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.”
— Ephesians 6:1–3 —
In preparation for this Sunday’s sermon on Ephesians 6:1–3, I have spent considerable time thinking about the way Paul is quoting the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12 LXX). And in my week of study, I have not found a satisfactory answer to the question of how he’s applying the law to the new covenant people of God. Many believe Paul is directly applying the law without change; others suggest he is altering it as he leaves off God’s specific promise of land to Israel; still others, just develop principles from Ephesians 6 without consideration of the covenantal structure of the Bible.
In all, no one I found wrestled with the way in which the commandment to honor father and mother was and is changed by the finished work of Christ. Therefore, in what follows I want to consider Ephesians 6:1–3 in light of the shift from the old covenant to the new.
But to do that, it is important to see how Paul’s words build upon the matrix of wisdom, righteousness, and reward (i.e., inheritance) that are outlined in the law and especially in the Proverbs. In the context of Paul’s letter, he gives instructions to wives and husbands (5:22–33), children and fathers (6:1–4), and slaves and masters (6:5–9); these are all application of Spirit-filled wisdom (see Ephesians 5:15–21). Likewise, his instructions continue to apply the righteous standards of God’s people outlined in Ephesians 4:17–5:14. And finally, he seeks to motivate children by the promise of inheritance, a long and well-pleasing life in the land. In short, like the Proverbs wisdom, righteousness, and blessing are found together in Ephesians.
From these contextual observations, then, it makes sense to turn to Proverbs.In Proverbs, “sons” are called to walk in the way of wisdom and righteousness, such that they might enjoy the blessings of the covenant. That is, inheritance promised in the law is conditioned on wise and righteous living. Therefore, to grasp the fullness of what Paul is saying in Ephesians 6, I believe we should spend ample time considering what Proverbs says (with a little help from Psalm 119) about wisdom, righteousness, and reward.
Wisdom, Righteousness, and Reward
In Ephesians 6:1 Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” The word “right” is not a thin word merely telling children to avoid wrongdoing, though it includes that. Rather, the word translated “right” is the richer word δίκαιος, meaning “just” or “righteous.” Accordingly, this verse gives Christian children a motivation to obey their parents, because it is the way of righteousness—something God’s children desire to do when the Spirit writes his law on their hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31–34; cf. Matthew 5:6; 1 John 5:3).
Going back to the Old Testament, we discover the word “righteous” or “righteousness” (sdk, צדק) is used throughout Proverbs, as well as the rest of the Tanak. Beginning in the introduction (1:1–7), Proverbs stresses the importance of seeking wisdom, in order to gain righteousness, for the purpose of enjoying and retaining God’s blessing.
This may sound a bit like works-righteousness—we must attain a level of righteousness to keep God’s blessing—but that’s not it at all. Rather, understanding the covenantal differences between the new covenant ratified by Christ and the old covenant mediated by Moses enables us to feel and understand the promises of the Old Testament. In Proverbs especially, we find many promises of material blessing premised on righteousness because, under the Sinai covenant, keeping the law was the way the (material) blessings of the covenant were retained (see Leviticus 26–27; Deuteronomy 27–28).
Therefore, to understand what Proverbs says about righteousness, we need to read these words about righteousness and wisdom in conjunction with the law of Moses. Then, after reading them in their own context, we must see how they relate to Christ as the true obedient son. Only then, can we go back to Ephesians and understand Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:1–3, which taps into this idea of righteousness and quotes from the law (Exodus 20:12 LXX; cf. Deuteronomy 5:16).
From Proverbs to Christ to the Church: Five Truths about Righteousness and Reward
In Proverbs there are at least three truths we learn about wisdom, righteousness, and reward. By looking at them, we will be better equipped to see what Christ accomplished in his obedient sonship and how Ephesians 6 applies to the church today. In all, we discover five truths about righteousness in Proverbs, in Christ, and in our own walk with Christ.
