This morning we’re beginning the final chapter of the book of Ephesians, and we’re covering a topic that is very appropriate for Mother’s Day: parenting. As Paul writes his letter, he is applying the gospel to every part of life. We’ve been looking for two weeks at how Paul applies the gospel to marriage, and today we come to how Paul applies the gospel to children, and then to parents. This is a very practical and necessary lesson for all of us – as we’re going to see, even for those of us who don’t have young children anymore.
What in the world does the gospel have to do with parenting? According to Paul, everything. The gospel is what God has done through Jesus Christ at the cross, which is the culmination of history. Paul has explained in the first few chapters how God has reconciled all creation to himself and is creating a new people to himself in the church out of people who were formerly enemies. This is why Ephesians is so relational. In fact, somebody has said that Ephesians is essentially a book about relationships: our relationship with God, and then our relationship within the new humanity he is creating. God is not just reconciling people to himself; he is also creating a new people here and now. Paul says that the way that we relate to each other as the church is a demonstration of his wisdom to angelic beings. When angels want to see how smart God is, they look at the church, at the way that we care for and relate to each other as people who would otherwise have nothing in common with each other.
So the gospel changes our relationships. As we live under the influence of the Spirit, it changes our most intimate relationships – not only in the church, but also in our homes. The best way to transform your marriage, your relationships with your parents or children – any relationship – is to be transformed by the gospel. Understand what Christ has done in making dead people spiritually alive, and it changes everything.
So today isn’t for anyone. You can’t write a parenting book for everyone based on this passage, because it’s really for people who have been transformed by the gospel and are living in the power of the Spirit. But if you have been changed by the gospel, then the gospel is going to change the way that you relate to both your parents and to your kids.
Now, I want to pause here and say that what I want to do is preach what Paul says, not what I think about parenting. A lot of pastors have been humbled in preaching this text. I never knew so much about parenting as before I was a parent. Now that I’ve been a parent for over 14 years, I’m starting to learn what I don’t know. Today I really don’t want to talk to you based on my own experience as a parent, because I am well aware of where I have failed as a parent. I hope that by God’s grace I have also succeeded as a parent in many ways, but let’s not hear me talk about parenting today. Let’s hear from the Lord through the apostle Paul.
I also want to say that this passage is going to be challenging. This is an in-your-face passage. I hope that you will be challenged as we look at this passage, and also encouraged that with the Spirit’s help, you can make the changes necessary in your own life to put this passage into practice.
Let’s look first at how this passage uncovers our sins. Then we’re going to look very briefly at how the gospel shapes the relationship of kids to parents, and parents to kids.
First, let’s start by looking at how this passage uncovers our sins.
Sometimes when people study Ephesians, they think that Paul is reenforcing traditional family values of that day. They think that Paul is just echoing what was common in that day, and that now things have changed so we don’t have to listen to him anymore. But if you look a bit more carefully, you begin to understand that Paul is actually uncovering the sins of parents in that day. And not only this, but he’s uncovering the sins of parents today as well.
What specifically does Paul uncover? In that day, the rights of fathers were staggering. Men in general had a lot of rights, but children could change all of that. They tied you down. They were considered a nuisance. They were expensive, inhibited sexual promiscuity, and made easy divorce a lot harder. As a result, many in that day did not want children. But even if you did have children, the father’s rights would be almost unlimited. A father could sell his children as slaves. He could make them work in the field, even in chains. He could punish them how he liked, and could even inflict the death penalty on them. And this power extended over the life of his children no matter how long they lived. A Roman son never came of age. His father had rights over him as long as the father lived.
When a child was born, the child would be placed before the father. If the father stooped and raised the child, the child was accepted and raised as his. But if he turned away, the child was rejected and literally discarded. Sometimes the baby would be picked up by those who trafficked in infants; and raised to be slaved or to work in brothels. Other times they were left to die. One Roman father wrote to his wife, “If – good luck to you! – you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out.”
And then Paul comes along and, like Jesus, elevates the value of children in an extraordinary way, so that fathers have a sacred responsibility to their children. Paul revolutionizes the relationship between children and parents. You’ll remember that Jesus did the same as well, welcoming them when the disciples tried to turn them away. He warned that it would be better to be drowned with a millstone tied to your neck rather than to cause a child to stumble. He said that we have to become like children ourselves. The gospel completely overturns the culture’s views on children, completely turns them upside down.
