Honour your parents

The fifth commandment begins the section of God’s law that tells us how to live with one another. ‘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).

We remember that these commandments are not written for just anybody. They are given to the people the Lord has freed from slavery. God has every reason to expect that Israel will want to go on being free—and he is showing them the way.

It’s no surprise that this section begins with honouring parents. He is the Father of all the families of the earth (Ephesians 3:14). Israel knows this because he calls them his children (Exodus 4:23; also Deuteronomy 14:1-2). And Christians have lots more reason to know this.

Jesus is God’s Son and he fully reveals the Father (John 1:18). He brings forgiveness through his death, and then leads us to share with him in being sons and daughters of God—his family (Ephesians 2:17-18). Our earthly families are the way we get used to the idea that this world is created as a family affair.

What happens in families affects us deeply. This is where we get our idea of ‘normal’—what we can expect life to be and how to cope with that. It’s here we find out who we are, what we can do, who other people are and how we relate to them. It’s here we learn what to believe in, and why.

So, what parents do matters. But then, it also matters a lot how we respond to what our parents do.

Sometimes, parenting is done badly. And there is something wrong about every family! But bad parenting can’t be replaced with something that isn’t parenting. God, the Father, has made humanity to work this way. The need to honour parents is not because they deserve it but because we need to do it.

So, what does it looks like to honour our mother and father? The word means to ‘give weight to’ who they are. Clearly, this will vary as we grow.

The command is addressed to everyone, and perhaps primarily to adults. There is never a time when parents can be treated as ‘light-weight’. How we regard them and treat them is always shaping what we are. They are a constant witness to the fact that we are not self-made but dependent.

Being a child begins with having no choice—we lie where parents put us and eat what they put in our mouths!

But then, we have a will of our own and need to learn what to do with that! Do our parents need to know what we think, how we feel? Of course.  We are finding out how life works and this is part of it. But then, they have a bigger frame of reference than us. It’s important to defer to that.

Then our frame of reference grows. This is as it should be. No-one is meant to follow parents all their life. Rather, they have been bearing witness to an authority greater than their own—the Lord’s. That’s who they represent, whether they know it or not.

The time comes when we have to take responsibility for responding to that authority ourselves. Being an adult is not doing whatever we like. Rather, it’s understanding God’s word, and doing that. It’s good if parents understand this and help it happen gradually.

Some children have had to honour their parents by not doing what they have been taught. This is why Paul tells children to obey their parents ‘in the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:1). There is a higher authority.

Then, parents get old. Perhaps they need to be wheeled around! How we treat them now tells us a lot about how we regard the Lord. Paul tells us that if children don’t care for their parents they have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:4-8). So, honour for parents is life-long.

This is the only command to which the Lord attaches a promise; ‘…so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ He adds an incentive to encourage us. This gives hope to all that happens in our families. It happens in two ways.

First, parents know their instruction doesn’t start with their own competence and goodness. When their children ask why they have to keep these rules, they must answer, ‘We were slaves…but the Lord brought us out…’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21).

We all need saving from slavery to this world. If parents know this, and share this with their children, it prevents instruction being dreary and legalistic.

Second, children know they have an inheritance, but staying in it is going to depend on honouring their parents and what they teach. They won’t just grow up. They will grow deeper and richer. It gives ‘weight’ not just to their parents but to them. They are significant.

On a very practical level, our parents may give us a good start to life by providing property, education and opportunity. But this ‘inheritance’ is not our security. We need personal qualities—self-knowledge, humility, determination, tolerance, kindness. We especially need a sense that life is not about ourselves. This is what we can learn by honouring parents.

Jesus makes an important statement about children. Parents are bringing their children to him for a blessing. When disciples think this is an intrusion, Jesus protests and welcomes them. His explanation is, ‘for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ And, ‘…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15).

One way or another, we need to learn to be childlike. We come from parents. A lot of what we are is because of them. Similarly, there’s no self-made people in God’s kingdom! No proud people! No-one who says they don’t need to be taught!