1. The purpose of Proverbs is to produce righteousness in the sons of Israel.
From the start, Proverbs is clear about its purpose:
To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth. (Proverbs 1:2–4)
Wisdom, Proverbs tells us, is for the purpose of righteousness, justice, and equity. And the source of this wisdom and righteousness is God himself. This is made explicit when God gave Solomon superlative wisdom because the humble king asked for wisdom to discern good and evil (3:9). God honored his request, making Solomon the wisest man in the world. First Kings 4–10 displays his wisdom, including 3,000 proverbs (4:32), many of which we find in Proverbs.
Though Solomon himself descended into folly, his proverbs abide with righteous wisdom. And, as we will see, it is wisdom that leads to righteousness, which in turn retains the covenantal blessings promised in the law. In short, what we see in 1 Kings 3 repeats in the Proverbs—Solomon asked for wisdom in order to be a righteous ruler. This pleased Yahweh and led God to give Solomon honor and wealth on top of wisdom.
Applied to Israel as a nation, we see how God’s covenant with David comes to Israel. Through the king’s covenantal representation, Israel also learns from his model and instruction how to enjoy and keep the blessings of God. Proverbs is a means to the end of walking wisely and enjoy the blessings of righteousness.
2. The sons of Solomon and the sons of Israel must learn righteousness.
From the context of Proverbs 1–9, we learn that the focus of Solomon’s instructions are given to young men (“sons”). Nineteen times in these nine chapters, we find Solomon addressing sons (e.g., “my son” or “O sons”). Accordingly, Proverbs teaches us (1) wisdom leads to righteousness and (2) justice is built on wisdom, and that (3) these must be the chief goal of those who have been given a place in God’s land. The same is true for young women, but Proverbs is written to young men because land was given to men and their sons. (The daughters of Zelophed, Numbers 27:1–11, are the exception to the rule).
As the Law and the history of Israel’s kings teach us, righteousness is a prerequisite for enjoying the blessings of the covenant. And wisdom from God is the spring from with righteousness is flows. The same pattern is seen in Proverbs, as the matrix of wisdom, righteousness, and reward continues to be explained and encouraged.
3. The result of wisdom is righteousness and the result of righteousness is reward.
In Proverbs 2, the centrality of seeking wisdom is amplified. Read verses 1–15. In these verses, we find a simple outline.
- Wisdom comes to those who earnestly seek it (vv. 1–4)
- Wisdom is a gift from God (vv. 5–8)
- Wisdom is filled with covenantal blessings (v. 9–15)
Again, we find in this outline the way in which wisdom leads to righteousness. Verse 9 reads, “Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path.” In short, those who seek wisdom (vv. 1–4) and receive it as a gracious gift (vv. 5–8) will understand the path of righteousness (v. 9). This path, in turn, leads to all kinds of blessings (vv. 10–15). This outline, therefore, sums up the relationship between wisdom, righteousness, and reward.
Even more, the pattern revealed in these verses shows how important the word of God is for wisdom, righteousness, and reward. As verses 1–4 indicate, wisdom is found in God’s Word; it is not found in the human heart, or in nature, or in experience. It is found in God himself.
This is why, diverting from Proverbs for a moment, we learn from Psalm 119 just how critical God’s word is to wisdom and righteousness. Twelve times in Psalm 119 we find the word “righteous” or “righteousness.” Consider a few examples:
- “I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.” (v. 7)
- “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.” (v. 62)
- “I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to keep your righteous rules.” (v. 106)
- “Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.” (v. 144)
- “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” (v. 160)
- “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.” (v. 164)
- “My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.” (v. 172)
From these examples, we learn how much the Psalmist loved the law of God. He loved God’s righteousness and he longed for the righteousness of God to characterize his own life. In this way, he demonstrates the kind of wisdom described in Proverbs 2. Those who seek wisdom must do so in God’s righteous rules.
Those who seek wisdom apart from God’s word, or who believe God’s word is not righteous, or who do not love God’s righteous rules, or long for God’s blessing without applying God’s word only deceive themselves.
