Obedience Gives Hope To Longevity
Paul’s reference of the fifth commandment in Ephesians 6:3 reflects his belief that obedience to the law brings the blessing of long earthly life and disobedience will shorten life and bring death. Paul would come to this conclusion by looking back at Moses and the giving of the law, with its blessing and curses, and Moses’ first sermon in Deuteronomy before entering the promise land.
The law was given to teach Israel how to dwell with a holy and righteous God. God had already saved Israel and redeemed them for himself. Therefore, the law was not a means of salvation. Their eternal salvation was one that was given by faith in Yahweh and ultimately His provision of the promised Messiah; namely Christ.
However, the longevity of their temporal life was directly correlated with their obedience to the law. If Israel obeys the law and keeps Yahweh’s statutes, then He would remove all dangerous animals from the land and no sword would pass through them. They would pursue their enemies and they would prevail over them. Yahweh promised to multiply them and make them fruitful (Leviticus 26:6-9). Israel’s obedience to the law ensured they would receive life and prosperity.
Nevertheless, Moses warns the people that if they did not keep the law that they would be put out of the land and away from the presence of God (Leviticus 26:33). He also warned in Leviticus 26:16 that if they did not keep the law that Yahweh would bring terror on them— wasting disease and fever that would cause their eyes to fail and their life to ebb away. To disobey the law was to ensure devastation and death for Israel.
Paul alludes to this in the text in a couple of ways. First, he leaves out the last phrase, “The Lord God is giving you” tagged at the end of both Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16. Paul does this because he is universalizing the text to apply to the church. The land is no longer the place where God dwells. Through the work of Christ, God dwells in the hearts of men (Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:21-22; 5:18). Also, the word for land could also be interpreted “earth” which would then make the verse read, “…that you may live long in the earth;” which I believe is a truer reading of the meaning of the text.
Understanding this principle, Paul then applies it to the Ephesian church, specifically to the family context. His primary target is aimed at the children of the family. He tells them to obey their parents because the Lord has put them in a position of authority to act as the mediator of his will, and to obey your parents is to obey the Lord. Your obedience is a mark of your presence with the Lord. Obeying the Lord always brings the blessing of life.
A secondary target could be towards the parents, particularly the fathers. The reference to the Exodus 20:12 and its connection to Deuteronomy 6, would send a signal to the scope and depth of instruction that must take place in discipling ones children. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Moses presented the people with the scope and sequence of instruction to be given to children. Fathers were to repeat and teach the law in every aspect of human life. This principle would easily carry over to the church as well.
Two Final Considerations
There are two things left to deal with in this text. First, what does Paul mean when he says that it is the first commandment with a promise, and second, is Paul trying to implement the law in this text? I will deal with these concerns in the order mentioned above.
It could be argued that the second commandment bears a promise in that God offers his faithful love to a thousand generations to those who keep his commandments. However, this is not so much a promise as it is a description of God’s character. We see the same kind of description in Exodus 34:6-7, when Yahweh passes before Moses. Yahweh shows Moses His glory and describes Himself to Moses as a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. Yahweh is merely describing who he is as God in the context of the law.
As far as the second concern goes, I do not believe Paul is trying to implement the law in this text. First of all, early on in the letter he had already stated that Christ made no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed regulations (Ephesians 2:15). Paul would not want to put up a barrier that has already been torn down by Christ. Second, the law does serve the church in that it provides many normative principles to the Christian life. Paul uses the law in other places in the New Testament to give the church a normative principle to follow; for example Gal 5:14, “For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Normative principles are morals or values that can be applied to the life of the Christian as a way of manifesting the “good works which God as prepared ahead of time” (Ephesians 2:10). Because Christ has fulfilled the law and its demands, these principles are not commands expressed in regulations (Ephesians 2:15).
In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul gives a beautiful picture of how the God the Father is bringing all things under the supreme rule of Christ. Through His Son life is given to sinners, dead in their trespasses, and the Spirit is given to dwell in the hearts of both Jew and Gentile, working to manifest the same kind of love and unity that is found in the Trinitarian relationship. This unity is not confined to individualism, or the church as a gathered body, but is also seen in the home of every believing family.
Every member of the family testifies of their value of the supreme glory of Christ by their obedience to the Father and to one another. Children are not exempt from this. Children are not to be left on the periphery of the gospel, but are to be trained and brought up in the instruction of the Lord; in hope that they will enjoy God’s presence in Christ, and not only enjoy the blessing of long life on earth, but in eternity as well. The only way children can do this is if their parents are faithful in teaching them the glorious things of Yahweh and His Son Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is vital that both parents and children cooperate with each other in the discipleship process so that they will be able to adequately testify of the supreme value and glory of Yahweh.