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The life and legacy of Moses: Honor people—or dishonor God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:12-14

Do you remember the game show Family Feud? 100 people were surveyed on a subject. Then two families, five members each, tried to guess the most popular answers on these surveys. Richard Dawson’s “Survey says…” was the “Is that your final answer?” of the day. The game show aired from 1976 to 1985, was revived again in 1988 for one season, and aired again briefly several years ago. But the title describes our culture even more fully today than it did 25 years ago.

Our relationships need help. Fortunately, God cares. That’s why he gave us the last six commandments. Today we’ll survey more material than one lesson can use, as you select those relational truths which your class most needs to hear.

Honor your parents (Exodus 20:12)

“Honor,” the commandment begins. The word means to respect or venerate. “Your father and mother,” God continues. In a world which relegated women to inferior status, this inclusion is significant. And note that Leviticus 19:3 restates it this way: “Each of you must respect his mother and father.” Here the mother is even listed first.

So that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you,” the commandment concludes. The first meaning of this promise is that the nation of Israel would be secure in her society and land if she kept this commandment. But there are other meanings as well, as we will see in a moment.

Why honor our parents? Note that God’s word makes the fifth commandment binding for all time. Leviticus 19:3 says, “Each of you must respect his mother and father.” None of us are excluded, no matter the circumstances of our situation. We’ll say more about this in a moment. The book of Proverbs adds, “If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness” (20:20); and also this gruesome hyperbole, “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures” (31:17).

The New Testament is clear as well. Jesus renewed this commandment when he told the Rich Young Ruler, “honor your father and mother” (Matthew 19:19), and he severely criticized the religious leaders of his day for not honoring and supporting their parents (Mark 7:9-13). The epistles are clear: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord. Honor your father and mother” (Ephesians 6:1-2); “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).

We need to keep this commandment for the sake of our souls, our families, and our future. This is indeed how to “live long” on the earth. Perhaps this brief tale from the Brothers Grimm will make the point. Once upon a time there was a little old man. His eyes blinked and his hands trembled; when he ate he clattered the silverware, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth. He lived with his married son, and this son and his wife soon decided that they could not have such a distraction at their table.

So they led the little old man gently but firmly by the arm to the corner of the kitchen. There they set him on a stool and gave him his food in a bowl. But one day his hands trembled even more than usual, and the bowl fell and broke. His son and daughter-in-law, in anger and distress, then made a little wooden trough and fed him out of that. It was terrible to see him eating as would an animal, but that’s the way things were.

One day the couple’s four-year-old son was playing intently with some bits of wood, so they asked him what he was doing. “I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling at them for approval, “to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big.”

The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, then they cried a little, then they took the little old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded when he clattered or spilled or broke things.

We need the fifth commandment, for our lives, our families, and our future.

What about dishonorable parents? But before we find practical ways to honor our parents, we need briefly to ask a hard question: what if our parents are not honorable? What if they try to keep us from following Christ or otherwise doing what is right? What then?

Sometimes we must choose which commandment to break. When Corrie ten Boom’s family was harboring Jews, one day the Nazis banged on their door and asked if they had Jews in their house. Which commandment will they break—the sixth commandment, not to murder, or the ninth commandment, not to lie?

Jesus made it clear that following him would sometimes cause conflict with our family. His own family misunderstood him early in his ministry. And he specifically told his followers, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37).

This tragedy happened often to early Christians who had to refuse their father’s order to reject Christ, even to the point of death. In Jewish society as well, when a son turned from his father’s faith he became dead unto him. I had a student at Southwestern Seminary whose Orthodox Jewish family held a burial service for him when he came to Christ. There is a tombstone in New York with his name on it today.

Ephesians 6:1 is clear: “Obey your parents in the Lord.” Martin Luther had to refuse his father’s wishes that he become a lawyer, to become a minister. Thomas Aquinas’s family locked him in the family castle for a year in their attempt to prevent his entering the ministry. Francis Schaeffer’s father forbade his starting L’Abri.

Unfortunately, we must sometimes choose between our earthly father and our heavenly Father. In these situations the first commandment is clear: we can have no god but God. Not even our parents. But, these situations occur far less often today than they did in Jesus’ day. I’ve seen only a handful of circumstances in my years in ministry where a child really had no choice except to disobey his parents in order to obey God.

