A Sermon for Fathers and Mothers (Lk. 1:6)

Today I want to deliver a message for fathers and mothers. I want to do so because I want to encourage you in this great undertaking. I know it frankly isn’t an easy job, and it isn’t very often one that is celebrated the way it ought to be. Of course it can be very rewarding. It can also be very challenging. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy for a number of reasons. For one thing, children don’t always appreciate the sacrifices their parents make for them. It’s also just a reality that when more than one human will is involved, there is going to be inevitable conflict. On the other hand, parents who love their children are deeply invested in their success and happiness and it can be overwhelming and gut-wrenching to see them make poor choices and bad decisions. As with any close relationship, the parent-child relationship always carries the potential for incredible happiness and joy as well as deep, deep sadness.

So I want to do two things in this message. I want to give you parents some direction and I want to give you some motivation. And the text I would like to choose for the message today is found in Luke 1:6, which is a description of the parents of John the Baptist. Let’s start with their son, and maybe you will understand why I would pick his parents as role models for you and me. Now, the caveat of course is that John was unique. I don’t expect any of my sons to rise up and be a John the Baptist! His role was unique in the history of redemption. But even with that caveat, like any other person in the Bible, John was at the end of the day just a man. He struggled just like we do. He was a man of like passions as we are. At one point in his ministry – which was to herald the coming of Christ – he was so discouraged that he sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the Christ or if they were supposed to wait for someone else.

In fact, it is in the middle of that conversation that our Lord says something profound about John. Here’s what he said: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11). Now when someone says that so-and-so is a great man, you generally have to take that with a grain of salt. But when the Son of God says that about someone, you better listen. One thing you can be sure about: John was a great man because Jesus said so. And though we know at the end of the day that the credit for this goes to the Lord – he was filled with the Holy Spirit, we are told, even from his mother’s womb (Lk. 1:15) – that doesn’t mean his parents didn’t have anything to do with this. If parents don’t really matter in terms of a child’s outcome, then God might as well have picked a couple of godless bums for John’s upbringing. But he didn’t, and that surely says something about the importance of godly parents and their impact upon the lives of their children.

Who did God pick? Well, their names were Zachariah and Elisabeth (Lk. 1:5), both descendants from Aaron the brother of Moses. Zachariah was a priest who served in the temple. Here is how they are introduced to us: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (6). I picked this verse because it says this about both of them. There are examples in the Bible where you have a godly mother and not a godly father, as in the case of Timothy (cf. 1 Tim. 1:5). Or you have a godly father, but the mother isn’t all that she ought to be. I think of Job in this way, because although he was certainly a godly man, his wife ended up telling him to curse God and die, not exactly the godly wife and mother that you want to see. But here both Zechariah and Elisabeth were godly people.

And this is what I’m going to emphasize today. We need godly parents. Fathers, you should aspire as fathers, to be godly. Mothers, you should aspire as mothers, to be godly. Have you ever wondered why the Bible actually says so little to fathers and mothers as such? I mean, there are only two verses in the entire NT that speak directly to fathers, and those two verses aren’t even together and basically repeat the same information (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). There are almost 8000 verses in the NT and 2 of them speak to fathers! Why? Well, I think the reason is this: the character and habits and wisdom that makes a godly man is the same character and habits and wisdom that makes a godly father. The same is true for mothers. And this is what God wants of us. Would you be a good parent? Then be a good follower of Jesus. Be a godly man or woman. Young people, you want to be the kind of person that makes a good father or mother? Then follow God with all your might.

Which means that his sermon really is for everyone, whether they are parents or not. But my heart is for the parents in this room, to give you encouragement and instruction in this most important of all tasks.

We need godly mothers. Let me give you a tremendous illustration of why this is so important. I get this from Elizabeth Dodd’s fantastic book Marriage to a Difficult Man: The Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards.1  In her book, she cites a study by A. E. Winthrop on the descendants of the Edwards family. In 1900, he tracked down fourteen hundred descendants of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards in order to compare them with another notorious family – the Jukes – whose descendants had cost the New York State over a million dollars in welfare and custodial charges. The Edwards family and the Jukes family were a study in contrasts. Of the 1200 Jukes Winthrop studied, only 20 had ever earned a living through gainful employment, whereas the rest had lived on welfare or were criminals. In contrast, by 1900, “this single marriage [of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards] had produced 13 college presidents, 65 professors, 100 lawyers, and a dean of an outstanding law school, 30 judges, 66 physicians and a dean of a medical school, 80 holders of public office” including three United States senators, mayors of three large cities, governors of three states, a Vice-President of the United States, and a controller of the United States Treasury. Almost all the men in this family were college educated, and many had graduate degrees “in a time when this was unusual.”

Members of the family wrote 135 books . . .. They edited eighteen journals and periodicals. They entered the ministry in platoons and sent one hundred missionaries overseas, as well as stocking many mission boards with lay trustees. One maverick married the daughter of a South Sea Island chieftain but even that branch reverted to type, and its son became a clergyman.

Winthrop concluded that “there is scarcely any great American industry that has not had one of this family among its chief promoters. . . The family has cost the country nothing in pauperism, in crime, in hospital or asylum service; on the contrary, it represents the highest usefulness.”

How did this family become so great? Winthrop had a theory, although it is probably not what many would expect. He wrote that “much of the capacity and talent, intensity and character, of the more than 1,400 of the Edwards family is due to Mrs. Edwards.” Though there is no doubt that the genius and spirituality of Mr. Edwards rubbed off on the family, Dodds is surely right when she notes that, “How children turn out is always a reflection on their mother.” And Mrs. Edwards was a very godly woman.

We need godly fathers. I’ll give you a wonderful example of this. It comes from the life of John G. Paton, who became a missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) to cannibals. How in the world do you raise children who love Jesus so much and love the lost so much that they are willing to risk everything to bring the gospel to people like that? And listen, this thing about cannibals wasn’t ancient history in Paton’s time.

Fifty years or so before Paton landed on the island of Tanna, on that very island the natives had clubbed to death, cooked, and eaten two missionaries in sight of the ship that had brought them there. In fact, one man warned Paton about going, telling him that he would be eaten by cannibals. To which Paton responded: “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” Again, how do you raise little boys so that they turn into men who say, “that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms”?

Well, Paton himself gives us a clue in his autobiography. Here is what he says about his father, speaking of his prayer times in a little room in the midst of their small home: “We occasionally heard [his] . . . trembling voice pleading as if for life, and we learned to slip out and in past that door on tiptoe, not to disturb the holy colloquy. The outside world might not know, but we knew, whence came that happy light as of a new- born smile that always was dawning on my father's face: it was a reflection from the Divine Presence, in the consciousness of which he lived. Never, in temple or cathedral, on mountain or in glen, can I hope to feel that the Lord God is more near, more visibly walking and talking with men, than under that humble cottage roof of thatch and oaken wattles. Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, or blotted from my understanding, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and shut itself up once again in that Sanctuary Closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubt with the victorious appeal, ‘He walked with God, why may not I?’”2

In other words, Paton honors his father and the godliness of his father as one of the reasons why he was the man that he was.

However, before I go further, I do want to issue a clarification. I don’t want to be misunderstood. You can’t follow a sort of “Seven Steps to Growing Great Kids” the way you can successfully grow turnips in your garden. It just doesn’t work like that. Children have wills and they will make their own choices. And that means that you can do everything right and your kids can still walk away from the Lord. That’s not necessarily the fault of the parents. That’s not a burden you have to bear. At the end of the day, we believe that it takes the sovereign grace of God to bring our children to faith. Our responsibility is to speak the truth to them and to model the truth to them and leave the results up to God. So I’m not saying that being godly yourself guarantees godly children and that if your kids aren’t godly that must mean you’re not either. But Scripture, reason, and experience all tell us that the godliness of the parents, under the grace of God, is a factor in the godliness of their children.

So Moms and Dads, I want to exhort you and I want to encourage you today to be godly moms and dads. Let’s start with the exhortation. Again, we want to use the example of Zechariah and Elisabeth to help us here.

The Exhortation to Parental Godliness

There are five ways the godliness of Zechariah and Elisabeth is described here in Luke 1:6. Their godliness was Godward, Biblical, practical, universal, and unified.


