Paul instructed fathers not to provoke their children to anger, assuming parental authority, but appealing for its restraint. Reminding us that children ultimately belong God, Alistair Begg warns parents of certain pitfalls that are likely to exasperate their children and incite responses of bitterness and resentment. The responsibility of biblical parenting is impossible apart from the grace and wisdom of God the Father, who provides the ultimate example in the love and grace He demonstrates toward His children.
I invite you to turn with me to Hebrews and to chapter 12. Hebrews chapter 12, and we’ll read from the third verse to the end of the eleventh verse. Hebrews chapter 12, and the writer is turning the gaze of the reader to the Lord Jesus:
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Well, I invite you to turn to Ephesians and to chapter 6, where our text today is the verse 4:
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
We’ve been studying Ephesians for some time now, and we’re acquainted with the fact that since the beginning of chapter 4, Paul has moved, essentially, from the doctrinal foundations of what it means to be united with Christ—the wonder of the love of God in the gospel—to the practical implications of living for Christ in a world that is an alien world: living distinctive lives marked by purity in a dirty world, by honesty or integrity in a shady world, by fidelity in a world that disregards the promises that we are supposed to keep, and now a world that is marked in the realm of family life by a commitment to the clear instruction of the Bible as it relates to what it means to be an obedient child and what it means to be a wise, thoughtful, and caring father and mother.
In other words, he wants his readers “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [they’ve] been called.” And we’re in the middle of a passage now in which he’s tackling this in three key areas: one, to which we still have to come, the matter of daily employment; one, which we have already left behind, the nature of marriage and relationships between husband and wife, learning as we did, I hope, that the welfare of human society can be strong and happy only where the marriage relationship is held in honor; and then, coming to the matter at hand—namely, the responsibilities and privileges of parental authority—and causing us to face the fact that parental authority is an indispensable feature of a civilized and a stable society. Parental authority is an indispensable feature of a society that is both stable and civilized.
And it is for that reason that Paul, at least on a couple of occasions in his letters, identifies the fact that disobedient children are one of the ugly and alarming signs of a crumbling culture. We remarked on it when we looked at it in Romans 1 and then in 2 Timothy chapter 3, and I think together we sort of drew our breath as we realized that in the list of things that he describes in terms of a culture that has turned its back on God, it is quite striking to realize that the phrase “disobedient to their parents” comes right in the heart of it all. And it is on account of that that he has issued, then, a clear and a comprehensive call for children to both obey and to honor their parents. And having done so in the first three verses, now, here in verse 4, he is addressing the parental role, and particularly that of the father.
Let me just pause and say what we said as we began our studies in the realm of marriage. And that is that here is another area in which we express our conviction concerning the authority and reliability and sufficiency of the Bible. In a context where marriage is under bombardment on multiple fronts, are we then prepared to say that God knows best, that God has created us in this manner, that he has made us both man and woman, and that he knows exactly how things are to be? When we come to the issue of family life and parental authority—and I was reading just yesterday, not for my help, but I was reading the Convention on Human Rights, and particularly on children’s rights. And as I read as much of it as I could stand, I realized how diametrically opposed it is to the clear instruction of the Bible. And I found myself saying, “If I’m going to believe the Bible, then I cannot reinforce this. I am an alien and a stranger in the twenty-first-century world in which I live.” It’s one thing to say, “Yes, I believe the Bible entirely.” It’s another thing then to bottle it when it comes to actually doing what the Bible says in relationship to our responsibility as parents.
Now, you will notice, I hope, that Paul is not here calling for the exercise of parental authority. Look carefully: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” That comes before he says, “This is what I want you to do.” So his instruction here is first negative, and then it is positive. What he’s doing is, he is assuming that parental authority will be established, and he is urging fathers—and mothers too, but fathers in particular—to exercise restraint in the way in which they discipline their children. Restraint.
We’ll be helped in this by realizing that the Roman culture out of which Paul came, and which was largely represented in the framework to which he’s writing here in Ephesus, was a culture in which father power was all-prevailing. The patria potestas, as it is in Latin—the “power of the father”—was an absolute power. Barclay, commenting on this, says, “A Roman father had absolute power over his family.” He could “sell them into slavery,” he could put them in chains in his fields to work, and he could punish them as he liked, even issuing a death sentence upon them. So that is the context within the Roman Empire of the place of a father.
Paul, now, writing to these believers who have been brought from darkness into light, who have understood the gospel, who have discovered the love of God and the grace of God as expressed in the fullness of Jesus, he’s saying to them now, “Your understanding of what it means to be united to Christ is then going to be manifest in your marriage, in your workplace, and also in the way in which you parent your children.” In fact, one of the great evangelistic opportunities is then provided in understanding this and applying it properly.
