In Ephesians 6:4 we read:
And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Today is what has become known as Father’s Day. In this message I want to speak from the Scriptures to the fathers who are listening to encourage you in your calling as leaders in your homes. The text speaks very directly to fathers: “And, ye fathers.”
If we were to ask the question, Whose duty, whose responsibility is it to raise the child?, the answer that God’s Word gives us here is in the way the text confronts fathers: “And, you fathers.” It places that responsibility directly on the shoulders of the fathers. This is not first the mother’s responsibility. It is not the church’s responsibility. It is not something we leave to an institution like a school. Certainly, as Christians we know that it is not the responsibility of society or government to raise our children. Children are not to be left to themselves and to whatever influences they might stumble upon in their lives. They are not to be left to their own sinful natures to raise themselves. No, you fathers. I say, it is confronting.
And it is confronting because, as men, we need to hear this. In the busyness of life and in the pursuit of material things, the years quickly fly by and we do not have much time with our children. Off to work, home weary, effort into many other things, and not much with the children or towards the children. And, besides that, our nature is selfish, so that if we can delegate or abdicate, or if we can walk away and hand over these responsibilities to somebody else and then pursue the things that interest us, that is what our selfish nature will do. And perhaps sometimes in those pursuits, even of legitimate things, we give priority to the wrong legitimate things. You fathers.
Now, seriously, men, do you take this responsibility? How intentional are you in your responsibilities toward your children? How involved are you in their daily life, in their instruction, in their correction? How encouraging are you in their life? Would your children say ten years from now that they were shaped and formed in their childhood by your direct input? You fathers.
Are we leaving too much to our wives? Are we leaving too much to the institutions on which we depend: the church and the school? You fathers.
Our task. That is what we want to look at in this message, primarily from the text. It is expressed both in the negative and the positive. First of all, we want to look at the positive. That is the second part of the verse: “Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I want to give to you at the beginning an alternative translation that I think gets the thoughts more clearly before us. “Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The word “nurture” here is really in the wrong place. What the text is saying literally is this: “Nurture them in the discipline and the admonition of the Lord.”
Positively, this part of the verse puts three main responsibilities before the father: tenderness (that is the nurture), discipline, and instruction.
Bring them up, that is, nurture them. That has the idea of nourishing and cherishing something. That is the word that is used in chapter 5:29 when it says of a man, “No man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.” That is Christ’s love for the church, a man’s love for his wife, and a man’s care for his own physical well-being. And it is saying, This is what you must do, you must nurture, you must cherish your children. We have plants and fish in our house, and they survive only in the right environment. That is the idea: create an environment, a loving environment, that is conducive to the healthy, spiritual, and emotional growth of the child. Be tender. Tend to your children. Understand them. Give them attention. Care for them. Be gentle. Be sympathetic. Show concern. Psalm 103: “The tender love a father has for all his children dear; such love the Lord bestows on them who worship Him in fear.” And the Psalm continues: “He knows our frame, He remembers we are dust. He has not dealt with us according to our iniquities, He is merciful.” This is what it is to be like God as a father: to nurture, to nourish, to cherish, to be tender with your children, to show them that you love them, to create an environment of love in your home.
That begins, of course, with your children knowing you are deeply in love with their mother, so that they see that love, they hear that love communicated, and they want to be drawn into that love. Is that not the way that God Himself loves us? He loves His Son Jesus Christ with a deep and eternal affection. John 1:18 describes the Son as the One who dwells in the bosom of the Father. In John 17, Jesus prays, “That they may know the love that thou hadst for me from before the foundation of the world.” And when, as children of God, we read about the deep affection of the Father and the Son in the Godhead, our hearts yearn for God’s embrace. So will your children. You create that environment, that aroma in your home to nurture them, an environment of love.
I said tenderness, discipline, and admonition. Discipline. The text again: “Nurture them in the discipline and the admonition of the Lord.” This word discipline, translated “nurture” in the King James, has the idea of training through appropriate repeated punishments. It is the word that Pilate used when, in Luke 23:16, he says that he will chastise Jesus and then release Him. He means, of course, that he will exercise some corporal punishment against Him to teach Him. That is the idea here.
Now, this word is very carefully placed here by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures and in this verse. It does not stand all by itself. That is what I want us to see in this message. Two important connections. First, this discipline follows tenderness and love. Discipline can work only where there is first love. Not all discipline that a father would administer toward the child is love. It is true that in the neglect of discipline is the lack of love. He that spares the rod hates his son. But that does not mean that all discipline is an evidence of love. There must first be love, then discipline. It is more important that your child experience your tenderness and your love than your wrath and your anger. The more that they know your love, the deeper they will feel your displeasure. Do your children know, first, your love? So it fits here in the context of tenderness and love.
