As those of you who attended last week’s Wednesday
Lenten services will remember, this year we are focusing on two of the Ten
Commandments at each of our midweek services. Last week we covered the 1st
and 2nd commandments, and today we move on to the 3rd and
In our way of numbering the commandments, covering the
3rd and 4th commandments together makes for what seems to
be a rather odd pairing. Some of you may recall that the first three
commandments primarily govern our relationship with God, and the last seven
pertain to our dealings with our fellow human beings. This is generally how we
divide the Decalogue into its two tables, often represented artistically on two
There is ample scriptural evidence, of course, for
this division. Both Old Testament and New communicate the sense of these two
tables; that the Ten Commandments can be summarized into two great commandments
as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your
strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God; love your neighbor.
Simple as that!
How we might wish that it was just that simple to
carry out those commandments, or even to have an adequate understanding of
their intent and our responsibilities under them! Alas; we cannot. Read and
study and listen though we might, you and I still wrestle with determining who
and what is our God and our neighbor, and what it is to properly love them.
Although this division of the commandments into two
tables has existed for centuries, the break point between 3rd and 4th
commandments isn’t quite so clear in practice. The observance of the Sabbath
does focus primarily on the worship of God. Yet we know that worship is to be
done in Christian communities, where a fellowship of believing neighbors gathers
around Word and Sacrament to be uplifted and served by the Lord. Then,
refreshed, we are to go forth and serve our neighbors both in and out of the
Likewise, the 4th commandment seems
tailored to govern the activities that take place within families,
organizations, communities, and nations. Honor, respect, and obedience are to
be granted to those in authority over us in carrying out those activities.
Yet it is abundantly clear from the Scriptures that
these leaders—beginning with the father and mother within the God-ordained
family structure—have been granted their authority by the God who rules over
all things. It is through His delegation of a small portion of His unlimited
power that human activities function in good order.
So, while the boundary between the two tables of the
Law is a convenient indicator that helps us understand their primary intent,
it’s impossible to consider the 3rd commandment without concern for
the neighbor, or to understand the 4th commandment without
appreciating the role God has in its proper exercise.
We know that as Christians, Christ has fulfilled all
the requirements of the Law for us. Likewise, His words in the Scriptures
indicate that He is the Lord of the Sabbath, and that we are no longer bound to
gather in worship on the last day of the week as were the Israelites of old.
Yet we are still called to worship and serve the Lord,
and to observe a day as the Lord commanded. For the sake of good order in the
Church, a day is still set aside in which Christians gather to praise and
worship God, and to join in receiving His gifts for our salvation and our
earthly strengthening. In our time, the day chosen is the first day of the
week, in observance of the Lord’s resurrection.
There’s a practical as well as a spiritual dimension
to having a Sabbath day, of course. Our heavenly Father knows our weakness and
our frailty, and grants us this day of rest as a source of renewal of body and
mind as well as spirit. What we often see, however, are people focusing on use
of this day as nothing more than a way to recover, renew, and relax from
worldly duties and struggles, with little regard for their desperate need for
spiritual recovery or growth.
Certainly God doesn’t intend for our Sabbaths to be a
joyless and burdensome time. On the other hand, it’s not His desire that we
take this great gift and use it to reject His rightful expectation of honor and
respect, either. Nor that we reject His even greater gifts: The restoring and
saving Word and Sacrament He has given to His Church to convey to His people.
In a sense, every day is one in which we ought to rejoice in our reception of
these great blessings. However, it is our particular pleasure to be able to
focus specifically on experiencing them together as His people, on the day
appointed for our gathering and receiving them.
Like all things created by God, the Sabbath is His own
holy gift, needing nothing from us to make it holy. Luther writes in the Large
God wants [the Sabbath] to be
holy to you. So it becomes holy or unholy on your account, according [to whether] you spend the day doing holy or
We not only ought to seek to keep it holy, but also to
let it become a holy blessing to us. We are to take the opportunity, as the
Small Catechism teaches, to hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn
it. That Word is, as Luther wrote, the only truly holy thing we acknowledge
and have; it is the treasure that sanctifies all things.
The true value of the Sabbath is not the rest it
provides, for many unbelievers, too, take time from their worldly work for the
physical and mental break at least one day a week. The main thing is that, in
addition to the right and true need for renewal in body and mind, we must have
the Word of God conveyed to us in such a way that we are made holy, too. That
comes from not just gladly hearing the Word, but gladly learning it also—from
being exposed to it frequently enough that it becomes a part of who we are, and
not something foreign and strange to us.
For, if we are not soaked deeply in the Word, if we
have not yet mastered it and made it our own, we are continually at great risk
of the devil’s efforts to lead us astray. Keeping the Sabbath, then, is the
primary way of holding God’s Word in high esteem. When we do that, we are more
attuned to hold His name in high esteem, too—which keeps the 2nd
Commandment. And in keeping His name hallowed, we likewise are more likely to
keep Him foremost in our hearts and minds, fulfilling the 1st
Commandment to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.
