The Fourth Commandment: Lesson 11

The Fourth Commandment: Lesson 11

In our last lesson we have looked at the blessings God promises to those who heed the fourth commandment and we have looked at the judgments He promises to those who do not. We have seen that children have a lifelong duty of honor toward their parents. But while we have learned why we ought to honor our parents, we have not yet considered how. Our question for this lesson is this: How do we show honor to our parents, especially when we are adults?

Honor and Obey

In both descriptions of the Ten Commandments—those found in Exodus and Deuteronomy—, God commands children to “honor your father and your mother.” There is not a word about obedience. Yet when we read the applications of the commandment scattered throughout the scriptures, we see obedience as a key component of the honor children owe their parents. This raises a question: Is obedience to parents permanent or is it temporary? Does honor always require obedience? If I want to honor my parents do I need to continue obeying them throughout my life? To answer these questions we need to examine honor and obedience, looking for what makes them similar and what distinguishes them.


What the fourth commandment does not require is as important as what it does require. The fourth commandment is not “Obey your father and your mother.” Rather, it is “Honor your father and your mother.” Still, it is clear the Bible places a great deal of emphasis on children obeying parents. We encounter the language of obedience in many of the interpretations and applications of the fourth commandment. Yet as we dig deeper, we find something interesting: the language of obedience tends to come in passages speaking to young children who are still dependent upon their parents. When we come to passages speaking to adult children, we find a subtle switch to language of respect and provision. Thus obedience is a particular form of honor—a form of honor for young children.

"Do it now, do it right, and do it with a happy heart"

All children are to honor their parents at all times. But when children are young, honor most often takes the form of obedience. This is why when Saint Paul interprets the fourth commandment to young children (Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20) he says, “Children, obey your parents.” To obey is to submit to the will of a person who rightfully holds a position of authority, to comply with their demands or their requests. It is, as we teach our children, to “do it now, do it right, and do it with a happy heart.” Obedience is a child’s display of honor.

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just. Honour thy father and thy mother, which is the first commandment with a promise: That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long lived upon earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20)

Parents are right to expect and demand obedience of their children and children are right to show honor to their parents through that obedience. It is obedience to parents that trains children to be submissive to every other authority, including God himself. It is under the training and discipline of parents that children are prepared to live orderly lives in this world. Children who respect and obey their parents will build a society that is ordered, harmonious, and productive. A generation of undisciplined, disobedient children will produce a society that is chaotic and destructive.

As it pertains to parents and their young children, obedience is meant to be a temporary measure that lasts as long as children are under the authority of their parents. Childhood is a period of training under the tutelage of parents. Parents force their children to obey so children will learn honor and then spend the rest of their lives honoring parents, teachers, bosses, and governments. A parent’s training in obedience is returned in lifelong honor.


But what is honor? The Dictionary says, "To revere; to respect; to treat with deference and submission, and perform relative duties to.” Biblically, the word honor refers to weight or significance. To honor our parents we are to attach great worth to them and great value to our relationship with them. The point is that a child must not take his or her parents lightly, or think lightly of them. They must be regarded with great seriousness and value. We can learn what honor looks like by examining the passages that describe the judgments befalling those who dishonor their parents. These are the passages from the civil law and wisdom literature we looked at in our last lesson:

The Jewish Civil Law- “He that curseth his father, or mother, dying let him die: he hath cursed his father, and mother, let his blood be upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9)

Wisdom Literature- “The eye that mocketh at his father, and that despiseth the labour of his mother in bearing him, let the ravens of the brooks pick it out, and the young eagles eat it." (Proverbs 30:17)

What do we find? Children who dishonor their parents are rebellious and stubbornly resistant to the discipline that would lead them out of that rebellion. They may be verbally abusive, mocking and cursing their parents. They may even be physically violent toward them. If we turn to the New Testament we find that their dishonor may take the form of refusing to care for their parents or provide for their physical and monetary needs

Moses said: Honour thy father and thy mother; and He that shall curse father or mother, dying let him die. But you say: If a man shall say to his father or mother, Corban, (which is a gift,) whatsoever is from me, shall profit thee. And further you suffer him not to do any thing for his father or mother, Making void the word of God by your own tradition, which you have given forth. And many other such like things you do. (Mark 7:10-13)

But if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. (I Timothy 5:8).

Thus to honor our parents we are to respect and revere them, to speak well of them and to treat them with kindness, gentleness, dignity, and esteem. We are to ensure they are cared for and even to make provision for them when necessary. Honor is an attitude accompanied by actions that say to your parents, ‘You are worthy. You have value. You are the person God sovereignly placed in my life.' All of that and much more is bound up in this little word.

Obey Today, Honor Forever

We need to consider why the basic requirement of the fourth commandment is not obedience but honor. I believe there are at least two reasons: Eventually we are no longer obligated to obey our parents and, even before then, there are times we cannot or must not obey them. To say it another way, there are times we can disobey our parents while still honoring them.

"There comes a time when obeying parents is no longer appropriate."

The end of obedience. There comes a time when obeying parents is no longer appropriate. The task of parents is to raise their children to become independent, to function outside of parental authority. In most cases, the parent-child relationship will be permanently altered at the moment of marriage when “Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife:” (Genesis 2:24). As a child becomes independent of his parents he leaves their oversight and authority. He no longer owes obedience in the same way or to the same degree.

The sin of obedience. There may also be occasions when obedience is sinful, such as when parents command their children to sin or when they command their children to disobey God or government. When this happens a child must disobey mom and dad in order to obey a higher authority.

God’s basic command to humanity is not “obey your father and mother” because obedience ends and at times can even be sinful. Instead, God’s command is “honor your father and mother” because honor never ends and is never wrong.

Perfect Honor, Perfect Obedience

We are not without a biblical model of honor and obedience. We see them both perfectly displayed in Jesus. Though he was God, he was born to the Virgin Mary and had Joseph as His Step-Father. He willingly, joyfully, and perfectly honored and obeyed them both. We see his childhood obedience in Luke 2:51 “And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.” We see his honor when, in the moments before his death, he ensured provision for his mother: “When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.” (John 19:26-27).

And just as Jesus honored and obeyed his earthly mother and father, he honored and obeyed his heavenly Father. In all he did he spoke well of his Father, he directed glory to him, he carried out his will. And, of course, he obeyed his Father: “Being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:8).

"If we want our children to honor and obey us, we must teach them about Jesus."

Jesus honored and obeyed His parents as well as His heavenly Father. If we want to honor and obey our parents we must learn about Jesus. If we want our children to honor and obey us, we must teach them about Jesus. He, as always, is the example of how to perfectly obey God’s perfect law.


We know there are two great blessings wrapped up in honoring our parents: A long life and a good life. If we dig a little deeper into the New Testament we find there is one more great blessing. “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20). Our honor makes God pleased. Why? Because in honoring our parents we are honoring the God who gave us our parents. Your honor toward your parents pleases and glorifies God.