“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

Halfway through the Ten Commandments, God instructs His people to honor their fathers and mothers. Peter repeats in Ephesians 6:1, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” God knows we are incapable of following His commands, and thus made a way for us to be forever forgiven by Jesus’ death on the cross. Belief in Him saves us, not following rules.

So, what then, is the purpose of commands such as “honor your father and mother,” in our New Testament lives? It’s out of God’s protective and provisional love for us that commands like this continue to act as guardrails to the full life Jesus died to give us.

What does honor mean in the Bible?

The contextual definition of Old Testament honor (the Hebrew word kabod) means heavy or weighty. To honor someone, then, is to give weight or grant a person of position respect and even authority in one’s life. In the context of Exodus 20:12, it means to prize highly, care for, show respect for, and obey.

Where does the Bible talk about honoring your mother and father?

“Honor your father and mother” is mentioned twice in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) and six times in the New Testament (Matthew 15:4; 19:19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Luke 18:20; Ephesians 6:2). Originally appearing in Exodus as Moses introduced the Ten Commandments to God’s people, the command is again repeated in Deuteronomy 5:16.

In ancient times, and even in some cultures today, deceased ancestors were honored. “In Israel, the honor due to parents has a definitely covenant context and pertains to accepting and passing on the Torah,” according to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. It was a passing down of their faith from generation to generation.

Jesus spoke of this commandment to the Pharisees in Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, and again when He spoke of commandments that prohibit wrong actions and attitudes against others. He also mentioned it when speaking about those who will inherit the kingdom of God in Matthew 19:19, Mark 10:19 and Luke 18:10.

In Ephesians 6:2, Paul emphasizes “honor your father and your mother” as the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on earth." When Paul wrote these words, the covenantal promise of occupying the land God had prepared for them had already come to pass. So, why would Paul repeat it? Why is it important for us, New Testament believers, to remember?

The entire Old Testament is the story of Jesus. The entire Bible points to Him, and we as His chosen and adopted people look forward to the promise of His return.

Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” We are to bypass our craving for respect and authority to give all honor to God. Our children are first and foremost His, a stark reminder we are first and foremost His, as well.

The Difference Between Honor, Obedience, and Respect

Respect and obedience are actions and inflections that reflect honor. While honor is an internal attitude of respect, courtesy, and reverence, it should be accompanied by appropriate attention or even obedience. God created us and intended for us to honor Him in and through all we do. We obey out of reverence, love and trust in our sovereign Father, deflecting the admonishment of respect in deference to honoring Him. Honor trusts God’s sovereign hand, believes He is Who He says He is, and humbly and hopefully reflects a Christ-led life. Integrity, consistent behavior of the heart regardless of situation or audience, is a continual choice to live in honor of the One from whom all life originates.

What does Scripture mean by mother and father?

“When God issued this commandment to Moses on Mount Sinai, He demonstrated His sovereign plan for real relationships,” writes Don Wilton, “And just as we are to honor the One who created us, so we are to honor those who were chosen to carry out God’s plan for our creation- our fathers and mothers!” In a world riddled with broken marriages and pieced together families, it is more important than ever to stop pointing fingers and start embracing God’s command to honor each other. Many of us are fathers and mothers, either by blood or adoption. If we are caring for someone, or they us, we are to honor them.

God said, above all else, to love Him and each other, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We all know what it’s like to be a child. Many of us know what it’s like to be a parent or caregiver. I believe this commandment was so important to God because we are so important to Him. Family is important to God. We are His family. When we honor our families, it’s a direct reflection of how He loves us. Often dysfunctional and broken, He loves us.

Should the verse be taken literally?

Jesus’ obedience to his parents challenges the insecurities in us that often make us averse to submit and obey, according to this article from Desiring God. When Jesus came to earth, He lived the example we are to follow. Jesus obeyed His parents (Luke 2:51). If God-made-man obeyed Joseph and Mary, we too should strive to honor our parents.

“His ultimate submission was to God; his second submission, to Joseph and Mary,” Mathis writes, “Because his Father said, ‘Honor you father and your mother.’” We honor our parents through our trust in God, whose authority trumps all, and protection and compassionate care uphold us when those we honor threaten to get it wrong.

Who is supposed to do the honoring?

It’s impossible for any of us to be exempt from this command. Even those of us who have not known our maternal mothers and fathers have caregivers who have adopted us into their lives. We honor them. We all look to those who have gone before us and done the best they knew to do. Believers or not, our obedience to honor our parents is part of God’s eternal plan.