Then it fits here also in connection with instruction: the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Scripture puts much weight on discipline, but never all by itself. It ought not be without instruction. The rod and reproof, Proverbs says, the rod and reproof give wisdom. The importance of discipline is to enforce the instruction. “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child,” Proverbs 22:15 says, “and the rod of correction will drive it far from him.” It will drive the foolishness from his heart, so that what is taught is impressed on the sinful mind and heart of the child by the discipline. Discipline impresses on the consciousness, the conscience of the child, the seriousness of disobedience. Proverbs 23:14 says that by the rod you save his soul from hell. We can think about two kinds of punishments there—a lesser consequence that is the rod or a greater consequence that is hell. God uses the lesser consequence to save us from the greater. Does not God deal with us in that way in our lives sometimes, too? What a mercy that is. He spares us with a lighter consequence and judgment when we truly deserve something far more severe, so that we are warned against hell and awakened from our sins. So with children. Discipline.
But it cannot stand alone. It follows, it is accompanied by instruction. Whenever we use a rod or discipline, there must be with it appropriate verbal instruction directed at the heart of the child. The child must never think of discipline as simply an expression of Dad’s rage or as a reaction to what he did wrong. The fear of father’s rage all by itself might stop a behavior, but it will not change the heart. The nurture and admonition, the rod and reproof.
When it is called here the “admonition of the Lord,” what it really means is this, that the instruction that we give to our children must be biblical. It must be biblically based. That is the only thing that will be effective with our children. Your wisdom will not reach their heart. All your talking will not bring them to repentance. But God’s Word will do that. II Timothy 3: “That from a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures, which are able [have the power] to make thee wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
And that biblical instruction we can really break down into three main subjects. This helps us to be intentional in what the text calls the admonition of the Lord. What three areas? First, there is the instruction that is aimed at the child’s salvation, or we could say their relationship as they stand before God. Second, that instruction is aimed at their Christian world-view—viewing the world as God’s world and then understanding what sin has done to this world and seeing the effects of sin and living over against that. Then, third, this instruction is aimed at themselves and their own heart and their own lives. So: instruction with regard to God and their relationship with Him, instruction with regard to the world and how they are to understand this world, and then instruction with regard to themselves and their place in this world.
Those can be the questions that are in your mind as you read the Scriptures with your children. Sometimes when we read the Scriptures (we should sit down for family worship, and I know that you do this), we do not always feel equipped to instruct our children. There are three concluding simple questions you can ask with any passage of Scripture: What does this teach us about God and the gospel and Jesus Christ? What does it teach us, in the second place, about the world that we live in? What is going on in this world, the things around us? So, what does it say about God, what does it say about world? And then, what does it say to me, what does it call me to do or to think? When we think through those questions, we are not just thinking in terms of morality, but we are thinking of ourselves as grounded in God’s Word and standing in relation to Him and living over against the world.
Tenderness, discipline, instruction.
And that brings us to the second point of this message: the danger that we face. That is the negative expression at the beginning of the verse: “Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath.”
What this phrase tells us is that being a father is a delicate business. It is something we have to do very carefully, something that we have to do with constant re-evaluation and examination of ourselves, especially when there is a tension between us and our children. Is your child angry? Well, the first thing you should do is look at yourself, apply the principle of Matthew 7, take the beam out of your own eye. Ask the question: Have I provoked my child to wrath? Is it my sin?
Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath. To provoke your children to wrath means that in your sinful behavior, as a father, you produced in the child anger or bitterness. By what you do, you cause the child to become exasperated and irritated. Now, that does not mean that you may never do anything that might upset your child. Sometimes, as you raise your children in a godly way, they are going to be unhappy with you, they are going to be displeased with the discipline or the instruction. And you have to let them know that you are the parent. Understand that, as a father, you are not here to always please your children, but to do what is best for them, and to do that which is pleasing to God. Children by nature are not little angels but are sinners. And if we never go against their will, then we spoil them and we bring up selfish and rebellious children. Proverbs 29:15: A child left to himself brings his mother to shame. God does not say: in your home, peace at all costs. No, you must be a father. You must be intentional in instruction and correction.
But there are ways that fathers can make their children unnecessarily angry. That is what this is talking about. We have to recognize that. We have to recognize that, in our daily life with our children, we are sinners too. If we do not recognize that, we will breed a bitterness that remains, an anger that builds and turns into a resentment towards not only us but also the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” They become discouraged.
You understand here that this provoking to anger, this discouragement, this resentment, this exasperation is not just in the moment, but it is long term. We should not have the attitude, “I am in authority. Regardless of my faults, my children are going to listen to me and to submit to me.” No, as fathers we are under the authority of God and are instruments in His hand. And His Word must govern our conduct towards our children.