I know that you are probably thinking that you’re glad we are more progressive today, that we finally understand the value of children. If that is what you are thinking, you are both right and wrong. In fact, we not only face the danger that Paul corrected in this passage, we face a new one too. As much as we recoil against seeing children as impediments to the lifestyle we desire, and the barbaric treatment of children, this happens today as well. This is why we can’t be smug. We still decide whether or not we’re going to have children based on how well the children will fit into our lives. This is still an issue today, in which children are seen as something that will interfere with our lives. This is still very much an issue today.
But not only do we suffer from this, but we also suffer from the opposite as well. We also end up idolizing our children. It’s strange: we don’t want children until they will fit into our lives, but once we have children, we face the very real danger of centering our lives on them. An idol is a good thing that we make an ultimate thing. It’s anything we look to apart from Jesus in order to be happy. And today we face the very real danger of turning our kids into idols, of looking to them for our ultimate happiness. Not only does this lead us away from loving God above all, but it ultimately crushes our kids. It places a weight on them that they simply can’t bare.
The good news is that Paul not only uncovers these sins, but he gives us hope. Let’s look at what he does.
So let’s look at how the gospel transforms the relationship of children to parents.
Paul says in Ephesians 6:1-2:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Here Paul gives us a general principle and an application of this principle. This principle, when we understand it, corrects both traditional and modern views of children and parenting. It’s something that the Ephesians needed to hear at a time when they undervalued children, and it’s something we need to hear today when we both undervalue and overvalue children.
What is the underlying principle? It comes from the fifth of what we call the ten commandments – “Honor your father and mother.” What does honor mean? John Calvin said it really involves three things: reverence, obedience, and gratitude. Reverence means that we respect our parents with our hearts, honoring them appropriately. Honoring them means something even more practical: that we support them in practical ways, even financially. Paul says this in 1 Timothy 5:
But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God…Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:4-8)
This is very strong language – not at all an optional thing. We have a responsibility to care for our parents, even our grandparents, in practical ways, including financially, as well as housing, health care, mental stimulation, and emotional support.
What about “obey”? Paul gives this as an application of the principle that we honor our parents, and it’s going to look different depending on our age. The word Paul uses in verse 1 is usually for little children living at home. When you’re a child, it really does mean obey. But as you grow, the Bible teaches that you do leave your parent’s home and form a home of your own. In Genesis it says that you are to leave father and mother and cleave to your wife. There is a bit of a change in the way you relate to your parents. As an adult, obedience means more an attitude of general submission, faithfully listening to the wisdom that your parents have.
I hope you see how this is a challenge to both traditional and modern views of family. In Paul’s day, the traditional view said that you obey your father because your father has all the rights and you have no choice. Paul says no to this. You obey and willingly submit to your parents because it is right, because it is pleasing to the Lord, and because things generally go well with you when you do. Obedience to God leads to blessing.
It also challenges modern views of family. Today we teach our children that submission to authority is a bad thing, and to challenge others and to think for themselves.
Paul says that both the traditional and modern views are wrong. Children are to honor their parents as part of their duty to the Lord. This means obeying when you’re young, but even when you’re older it means showing respect and appreciation for your parents, as well as looking after them, not only on Mother’s Day but all year long. When we do this, things go well.
The difficult part comes when this is costly, and it can be costly in two specific ways. For some of us it’s costly because our parents may not have been what we had hoped for. Some of our fathers, for instance, were not the fathers we would have liked. Paul says that we are still to find ways to show them respect and honor, not because we agree with them and not because we want to ignore all that they did wrong, but because this is right and pleasing to the Lord.
It’s also costly because it takes time and money. I keep telling my mother not to get old. So far it’s working. But there may come a day when honoring her costs in some very practical ways. I keep telling my kids to get ready for when I’m old. It’s going to be a doozy!