What Proverbs 2 and Psalm 119 teach us is that those who long for God’s blessing must walk in his way, revealed by his word. Only when the people of God in the Old Testament sought and sustained their pursuit of God in his word (=law) did they enjoy the blessings of the covenant on earth. It might be diagrammed like this:
Law >> Wisdom >> Righteousness >> Reward (=Inheritance) . . . [Gospel]
Indeed, this pathway is essential for understanding the relationship of wisdom, righteousness, and reward in Proverbs. It is also important to stress how this pathway is fulfilled in Christ and undergoes change in the new covenant. Indeed, in the old covenant the gospel is not entirely absent (see Galatians 3:8), but it is not yet explicit. As the diagram indicates, the gospel is a future reality that the law foretells (see 1 Timothy 1:8–11).
4. What Christ Does to the Proverbs
In the new covenant, Christ has paid the penalty for his foolish, unrighteous people. Under the old covenant, such wickedness would have forfeited their inheritance, but not under the new covenant. Because Christ perfectly kept the law, demonstrating his wisdom and righteousness, he received the blessings of the covenant. And now, we who trust in him are both given his inheritance and the inward desire to keep the law. Both the inheritance and the obedience are given by the Spirit (see Ephesians 1:13–14; 5:15–21).
In this way, the new covenant fulfills the old. It does not simply empower us to do the commands to earn God’s favor. Rather, Christ has done that; in him, we receive that favor as a gift. And in the security of our blessed union, we now learn how to walk in wisdom and righteousness. In this way, the diagram gets changed:
Gospel >> Faith >> Reward (=Inheritance) >> Law >> Wisdom >> Righteousness
The word comes to us and confronts us in our sin. When we repent and believe, we receive the reward (eternal life) that Christ merited for us as an obedient son of God. Then as co-heirs with Christ we learn to walk in wisdom and righteousness as our minds are renewed by the Word of God. Even more, the Lord gives us new affections to want to walk in wisdom. And all of these—from the ability to repent and believe to the desire for righteousness—are gifts of the Spirit purchased and applied by Christ himself.
5. Reading Ephesians 6 Again
After Paul says to children, “obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” he quotes Exodus 20:12 LXX and applies the fifth commandment to the new covenant people of God. As many commentators have observed Paul leaves off the words “that the Lord your God is giving you” so that the specific promise to Israel can now be applied to the church who is composed of Jew and Gentile (see Ephesians 2–3).
Still, how are we to understand Paul’s quotation of Exodus? Is this a direct application and continuation of the law of Moses to the people of Christ, or something else? In the context of Ephesians, with all of its emphases on the new covenant, it would seem odd for a direct application of the law that is not somehow mediated through the person and work of Christ. But if the new covenant reshapes Exodus 20:12, how does it do so? And what is Paul’s point in sharing this verse here?
The scope of this question is larger than I can address here, but consider these five ways the new covenant changes the covenantal context of the fifth commandment.
1. The penalties of the law are discontinued.
In Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9; and Deuteronomy 21:18–21, we learn that disobedient sons in the Old Testament could and should be stoned to death. This is covenantal context of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, yet this is clearly discontinued when Christ took in flesh all the penalties of the law. Thus, the fifth commandment cannot simply carry over to the new covenant without a significant change to its legal demands.
2. The example of an obedient son has come.
In Christ we also find an example of an obedient son. Whereas the sons of Israel lost their inheritance because they could not keep the law. Now, in Christ we find a son of Israel who keeps all the law and demonstrates the wisdom of the Proverbs. In this way, the fifth commandment is not a job requirement for a future son; it is a feature of Christ’s resume, one that he will even share with his family of faith.
3. The obedient son is also a covenant head.
Even more, this son is more than just an example, he is also the covenant head who has obeyed the commandments on behalf of his people. Therefore, the promise of inheritance has been secured in him and shared with his people. Unlike the son of Israel under the old covenant, disciples of Christ do not have to keep the law to secure their inheritance. Rather, their obedience itself is a gift of the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:26–27; Jeremiah 32:40).
