I once heard someone say that ‘respect is earned, but honor is given’. Indeed, throughout the bible, people are commanded to give honor to others, with no conditions included. Of these commands, probably most well-known to us is ‘Honor your father and your mother’, which is repeated several times in the Old and New Testaments (Deut 5:15, Mark 7:10). The bible also instructs honor for the elderly (Lev 19:32), those in the church (Rom 12:10), widows (1 Tim 5:3), pastors (1 Tim 5:17), government leaders (1 Pt 2:17), spouses (1 Pt 3:7), and most importantly Jesus Christ as Lord (1 Pt 3:15). I particularly love the passage in Romans, where Paul tells the church to ‘outdo one another in showing honor’ (ESV). What we have is essentially a command to have a friendly competition in the church, trying to one up each other in honoring people.
In a biblical sense, honor is not associated with an individual’s performance. We are not allowed to withhold honor because someone is not living up to our expectations. In fact, Peter covers all the bases by saying we should honor everyone (1 Pt 2:17). Surely, he understood that everyone would include those individuals who have not earned honor- those who have not been honorable people. Perhaps the elderly person has a checkered past, or the pastor has hurt your feelings, or the church member has criticized you, or your spouse is not encouraging, or the waiter spilled your drink, or the government leader is NOT the one you voted for. Yet, we are told to honor others without consideration of their behavior.
So, let’s pause for a moment and talk about what the bible is asking us to do when we are told to honor someone. In the New Testament, the word honor essentially means to treat someone as valuable. Now we must realize that we are pulled by our flesh and our culture to determine someone’s value by what they have done, specifically, what they have done for us. It is not difficult to think about honoring someone who has treated you well, provided you blessings, or enriched your life in some way. For some of us, it is rather easy to honor our parents, our spouse, our pastor, or our boss – because they are honorable people who treat us well. But that is not true for all the people in our lives. Whether it is someone close to us, or individuals encountered in our daily routine, we all interact with those who do not act in ways worthy of our esteem. But the bible calls us to step outside of our natural inclinations. Through our words and our actions, we are to show people that they are valuable, often, despite their behavior.
But still some will ask, what makes people valuable if not their performance or contributions to society? What we glean from scripture is that the value of life, of EVERY LIFE, is rooted in this biblical passage from Genesis 1: ‘God created mankind in his own image’. What separates the human race from the rest of that creation is that we are the image bearers of God. This speaks not of our physical likeness but of our spiritual capability. All people are born with a unique ability to intimately know, serve, worship, and love God. And while our creator God is the only one worthy to receive glory and honor (Rev 4:11), He has chosen in His mercy to crown humans with a measure of the same (Psalm 8:5). Indeed, all of us have sinned and fallen short of that glory, which is ultimately why people hurt other people. But even then, God chose to send His son Jesus Christ to redeem His image bearers and perfect the glorious likeness of God in those who believe in Him. Consequently, all people have an inherent value, because it has been bestowed upon them by God. Every person belongs to Him. Every person is stamped with His image. Every person can walk in His likeness through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. To dishonor people, for any reason, is to dishonor their creator. Not every person will earn our respect, but every person is to be treated as valuable. And often giving someone honor is all it takes to encourage them to live in honorable ways.