What gives children the desire to honor imperfect parents, to care for them even at great cost? The gospel does. The gospel gives us the ability to forgive the sins of our imperfect parents, because we see how much we have been forgiven. It gives us the selflessness to care for our parents at great cost because we see how much Christ has sacrificed for us. It lifts us out of our selfishness, so that the way we treat our parents becomes a reflection of our love for the Lord.
But Paul’s not done here in this passage.
Let’s look at how the gospel transforms the relationship of parents to children.
Paul says in verse 4: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
Parents usually go wrong in one or two ways. Some parents are too strict. Paul addresses this in the first phrase: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” It’s significant, but the way, that he mentions fathers here. Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is a mother’s job! But then Paul corrects a mistake that is common in parenting: that parenting can be so strict that children are exasperated and crushed by the demands. Paul doesn’t want this. He wants an atmosphere of grace in which our kids are allowed to flourish.
The distinguished painter Benjamin West tells the story of one day when his mother went out, leaving him in charge of his younger sister. While she was out, he discovered some ink and decided to paint his sister’s portrait. When his mother came back there was an awful mess. She walked in, said nothing about the ink stains all over. She picked up the paper on which he had drawn the portrait and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” and then she stooped and kissed him. Benjamin West said, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.”
Paul says, in essence, “Don’t err by being too strict and exasperating your children.” But then he confronts the other way that parents go wrong: by being too lenient. “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
Training is a word that refers to discipline. Some parents err by not being disciplined appropriately. Paul has already said not to be too harsh, but here he says not to go to the other extreme and let your children do whatever they want either.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also mentions the instruction of the Lord. What does this mean? A lot of us want our kids to learn about the Lord. That’s why we bring our kids to church and to Sunday school. But Paul here says that the primary responsibility for this belongs in the home. It is ultimately the parent’s job – ultimately, according to Paul, the father’s job – to instruct children in the way of the Lord.
A pastor – formerly a youth pastor – complained that parents would often call him in frustration, wanting him to do something to fix their teenagers. He grew increasingly frustrated, because for years these parents had been teaching them that church and the Lord come somewhere on the list after sports and school and everything else. For years, these parents had been teaching their kids that God is not a high priority. These parents had been instructing their children, but not in the way of the Lord.
Paul says that it’s our job to instruct them in the Lord. This means making the Lord a priority in our schedules, and also in our home lives. This means that your kids will know whether your faith is genuine or not. They’re more likely to be excited about the Lord if you are excited about the Lord.
It also means that we will learn family worship. Most parents today don’t take the time to read the Bible, pray, and worship with their children. In 1647, Christians were so concerned about this that they raised the alarm and said, “If we don’t start worshiping at home, we’re going to lose our kids!” And they were right. So they instructed pastors and elders to begin inquiring about family devotions. If they found out that a father was not leading his children in family worship, they would talk to him privately. If he didn’t respond, they would actually begin church discipline against him.
Were they fanatics? Maybe – or maybe they were just on to something. Maybe they knew that parents are responsible for disciplining children, and instructing them in the Lord, and that failure to do so is catastrophic. We should care about our children’s relationship with the Lord just as much as we care about any other area of their life. It’s more important than almost anything. It’s got to be a priority.
Paul says that the gospel changes families. Maybe today you’ve been challenged as a child – even a grown child – about honoring your parents. Perhaps you’ve been challenged as a parent. You may be too harsh. Or you may be too lenient. You may not be teaching your children about the Lord. You may be neglecting meeting as a family around his Word on a regular basis. Some of you may have to go out of here and repent and make some specific changes.
But this morning I would fail in preaching this text if I did not bring us back to the gospel. The gospel is not that we are worthy and therefore deserve blessing, but that we have sinned and failed and need forgiveness. And better yet: we have received it. The gospel is the good news that before the foundation of this world, God chose his people to be holy and blameless before him. The gospel is the good news that God takes people who are spiritually dead and saves them because of his great love. The gospel is the good news that although we all had imperfect fathers, and many of us are imperfect fathers, that we have a heavenly Father who has made provision for our greatest needs through what Christ has accomplished for us.
Today we move from our inadequacy to the perfection of Jesus, trusting in the power of the gospel to reverse the effects of sin and change us so that we can become who we were meant to be. In invite you to come to the Table this morning and find all that you really need.