The parents of John the Baptist were first of all “righteous before God.” The word “godly” basically means to be like God. It means to be holy as God is holy, to be loving as God is loving, to be forgiving as he forgives us, and so on. However, you cannot be like God if you don’t live before God. What do I mean by that? I mean that you live your life in the conscious effort to please God in all that you are and do and think and say. It means that you live with God’s approval, not man’s, as the primary motivator for your conduct and life.

Another way to put this is like this: a godly man or a godly woman is godly when people are looking at them and they are godly when no one (other than God!) is looking at them. A godly person is godly in public and in secret. They are not one thing at church and another thing at home. Remember what John Bunyan said: “The hypocrite seeks applause abroad and forgets that he is condemned at home.” So this is the opposite of hypocrisy. Those who live before God are the real deal.

This is why Paul will tell Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Now sometimes we have taken the word “study” and interpreted it to mean acquiring knowledge through the diligent perusal and reading of the Bible. But really the word just means to be diligent. The burden of the command here is to diligently seek God’s approval in all that you do. In fact, the first part of the verse could be translated, “Be eager to stand approved before God.” That’s the main thing. That is not only true for pastors, its true for parents too.

In fact, here is what Paul says to servants in his letter to the Ephesians: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free” (Eph. 6:5-8). Do you hear the burden of his exhortation? Don’t be pleasers of men; be servants of Christ. Do what you do for the Lord and not for men. That’s how we ought to parent.

Fathers and mothers, we can get under such pressure to do this or to do that by the people around us. And I can start thinking that unless I’m parenting in a way so that people like me and approve of me in what I do, then I can’t be doing it right. Let me give you an example. There is such division among Christians over schooling. Should you home-school or send your kids to public school? Should you send them to private school? Well, I think there can be good reasons for doing any of the above (there can be bad reasons too!). Parents, what I want to say is this: don’t just let peer pressure determine your decision on these things. Make your decision in light of what you believe, in light of God’s word, that he wants you to do for them. You will give an account to God, not to anyone else, on the day of judgment for the way you raised your kids. It’s his approval, not mine or anyone else’s, that needs to be the decisive factor in your decision-making process.

But more fundamental than how this affects decision-making for our kids is our orientation before God. Are we real with him? Is religion just a show, a prop for us? Paul himself modeled what he taught others to do. This is what he said to the Roman procurator Felix: “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16). Note the order there, it’s important: toward God first, then toward men. Do you live before God?

Parents, you must live before God. None of us will do it perfectly, I know that. I certainly don’t. But I hope that my kids know that the guy in the pulpit is the same guy who eats dinner with them at the supper table, the same guy who plays Wizard with them, the same guy who disciplines them. If I’m fake, my kids will know it. I might be able to pull the wool over your eyes, but I won’t be able to fool my wife and kids. If I want to make an impact on them for the glory of God, I must – we all must – begin here: we must live before God in order to live before our families the way that we ought.

I heard John MacArthur and John Piper testify to the tremendous impact that their fathers had on them. Both their fathers were preachers. But MacArthur and Piper both testified to the fact that perhaps the greatest reason their fathers had such an impact on them is that they were real. They were at home what they preached from the pulpit. They didn’t profess one thing and then live another way. That ought to be true of all of us.


They lived before God, but you can’t divorce piety from Scripture. Piety divorced from the word of God in the Bible just becomes a kind of useless mysticism. The God that you pretend to live before just becomes an echo of your own imagination. We need God’s word to inform the way we live before him. And this is how Zachariah and Elisabeth lived. How did they walk before God? They did so by “walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.” Their lives were Godward because they were Biblical.

Now an obvious prerequisite of living lives that are Biblical is knowing the Bible. Do you know your Bibles? You can’t walk in the commandments of the Lord if you don’t know what they are. God has given us his word. He has given it to us in the pages of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We need to know what it says. We need to read it and study it. Good books about the Bible are great and wonderful. But they can never replace the value and the importance of the best of books, the Bible. In it God has spoken; there is no other book on the planet for which this can be said. Let us therefore read it and heart it!