4. The inheritance conditioned on obedience is now secured by Christ and his Spirit.
As Ephesians 1:13–14 tell us, the Spirit is the seal and downpayment of the believer’s inheritance. Whereas the inheritance of the Jews always suffered under uncertainty; now through Christ, the inheritance is secured. Obedience to parents is no longer a meritorious work; it is rather evidence that one possesses citizenship in the coming kingdom (cf. Ephesians 5:5).
5. Ephesians 6 is command with a promise fulfilled.
The last difference concerns the nature of the promise. Paul highlights the fact that this commandment is the first with a promise. Commentators debate what this means, but I have seen no discussion about how the finished work of Christ changes the nature of the promise. In other words, under the old covenant, the promise depended on strict adherence to honoring father and mother. Failure to keep this commandment resulted in a short life, because the law required the death penalty. Likewise, for the nation, when God’s son Israel (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1), disobeyed their father, he exiled them from the Promised Land.
Now, however, because Christ has fulfilled the law and written the law on our hearts, parental obedience is a promise fulfilled, not just a commandment required. In other words, this commandment been fulfilled by Christ is now given to God’s children who desire righteousness. Paul motivates children “in the Lord” with this desire: “Children, if you desire to walk in the righteousness of your Lord, which Christ gave you by his Spirit, then obey your parents.”
In this way, Paul quotes from Exodus 20:12 LXX, but it is not a quotation picked up from the old covenant and applied without new covenant mediation. Truly, the work of Christ has changed this commandment in profound ways. No longer is it a barrier to inheritance, like it was under the old covenant. Now, it is a spiritual indicator of having received the inheritance. Those who are “in the Lord” will obey their parents, because they have the Spirit of sonship; sons and daughters both have possess in Christ the inheritance promised to Israel. By contrast, those who are disobedient to their parents are still dead in their trespasses and sins, and their disobedience is a testimony to their sin and separation (Romans 1:30; 2 Timothy 3:2).
Children in the Lord: A Word of Gospel Exhortation
By this reading of Exodus, Proverbs, and Ephesians, we can see the way the law and the gospel work together. Just as Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:8–11, the lawful reading of the law leads to the gospel. This is true earlier in Ephesians and it is just as true in Ephesians 6:1–3. And when we read these challenging words in light of the whole book, which explicates the shift from the old covenant to the new, we see how Paul is doing more than applying Israel’s law to the multi-ethnic church, he is actually applying the law as fulfilled in Christ to the church—composed of Jew and Gentile.
In this way, the exhortation to children is one that is filled with encouragement and hope. First, it reminds them that they are “in the Lord.” There inheritance is secure. Disobedience will not result in death, as it did under the law. Rather, Christ has paid the penalty for disobedience and given them his Spirit. And with that Spirit, they both are sealed and secured and strengthened to do what they could not before—they can and must obey and honor their parents.
To children in the Lord, longing to walk in the wisdom of Christ, obedience to parents should be a delight, even if one that comes with great difficulty. Why? Because this command leads them to be like their Lord and to display his sonship to their family, church, and all those powers and principalities watching the church (see Ephesians 3:10–11). Even more, the law (as Scripture) teaches us how obedience leads to temporary relational blessings, even as it forecasts a greater community of love and truth arriving with the age to come.
Finally, this reading of Ephesians does not change the command for children to obey their parents, but it does open the hood on the power of such obedience. And what we learn, thankfully, is that this command comes with the power of the Spirit and the security of the new covenant. In this way, children should obey their parents because they love their heavenly father, not because they fear his wrath. Indeed, this the change that the new covenant brings and in this children of all ages experience the goodness of the Lord—in this age and in the age to come. Or as Paul puts it, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land,” the place where the Lord dwells.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds