Beyond the Letter of the Law
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Matthew 5:18NKJV
This week we consider two questions from the Larger Catechism. Question 123 teaches us that the fifth commandment is “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Then Question 124 asks, “Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?” It gives the answer, “By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age, and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.” Today we notice how the Ten Commandments summarize our entire moral duty before almighty God.
In the Larger Catechism, the Westminster Divines give eleven questions and answers to explain the Fifth Commandment. That is four more than they use for the next closest commandment (the Fourth has seven), and it more than doubles all the rest. Why is that the case? Well here, more than in any other place, the Divines spell out for us the broader implications of the Law of God. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that it is the moral duty of the Christian to keep not merely the letter of the Law in our words and actions, but we must embrace the spirit of the law in our thoughts and in our hearts. Thus, it is not enough to refrain from overt acts of adultery or murder. The truly godly person must not allow lust or sinful anger to dwell in his heart (Matt. 5:21-28). Accordingly, over and over again our Lord rebuked and warned against the great sin of the Pharisees, scribes, priests, and other Jewish religious leaders: hypocrisy. They were those who worshipped God with their lips, while their hearts were far from Him (Matt. 15:8; Mar. 7:6). They were like those who washed the outside parts of cups and dishes, but inwardly they were full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:39). They acted like they were the great defenders of the Law of God, but they actually rejected God’s Law for the sake of their man-made traditions (Matt. 15:6; Mark 7:9).
God’s people are not to be like the leaders of Israel were during the time of Christ’s earthly life: acting like they love what they actually hate. We are to love God’s Law in the inward man (Rom. 7:22). Moreover, if I truly love God’s law, I will not want less of it but more! I will not seek to do the bare minimum, but I will seek to apply God’s law to every thought, desire, and intention of my heart. If I want to imitate my Savior by loving righteousness and hating iniquity (Heb. 1:9), I will seek to fully flesh out every one of God’s commandments as to the full implications and ramifications of what each one is communicating, so that I can have in my heart and life more of what I love: righteousness, and less of what I hate: iniquity. Thus, the godly man will not merely be satisfied to refrain from bowing down to statues, but he will constantly be examining his heart to eradicate any affection for idols. The faithful man will not simply avoid physical adultery, but he will guard his mind from lusting after another woman. The honest man will not only avoid stealing, but he will not accept rewards or credit that he has not earned.
So also, in applying the Fifth Commandment, the godly person will not merely honor his parents, but he will render to everyone the honor that is due to him, according to his relationship to that person in that situation. That means, as the Catechism here teaches, everyone who is superior to, that is to say, greater than us in ability, age, or position, is to be given the honor that they thereby deserve. What could be more just than that? That every person is to render to every other person exactly what they deserve! If only our world kept this one commandment. There would be no jealously, no strife, no hurt feelings, mistrust, slander, gossip, backbiting, conniving, disparaging. There would be no nepotism in the workplace, no character assassinations in politics or the media. Everyone would deal with everyone else according to truth, according to honor, according to justice, and the world would know a sincere and true peace like it has never known! may God grant that you and I strive to keep this and all of God’s commandments from our hearts.