Law,  Old Testament

Connecting God’s Authority and Human Authority

Within the Ten Commandments, commandments 1-4 deal with God’s relationship with man, a vertical component; and commandments 5-10 deal with man’s relationship with man, a horizontal component. The fifth commandment specifically is a bridge which connects the authority of God with human authority.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

Exodus 20:12
photo of parents and kids representing God's authority structure

God’s Delegated Authority

The essence of the fifth commandment is that God has created the world and has designed authority structures inherent within it. Thus, Israel is to respect those authority structures. The most foundational and important of which is the parent-child relationship.

A good way to illustrate that this commandment is broadening its scope beyond just parent-child relationships is to examine Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy’s structure is in the form of a suzerain-vassal treaty, which contains general stipulations (Deut 5-11) and specific stipulations (Deut 12-26) which explain in detail how to apply the general stipulations. Within the specific stipulations section, Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22 deal with the fifth commandment. That section can roughly be broken up as follows:

LawsPassage
Laws for JudgesDeuteronomy 16:18-17:7
Laws for PriestsDeuteronomy 17:8-17:13
Laws for KingsDeuteronomy 17:14-20
Laws for LevitesDeuteronomy 18:1-8
Laws for ProphetsDeuteronomy 18:9-22

Clearly this entire section reflects application of authority beyond parents. This was the structure of authority laid out for Israel, built upon the fact that God is the ultimate authority, and He has established human authority. The parent-child relationship is the foundational stage in which a child learns he or she is not the ruler of the universe. The child learns that authority must be obeyed. However, this applications stretches far beyond only the parent-child relationship.

Modern Authority and Application

Importantly, God’s created order has not changed. Neither has the fact that He has ordained authority structures. This is affirmed in a number of New Testament passages. For example, Romans 13:1 commands everyone to be subject to the governing authorities because God has established them. 1 Peter 2:13 also commands believers to submit to human authority because this is the will of God (v. 15). The implication in both of these passages is that by obeying the God-given authorities in our life we demonstrate to the world that we believe there is a higher authority who has established these earthly authorities.

Certainly Jesus realized this in John 19:11 when He told Pilate that he had no authority apart from what God gave. The implications of this train of thought are important. If we shrug off governing authority by cheating on our taxes, or even something as simple as speaking evil of the authorities God has placed in our life, then we are not being obedient to this creation principle.

Even Paul held to this principle in the New Covenant era when he repented for speaking evil of the high priest (cf. Acts 23:5). Thus, we should treat our governing authorities with respect, even when they may act foolishly and sinfully. It is not for their sake we do this. We reflect our belief that God is in charge of human authority.

Paul acknowledges that this principle still applies with just as much force in the parent-child relationship (Eph 6:1-3). This makes sense given what we noted above, that the family is the foundational authority construct in which human beings must learn about authority relationships. Wise parents realize that unless their child learns to respect and obey them, he or she will never respect and obey their Creator. It is a sad thing that some parents are consumed with catering to their child’s whims. The best thing a parent can do is to teach their child he or she must respect the authority that God has given him.

I am so thankful that my parents raised me this way. In fact, they always used to tell me, “Our job is to be your parents not to be your friends.” Of course, the irony is that today they are among my best friends! It is God’s creative design that all authority ultimately flows from Him, and the primary example of this remains today in the parent-child relationship.

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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