If you read books from the Victorian era—as I’m sure many of us do—whether it is Dickens or the Brontës, you will have clearly in your mind the sort of Victorian father who is portrayed there almost along the lines of the Roman father. And we have these unsavory characters that pop up all over the place. I remember when I saw the movie of Jane Eyre—or one of them—I remember that amazing response that Jane Eyre gives to Mr. Brocklehurst, who is who is a real piece of work, if we might say so reverently. But he was the custodian of the orphanage for the girls. And he was a heavy-minded hypocrite. You remember, he comes in and—I didn’t mean to tell you all this, but anyway… You’re saying, “Well, if you knew more about it you could.” But, you know, she was sent to the red-room by Mrs. Reed, her aunt. And she’s pulled out of there to meet Mr. Brocklehurst. And, remember, Brocklehurst says to her, “Do you know what happens to wicked girls, Jane? Do you know where they go?”
You know, and she replies, “Yes, they go to hell.”
“Would you like to go there, Jane?”
“No, sir. No. No.”
“And how will you prevent yourself from going there, Jane?”
And she says, “By trying to live as long as I can.”
I want to stand up and cheer! That’s exactly what Brocklehurst deserves. And the humor, actually, is helpful in the massive contrast between the austerity and the hypocrisy of this creature.
But you don’t have to live in the Victorian era. Let’s come all the way up to the present day. Let’s go to the movie Fences featuring Denzel Washington. If any of you saw that movie, you’ll know that right at the heart of that movie there is the tension that exists between Denzel, the father, who was a baseball player who kinda washed up and ended up as a garbage collector, and his relationship with his sons, in particular his one son Cory. And the struggle that is represented there in him trying to bring his son into subjection and into the framework that he wants him to be is a real tension throughout the entire piece. And when, after his funeral, Cory’s mom sits with him, and she says to him, “Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t… and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if it was right or wrong… but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.”
Now, you see, what Paul is doing here in giving this instruction to the fathers is to ensure that in seeking to do what the Bible says, that the fathers do not do more harm than good. How could we do more harm than good? By failing to take seriously the negative exhortation. In other words, by provoking our children, by exasperating our children, by irritating them, and causing them in turn to become discouraged, to become resentful, to become angry.
Again, you see, what he’s saying is that the discipline of the Christian father is to be framed by the transforming power of the gospel. “In the way that you have known,” Paul is saying, “the love of God towards you in his grace and in his goodness, in the extent of his patience, that then is to be your pattern—that then is to be your test, if you like—in displaying your fatherly care for your children.”
So, let’s spend the time we have in the balance of our time looking just, then, at this negative directive: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.”
I put it to you that this is an uncomfortable exercise. I find it uncomfortable, both as a father and now as a grandfather. Because it uncovers in us the things that we don’t want to face up to. And it forces us, if you like, to ask ourself, “What specific sins in my life may cause or have caused my children to grow resentful and angry? Is it possible that I have, in seeking to do the right thing by them, obscured the discipline of a loving Father by the poverty of my discipline as a human father?”
Now, we could, if we decided, just fill this screen up with observations that I think would come from all of us, and I suggest these to you as a selection out of a large company. What, then, may provoke our children to anger?
Number one: selfishness on our part as parents. Selfishness. Well, what is selfishness? Well, it is a preoccupation with ourselves. It is an approach to parenting which suggests that it is actually all about me as the parent, as the father, rather than about this son or this daughter.
I see my own sins most clearly in other people; perhaps you do as well. John Stott quotes from a novel that I’ve never read; it’s such a good illustration I wanted to pass it on. It’s a novel about a wealthy Texan rancher whose name is Jordan Benedict. He owns two and a half million acres of ranchland in Texas. And he has a son, and he is committed to the possibility, to the necessity, of his son, Jordy—short for Jordan, as you would see, named after his father—he’s committed to making him a rancher just like his daddy. And he puts him on a horse at the age of three in all the regalia of a cowboy’s outfit. Once he puts the boy up on the horse, the boy does not like it, he doesn’t take to it, and he cries to be taken down. Jordan, the father, turns to his wife and he says, “I rode before I could walk.” His wife replies, “All right. But that was you. This is another person. Maybe he doesn’t like horses.” To which he replies, “He’s a Benedict, and I’m going to make a horseman out of him if I have to tie him to do it.” Selfishness—the preoccupation with my identity, pressed now onto the identity of this individual that has been entrusted to my care.
