The first words in Ephesians 6 are, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). The question which serves as our article’s title is based on the next two verses: “Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with promise: that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2,3).
The background to our inquiry concerning the message of Ephesians 6 is found in the law of Moses. A number of times, God through Moses promised the Israelites that if they would do certain things, He would prolong their days/lives in the land of Canaan. Under the old law, there were a number of material blessings associated with obedience. For instance, God promised to bless His people with rain, bountiful crops, an abundance of food, safety, and peace (Leviticus 26:3-6). God would bless them by causing their bodies to be fruitful and causing their animals to multiply (Deuteronomy 28:1-4). In addition, God promised longevity to the Israelites.
As part of the Ten Commandments, here is an Old Testament teaching about the lives of Israelites being prolonged: “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16).
Similar language about prolonged lives for the obedient is found in the same context, in Deuteronomy 5:33: “You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.” The same promise, in essence, is found in Deuteronomy 4:40 – obey God and your life will be prolonged on the earth/in the land. Again, we find the same thoughts in Deuteronomy 6:1,2,18 – obey the Lord and you will possess the promised land and have prolonged lives.
It is easy to see the similarity between the language found in Ephesians 6:2,3 (quoted above) and what is written in the Deuteronomy verses we noted. To honor one’s parents was not the first command in the old law, but it was the first command in the Ten Commandments which had a promise attached to it.
Under the new covenant, should we expect each well-behaved child who honors his parents to live a long time on the earth? Not necessarily. In principle, children who are reared to obey and honor their parents will develop good habits such as self- respect, self-control, obedience to law and authority figures, abstinence from things harmful to the body, and a general concern for taking care of their body (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). However, observation of what transpires in life reminds us that well-behaved kids also can get sick and die from a sickness. Children who love and honor their parents can be involved in accidents and lose their lives when they are young.
The promise for Israel under the law of Moses was plentiful crops which provided an abundance of food for the Israelites when they obeyed God. Under Jesus’ teaching, the promise is not of material abundance, but that God will supply what dedicated disciples need (Matthew 6:33; Philippians 4:19).
Under the old law, God promised the Israelites that if they would obey Him, no diseases would come upon them like they had the Egyptians (Exodus 15:26). That promise no longer applies under the new covenant. We read that Timothy, a faithful servant of God, had frequent infirmities (1 Timothy 5:23). We should look at the reference to prolonged days for a child who honors his parents (Ephesians 6:2,3) in the same light: there is no literal fulfillment today.
The apostle James was imprisoned, but the Lord did not deliver him. James was put to death by Herod (Acts 12). On the other hand, Paul was imprisoned a number of times and the Lord did deliver him. Why the difference? Does this prove that Paul was more faithful to God? Not at all. It was God’s will to keep Paul alive in all of those instances . . . may the Lord’s will be done. In some cases, wicked men live much longer than the righteous do. We may not understand it totally, but one’s longevity proves nothing.
When it comes to explanations, we like to have things in a neat little package. We like cause and effect. We like having clear-cut reasons for the results we observe. Not everything in life is like that.
— Roger D. Campbell