The Blessing of Authority

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on September 1, 2019.

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

Early 20th Century novelist Oscar Wilde said, “There is no necessity to separate the monarch from the mob; all authority is equally bad.” We heard echoes of this sentiment two generations later in the chants, music, and actions of the late 1960s. But we can’t blame rebellion against authority on the hippies. It is as old as that hissing question in the Garden: “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1). The rebellion that began with the Fall will continue until the end of the age.

Despite the world’s rebellion against authority, just as God’s law is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10), authority is a blessing from God. For Example, civilization can only exist with the blessing of authority. Good church government is the result of the blessing of authority. And the family thrives through the blessing of authority. Can it be abused? Of course, it can.  Since the Fall, it is certain that mankind will pervert the blessings of God. But the perversion of authority does not negate its rightly used blessing nor its ordination.

Ordained Superiority

The fifth commandment implies the authority of the parents over their children. Honor, however, is not commanded in response to parental ability or action but to God-ordained appointment. I am quite sure that there are many ways in which I am not “superior” to my children (If you don’t believe me, just ask them!) but that does not change my position as their father. This principle transcends the family unit, however.

There is an implicit virtue that is demonstrated in the essence of the family but also realized in the other spheres of life. The Larger Catechism summarizes this principle stating, “By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth” (WLC 124). God-ordained authority is to be honored in the family, church, and state.

In the American freedom that we enjoy and the right to vote we exercise, sometimes we forget that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). Therefore, to dishonor our parents, or any other God-ordained authority, is to ultimately dishonor God, but to honor God-ordained authority is God-honoring.

Honoring authority may be done in various ways, but I want to focus on three: acknowledging, submitting to, and caring for authority. To acknowledge authority is simply to agree inwardly and outwardly that it exists. You of course didn’t pick your parents, but God did. The same logic applies to the church and state. To submit to authority requires humility, which is probably why it’s a “dirty” word in our culture. But the Apostle Paul instructs, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1), and the Apostle Peter commands, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him…” (1 Peter 2:13-14). Submitting to authority, whether it be in the family, church, or state is humbly honoring authority “for the Lord’s sake.”

If submitting to authority requires humility, caring requires action. Caring for aging parents is often a commitment of time and resources, but it is also a tangible way to honor them. Caring for the pastor and staff of the church, praying for the elders and deacons, finding tangible ways to minister to those in authority are tangible ways of showing honor. Even something as simple as paying taxes to support leaders in local, state, and national government can be a tangible way of caring for those in authority. If we honor authority by acknowledging, submitting, and caring, let’s consider such honored authority more closely.

Honored Authority

If ordained authority is honored through acknowledging, submitting, and caring, and if ordained authority is found in the family, church, and state, then what does this look like? To honor one’s parents is not bound by age; the fifth commandment is not only for those who are not yet legal adults. Children of all ages honor their parents by treating them with respect both privately and publicly for life (and even after death).

Children of all ages honor their parents in submitting to the authority of their parents, not because their parents are always right but because they are their parents. Sometimes this is simply reflected in the form of respectful dialogue. And, children care for their aging parents and the special demands that come with this. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for manipulating the law in this specific area: “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:4–7a). To avoid caring for their aging parents, the Pharisees had concocted a means to give or pledge financial support to the temple instead. Stealthily eliminating their responsibility, they dishonored their parents. The implication is that we honor our parents through caring for them.

Honored authority also includes the church. Paul instructed Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. Do you know and pray for the elders of this church? Do you encourage the deacons? Do you support the minister? I am thankful to be the minister of a congregation who outwardly honors me, but this is not the case in many churches. Often ministers struggle with lack of support and serve in churches where they are tangibly dishonored by the very congregation they serve.

Honor within the church, as in the family, also includes submission. The writer of Hebrews counsels, “Obey your elders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:7). “Obey” and “submit” are not words we like to hear, especially in relation to church leadership. We often think that those we pay and those we elect serve us, but in the church the teaching elders and ruling elders who serve also lead for Christ’s sake. And, since Satan hates the church, rest assured that he will attack her leaders, which often comes through rebellious and divisive church members. Nothing discourages church leadership more and nothing destroys fellowship faster. Honor in the church also includes caring for those who vocationally serve. Drawing from Old Testament principles, Paul counsels, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it ‘treads out the grain,’ and ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:18). The church who rightly compensates her minister tangibly honors him who labors for the church.

So, there is the honored authority of the family, the church, and the state (or “common wealth”). This, as in the family, is a harder commandment when it is not someone we like, or didn’t vote for, or are of a different political persuasion, or someone who behaves poorly. But if God ordains all authority, then our bad attitude and murmuring are simply passive-aggressive disobedience. So long as those in authority are not asking you to disobey God’s will, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, to be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, to submit, because all authority is from God. And, as in the family and the church, we are to care for those in authority. For example, pay your taxes (on time); insure that public servants are compensated fairly; recognize and tangibly honor those in authority.

