Having outlined the way that the Church displays to the world the revealed mystery of Jews and Gentiles being one in Christ then having set out the difference this loving unity should make, Paul begins to apply in three areas; marriage, household slavery and, squeezed inbetween, parenting.
The picture underlying marriage is clear, that of Christ and the church. Similarly for masters and slaves, that of serving Christ. But the picture that Paul wants us to have in mind as children and parents is less obvious.
Here’s the text:
Ephesians 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
The first place to look, obviously, is the 10 Words which Paul is quoting from. Here it is in Deuteronomy,
Deuteronomy 5:16 “‘Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Now, this is where your hermeneutic will tell. How do we understand the promise of the Land relates to us today? Fortunately we don’t have to guess since scripture is not silent on this pressing question. The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear:
Hebrews 11:8-10 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
So Abraham, who the promise of land is originally given to, knows that it points to something far greater, the New Jerusalem, the New Heavens and Earth. We know that he knows this because, rather than building a city in the land, he lives under canvas.
Our Lord Himself makes the same point when He says:
Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
a deliberate reworking of:
Psalm 37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.
So, returning to Paul, we may begin to paraphrase:
Ephesians 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the New Creation.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
But this is not the end of the matter. Paul has already spoken a number of times in the letter about promise. Here they are.
Ephesians 1:13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Let’s just tease that apart for a moment. The Ephesians are in Christ because they heard the gospel of their salvation, the word of truth, trusted Christ and were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (or, I would suggest, the Holy Spirit of promise (the genetive could go either way) – see how I think it unfolds and make up your own mind). So, here also, the language of promise is linked to salvation, but not just that.
The Holy Spirit of promise is the guarantee of our inheritance. Now it should be jarringly obvious that the inheritance language is what we have already seen later in the letter, the language of the promised land. If we are in any doubts then Paul removes uncertainty with the phrase “until we acquire possession of it”.
Genesis 17:8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
Deuteronomy 1:8 See, I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them.’
and so on. The language here, then, is exactly the same as that referred to later on by Paul in 6:1-4. The Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the promise that we receive in salvation (indeed it is our salvation) and we wait to inherit, we await until we aquire possession. At this point we should also note that the promise is also tied in with the even earlier promise to Abram in Gen 12 where the Land and the blessing of all the families of the earth are tied together.
Genesis 12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Paul speaks of promise again and here we will see the multicultural aspect of the promise more clearly. Speaking to the Gentile Ephesians he says:
Ephesians 2:12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Again, the gospel is expressed in terms of the promises to Israel. Now the Gentiles may be included in the promises to the Jews and also inherit the Land/New Creation.
And, one more time:
Ephesians 3:6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Again, inclusion of the Gentiles, fellow heirs (the language of inheritance, i.e. the Land), and participation in the promise.
So, we return to where we started.
Ephesians 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise – the promise of the land which we now understand to signify the New Creation), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the New Creation.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
So, if it’s somehow all about the gospel (and not just keeping tight behaviour at home) then what does it mean for us fathers? Well, surely it is important that we teach our children about this promise in order that they may truly live long in the land. And this certainly appears to be what Paul is alluding to with that phrase “bring them up”. The greek is ‘ektrepho’, to feed or nourish, and Paul has (suprise, suprise) already used the term in a very similar context:
Ephesians 5:28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,
For Paul this nourishing involved washing our wives “of water with the word” (the same word, no doubt, that converted us in 1:13). No suprise, then, that the same language is used of our duty as fathers to our children.
What would, at the end of the day (for there will be an end, there will come a Day) exasperate our children most? (Of course, this is not to deny he need for discipline in the house (just ask my children) but there is something more here, something far more exasperating than inconsistent or harsh discipline). To not nourish our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord is to deny them the very promise of the New Creation. Way back when the promises were originally given that was a key role of the father and when they failed whole generations missed out on what was promised to their fathers.
So, Fathers, do not exasperate your children. Nourish them by instructing them in the gospel, in the promises of the Lord. And, as you teach them how God has been gracious, be gracious yourselves.
And, possibly, we will have the immense privilege of being in some small way a father just like Abram was and, because of that same promise, perhaps one more family of the earth will be blessed.
David Ould, 4 April 2006
David tries hard not to exasperate Ethan…,