Ephesians 6:1-4 | The Spirit-Filled Family
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen how the Christian marriage is a picture of the Christian gospel. Today, we are going to see how the Christian family is a picture of the Christian gospel.
When the gospel lands on us, we begin to change in surprising ways. Jesus lived and died and rose again not to make our lives a little more tolerable but to change us entirely into his image. And throughout the letter to the Ephesians, we see how pervasive that transformation is. Here in Ephesians 6:1-4, the focus is how Christ transforms the child-parent relationship.
This passage flows out of the command in 5:18 to be filled with the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit means we actually live as Christians, that our Christianity actually has an impact on our relationships. That’s what we want, isn’t it? So, in his kindness, God shows us what it looks like to live as Christians in our families.
But when we talk about families, there can be a lot of complications. Families bring much joy, but they can also bring much pain. And I think it’s possible for us to believe Christ can transform the world over before how could transform our families. But that kind of thinking limits God. It means we’re willing to believe in Christ’s redemption only so far, and then we stop. We think, “God could never change this.” We may not say it, but our actions and our inactions say it loud and clear. And I wonder in light of this passage today, how many of us stop believing in Christ’s redemption when it comes to our families? How many of us believe Christ can change the world but can’t do much in our own living room?
The call of Christ is to follow him. And part of that following means going out on mission to the world. But part of that following is staying home and living as if Christ is real in your own homes, with your own families. And that’s the goal Paul is aiming for in this passage—Christians actually living as Christians in the home. That’s not easy. I should know. I’m not good at this! And maybe you’re not either. But Christ is here to help.
So this passage gives us two insights, one for children and one for parents.
1) Christian children love God by honoring their parents.
2) Christian parents love God by discipling their children.
Christian children love God by honoring their parents
Look at verses 1-3.
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
What does that mean? The key word in verse 1 is obey. To obey means to both hear and respond to the hearing. The idea is of someone hearing a knock on a door and going to listen to the one who knocks. It’s hearing and doing.
Obedience isn’t easy, is it? It’s an interruption of our regularly scheduled life. It means we must do something, often something we don’t want to do. And when Paul uses that word children, he’s talking to young children living in the home under their parents’ care. So all the kids still living at home that are here today, this is a word from God to you, “Obey your parents in the Lord.”
But there’s more to it than just blind obedience. God isn’t asking children to obey just because. Look at the phrase at the end of verse 1, “in the Lord.” What does that mean? It means the obedience children show their parents as Christians is their obedience to God. When they seek to obey because it’s God’s command, they seek to follow God. It’s the way young children bring their Christianity to bear on their relationship to the parents. Christian children obey their parents because in doing so they’re obeying God, their true Father.
This is really remarkable. God gives every Christian child in every home a way to live out their Christian life. If you’re young, you don’t have to wait to live for Christ. You can do it now, today, by obeying your parents. That’s not easy. Following Christ is never really easy. But it’s glorious. Following Jesus is the best possible life.
Now, of course, a child must not obey anything contrary to Christ’s commands—that’s another aspect of the phrase in the Lord. If your parents ask you to disobey Christ, you must say no to them. But Paul is speaking to a Christian family here, so this text doesn’t prompt us to answer commands parents may make that would be anti-Christ. That’s another conversation for another day. But in a Christian family, God’s mission for children is to trust and obey your parents because it’s a reflection of trust and obedience to God.
Paul then goes on to say obedience is right. Why is it right? Well, no matter where you go in the world, obedience to parents is the norm. But it is right for a Christian in a different way. It’s right for a Christian because it is connected to an old command. Look at verse 2, “Honor your father and mother.” Do you notice the quotation marks there? Paul is quoting the Old Testament—Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16—the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments. With this quote, he shifts from young children in the home to all children everywhere. The Ten Commandments are binding on us all. They’re the basic structure of a good life that God established from the beginning.
Now, see that parenthetical phrase in verse 2? “(this is the first commandment with a promise)”. Some say that’s not right. They say there’s a promise in the second commandment. Well, there is something like a promise there, but it’s not what Paul’s referring to. The second commandment includes a universal promise applying to the whole law, but this is the first to include a promise tied to a single commandment. What was the promise? Look at verse 3. “That it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
What does that mean? Well, let me tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean honoring your parents is a way to earn a long life. Some wonderful children have short lives. Furthermore, honor can’t be in view of a reward at all. It isn’t honor if it’s done to gain something. We call that flattery. Flattery is where I say or do something to you or for you so that I’ll get something in return. That’s not honor. Honor is respecting another because of who they are, not because of what you can get. Honor focuses on another. Flattery focuses on yourself.