Whether we are children or adults, we are to honor our parents. Children are taught to honor their parents by the basic lesson of discipline and obedience, which in time blossoms into respect as we are able to see and experience the wisdom. Eventually, we honor them out of love and trust, remembering how they have provided for us throughout our lives to the best of their human abilities in a very fallen world. Choosing to see the best in them, even after their time ends in this life, honors them.

Why should we honor our parents? 

God repeats truths He wants us to pay specific attention to. The command to honor our father and mother is important to God, and so it must hold a high countenance in our hearts. The relationship with our parents is so significant that it is the first earthly relationship addressed in the commandments, and it’s the only one to come with a blessing from God. We often question “why?” God is not afraid of our questions, and I believe when we struggle to understand why we must honor our parents, whether we are young or old, we can take the burden to God in confidence that He understands the difficulty we face in living out this command. When we ask Him for help, He is faithful.

How are Christians to supposed to carry out this command?

More than a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” the commandments tell us how to honor and worship God, which teaches us how to love and respect others, like our parents. A Christ-led life is led by God’s Word. It’s by His truth, and through a prayerful relationship with Him, that we navigate the waters of this world and are able to uphold His commands. They are guardrails and life preservers, not standards we must achieve and reach. They exist out of love, to help us live life to the full. The commandments show us the way to live, the way to love our neighbor, and the way to love God with all our heart and soul, according to this article from the Gospel Coalition. Through daily prayer and time in God’s word, and by following Jesus’ example, we can honor our parents.

Examples of Honoring Your Mother and Father

One of the most powerful and ageless ways we can honor our parents, besides giving them our respect and obedience, is to choose to forgive forward. A valuable lesson to adhere to, as we will all watch ourselves make mistakes we swore we would never make. We all fall short (Romans 3:23). This article from the Gospel Coalition explores how it can be healthy to uncover the roots of our specific pains or weaknesses – biological, historical, or otherwise – but true healing will not finally come from identifying or assigning guilt, but from trusting God.

Choose to include parents and caregivers in everyday life. Take time to reconnect and keep in touch. Care for them as they grow old. Speak highly of them, forgoing any focus on negative aspects of their character. Few of us come from a perfectly happy family, but facing tough circumstances and not giving up on the people He has placed in our lives honors God.

Should you honor your mother and father when they are abusive?

“Most of us have a complaint or two about our parents,” Dr. David Hawkins writes, “None were perfect and many carry scars from their childhood.” God’s command to honor our father and mother teaches us to trust Him to ultimately defend and protect us. Parents aren’t perfect, yet we can choose to honor them anyway, trusting we have been placed in their care by our Almighty God for a purpose. He doesn’t make mistakes.

In our fallen world, many of us will endure heartaches and injustice at the hands of the very people that we are supposed to honor and trust. God certainly doesn’t want us to remain in abusive situations. His compassionate heart for us aches when we suffer at the hands of injustice. We should do all we can to remove ourselves from life-threatening situations, and reach out to others caught in such a crossfire as well.

Humanity is fallen. The world is at a war between good and evil that we cannot see with the visible eye, but know exists according to God’s Word. We honor our parents by releasing judgement for their behavior to our just God who defends and protects us with mercy and compassion. “God tells us that He will bless us as we honor our parents,” Dr. Hawkins wrote, “Consider how you might honor your parents, no matter how you have been raised. This may seem like a huge challenge; yet it is one I believe God will bless.”

A Prayer to Honor Our Parents

Father,

Parenting is humbling. At times, we as parents feel helpless to our own faults. We know we won’t get it right every time. There will be many times when our patience expires and our choices will not align with Your will. We ask for Your forgiveness, Father, for when we fall short as parents. Bless the generations that have gone before us, and the legacies and lessons they left for us to learn from. Help us to honor our parents and caregivers. Work a miracle in our hearts to forgive those who have mistreated, oppressed and abused us. We can’t do that in our own power, God. Nor can we see each other as You see us. Adjust our perspective daily, to see and honor the people You have placed in our lives. Especially, our fathers and mothers. Forgive us for criticizing them, battling them, and dishonoring them with our words and behaviors. Help us to honor You, God, by how we honor them …and each other. Praise You for making a way for us regardless of how far we fall short. Your love is leveling and there is power in Your name. May we call on You, always.

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen

Photo credit: Pexels/Agung Pandit Wiguna