Then we must treasure God’s word. You won’t follow and practice what you don’t value. A doctor may have all the expertise and knowledge in the world as respects a particular disease you might have, but if you don’t trust him and value his opinion, you are probably not going to follow the advice he gives you. It’s not enough to know the Bible; we must value it. The devil knows the Bible, but he doesn’t care a whit for it. We need to have the opinion of the psalmist: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward” (Ps. 19:9-11).

And that means we need to understand what the Bible is. Do you really believe this is God’s word? How could you not treasure it if you really believe that? Do you really believe that God intends this word for your good and the good of your family? Then why would you not take advantage of this precious, precious resource!

At the same time, we need to beware of an isolationist approach to the Bible, one that has all too often been fostered in our evangelical church culture. We are meant to hear the word of God together as a church. God has given pastors and teachers and they are Christ’s gifts to the church for our instruction and growth in grace. Though we never want to place the Bible underneath other authorities, at the same time we need to beware that we don’t despise other authorities either. The Bible is our only infallible authority. But at the same time, there are many good books written by godly pastors and teachers throughout the years that we need to hear, and which will help us to understand and apply God’s word better in our lives. To imagine that you just need the Bible and that’s it is to deny the place and authority of the teaching office in the church – and therefore to despise Christ who put it there!

Parents, we need to ground our thinking and our parenting on the solid foundation of God’s word in the Bible. There are so many books out there. Many of them are helpful. But in this age of information overflow, this abundance of advice – even Biblical advice! – can be overwhelming. Have I read enough? What about that new podcast that just came out; maybe it will give me the silver bullet for parenting? Well, brothers and sisters, we have a Book. That Book is the Bible, and in it God speaks to parents. Let his word encourage you, instruct you, bless you, and give you hope and correction. It is inerrant. It is authoritative. It is infallible. Not one word of it can be broken (Jn. 10:35). You can confidently bank your life upon its precepts and your hopes upon its promises. To bathe your hearts and minds in the word of God will in the long run be far more effective for good parenting than anything else.


Note that word: walking. They were applying what they knew. They were Biblical practitioners. Their reverence for God and their knowledge of his word affected the way they lived. Our Lord told his disciples, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (Jn. 13:17). Zachariah and Elisabeth knew the joy of obedience. Do you?

Brothers and sisters, I want a religion that changes my life. I want a religion that affects the way I interact with my family, my wife, and my children. I want a religion that makes me kinder, more patient, more loving, more forgiving. I want my life to be an adornment of the doctrine of Christ our Savior. I want the theology that I know to change my affections and my thinking and my actions. That’s practical religion. That’s what Zachariah and Elisabeth had. Do you? This is the only kind of religion that will bless your children and give you the authority and respect that God demands children have for their parents.


Their godliness was not only Godward, Biblical, and practical, but it was also universal: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Of course we should not read this as if it were saying they were perfect. We know they weren’t. In just a few verses, Zachariah’s imperfections will be on display as he refuses to believe the angel’s word to him about the birth of his son John.

What this means is that they strove with all their might to do whatever God told them to do in his word. They didn’t ignore the parts that were hard and just concentrate on the parts they liked better. They didn’t have selective hearing; there was a willingness to do whatever the Lord told them to do.

What about us? One of the most dangerous things for a Christian is partial obedience, because we can convince ourselves that partial obedience is as pleasing to God as entire obedience. But this is not the case. The instance of King Saul ought forever to disabuse our minds of this mindset. God told him to wage war against the Amalekites and to leave no survivors and to take no plunder. Saul did wage war against the Amalekites. And he did not take all the plunder and he didn’t leave many survivors. Was God pleased?

Here is part of the interaction between Samuel and Saul, and it tells us all we need to know: “the Lord sent thee on a journey, and said, Go and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed. Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the Lord? And Saul said unto Samuel, Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and have gone the way which the Lord sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal. And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king. And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:18-24). You will note that Saul thought of his partial obedience as full obedience. But what does Samuel call it? He calls it rebellion that is like witchcraft.

What about us? Maybe our missteps as parents are not so much the result of a lack of information as they are the failure to fully obey God in what we already know. Let us be like this holy couple and be blameless in our obedience to God’s word and render him a full obedience.