So if obedience is a way of honoring your parents when you’re young, and if your parents tell you not to run into the street and you disobey and get hit by a car, you won’t have a long life. But what about something less dramatic? What about just a general disposition of disobedience to your parents? Will life go well for you? If you reject the discipline and instruction of your parents, you won’t learn to live, and you won’t have a good, long life. Not because your parents are geniuses with all the answers but because your obedience to parents is training for obedience to Christ, and if you can’t obey Christ, you will not have a good life. God calls young children to obey as a way of honoring because it’s training for the future, and your parents can look at you all grown up and see their work wasn’t in vain. They raised you imperfectly but they raised you right.
Now as we grow, the primary way we honor isn’t obedience. Honoring our parents take on other forms. This is easier for some than it is for others. Some parents aren’t very honorable. And though Paul is speaking to a Christian family, if you were raised by non-Christians, or even parents who claimed Christ but didn’t live like it, it’s very hard to know how to apply this command. It may be hard for you to honor them. But God doesn’t put a qualifier on the parents, does he? He doesn’t say, “Honor your Christian father and mother.” He just says, “Honor your father and mother.” The qualifier belongs to the children, “honor your parents in the Lord.”
Christ changes our relationships. Even if he doesn’t change the warmth between us, he changes us, and we respond differently. When God calls us to honor our parents, he, of course, knows that some parents are hard to love, some are hard to admire, some are hard to accept. But you can honor your parents even if it’s really hard to love them or admire them or accept them because if God commanded it, he will provide a way to obey it. And I will say, as you honor your parents, don’t be surprised if those feelings of love, admiration, and acceptance also come. They may not be there now, but God can create them. And for many of us, it’s at least possible the reason we don’t feel as we ought toward our parents isn’t that our parents are any worse than us. It’s just because we haven’t let Christ go there yet. Maybe we need to.
So how do we honor our parents? Well, here are three ways.
First, treat your parents with the proper value and weight they deserve. You can’t treat them as if they don’t matter. They do. Recognize them as significant. Tell them they are. Tell them they matter to God and they matter to you. When something good happens for children, most parents fill with pride and joy. Let them enjoy those moments. Share your life with them. Let them see the impact they had on you.
I know many of us had parents who didn’t show their love or speak of their love for you—and both matter. So we don’t say what we should because we don’t know how it’ll be received. Well, maybe he wants you to make the first move. Honoring your parents means not withholding love.
Second, forgive them. This isn’t easy. But Jesus doesn’t call us to easy things. But he does promise to be with us and to help us. Your bitterness and resentment are not honoring to your parents. Jesus wants to free you from it. Will you let him?
Third, free yourself and your parents from your need for their approval. How many of us won’t ever feel validated in this world, no matter how successful we are in other areas, until we get the approval of our parents? And I wonder how many of us actually withhold honor to our parents because we’re waiting on some undefined approval from them.
You can let go of your need for their approval because all the approval you long for, all the approval you’ll ever need, all approval for eternity is yours in Christ. The gospels show us various times in the life of Jesus when God the Father broke through the clouds and said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Do you know what the gospel says? The gospel says you’ve been adopted by the Heavenly Father and those are his words about you.
Do you see how freeing that is? You’ll never honor your parents until you see how completely you’re approved in Christ. You’ll never forgive them until you see your forgiveness in Christ. You’ll never honor them until you see the value and weight God has placed on them for your good.
I know it can be hard, but a Christian child loves God by honoring their parents, because Christ can redeem everything. Let’s not limit God at this point. Let’s let him be God and let’s be his obedience children.
Now, an insight for parents.
Christian parents love God by discipling their children
Look at verse 4. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
God calls parents to disciple their children. You can’t make your children Christians, but you can make it easy to love Jesus in your home. You can endeavor to make your home ring with gospel joy. You can endeavor to make your family not only a family of Christians, but a Christian family—sold out for Christ and his cause.
God has more for us than the hum-drum life of work, rest, and entertainment. He has more for your children than extra-curricular activities and college scholarships and good jobs. He has the storehouses of grace and glory for your family. And our problem is, as C.S. Lewis famously said, we’re far too easily pleased. We settle for mud pies when a holiday at sea is there for the taking.
Though Paul uses the word “fathers” here, these words apply to fathers and mothers. But in Paul’s day, the children were under the father’s complete control. He could have them killed or sell them into slavery. No law stood in his way. And we think the command to obedience and honor is difficult to hear! It’s easy to see in that kind of culture how a child would be provoked to anger. Who wouldn’t be provoked living in an unjust home?
But Christ brings justice. He sets things right. That’s why Paul begins with a negative command, “Do not provoke your children to anger.” Now we may not live as the first century did, but this is still a frightening statement because it’s saying that there is a possibility for a parent to create in their children a settled anger and resentment that lasts for a very long time. Now, of course. there will be times a child gets angry. Who doesn’t get angry? But there’s a big difference between intermittent anger and deep, abiding anger as a result of your upbringing.