If this is the situation for some in your class, invite them to ask God to show them what to do. And to be patient. Perhaps their parents will change over time. It is always too soon to give up on them. We are to honor our parents in every way we can, so long as we honor our Father. I liked what one Christian said. His father was a drunkard, and so he said, “I always want to honor the man I want my father to be.”

Insofar as we can honor our parents without dishonoring God, we must do so. This is the clear teaching of his word.

How do we keep the fifth commandment today?

We are clearly to honor our parents—to prize them, respect them, find ways to value them today. How?

Act. Note that the commandment does not say, “Love your parents.” God’s word tells us to love God, the stranger, and our neighbor, but nowhere are we told specifically to love our parents. Why not? Because the best way to show love for our parents is to honor and obey them. This matters far more than any words or material gifts we might give to them.

We act into feeling, we don’t feel into acting. Don’t wait until you feel love for your mother or father—find a loving thing to do. Find a way to honor him or her. When we honor our parents, we find that we feel a new level of appreciation for them. So, find a way to honor them today.

Thank them. Thank your parents for the life they have given to you, and for the ways they provide for you still. Current estimates are that it costs the average parent nearly $300,000 to raise one child from infancy to age 18; that doesn’t count the costs of college, which often exceed $300,000. Take the initiative. When parents have to ask their children to say thanks, it doesn’t mean nearly as much. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are good, but not enough.

Bill Hybels tells about cleaning out his father’s desk after he died. He and his brother found note pads, files, stacks of legal documents attesting to the scope of his business responsibilities. But in the top drawer on the right-hand side, he found a collection of letters which seemed to occupy a position of honor. There, neatly grouped in rubber bands, were all the letters he, his brother and sisters had ever written to him. What would you find in your parents’ home today?

Obey them in the Lord. As we have seen, the Scriptures are clear here.

Support them when you can. As the population lives longer than ever before, more and more children are parenting their parents. This is often hard, but always right. God’s word is clear: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. 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” (1 Timothy 5:3-4); “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (v. 8).

Last, remember them when they’re gone. We continue to wear their name, and to reflect on them with our lives. We will bring honor or dishonor to our parents, as long as we live. I really like something my wife tells our boys: we belong to everyone who loves us. This fact should affect our decision, as long as we live. For our parents’ sake, and for our own as well.

Honor life (Exodus 20:13)

The national prison and jail population in 1980 was 501,900. For last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics projects it to be 2,014,000. Recent demographics in North Dallas list crime as the greatest single fear we feel. A few weeks ago, my neighbor’s car was vandalized; recently one of our members had her purse stolen from her house; since the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting, we know that even churches are not guaranteed safety.

The problem is not just with our society, but with our personal lives and relationships. Mother Teresa said that the greatest epidemic in America is not AIDS or cancer but loneliness. Isolated, hurting people, in strained marriages and families and relationships, are all around us. Even this morning.

Where are you at odds with someone today? When I ask you about the problem people in your life, what person comes to mind first? God wants to help you with that person, and to help us as a society. That’s why he gave us the sixth commandment.

What not to do

Our text today is very simple. The sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments are each expressed in only two Hebrew words: “No murder, no adultery, no stealing.” “You” is plural, including us all. “Shall not” is a present-tense command. Not a suggestion or principle but a law. In the present tense, thus applying today, and tomorrow, and for all time.

“Murder” is the key word in the sixth commandment. What does it mean? This is not the typical Hebrew word for “kill.” This word, ratzah, appears forty-seven times in the Old Testament, each time with reference to premeditated and intentional murder. This word and commandment does not prohibit defending ourselves (Exodus 22:2), accidental killings (Deuteronomy 19:5), involvement in war (Deuteronomy 13:15), or capital punishment (Genesis 9:6). But it prohibits us from all other killing, for any other reason.

However, most of us have never killed anyone and certainly don’t intend to. So why waste time dealing with this issue? Why not move on? Before we decide we’re free to bypass the sixth commandment, perhaps we should remember what Jesus said about it. If we are “angry” with our brother we are subject to the same judgment as if we murder him (Matthew5:22). If we call him “Raca,” an Aramaic term of contempt, something like “Good for nothing!” we must answer to judgment. If we call him “fool,” the worst form of contempt in the ancient world, a term which means that he is immoral and corrupt in the extreme, we deserve the same penalty as Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolf Hitler.

Is anyone you know angry with someone? Calling them names? Branding them immoral failures? Apparently there are many ways to “murder.” Why are they wrong?

Scripture gives us at least three reasons.

First, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And so, to hurt a person is to hurt God. This is like attacking your child or spouse. To hurt my wife or sons is to attack me. And 1 Corinthians 3:17 says that we are the “temple” of God. If I attack your house I attack you. If I attack you I attack the God who dwells in you. If we don’t want to hurt God, we’ll keep the sixth commandment.

A second reason harming others is prohibited is that we are to treat others the way we want to be treated. This is the famous Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), and it’s still the best way to live. The German Protestant pastor Martin Neimoeller said, “The Nazis came for the Communists, but I wasn’t a Communist so I didn’t object. They came for Socialists, but I wasn’t a Socialist so I didn’t object. They came for trade union leaders, but I wasn’t a union leader so I didn’t object. They came for the Jews, but I wasn’t a Jew, so I didn’t object. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to object.”

If we want to treat others as we want to be treated, we’ll keep the sixth commandment.

A third reason hurting others is prohibited is this: how we treat the person we hold in lowest esteem is how we treat Jesus. In Matthew 25 Jesus spoke of the hungry which weren’t fed, the thirsty not given a drink, the stranger not invited in, the naked not clothed, the prisoner not visited, and said, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). If we want to treat others as we would Jesus, we’ll keep the sixth commandment.

What to do with problem people

We all know someone we could call a “problem person.” Jesus’ commentary on the sixth commandment gives us the help we need in seeking health and healing with them.

First, release your anger (Matthew 5:22). When Jesus tells us not to be “angry” with our brother, he uses a very specific Greek word, orgizesthai, which means long-lived, cherished, nursed wrath and anger. This is not thumos, the word for short-lived angry emotions, but the word for anger we choose to hold onto and feed.

Jesus does not tell us not to feel angry, but not to hold onto that anger. We cannot help our feelings, but we can manage them. Luther said we cannot keep the birds from flying over our heads, but we can keep them from nesting in our hair. So, refuse to hold onto your anger. Ask God to help you let it go today.

Take the initiative to heal (Matthew 5:23-24). To put Jesus’ words in our context, if you are on your way into the sanctuary for worship and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave church, drive to his house, and make things right. Only then should you come in here to worship God. Not if you have something against him—if he has something against you. Take the initiative to heal the relationship.

Do it now (Matthew5:25-26). Again in our terms, if someone is suing you and you’re in the wrong, settle before you get to court. It will cost you far less now than then. It will never be easier to make things right than it is today.

Choose to pardon (Matthew5:38-42). Jesus’ words relate to an insult, as when someone slaps you on the right cheek with the back of his hand or a Roman soldier makes you carry his pack for him. You can retaliate, but you only hurt yourself. To forgive is to pardon. It is not to pretend you’re not hurt, or excuse the hurt, but choose not to punish the one who hurt you. Ask God to help you choose to pardon, for his sake and for yours.

Last, pray for the person (Matthew 5:43-44). This is sometimes the only thing you can do, but it is always the best thing you can do. And it is hard, perhaps impossible, to hurt those we are praying for. Pray for the problem person in your life, today.

Honor marriage (Exodus 20:14)

There are half as many divorces granted in a given year in America as marriages performed. One fourth of our adult population has been divorced. 53% of Americans said on a recent anonymous survey that they would have an affair if given the chance. 92% of sexually active people say they have had ten or more partners in their lives.

Marriage today is a game, played for our amusement, and many of us think we can change the channel whenever we want. God knows better. He wants us to be pure and holy. He has given us all we need to defeat the temptations of our culture, and offers us hope even when we fail. Let’s see what he says.

What is adultery? Martin Luther had picturesque ways of putting things. As relates to our topic today, for instance, he once said, “If your head is made of butter, don’t sit by the fire.” On another occasion he declared, “You cannot prevent the devil from shooting arrows of evil thoughts into your heart; but take care that you do not let such arrows stick and grow there.”

We’re going to use his metaphor for our study. So, our first question: what is adultery? What is this “arrow” the enemy fires at us? Jewish law defined adultery as voluntary sexual relations between a married person and someone other than the lawful spouse. That much is clear. But there’s more.

Adultery is not the only kind of sexual sin forbidden by God’s word:

Colossians 3:5: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.”

1 Corinthians 5:9,11: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. . . . but now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.”

1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Satan has many such arrows.

And Jesus condemns them even further. In the Sermon on the Mount, he articulates the purest standard to be found in all of literature: “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Jesus forbids immoral action, and even immoral thoughts, as arrows from Satan. Why?

