God’s Law: The Grand Charter of Freedom
A closer look at the fifth commandment reveals that this commandment is actually a transitional commandment, a link between the first four and the other five. Indeed, it governs the relations within the human family but also embodies a principle firmly rooted in God’s sovereignty and His ultimate authority to make laws and receive all honor and glory.
The fifth commandment reads as follows: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” ().
We all can easily agree that the explicit objective of the fifth commandment is the protection of the human family. But this is not the only commandment among the ten that protects family. Even a brief glance of the Ten Commandments can show that three other commandments also protect the interests of this divine institution originating from the time of Eden. The seventh commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and the tenth commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife . . .” do it directly; and the eighth commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” does it indirectly.
Such strong emphasis on the family makes it clear that the family is central to the biblical way of life. Yet not just any family has this centrality—it is the family that is under God. According to the Bible, human origin and the origin of human family are indissolubly connected with God’s act of creation. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (, ).
Upon creating the first man, God saw that Adam, the first human being, needed a companion: “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (). And God made Adam a suitable companion, a woman, flesh of his flesh and bones of his bones. God united man and woman in a permanent, heterosexual and monogamous marriage covenant: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” ( ).
This simple but highly significant biblical record lays the foundation of the human family. It also serves as the necessary background for the fifth commandment. God created man and woman in His own image; He united them in a sacred bond of marriage; He made them fruitful and told them to multiply and fill the earth with godly offspring that would continue to reflect the image of God. Further, God delegated to the first humans authority over the earth, to “subdue it” and “to have dominion” over all creation.
The dominion over the earth that was originally given to Adam and Eve as God’s representatives included the delegated power to care for and rule over His creation. In that creation mandate was included authority over procreated life, the future offspring of Adam and Eve. By parental care for their offspring, by parental precept and example and by a divinely imposed duty on children to obey and honor parents, the children born to Adam and Eve would bear the image of God and fulfill His noble purposes for the human race.
From the 19th century onward this centrality of human family under God has been repeatedly and viciously attacked. Evolutionary theory did not look upon the family as a basic unit of human society whose origin and purpose have been defined by God’s act of creation. Evolutionary anthropology sees the origins of the family in a supposed primitive, subhuman past and not in God’s creative purpose. The evolutionist’s view of the origin of the family is found in “the primal horde” and the “old collectivity.” This humanistic perspective sees the family as a “culturally determined” social form. In other words, the notion is that the family is entirely an evolutionary product of human culture. This view of the family is foundational to all humanistic theories, from those of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud to the most, if not all contemporary “scientific” theories of society. In all of these theories the family is viewed as human-centered and society-centered.
In contrast to evolutionary theory, foundational to the fifth commandment is a God-centered view of the family which has the following characteristics:
First, the family has a God-centered origin and function. The family is a part of God’s purpose for humanity and its function is to bring glory to Him as the Almighty Creator and enable humans to reach their full development in His divine image, as God intended.
Second, according to 1, God created human beings to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it as His stewards. Man and woman, husband and wife, together with their children, form a family and they are destined to possess the earth for a long time (perpetually). The second part of the fifth commandment clearly contemplates this possessive function of the godly family and its offspring: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” This is the first commandment with a promise ( ). This promise of long life and possession of the Promised Land on condition of obedience to God applied initially to the earthly Canaan but in a secondary and more important sense it applies to the earth made new.
Third, the exercise of dominion and possession of land clearly involves responsibility and authority. This is an authority by delegation. God has entrusted parents with exercising His authority over their households:
“Parents are entitled to a degree of love and respect which is due to no other person. God Himself, who has placed upon them a responsibility for the souls committed to their charge, has ordained that during the earlier years of life parents shall stand in the place of God to their children. And he who rejects the rightful authority of his parents is rejecting the authority of God.”2
No other institution in society is lawfully permitted to usurp the God-given authority placed in the human family. In most modern societies, we can readily perceive, in varying degrees, a presumed transfer of authority from the family to the state. Family and state have their respective lawful spheres of authority and the boundaries between these spheres should not be blurred or infringed upon.
Fourth, the commandment says, “Honour thy father and thy mother. . . .” This expression tells us that there is community in their authority. Both father and mother have their respective share of responsibility but also an equal legal claim to honor, respect and love from their children. It is of great importance for the godly education of children that the parents exercise their authority in a proper way. Especially in their fallen condition, a husband needs to show love to his wife and a wife respect for her husband. The husband needs to be submissive to Christ as his head, and the wife to her husband, as her head (). Their love and fear of God and their mutual love and respect should inspire love and respect in their children:
“The best way to educate children to respect their father and mother is to give them the opportunity of seeing the father offering kindly attentions to the mother and the mother rendering respect and reverence to the father. It is by beholding love in their parents that children are led to obey the fifth commandment and to heed the injunction, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.”3
Inthe fifth commandment is somewhat expanded: “Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
This commandment carries a significant pledge to the obedient—the promise of life and wellbeing. The promise of life contained in this commandment parallels the promise of life made to those who keep the Lord’s statutes and commandments (). Further, the significance of the fifth commandment is highlighted by its placement next to the Sabbath commandment in : “Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father, and keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.” The Sabbath and the marriage (family) are the twin institutions which God established and blessed at the creation of this world. God’s special blessing still attends our respect for those institutions.
