Thanks for listening to the Ask Pastor John podcast. We get a lot of really good questions via email, and many of them are international listeners, like this one — a heavy question: “Hello Pastor John, I’m Nate from Manila, Philippines, and I’ve struggled with this one question my entire life. My best friend passed away because of meningitis when we were twelve years old, and since then I’ve been doubting how much God keeps his promises. He was a pastor’s kid, grew up in church, loved God — and honored his parents very much. If Ephesians 6:2–3 tells of the commandment with the promise of long life, why does it seem like God didn’t keep it for my best friend?”
I really empathize with Nate, and it is not hard to see how he and his friend would take from Ephesians 6:2–3 the meaning that God promises to each individual child who honors his parents a long life. On the face of it, it seems to say that. Here is what it says. “‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise),” — referring back to Exodus 20:12 — this is the first commandment with promise in the Ten Commandments — “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
Now this is why parents and pastors should teach a full-blown, biblical doctrine of suffering and death, not just later in life, but to children as well. When children die or lose a parent or a sibling or a friend, they need a solid foundation of teaching in order to understand what is happening to them. It is so important that we look very carefully here now at the wording of Ephesians and at the Old Testament context in Exodus 20:12 and at the wider context of Paul and other things he says about long life and death and suffering. It is so important for us. It is so important for our children.
Here are some observations. For example, Jesus was the most obedient Son to his earthly parents and his heavenly Father that ever existed. There never has been a more obedient son or one who honored his Father in heaven and on earth more. And yet Jesus died as a young man. He did not live long on the land, and he tells his followers that they are going to experience similar kinds of suffering. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I did this, but it will never happen to any of you, if you are good enough, like I was good enough.” He never talks like that. In fact, throughout the New Testament, obedience to God, honoring God and keeping his commandments, is correlated with risk and danger and death, not with security and comfort. So we need to teach our children like Paul did in his Discipleship 101 in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations [you] must enter the kingdom.” And some of those tribulations involve, “Some of you they will kill,” as Jesus said (see Luke 21:16).
“Jesus was the most obedient Son to his earthly parents and his heavenly Father that ever existed. And yet Jesus died as a young man.”
And then one thinks of the great promise in Romans 8:28 and 32 that all things will work together for your good and all things will be provided for you, only to be followed in verse 36 — four verses later — by, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;” — and it doesn’t mean only 70-year-olds — “we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (quoting Psalm 44:22). So, when we read Ephesians 6:3, “that it may go well with you,” it sounds very much like Romans 8:28, “for those who love God.” Romans 8:28 says if you love God, everything will “work together for [your] good.” Ephesians 6:3 says if you honor your parents, it will “go well with you.” And “going well with you” in Romans 8:35 means you might be killed for Jesus’s sake. That is what “going well with you” may include.
So, if we have been trained to see these patterns, if children have been shown this, we won’t be as likely to give Ephesians 6:3 a meaning Paul surely did not intend for it to have. In the Old Testament, this promise was made to the people of Israel as a whole that they would endure from generation to generation in the land of promise if they were the kind of people who kept the law and honored their parents. It is not a promise to each individual Israelite who honors his parents that he will live out his full three score and ten. You can read it. You will remain in the land, meaning you, the people of Israel, won’t be swept away into Babylon if you are law-keeping people. And they weren’t, and so they were swept away.
And so my sense is that, when Paul quoted this Old Testament promise, he didn’t mean for it to promise us certain long life for every boy and girl who honors his or her parents. And we should then ask: Well, what does it mean, then, when he says, “ . . . and that you may live long in the land”? If we do apply that to our children or we take it to ourselves as children, what might it mean?
Here is my suggestion: If you put the two halves together, “it will go well with you and you will live long,” I would suggest in view of all we have seen is that it means it will go well with you and you will live as long as it going well with you implies. In other words, “it will go well with you” defines “you will live long,” not the other way around. Living long doesn’t define how it will go well with you. Going well with you defines how long you will live. And that is exactly the way, I think, we should say it to a child who is dying or who has lost a friend or a parent — though we don’t speak glibly or say it without tears — but we do say, “In God’s mind and God’s good heart, it is going well. It is going to go well with you.”
We may choose not to say that at all in the moment of greatest pain. I am not saying that we should be pastorally insensitive at all. I am saying: People, sooner or later — and better sooner before suffering and later, perhaps, during suffering — sooner or later something must be said to the parents who have lost the child or the sibling who lost the brother or sister or, like we have here, a friend who was snatched away.
If God takes a child — he gives and he takes, he gives and he takes — blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). If God takes a child in the most ultimate sense, it has gone well with them and that is what he promised. It will go well for you and you will live as long as is good for you on this earth and then forever in heaven.