somebody being propelled off a bus. Right? Or we’re now going to have to go and put it through the courts in order that the sign might be on the bus and so on. Why? Because the sense of nature, law, gospel, is not there.
You see, the expression that came in the ’50s and ’60s has roots much deeper and further behind. I’ve quoted to you before from this fellow in the World Health Organization, Chisholm, who in 1946 is writing along these lines: “Would it not be sensible to stop imposing our … prejudices and faiths on children…” (Okay, so, you mean like the Shema? Yeah, that would be one.) “…and give them all sides of every question so that in their own good time they may have the ability to size things up, and make their own decisions?” I’m not even going to say anything about that at all.
Where it hits the street is in stuff like this. Traditional family structure is then challenged at that level. What is claimed goes along these lines: what matters is not the structure itself; what matters is the quality of relationships. It’s very subtle, and it’s not entirely wrong when you think about it. That’s what makes it so clever. So how does that earth itself? Well, in this kind of comment: “Surely it is far better to have two dads who really like each other than to have a mom and a dad who don’t like each other.” Right?
Now, how are you going to respond to that? The answer is, you’re going to say, “This is right.” What is right? It is right by nature. For God, who created the universe and gave to us his commands so that we might know how life is lived, has established unequivocally the fact that this is what family is, this is what marriage is, and that this is how this works. So, we want moms and dads that provide quality relationships, but don’t come to me with that kind of sophistry, because it actually is simply an expression of a vehement opposition to God himself, his wisdom, and his plan for the world.
We are dealing in a culture where this truth is opposed. We are living in a culture where in “Church” with a big C this is largely compromised. I don’t want to be unkind to anybody, but the absence of straightforward, honest, clear, kind, unequivocal statements concerning what God has proclaimed for us and left to us in his Word—the silence is almost deafening. People in my position want so much to be liked by everybody; so fearful of any expression of social judgment; so tyrannized by, for example, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” which has to do with interpersonal relationships, not with civil jurisdiction or the law of God; so fearful of all of that, that what you have then is simply ambiguity and compromise and accommodation. So that you have, instead of taking the culture and saying, “Look at what God’s Word says! Look at how God loves his world! Look at how God has given us a plan for this world!” now we’re absorbing that into our own framework, and we’ve got nothing to say. Nothing to say! Because the only thing that we have to say is what God has given us to say.
When they asked William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, at the end of the nineteenth century—you remember this?—“What do you see as the chief dangers confronting the church in the twentieth century?” he replied, “In the coming century the chief dangers will be religion without the Holy Spirit; Christianity without Christ; forgiveness without repentance; salvation without regeneration; politics without God, and heaven without hell.”
So you’ve got a culture that is opposed to it, you’ve got a Church—big C—that is compromised in it, and you have got children across the entire United States who are entirely confused. Entirely confused—at best they are confused. Because they are constantly being told that the real question is not, “Is it right or is it wrong?” The real question is, “How does it feel for me? I mean, how does this work for me?” You hear people saying that all the time: “So how will this work for you?” Well, that’s a fair question. But it’s the second question; it’s not the first question. The first question all day, every day is, “What is the right thing to do?” At the most basic level! I waken up: “Mmm. I wish I was still asleep. What time did we say that meeting was?” What is the right thing to do? If I operate on the “How’s this making me feel?” there’s no saying I’ll ever get out of my bed. There’s no saying very much at all, is there?
You see, we’ve raised a generation—we’ve raised more than one generation—who believe that they were born without reason, that they prolong themselves by chance, and they die without significance. You cannot sustain a culture on that basis. It is inevitable that it will collapse from within. No empire has survived the impact of moral collapse such as is presently unfolding in Britain and in the United States of America.
So what does that do? Make us curl up in a ball, hide away in the hills? No. It makes us think of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. You say, “You are totally…” Yeah, I know. Remember when he says the great line, when he says to the girl, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
What happened in history when all was darkness? God turned a light on—lit up Whitefield, lit up Wesley, lit up Luther, lit up Calvin, lit up Alexander. Just babies being born, nurtured in the context of God’s truth, learning that there is a huge delight and blessing that follows from just trusting and obeying God’s Word.
Father, please help us with these things. Save us, Lord, from just pointing fingers all around, Lord, help—just help us. Help us as individuals, as families, as a church family; help us, Lord. And come and visit our nation by your grace. Come, Lord, and restore to some of us the joy of trusting obedience, the joy of obedient trust. And help us, Lord, to be holy even as you are holy. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof (New York: Times Square Music Publications Co., 1965).
 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 2:14–15.
 Leviticus 19:2 (paraphrased).
 Leviticus 19:3 (ESV).
 Deuteronomy 6:6–7 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:22 (ESV). Emphasis added.
 See Ephesians 5:21.
 Ephesians 6:3 (paraphrased).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.4.
 Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence” (1964).
 Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1963). Lyrics lightly altered.
 G. B. Chisholm, “The Reestablishment of Peacetime Society,” in “The Psychiatry of Enduring Peace and Social Progress: The William Alan White Memorial Lectures,” special issue, Psychiatry 9, no. 1 (Feb. 1946): 9.
 Matthew 7:1 (ESV).
 Attributed to William Booth in, for instance, Record of Christian Work 22, no. 3 (1903), 145. Paraphrased.
 Dumb and Dumber, directed by Peter Farrelly, written by Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, and Bennett Yellin (Los Angeles: New Line Cinema, 1994).
 See 1 Peter 1:16.
Copyright © 2021, 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.