The Lord showed me something new about being a son to my father when I was in my fifties. I was still learning to be vulnerable. I was able to tell him about things that were troubling me. And it was the best thing— liberating! It didn’t just change things between my father and me. It changed me.

God designed us to learn many things about being his sons and daughters through honouring our parents—as children, and as adults. If we don’t learn it here, we may learn it somewhere else, but then the consequences may be more severe and painful.

But then, honouring parents is being truly human. It’s letting God being our Father get worked out in ordinary life. No matter what our past has been, it will always be a liberating experience to look at them, to appreciate them, to find out what they have to give, and to serve them if that is what they need.

Don’t misuse the Lord’s name

It’s a remarkable thing that the Lord has given us his ten commandments or law. As Christians, we are not under this law—that is, it doesn’t secure our relationship to him. Jesus Christ does that. But God is developing these things in us through his gospel (Romans 8:4). And many things can distract us so and the commandments help keep us on track.

The third command requires that we guard our tongue. ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’. The Lord’s name tells us who he is, so it’s important not to abuse it.

So, how should we use the Lord’s name? That will help us notice when we misuse it.

We can pray to the Lord by name. Moses is told the name Israel can use for God (Exodus 3:14-15; 6:3-7). Then, in this name, Moses leads God’s people to freedom (Exodus 15:1-3).

The same is true for us as Christians. God has revealed himself to us in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:4-5; 2 Corinthians 4:6). Then, the apostles announce that everyone who calls on his name will be saved (Acts 2:21, 38).

Jesus gives us the name to use when we pray—it’s ‘Father’ (Matthew 6:9). He sends his Spirit so our cry comes with all the certainty of being his sons and daughters (Galatians 4:6-7)). This is astonishing. We know the name of God, and can call on him to save us because we know who he is.

We can only be secure in this world if we have a great God. And it is a great kindness on God’s part to reveal himself in this way. A proverb says, ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe’ (Proverbs 18:10).

So how could we misuse this name? The word actually means to treat it in an empty way.

We think that someone who uses ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ to impress or to swear is misusing his name. That is certainly an abuse of the Lord’s name. But this law is addressed to us who know him. It’s us who know the fullness of his name who are most likely to use it in an empty way.

What if we say the Lord is alive but act as though he didn’t exist? What if we pray to the Lord and don’t expect him to do us any good (James 1:6-8)? What if we tell friends we believe in the Lord, and then don’t demonstrate his goodness in our living (Romans 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:5-6)? What if we sing songs in church but don’t actually love the Lord (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)? What if we say ‘Lord, Lord’—expecting him to hear our prayer—but don’t do what he says (Matthew 7:21).

What if we promise something ‘in God’s name’ (Deuteronomy 6:13), or introduce our promise with, ‘As surely as the Lord lives…’ (Jeremiah 4:2). The Lord expects that we will use his name in this way—as we shall see. But if we want to sound more confident than we are, or want to create a bigger impression than we deserve, or, just deceive people about our honesty, we have misused the Lord’s name (Isaiah 48:1).

This is such a big problem when Jesus comes that he teaches us not to swear in God’s name at all. We should just say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and mean it (Matthew 5:33-37). The formal use of swearing an oath in the Lord’s name is being so badly abused that he says it is beyond repairing.

James tells us what an unruly thing our tongue is (James 3:1-12). And we are not just talking about a ‘slip of the tongue’. Our talking is the spill-over of what is going on in our hearts (Matthew 12:34).

If, in any way, our hearts are not settled in the love of God, or our conscience at peace through Christ’s offering, we are very likely to ‘overspeak’. That is, our tongues will ‘run away with us’ and we’ll draw attention to ourselves and not to our Lord and Saviour. It is this that is at the heart of ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’.

However, the Lord is pleased for us to use his name to support our promises. Paul is an example (Romans 1:9; 9:1-2). The Lord’s faithfulness helps us be faithful. We know we have God watching to see if we mean what we say. This ‘checking up’ by God is good for us. We are not just dealing with people we may be able to deceive or impress. We are dealing with God.