You say, “That’s an extreme illustration.” I think it probably is. But it is a reminder of the fact that, as we’ve noted, children do not belong to us. Children do not belong to us. We do not possess them in the way that we might possess goods, or possess a house, or possess an animal. They do not belong to us; they belong to God. Therefore, we have no right to possessively dominate them, and thereby to crush their personalities. Because they are little people in their own right. In their own right.
Selfishness. Secondly, severity. It’s almost included in the first point, isn’t it? In other words, the possibility of just coming down hard on them—of the framework of family life being a sort of tyranny, a tinder pot, a dreadful quiet before the potential of yet another storm as the father overreacts to something that’s been said or something that’s been done.
Clearly, we must never take delight or satisfaction in the exercise of punishment—no matter what the punishment. Because it’s pretty obvious, I think, that in this respect, one size doesn’t fit all. So that when the exercise of discipline takes place, it has to take place in light of the personality of the individual who is being disciplined. We know that if we’ve had any children at all. They do not all react in the same way; they do not all respond in the same way. So the idea that “this is what I do, whether it’s A, B, or C, or D” does not fit the framework. No! The principles of the Word of God are clear principles; if you doubt that, you just reread the opening chapters of Proverbs. But those principles are given to us to be applied wisely and individually. And when we fail to do that, we run the risk of provoking our children to anger: “Why did you treat me in that way?”
Thirdly, by inconsistency. By inconsistency. In other words, one day our children get off with it, the next day our children are ignored, the next day our children are punished—for the exact same affair. How can they ever know where they stand? They can’t. It is entirely inconsistent. When we appear to be capricious. When we are, apparently, just entirely unpredictable. Because one day we act out of temper, the other day we decide it’s not worth the effort. One day we act out of a sense of embarrassment. One day we act out of a sense of frustration. And our children don’t know where they are in this framework. They can’t see inside of us. They don’t know how we’re processing these events. They don’t understand this. And if we are continually inconsistent in the way in which we approach these things, we run the temptation, we run the possibility, of actually doing what Paul says not to do here, and that is to provoke our children.
Along with that would be unreasonableness. Unreasonableness. In other words, there’s no reason to what we’re doing. There’s no obvious reason for them to see: “Why did you do this? Why did this happen?”
You see, if we do not make clear and obvious the framework, the boundaries, the need for discipline and the exercise of discipline, again, our children have got no way of knowing what’s going on. And it’s surely the toughest of things for a child when you hear their little voice saying, “But can I just explain?” and the answer is, “No, you can’t explain!”
Well, let me ask you a question: Why not? Why can’t they explain? “No explanations tolerated! No explanations necessary!” What, you think this is the Marines or something? These are your children!
“I didn’t turn the hose off! Billy turned the hose off! You’re gonna punish me for turning the hose off? I didn’t turn the hose off!”
“Listen, I don’t want to hear about it.”
Unreasonable. In other words, the exercise of discipline then becomes mechanical rather than personal.
Here’s another one. (It’s going well, isn’t it? You enjoying this? I told you it’s an uncomfortable exercise.) Failure to distinguish between—and this is particularly when they’re small—failure to distinguish between childish irresponsibility and willful disobedience. There’s all the difference in the world between a child who knocks over the tumbler full of grape juice on your Aunt Jemima’s favorite heirloom tablecloth and goes, “Ohhhh!” and one who goes, “Hey, look at that!” The one is willful, the other is irresponsible. And if we punish for irresponsibility rather than for willfulness, then we may actually crush their spirits. And again, it seems so unreasonable, because it actually is unreasonable.
Another provocation would be failure to recognize that every time our children do not conform to our expectations—every time—we can’t necessarily brand that as “rebellion.” Right? It may be, but not necessarily so. Because part of the journey—the strange journey of adolescence—is, as we grow and as our children grow, trying to find out where the boundaries are. Trying to find out how far I can go here to test my parents’ patience or to have them manifest to me the depth of their love. Unless our adolescent children have the opportunity for that kind of thing, then we may actually turn them into little automatons that on the outside are dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, but they never got to where we want to have them as a result of being able to make the investigation themselves; they are only acquiescing to the regulations. See, children by nature are going to test the limits of their freedom. And therefore, if we fail to recognize that, then we may brand everything as “your rebellious attitude.” Maybe. Maybe not. That’s why we need wisdom.
At the same time, we provoke our children to wrath by failing to appreciate when they’re actually making progress. By failing to acknowledge their attempts to please us, even though they may not seem to be that great, or at the same time by belittling their achievements. By failing to acknowledge them, or by making nothing of them, or by saying, “You know, you could have done much better than that.” What a wound that brings to the psyche of a little one.
