A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6:1-3. The duty of children (continued).
If the obedience of children is part of the natural law which God has written on human hearts, it belongs also to the revealed law which God gave on stone tablets to Moses. So Paul goes on: *Honour your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth* (verses 2,3). In his quotation Paul freely conflates the Greek text of Exodus 20:12 (‘Honour your father and mother, that your days may be long…’) and Deuteronomy 5:16 (‘that it may go well with you’). Since this is the fifth of the ten commandments and appears at first sight to concern our duty to our neighbour, many Christians have divided the decalogue into two uneven halves, the first four commandments specifying our duty to God and the remaining six our duty to our neighbour. But the Jews regularly taught that each of the law’s two tablets contains five commands. The significance of this arrangement is that it brings the honouring of our parents into our duty to God. And this is surely right. For at least during our childhood they represent God to us and mediate to us both his authority and his love.
We are to ‘honour’ them, that is, acknowledge their God-given authority, and so give them not only our obedience, but our love and respect as well. It is because parental authority is divinely delegated authority that respectful obedience to parents was invested with such great importance in the life of God’s covenant people. Moses was commanded to say to Israel: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father…I am the Lord your God.’ (Lv.19:1-3). Reverence for parents was thus made an integral part of reverence for God as their God and of their special relationship to him as his people. Hence the extremely severe penalty (death, in fact) which was to be inflicted on anyone who cursed his parents and on the ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ who refused to obey them, defied their warning discipline and proved to be incorrigible. (Lv.20:9; Dt.21:18-21).
The apostle Paul, however, prefers to enforce God’s commandment with a promise than with a threat. He reminds his readers that the command to honour parents is *the first commandment with a promise*, and he goes on to quote the promise of prosperity and long life. This deceptively simple statement contains several problems. Some commentators beg to disagree with Paul, claiming that the fifth commandment is not, in fact the first to have a promise attached to it, since the second commandment also has one, promising ‘steadfast love to thousands’ who love and obey God. A sufficient answer to this objection is that these last words ‘are a declaration of God’s character rather than a promise’. Others express the opinion that in this case it is not the first but the only commandment with a promise, for no other commandment has one. To this F.F.Bruce aptly responds that Paul is thinking ‘not only of the decalogue but of the whole body of Pentateuchal legislation which is introduced by the decalogue’. This does not satisfy everybody, however. So some interpret ‘first’ as a reference to rank not to order (as when the scribe asked ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’, Mk.12:28), and suggest that it means ‘a commandment of foremost significance with a promise attached’ or ‘the first in importance among those related to our social duties’ or that ‘this, for children, is a primary commandment accompanied with a promise’.