Children who dishonor and disobey their parents not only deprive themselves of temporal blessings; they will be disinherited from eternal life: “Children who dishonor and disobey their parents, and disregard their advice and instructions, can have no part in the earth made new.”4
The obligation laid on the children in this commandment is broad and deeply rooted in divine authority. The New Testament echoes the fifth commandment in the following verses: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise” (, ). “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” ( ).
Such strong emphasis on the family makes it clear that the family is central to the biblical way of life.
The nature and character of this obedience is expressed by the words, “in the Lord.” The honor and obedience which children owe to their parents should be religious. It is not a service rendered from fear or from mere natural affection. The ground for children’s obedience is expressed in the words, “for this is right” and likewise, “for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” It is not merely because of the personal character of the parent, nor because of his or her kindness, nor on the ground of expediency, but because it is right.
Why is it right to honor and obey one’s parents? The Spirit of Prophecy provides several reasons. Here are two of them: Children are indebted to their parents because they have invested much personal effort and considerable means to raise them. “The word of God abounds in precepts and counsels enjoining respect for parents. It impresses upon the young the sacred duty of loving and cherishing those who have guided them through infancy, childhood, and youth, up to manhood and womanhood, and who are now in great degree dependent upon them for peace and happiness. The Bible gives no uncertain sound on this subject; nevertheless, its teachings have been greatly disregarded.”5
But there is another, more important reason why it is right to honor parents: Parents represent to their children God’s authority—and by dishonoring their parents, children dishonor God. “Satan’s enmity against God’s law had impelled him to war against every precept of the Decalogue. To the great principle of love and loyalty to God, the Father of all, the principle of filial love and obedience is closely related. Contempt for parental authority will soon lead to contempt for the authority of God. Hence Satan’s efforts to lessen the obligation of the fifth commandment.”6
The duty to obey parents is limited only by God’s expressed commandments. When the parents’ commands contradict the commandment of God, children should rather obey God: “When children have unbelieving parents, and their commands contradict the requirements of Christ, then, painful though it may be, they must obey God and trust the consequences with Him.”7
The duty to honor and obey parents lays down the principle not only of honor and respect but of personal support and care for aged and infirm parents as well as all those to whom God has delegated authority: “The fifth commandment requires children not only to yield respect, submission, and obedience to their parents but also to give them love and tenderness, to lighten their cares, to guard their reputation, and to succor and comfort them in old age. It also enjoins respect for ministers and rulers and for all others to whom God has delegated authority.”8
There is no time or space limit on our obligation to parents: “Our obligation to our parents never ceases. Our love for them, and theirs for us, is not measured by years or distance, and our responsibility can never be set aside.”9
Let us quote from the inspired writings one specific duty of the fifth commandment that is laid upon children. It relates to the choice of the life companion. Should a young person select as a future spouse a person whom his or her godly parents strongly and wisely advise against? Here is the inspired counsel:
“ ‘Should parents,’ you ask, ‘select a companion without regard to the mind or feelings of son or daughter?’ I put the question to you as it should be: Should a son or daughter select a companion without first consulting the parents, when such a step must materially affect the happiness of parents if they have any affection for their children? And should that child, notwithstanding the counsel and entreaties of his parents, persist in following his own course? I answer decidedly: No; not if he never marries. The fifth commandment forbids such a course. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.’ Here is a commandment with a promise which the Lord will surely fulfill to those who obey. Wise parents will never select companions for their children without respect to their wishes.”10
The fifth commandment was under attack in the days Jesus walked on this earth. Rabbinical Judaism gradually developed many traditions that beclouded the meaning and paralyzed the application of the fifth commandment. To bypass the requirements of the clear command regarding care for parents, the rabbis created sophisticated legal rules so that they could pledge certain property or funds to the temple by applying the word “Corban” (gift) and thus supposedly avoid the obligation of the fifth commandment to provide for their needy parents:
Jesus reproved: “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye” ().
Christ clearly reaffirmed the obligation of the children under the fifth commandment to provide for their parents and nullified the man-made rule that a gift to the temple could serve as an exemption from such duty. Of these human traditions Christ said: “in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” ().
By His own example Christ affirmed the duty of children to care for their aged and dependent parents. When Christ was dying on the cross, His broken-hearted mother was standing there together with some other women, beholding the awful scene. In His greatest agony Christ did not forget the needs of His earthly mother. He looked upon John, one of His closest followers and told him:
“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home” (, ).
In our day and age, and particularly for the remnant people of God, it is of utmost importance to restore the true meaning of the fifth commandment and to demonstrate that meaning in a well-ordered family life. True reformers of the last days are represented by the work of the great prophet Elijah:
“Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” ().
The work of reform in the end times cannot be accomplished without remembering and restoring to its rightful place the law which God gave to Moses on Mount Horeb (or Sinai). The specific work entrusted to those who constitute the end-time Elijah will involve turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and vice versa. This is a work of reconciliation based on the fifth commandment and on the knowledge of God’s character of love. Only those parents and the children who have experienced the pardoning love of God can become truly reconciled. May this be the experience of each parent and child!