Having a faithful God, and calling on him truly, does lead to a faithful life. Our passions are subdued, our fears are calmed, our egos are tamed. The Lord anticipates that we will become like him. People will be able to trust us. This helps a whole community to grow. We need everyone to mean what they say. Otherwise, people become cynical and loyalty begins to die.

And now, the Lord tells us he ‘won’t hold anyone guiltless’ if they break this command. The Lord values his name, even when we don’t, and he won’t overlook our empty talk (Matthew 12:36). If he doesn’t act, we live on in our self-deception, and his name is shamed in the world. If we get ‘full of ourselves’, the Lord may have to let us fail, and be humbled.

Given that our tongue is the hardest thing to control, how glad we are that our keeping of this command does not begin from yesterday’s mistakes but from the righteousness of Christ. It is this that gives full flow to our desire to please the Lord. We do not keep the commandments because we have to but because we want to.

So, let us love the name of the Lord. Let us call on his name. Let us proclaim the Lord’s name. And let us claim integrity in his name. But don’t ever think the name doesn’t mean anything!

No idol can be the Lord

The Lord’s doesn’t want us to have other gods. And of course, why would we want to? There’s only one Creator. And there’s only one who has loved us as sinners and set us free to be his people.

However, the matter of coming to the Lord can be tricky. Trusting in the Lord—alone—doesn’t come naturally. The next three commands spell out what it means to have him alone as God.

This second command talks about idols. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…’ (Exodus 20:4-5).

If the first command is about guarding our heart, this one is about guarding our hands because the Lord is speaking about something we make.

Worship may be tricky because we can’t see God and we like to deal with things we can see and handle and control. As one lady said to me, ‘I like to have God with skin on!’

But here, the Lord tells us not to put something in between him and us—something that represents him but isn’t him.

Israel has a problem with this. They have heard the Lord speak to them from Mount Sinai, but they would prefer just to hear from Moses. They can see him, argue with him, oppose him. On the other hand, when the Lord himself comes near, they can see fire and smoke and hear thunder. But there’s nothing they can get their hands on. They don’t like something so ‘out there’ and ask for it to stop (Exodus 20:18-21).

Then, when Moses returns to the mountain to get the ‘hard copy’ of the commandments, engraved in stone, they feel they are out in the wilderness with nobody to lead them. They want something tangible to trust. So, the Priest, Aaron, makes an image, a golden calf. The people dance around it, and say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:4). They break the second commandment—straight away.

So, do we need something visible so we can come to God? Moses says no: ‘… the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets’ (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). God is spirit. He can’t be pinned down to something we can make, or manage!

To worship the Lord truly, we need to be listening and responding to what he says. This is how he gives himself to us and how he gives us a way of coming to him.

Making an idol to represent or replace the Lord is a way of keeping the Lord at a distance. We are on the way to shaping God according to our image, instead of him forming us according to his image.

The Lord tells us he is ‘jealous’ about this. He will make sure we know him as he is and not as something less. Whatever we make is going to be less than the Lord, different to who the Lord is, and have no power or goodness or capacity to love. The Lord will not stand by and let us do that!

How does this work out now? Clearly, we have hands—and minds and skills and artistry—that we should use to worship the lord. Beautiful music, careful thinking, hard work and loving action are all part of our worship of the Lord. This is loving the Lord with all our heart and soul.

But what we do and make is a witness to the Lord, not the Lord. Only Jesus can be the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). And we are being transformed into that image, but only because it is the Lord who is doing it (2 Corinthians 3:18).

We guard against false worship by hearing what the Lord is saying to us and by responding to him. We guard against false worship by making it our first duty each day to have our ‘soul happy in God’. (This was what George Muller’s decided.) If we don’t do this, what we do may become a replacement for a real relationship with the Lord.