Finally, it was a unified godliness. They were both walking in this way. Now, before I say one more thing, let me say that if you are in a marriage in which your spouse is not a Christian, don’t despair! Many Christians in the first century found themselves in this predicament, and the apostle Paul writes to such in 1 Cor. 7. Apparently some thought if they were married to unbelievers they should divorce them. But Paul tells them not to do that. Such marriages are sacred. Timothy, one of the first leaders in the early church, did not have a godly father. But his mother and grandmother raised him to know and love the true God, and taught him, as Calvin put it, to suck in godliness with his milk. We must remember that at the end of the day it is the grace of God which is not limited to our limitations that must change the hearts of our children.

But with that very necessary caveat, surely we can recognize the blessing when both parents are walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless? Young men, it’s not a pretty face that is the most important thing in a wife. What is most important is the beauty of godliness. “Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31:30). Be not unequally yoked. When you marry, marry in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39). Young women, find a man who loves the Lord. I like the advice Tommy Nelson gives to young people: run as hard as you can for Christ, and then look to your right and your left to see who is running with you. That’s who you will want to spend your life with. That’s the kind of person who want to raise children with.

The Encouragement to Parental Godliness

Parenting is one of the most amazing journeys a human being can embark upon. But let’s not kid ourselves: it can be tough. It can be heartbreaking. And it can take its toll on parents when they measure their success in terms of how their children turn out. Do they have a great career? Are they respected by their peers? Are they following Christ?

But we know this doesn’t always happen. As people who believe in the doctrines of grace, we of all people should know this. Christianity is not a formula. I cannot determine whether or not my children are elect. I cannot make the winds of the Spirit blow upon their hearts. Again, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a responsibility. We do! But it means that we need to be careful where we place that responsibility. Our responsibility is to model and teach godliness to and before our children, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And then we leave the results to God.

Here's what we need to remember, and if we remember this it can be a tremendous encouragement: in our childrearing the only one whose opinion ultimately matters is Christ’s. And at the end of the day, even if your children go awry, if you have served your children in the ways of godliness our Lord will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” Isn’t that what we should all crave to hear? Here’s the deal: I cannot make my children godly, but I can be a godly parent. God doesn’t hold you responsible for things or people you can’t control. But he does hold you responsible for yourself, and he will give you the grace and the wisdom to be the parent you ought to be.

And I can guarantee you, on the basis of God’s word, that when God is the one before whom you parent, and God is the one who are seeking to please in your parenting, he is paying attention to you. He hears your cries to him about your children. The great fourth/fifth century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, is a tribute to a mother’s prayers. Augustine left his mother’s faith for paganism and immorality for many years. But his mother never gave up praying for him. And the Lord did convert him. Reflecting on his conversion years later, he wrote this prayer: “My mother, Your faithful servant, wept to You for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than others shed for the bodily death of a son. You heard her.”

You see this in the narrative here in Luke 1. When the angel comes to Zechariah to tell him about the upcoming birth of his son, he says this: “But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (Lk. 1:13). That thrills me. Because Zechariah is an old man. He and his wife had long ago given up any hope to have children. And that means that Zechariah had surely stopped praying for a son. Those prayers were old and dusty in the attic bin of a faded history. But God had heard those prayers and had not forgotten. He hears our prayers and he doesn’t forget them, even when we do!

So, brothers and sisters, moms and dads, be encouraged. Do what you do for your children in faith and hope in Christ. Be Godward, Biblical, practical, universal, and (if possible) unified in your godliness before your children. Let God in his grace take care of the rest. Indeed, rest in him, in his wisdom and care for you. Know that, even if you are unknown and unrequited for your labors on behalf of your children, God knows. The one who sees in secret will one day reward you openly. So keep up the good work, the glorious work, the most important work of being godly mothers and fathers in a culture sadly bereft of godly parents.

1 Elisabeth D. Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man: the Uncommon Union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards (Westminster: Philadelphia, 1971), p. 37-39.

2 John G. Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides, an Autobiography (Robert Carter and Brothers, New York, n.d.), p. 11-12.


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