Why is adultery wrong? There are three basic answers to our question.

First, sexual immorality destroys the family. Dr. Frank Pittman, an internationally renowned expert on sexuality and marriage, reported recently in the New York Times that in thirty-seven years of practice as a therapist, he has encountered only two cases of first marriages ending in divorce where adultery was not involved.

Of those who break up their marriages to marry someone else, 80% are sorry later. Only 10% actually marry the person with whom they had an affair. 70% of those who do later get another divorce. Sexual immorality is an arrow to the heart of your family and home.

Second, sexual impurity destroys our witness. The only credibility for a Christian is his or her character. If that is ruined, our witness and ministry is ruined. And Satan knows this—he is a great economist. If we can get me or you to sin sexually, even one time, he knows that our witness and ministry will be ruined, perhaps forever.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that the great failures among prominent ministers in recent years have been sexual in nature? Aren’t these Satan’s arrows, fired at us all?

Third, sexual impurity destroys our spiritual lives, our souls. Listen to these profound words from Proverbs: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished” (Proverbs 6:27-29). This is an arrow to the soul.

How do we defeat this temptation?

God has given us some shields to use when we’re being attacked.

First, agree with God that sexual immorality is wrong. Refuse to accept the culture of our day, the “sexual revolution” characterized by the slogans, “Just do it” and “If it feels good, do it.” Hollywood is wrong. The advertisers who simply want to make money off us are wrong. Sexual immorality is wrong.

The Cherokee Indians, in their marriage ceremony, would join hands across a running stream to signify that their lives would flow together forever. And “white men” called them primitive! Agree with God that all sexual immorality is wrong.

Second, guard your heart. This is Satan’s target. Jesus warned us not to “look at a woman lustfully” (Matthew 5:28). The Greek here does not refer to natural, normal human instincts, but to the man who looks at a woman with the deliberate intention of lusting after her. This is not about the first look, but the second.

We are to do whatever it takes to keep this sin from growing in our hearts and souls. In the next verses (Matthew 5:29,30) Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away….And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” This is rabbinic hyperbole, overstatement to make this point: we must do whatever it takes to keep from sinning.

Turn off the television set. Walk out of the movie. Cancel the magazine subscription. Block immoral internet sites. Change your friends. Change your job. Do whatever it takes to remove this cancer before it kills your soul. Say “no” to sin, now.

Third, get help. I believe every Christian needs an accountability relationship with someone. We need to empower someone to ask us the hard questions, to tell us when they see us going down the wrong road, to support and strengthen us with total confidence. Start with someone you already trust; covenant to make a time to be together this week; begin by sharing something with each other you’d not share with others. Ask God to help you help each other. And if you’re in trouble here already, get help.

Here’s the bottom line: run. 1 Corinthians 6:18 says, “Flee from sexual immorality.” If you think you’re the one person in all of human history who can get away with this, know that you’re being deceived. My college professor was right: if we say “maybe” to sin, eventually we’ll say “yes” to it. If we turn down the lights, our eyes adjust to the dark. As do our souls. Stop now. Run, now.

What if you’ve sinned? What if it’s too late? What if you’ve already fallen here, if the arrow has already pierced your heart and home? God’s word gives us the help and hope we need. His Spirit can pull out the arrows of the enemy, and heal their wounds.

The first thing to do is to turn to God. You may think your failure has forever ended God’s love and care for you. Nothing could be further from the truth. Read this verse of Scripture: after citing the “sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes and homosexual offenders,” Paul says to the Corinthians: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). It’s never too late to turn to God. He can pull out arrows we cannot.

Next, with God’s help, you must make right what is wrong. Get out of the relationship, now. The arrow will never be easier to remove than it is today.

Third, ask God to help you make things right with others. Who else has been hurt by your arrows? We need forgiveness from all those we have harmed, unless asking for that forgiveness would hurt them further.

Gordon MacDonald is an example for us. This well-known pastor committed the tragic sin of adultery. Immediately he confessed this single act to his wife, then to his entire congregation. He resigned his pulpit, and entered into years of counseling and accountability. Over time another church called him as their pastor; then several years later, his original church invited him back as their pastor again. He serves there today, and has a national ministry to hurting souls and broken lives.

God can redeem anything, given the chance. But we must be willing to make things right with all those we have wronged. Luther was right—the arrows of the enemy don’t have to kill us. God stands ready to help. But we must choose to let him, now.