What are you thinking about when you serve the Lord? Is it him? Or is it something you do for him—something you can understand and manage? It may be how well you are doing as a Christian. How we are living matters a lot, but it isn’t the Lord. It may be what you are responsible for at Church. That could be important, but it isn’t the Lord. It could be how well you know the Bible. That is important, but it isn’t the Lord. It might be the needs of others. This is important too, but it isn’t the Lord.

Your idol may be how you feel about God. If your feelings have been produced by the Lord, that would be true worship. But then, they may be something you are producing. That is an idol and the Lord would not want to be identified by anything you or I produce. He is jealous of who he is, and of how we are thinking about him.

We are great at making idols and dancing around them—just like Israel. And then we begin to argue about which idols are the most important!

So, what should true worship look like? Here’s a few pointers.

First, it will be real. A Samaritan lady asks Jesus if people should worship in Samaria or Jerusalem. He says, ‘…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipper must worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23-24). True worship is love—for the Lord.

Second, it will be eagerness to hear God’s word—and about Jesus Christ in particular. Jesus tells the Samaritan lady that the time for true worship has come because he has come. So true worship gathers around Jesus Christ—who is God’s Word. We will want to hear what God has done, what he has promised and how we may share in his salvation.

Third, it will be asking how we can build up others in faith, hope and love. God has made his church a witness to his presence—an actual house of God. Paul envisages that if we are together, hearing and loving God’s word, someone may recognise that the Lord is among us (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).

I began by saying that we need to guard our hands—that is, all the things we are capable of doing. If what we can do is our focus, it doesn’t represent the Lord any more. It has replaced him. The Lord is jealous. That is, he protects what he loves. He doesn’t want us playing make-believe!

No other God but the Lord

Here’s the first command the Lord gives to those he has saved from slavery. He starts with what we should love. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). The ‘before me’ means ‘in my presence’. The Lord is like a husband or wife who is jealous of any rival, so we must keep ourselves for the Lord.

Our Lord is God of the whole earth—its Creator! There is nowhere he is not present, nothing he doesn’t know and nothing too difficult for him. And given the power and the care he takes to set us free, there is nothing he won’t do to see that we are provided for. He doesn’t need supplementing with other gods.

This is stated negatively but its purpose is entirely positive. Moses restates it later: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4).

And Jesus says the same: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37-38).

What does it look like if we have no other God than the Lord?

Simply, we know we are not God! This is a huge relief! Many of our personal and social problems arise because we don’t know God as our Father. But if he is, we know who we are and what we are here for. We are the Lord’s creatures, his children, his beloved, his servants.

We can trust the Lord to show us how to live. We can be part of the future God is creating—something wonderful and complete. Everything we do has great significance.

Then, if everything is going well, we know who to thank. If we are in all kinds of need, we know who to ask for help. If we’ve sinned, we can ask him for forgiveness. If we are confused, we know he will show us the way to go. If we are being attacked, we can entrust ourselves to him. If we’re always thinking about ourselves, we can ask him for love for others. The Lord, being God, can cover all bases!

On the other hand, what is it like to live under a ruler and in a community where other gods are in charge?

No-one needs to tell Israel this—it leads to slavery. The battle that has just happened between Pharaoh and Moses is really about who runs this world. Pharaoh gets his magicians to practice their ‘secret arts’, and Moses prays to the Lord (see for example Exodus 8:18-19; 9:29; 14:30-31). And in this contest, the Lord wins, and Israel is released.

All of us, like Israel, need to be released from the authority of other gods and the demands of those who worship them. This is why Paul says that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4). The world makes out to be a wonderful place but, if the Lord isn’t our God, we make something in the creation into a god. And this eventually makes us its slave.

The apostle John tells us not to love the world—what it craves for and boasts about. It is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Only the Lord truly cares about us! And only the Lord has the breadth of knowledge, authority, wisdom, strength, and especially love, to do the job.

The Lord has given himself to us fully. He has not even withheld from giving up his Son for us. And now, he calls for us to give ourselves wholly to him—with no other ‘god’ to back us up in case he fails.

We noticed before that the Lord uses a ‘shall not’ rather than a ‘you shall’.