How does that happen? Well, one the one hand, parents can be too hard. They can give unnecessary commands, be too heavy-handed, or just down-right mean. They can be easily frustrated and lash out at small things where all bad behavior is treated equally. They don’t care about discipling and training the child. They just want the child to fall in line.
King Saul was like that. In 1 Samuel 20, they were at dinner and Saul noticed David wasn’t there as he should be. He asked his son Jonathan where he was. Now, Jonathan knew Saul was mad at David, wanting to kill him, and helped him avoid the dinner. Jonathan was doing the right thing, but Saul didn’t care. He wanted him to fall in line. Saul said to his son, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman.” Then went on to command David be brought so he could be killed. When Jonathan asked what David had done, Saul thrust his spear at him. So Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger. And rightly so.
That’s a parent who is too hard and mean. But it’s also possible for a parent to be too soft. For example, in Genesis 37, we see the failures of Jacob as a father. What was it? He was too soft on his son Joseph. He favored him above the others, and it led to the anger of his other sons. Eventually, they sold Joseph into slavery.
The point is it’s easy to provoke our children to anger. We don’t have to be evil King Saul. We can be kind father Jacob and do just as much damage. When we fail to treat our children as a stewardship from the Lord and instead view them as servants for our agenda or necessities for our emotional state, we provoke either them or our other children to anger.
A Christian parent doesn’t see their children as either an annoyance or an emotional crutch but instead understands them to be a stewardship from the Lord, for his sake, and seeks to bring up their kids in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. That last phrase is so important. Most parents are good, and will raise their children with discipline and instruction. But a Christian parent notices those last three words, “of the Lord.” It’s not our discipline and instruction that matters. It’s Christ’s. It’s our duty to help our children follow Jesus.
This means parents must be aware of the rhythms of life. How is your week structured? How much of a priority is Jesus in your family life? Is church a checklist item on Sunday morning or is it an anticipation on Saturday night? Is youth group dependent on the children’s sports practice or it is the reason you have to call the coach to explain their absence? Your rhythms of life either prove or disprove the reality of God. If you never pray or read the Bible in front of or with your kids, if you never talk about Jesus in any regular, open way, if you never invite others into your home for the sake of the gospel, if you never serve Jesus together as a family, if you never ask your kids about who they think Jesus is, if you’re just thankful you’re a Christian and going to heaven but your Christianity hasn’t made an impact on the way you raise your kids, you haven’t yet realized the glory your family is missing with Christ.
It’s all too easy to just let life come at us, but a Christian parent loves God by helping their children follow Jesus. A Christian parent is active, treating them as a stewardship from the Lord. Like Jesus, a Christian parent pursues. You can’t save them, but you can point them to the Savior. You can make the Savior real in your home.
Let me close with this. Some of us didn’t grow up in a Christian family. Even if our parents were Christians, they didn’t parent us that way. And some of us were really bad children, and we’ve never made things right. We love Jesus but we haven’t yet decided to honor our parents. And some of us are not the parents we should be now, and we’re not sure how to change. So what do we do now? Well, here’s a question I’ve been considering this week. It applies to this verse and to everything else in life. Do I believe that Jesus is a redeemer? I respect him as king—one who watches over me. I listen to him as prophet—one who speaks with power. But do I trust him as Redeemer—one who makes all things new? When we trust him that way, we stop quenching the Spirit, and he starts working in our lives. Jesus can change the story of your family and my family, starting today. And he’s asking us, “Will you let me?”
Do you need redemption in your family? It’s yours in Christ. Do you need grace to honor your parents? It’s yours in Christ. Do you need help valuing and forgiving your parents? It’s yours in Christ. Do you need moment by moment help to parent your children? It’s yours in Christ. Everything you need is yours in Christ Jesus because Christ Jesus gave himself for you.
That Jesus is a redeemer means no family is too far gone. You may think, “We’re a mess.” Well, ok. We all are. All you have to do today is say to Christ, “I’m your mess.” And he’ll come in and clean it up. None of us is perfect, but if we’re waiting for perfection or nothing, we’ll get nothing every time. Let’s trust Christ and say yes to the next right thing. The Triune God is at work in our life to bring redemption. And in that Trinity we have the Son who loves and honors the Father perfectly, and the Father who never provokes to anger and knows how to discipline and instruct, and the Spirit who sustains it all. The whole God is invested in the whole you. And he’s asking us today, will we trust him or will we limit him?
Let’s decide right now to trust him. Who knows? Our crazy families just might prove to other crazy families how wonderful God is.