The 4th Commandment marks that shift in
focus mentioned earlier: from those commandments of primary concern for our
relationship to God to those which more directly govern our relationships with
others. Specifically, the 4th Commandment describes our
relationship with our father and mother in the narrow sense, but viewing it
with the lens of Scripture, it also includes all those into whom God has
entrusted our care, growth, and safety.
With the parent-child relationship as our pivot point,
we see parents not only as the representatives of God which He designates to
guide and care for us. We also begin to see them as the point of departure for
all human authority in workplace, school, government, and church. In all cases
and at all levels, that human authority has its origins in the authority God
has delegated to parents.
Luther describes the honor due parents and other
authorities as being much greater and more difficult than love. Honor, he
wrote, not only includes love but also requires the addition of such attributes
as deference, humility, and modesty. Although it is difficult for us to
comprehend sometimes as we see all the flaws and human failings in parents and
all earthly authorities, it is essential that we recognize that hidden within
their outward appearance is the majesty of God’s own heavenly power, given to
them for our benefit.
It’s often said that one can choose one’s friends, but
not one’s family. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our connection with
parents. Even so, while we didn’t choose into which family we would be born,
God did. For us to question His wisdom by denying the honor due to the parents
He has given us is no small sin. By such questions, we put ourselves in judgment
of the Lord.
Will our parents and other authorities fail often and
badly at carrying out God’s will for our good? Will even their proper and
godly actions at times irritate and anger us? Absolutely! Such is the sinful
nature of parent and child alike. Yet such failures do not break our
obligation to love and honor them, for they remain God’s servants for our good.
And we remain the servants of our parents and of the
other authorities who act in their stead for as long as they are in place, for
all of these are the agents of God. Obedience, respect, and service to these
leaders are in accordance with the will of God. Performing the tasks they give
us both willingly and well can therefore be understood to be doing the service
of God, provided these tasks are in according with His will.
In extending the concept of godly parents over broader
aspects of our lives, Luther considered that there were several sorts of
“fathers” with whom we interact. First, there are our fathers by blood; that
is, the actual leadership of parents in the family. Second, what Luther termed
“fathers of households.” We would take these to be those who lead over
organizations in which we carry out our livelihoods: In schools, companies,
the community, and other organizations. Third, “fathers of nations” would
include leaders of governmental agencies, exercising authority over the affairs
And, lastly, “spiritual fathers,” those in the Church
who watch over our souls and point the way to Christ, who is the head of all.
Each of these is due an appropriate measure of love, respect, and obedience
that grows from our desire as God’s children to honor God Himself.
While much is said about the duty of children—and all
of us—to honor and respect our parents and other authorities, not much is
mentioned within the Ten Commandments portion of the catechism regarding the
other side of the coin; that is, the obligations of the authorities over those
they lead. Nevertheless, Scripture and other Lutheran confessional writings
make it clear that, when acting as God’s agents and messengers, parents and
those whom God places in the parents’ roles are strictly accountable to Him.
Foolishness or cruelty or other detrimental behavior violates God intentions
for the care of that which is entrusted to us. It also does not show His love
to our neighbor; even to the least of those whom Christ calls brothers and
A quote from the Large Catechism conveys the sense of
what it means to exercise proper parental responsibility: “If we
want qualified and capable men for both civil and spiritual leadership, we must
spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to
serve God and mankind. We must not think only of amassing money and property
for them. God can provide for them and make them rich without our help, as
indeed He does daily. But He has given and entrusted children to us with the
command that we train and govern them according to His will; otherwise God
would have no need of father and mother. Therefore let everybody know that it
is his chief duty, on pain of losing divine grace, to bring up his children in
the fear and knowledge of God, and if they are gifted to give them opportunity
to learn and study so that they may be of service wherever they are needed.”
We understand—or at least we should—that we sorely
fail to keep the Sabbath holy, to love and respect and honor our parents and
other authorities, and to properly exercise leadership over others as God calls
us to do. The fulfillment of the Law in these and all things has been
accomplished by Jesus alone, keeping the commandments, submitting Himself to
His earthly parents and to the will of His heavenly Father, and dying in our
place to take the punishment for all our failures.
Thanks be to God for His commandments which show us
our limitations; yet even greater thanks to Him for His limitless mercy in
Christ Jesus. In Him, God gave us rescue from everlasting condemnation for
just such weakness and rebellion. May He continue to draw us closer to Him in
our understanding of that great love. May He guide and support us toward
keeping His commands and sharing His Word, so that all the earth may know His
Gospel and the saving grace it offers. For the sake of Jesus our Savior, and
in His name we pray. Amen.