Loving the Lord shouldn’t be any problem. Paul says he is ‘constrained’ by love because ‘one man died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). That should settle the matter. But it isn’t just like that. Sometimes, we need God to say ‘No!’ Our hearts are a factory for making idols—one after another.

If we have tasted that God is kind, and good, and that he has saved us, we will be grateful for this ‘No!’ Faced with a crisis, or an attraction, or a pressing need, some other ‘god’ may appear very attractive, natural and powerful. It seems impossible to see it any other way. But then, God’s command protects us, and directs us back to the love of God.

We have to ‘wait on the Lord’. That is, we have to suspend our craving, for long enough to see what God is about, and how he is going to prove to us that he is our God. You can check a story about this in Israel’s journeyings (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).

God has been wonderfully gracious to us in saving us from this world and its idols. But his kindness does not mean softness. The Lord’s kindness has brought us to himself. There is nothing more wonderful than this. And there is nothing that is more designed to makes us strong—to be who we are created to be. So, don’t entertain any other gods in the presence of our God and Father! Wait, and see, that the Lord is good.

God knows what is good

God has given us, his people, 10 commandments to tell us how to live. They are given to Moses and to Israel first, but Jesus says he came to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). He has made this law universal so that it can speak to all of us and shape our communities. I’d like us to see how this happens.

We all need someone to tell us what to do. Many will dispute this, but then, we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. If it isn’t God telling us what is good, it’s someone else. We are surrounded with it all the time.

The difference between God’s commands and those we make for ourselves is that God’s commands arise from who he is—and he is good. Ours arise because we always trying to fix a problem—and we are not good. Again, this latter point is disputed, but the number of rules we have to make is increasing all the time, so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a problem, and that the problem is us.

God is not trying to fix a problem. He is telling us who he is, and, because he is our Creator, he is telling us what is good for us. Moses says, ‘Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time’ (Deuteronomy 4:40).

What God tells us to do is good in the sense that it works. It fits what we are and it enables us to live together in a way that benefits everybody. It’s not an ideology, a social construction invented by someone to solve a problem. It’s real, and really works.

It’s interesting to see where the ten commandments begin. They don’t start with, ‘You shall not…’ but with, ‘I am the Lord your God…’ (Exodus 20:2). His commands arise from him being in a relationship with us. He says to his people, ‘You belong to me and I belong to you.’

If we think that the way to have relationships is to get everyone doing ‘the right thing’—which means telling everyone what the ‘right things’ are—we wear people down and destroy real relationships.

Many children know what it is like having to perform in a certain way to secure the attention, approval or affection of their parents. But others have parents who have created a home where they know they belong. Their identity does not need to arise from how they perform but from belonging. They are beloved children. In that setting, they can hear what is required of them as something that will be in their interests to hear and do.

The same is true in a community. If we must conform to a certain set of rules to be heard or to have a place, we breed distrust, distain and social unrest. It doesn’t work—and it isn’t working.

God has made every human being in his image, so everyone has a place in it. It is because he is relating to us that he gives us his commands.

But God says more. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’. He calls this redeeming them—that is paying the price to release them from their slave-masters. Israel belongs to God, not only because he made them but because he has made it possible for them to obey him.

We must look some more at how this happens, but for now, we simply note that God’s commands are given to people who have been released from the pressure of false gods—that is, anything that’s taken the place of God. They not only should obey him but they can, and even want to.

This has been the whole point of Jesus coming among us. He comes to save us. We get trapped by our own sins. We get caught by this world—and do what it wants rather than what God wants. This isn’t freedom. We have to do things.

But Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34-36).

If we know God is relating to us, that he has decided to love us, and that he is doing whatever is necessary to set us free from being trapped by what we have done, we will be able to receive his commands as his love reaching out to us.

So, commands might not be too bad after all! Certainly, those who realise God has made this world as a home for us, and who see what he has done to free us from our false gods, will listen to them with interest, heed them with diligence and find that it is good to be told what to do.