Authority is to be honored, whether in the family, church, or state, through acknowledging, submitting, and caring, but such obedience also includes a blessing, promised bounty.

Promised Bounty

The fifth commandment, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “is the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2). The promise is “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” This promise is understood in the context in which it was first given, to assembled Israel at the base of Mount Sinai prior to settlement in the Promised Land. After its wilderness wandering Israel would enter and settle in the Promised Land, but entrance and settlement did not guarantee stability and longevity. The promise made is conditioned upon obedience to God’s Law and specifically the fifth commandment. If Israel wanted to enjoy and live long in the land, honoring parents (and God-ordained authority) was required.

The 28th chapter of Deuteronomy actually lists the blessings to be enjoyed by Israel in the land for obedience. They would be exalted above all the nations on the earth. Both the cities and the fields would be blessed. Families would enjoy the blessing of children. Farmers would enjoy the blessing of thriving agricultural and livestock. Even the baker’s kneading bowl and leavening basket would be blessed. There would be no individual or national debt but plenty of investment. Israel would rest secure from its foreign enemies, as the nation enjoyed the promised bounty of blessing. In summary, Israel was promised, “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:2). But Israel did not obey and forfeited the promised bounty.

In considering national Israel’s history, among the sins committed was breaking the fifth commandment. For example, the Prophet Ezekiel describes the sins Israel committed that would eventually lead to removal from the Promised Land and into Babylonian captivity. Among the long and graphic list is included, “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you” (Ezek. 22:7). The listing of this sin is surrounded by murderous and sexually vile sins, revealing its gravity. Similarly, in his downward-spiraling description of human degradation, the Apostle Paul includes disobedience to parents alongside such sins as murder (Rom. 1:29-30). Breaking the fifth commandment, in other words, is no trivial matter. The promised bounty was short-lived in Israel, and the historical account reveals far more disobedience and received curses than obedience and blessing.

What then are we to make of the promised bounty of the fifth commandment? Is it an obsolete part of the Moral Law? Shall we cut it out of the commandments, like many have removed the fourth? If so, why does Paul include it in his instruction to the church? “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Eph. 6:1-3). Paul’s use of the promise appears to be inclusive not exclusive: Blessing is promised to those who obey it.

Is the promise specific to the geographic boundaries of ancient Israel and therefore irrelevant to the obedient anywhere else? Does the promise necessitate a physical return to the ancient land to enjoy the blessing? The promised bounty for obedience to the fifth commandment is not relegated to antiquity nor bound to a specific address but is to be understood today from two perspectives: a general principle for all and an end times fulfillment for the elect. In general, as the family serves as the basic social unit of society, honoring parents through obedience and care provides for societal stability. We need only consider the state of the family in our country to understand the societal and cultural meltdown we are experiencing. In addition to the family there is also a breakdown in respect for authority, rendering events of anarchy within our republic. But when the essential characteristics of the family unit are restored so are the blessings upon the land.

But, just as the Promised Land was not heaven, so we cannot expect any nation under God to be either. The promised bounty to which the Christian looks ultimately is to the final Promised Land of the new creation. As Israel’s Patriarch and our father of faith, Abraham, was given the Promised Land, by faith he looked not to it but “to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:8-10). In fact, of the Patriarchs the writer of Hebrews explains, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:13–16). The true land of milk and honey is not in the Middle East (nor will it be) but is in the world without end, our heavenly homeland.

Therefore, our obedience to the fifth command and its promised bounty affects how we live here and now and the hope of our future. As Christians, we honor our parents and all authority in obedience to the commandment. And in so doing, the land in which we live will also be blessed (Jer. 29:7). Such faithfulness includes not only standing up for family values such as the life of the unborn and the sanctity of Christian marriage but also encouraging obedience, discipline and respect within the family, church, and state. While not everyone within a society is a child of God, society will be blessed through the obedience of God’s children.

Ultimately as Christians, we honor our parents and all authority in obedience to the commandment, because we love the Lord and His righteous, redeeming reign over us. In honoring the God-ordained authority of our lives, we are acknowledging God’s authority over us both now and forever.

The reality is, however, that we have not honored our parents, or God-ordained authority, as we should, and fall far short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). The wages of our dishonoring disobedience is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Where we have failed, He fulfilled, honoring his earthly parents and honoring His heavenly Father in perfect obedience.  In perfect submission to His Father, the obedient Son was crucified for our disobedience. In glorifying honor to His Father, our Lord resurrected from the dead that we might be called sons and daughters by faith.

May we by God’s grace through faith in Christ honor our parents, and all God-ordained authority, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

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