And along with that, provoking them—irritating them—by showing favoritism or by unfavorable comparisons: the standard, “You know, why can’t you be like your brother? He always makes his bed.” Now, the brother may be a Pharisee, but he always makes his bed. The father in the story of the Prodigal would probably have been able to say, “You know, your elder brother, he never misses a day at work. He’s always perfect. Why can’t you be like him?” When in actual fact, in the story, the problem is found in the Pharisee that is always dotting the i’s and crossing the t, and the expression of love and grace is extended to the one who’s made a royal hash of things, ’cause that’s the way the Father works: in love and in grace.
You see, here’s the great test, you know: Am I going to parent my children with the love and grace the Father shows to me? Or am I going to obscure his love and grace by the hard-handed way in which I operate?
At the same time, by nagging, fault-finding, unnecessary rules and regulations, and endless petty corrections. So, it goes like this: “How many times am I going to say that to you?” And the child is in their bedroom going, “That’s exactly what I was thinking. I mean, how many times are you going to say that? I’m not an idiot. I understand. I realize I don’t meet all your expectations. I want to obey the real regulations, but I don’t want to have to deal with all this stuff that you’ve just made up. I’m trying to find out what it means to live my life, and to grow, and to embrace the truth, and so on—if I am—but you’re not helping me by this.”
You say, “Well, you seem to be way on the side of the kids.” No, no, no, I’m only showing you that Paul is issuing a negative command: “Do not provoke your children to anger.” If you do, you run the risk of discouraging them. It’s possible for us to create Pharisees. They look right, they sound right, they say right, they dress right—everything. But if they have not reached those conclusions on their own, look out! For there’s a new journey ahead. That’s why the wisdom that Paul displays here is so vital.
Now, we must conclude the list. We could add to it, but we won’t.
This should be enough to remind us that this responsibility is beyond us, apart from grace—that none of us can actually fulfill this as God intends, because we too are flawed, we too are fallen, we too are selfish, we too are sinful. So what are we to do? Well, we’re to remind ourselves, as we say sometimes in that little song,
Only by his grace …
Every soul we long to reach,
Every heart we hope to teach …
Is only by his grace.
Only by his grace.
You see, you may be here this morning, and you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I thought that you were going to tell me about my need of Jesus. I thought the Bible told me about my need of Jesus.” Yeah, well, this ought to show you real clearly your need of Jesus. Shows me my need of Jesus! Shows me how much I need a Savior. Shows me how much I need the wisdom and grace of God. And perhaps you too. For surely, haven’t many of us concluded that one of the main reasons that God has given us children in the first place is to sanctify us? To sanctify us. Have you ever prayed as much as you’ve prayed for your children? Have you ever wept as much as you’ve wept for your children? Have you ever cared as much as you’ve cared for your children?
You see, this is not a hundred-yard sprint. This is not a weekend course. This is not “fill the answers out of the back of a slick book.” This is a cross-country run that lasts for the rest of your life. This is such that it forces us on the covenant promises of God. This is such that causes us to say, “God, you have said this, and you promised this, and I’m holding you to it!” And the Puritans used to say, “And some of us will have to wait until eternity to see the answer to our prayers and the completion of the promises of God in relationship to our children.” Because we will die and leave them behind. But God in his mercy and in his grace will complete what he begins.
Because children… children can fill you with joy one minute and make you sick with worry in the next minute. They can make you get up out of your bed in the morning looking forward to something; they can wake you up at three o’clock in the morning wondering and worrying about your entire existence. There is something that is exhaustible about being a parent—exhausting. It is a mystery. It’s filled with imponderables. It’s complex. Because what do we have in a child? We have a soul given to us by God. A soul given to us by God. We are the custodians, we are the guardians, in their earthly pilgrimage, painfully aware—painfully aware—of our inability, in our flesh, to accomplish this task. That’s why we sang the song we just sang:
O lead me, Lord, lead even me;
O teach me, Lord, that I may teach;
O fill me with your fullness, Lord,
Until my very heart o’erflow
With kindling thought and glowing word
Your love to tell, your grace to show.
Well, let’s pause. Just a moment of silent prayer. It’s no small matter that Paul back in chapter 5 said, “[Don’t] get drunk with wine … but be filled with the [Holy] Spirit.” Just in a moment of silent prayer, let’s ask God for the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to treat our children as God in his infinite love and kindness and compassion has treated us.
Lord, hear our prayers. Let our cry come to you.
 Ephesians 4:1 (ESV).
 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 208.
 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847), chap. 4. Paraphrased.
 Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, written by August Wilson (Hollywood, CA: Paramount, 2016).
 Scott Wesley Brown and Jeff Nelson, “Grace Alone” (1998).
 See Philippians 1:6.
 Frances R. Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me” (1872). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Ephesians 5:18 (ESV).
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.