So, what are some ways that fathers, especially, can provoke their children to wrath. You see, the instruction here is of course for mothers as well, for parents in general. If you are taking notes, there are five things I will say here, five dangers, five ways that we can provoke our children to wrath.
The first is by overindulgence or spoiling our children. If a child always gets what the child wants, then that child will never learn to respect correction and advice, will never love us. There needs to be this intentional admonition and correction. If we do not administer that, that itself will provoke our children to wrath, will goad him into resentment.
In the second place, we can provoke our children to wrath by being unreasonable in rules and in discipline. We have to be reasonable with our children. We have to communicate with our children. If the rules are not communicated or if the rules are unreasonable, then, when our children are disciplined, they are going to become very angry because they did not know any different. They are not given any instructions. We ought to listen to our children before hastily correcting them—so that there is “due process,” as it were. “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (Prov. 18:13). That is true also in relation to our children. We ought not to be hasty and distant disciplinarians, governed by emotions. Learn patience, with an ear. And also in private. The rule in Scripture is that if you have done something against another (Matt. 18), it should be settled between you and him alone. So it should be as we deal with our children, not to make a fool of them publicly or to shame them, but to address their behavior in love.
Another way that children can easily be provoked to wrath is through favoritism in the home. Comparison of children to each other, special favors to one child and not to the others. Remember that Isaac favored Esau; Jacob favored Joseph. And then you see the disastrous results in those families. We have to understand that each child that God has given is unique and that those children must not be compared to and weighed against each other so that they are pressured to achieve or to be what another is. Children should not be pressured to be something beyond their capacity. Think of sports or music or even academics. Yes, they must be thankful in the use of the gifts that God has given to them, but our goal should not be to raise children who are successful, wealthy, educated, but rather children who love and serve the Lord and who are faithful to Him in the capacity and place that God has given them. God has not given us children for us to live vicariously through them, so that we become proud of them and our egos are boosted. Our children are given for God’s glory, not our own.
A fourth way that we may provoke our children to wrath is by criticism, constant criticism and negativity, condescending. We make jokes of their mistakes, we humiliate them because, well, they are children, they act like children, and we are embarrassed by them. There is a place for children to be children. Paul says this in I Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. It was when I became a man that I put away childish things.” Now, children are children. They do not need our put-downs. They need our love and encouragement, a love that bears them up and believes all things and never rejects them. That is the way that God communicates His love towards us. He remembers our frame. How many children have been scarred and damaged through constant criticism and negativity without encouragement and love!
One final way that we might provoke our children to wrath is by an inconsistency, which displays itself especially in hypocrisy. We have all these expectations with our children. We want them to live up to a certain standard before others. And we ourselves put on a good front before others. But the children see the inconsistency. They know what goes on behind closed doors. You are on your best behavior and your speech is circumspect when you are with others, but behind doors your life does not match the expectations that you have for your children. They become embittered by hypocrisy, and they follow the example of the hypocrite. Godliness must be pervasive in the example that we give to our children.
Provoke not your children to wrath. That is the negative here. And, literally, it means to stop doing this. Stop provoking your children to wrath. Do not do this anymore. That is the idea. And all of you fathers feel with me both the inadequacy and failure in this area, do you not?
That brings us to the way we want to end this message, and that is our dependence. Too often, as fathers, we lean on our own wisdom and not God’s. Too often we barge into a situation with all the answers rather than in prayer. Too often we are unwilling to acknowledge our failings out of fear that we will lose respect. And, just as we need to learn tenderness with our children, so we need to learn humility and repentance. To go to them and say, “Children, I was wrong here. I repent. Forgive me.” That is not a sign of weakness but of strength and reliance on God because when you confess your sins, you have thrown yourself onto God in tenderness and humility.
Do you see here our need of God and His grace, our dependence upon Him? That is here, in the last words of the text: “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Of the Lord. Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. Bring them up not with your answers, your ideas, not by your pride and your goals and your aspirations, but in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Humility. It shows itself in prayer and dependence.
So, of all the things I have said in this message, and that this text says to us, you fathers, it is not first the duty but first the godly character. And that is going to come in these two areas: tenderness toward your children, and humility before God.
I want to close with two thoughts. Let us think first about the Father that God is to us: His tenderness, His discipline, and His instruction. How faithful He is when we fail, how patient He is when we need discipline. How constant is His instruction of us. Our Father, which art in heaven. That is how Jesus knew God, as His Father. That is how He knew Him even as He went to the cross, and this is how He teaches us to think of Him. Have you not experienced the fatherly love of God, you fathers?
And the final, closing thought: the time that we have with our children is brief. Soon they grow up. Let us make every moment matter with our children. Let us make every interaction intentional with our children. Do not wish away the years that you have with your children but seriously and deliberately be tender both in discipline and instruction.
May God bless us through godly fathers in the church. Amen.