Sermon: Bearing the Name Lightly

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – blessed be your name.

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Exodus, chapter 20, verse 7. Exodus 20:7. Exodus is in the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Exodus 20:7. This fall, we are working out way through the Ten Commandments, which God gave on Mount Sinai to guide his people as they lived in this world. In the first commandment, we saw that worship is central for life with God. We were made to worship him and our greatest temptation is to worship or trust something other than God. In the second commandment, we saw that false worship is not only worshipping a different god, but worshipping the true God in our own way, on our terms. God is not an idol we can put on the shelf whenever we want, but the living, speaking, Lord of the universe. In the third commandment, which we will study this morning, we see how God’s name can be both honored and dishonored. It’s Exodus 20:7. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Growing up in the church, I remember very vividly what I was taught concerning the third commandment. I was to be careful and reverent with how I used the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Never use God’s name casually or flippantly, especially as a curse word. Never say, “I swear to God,” especially when I’m lying. In addition, I remember hearing the third commandment in connection with never swearing in general and by that I mean using inappropriate, generally four-letter words. If you don’t know what I am talking about, that’s probably okay.

But this is what I thought it meant to keep or break the third commandment. Don’t take God’s name lightly or falsely. Don’t swear and treat Gods’ name with respect. Maybe what I am saying is quite new to you, but if you grew up in and around the church, this probably sounds fairly familiar. I think it is good teaching as far as it goes.

The third commandment is about misuse God’s name or ‘taking it in vain.’ The force of the Hebrew is taking God’s name and treating it as if it was nothing, meaningless. Certainly using God’s name as a swear word would count. And with Jesus’ warning in Matthew 5 about oaths in God’s name, using “I swear to God” casually or dishonestly would certainly be taking God’s name in vain, treating it as nothing.

As for using bad words, I don’t really think that is what the third commandment is talking about. I think the teaching of Proverbs and James about the power, danger, and potential damage of the human tongue is a better place, as well as Jesus’ commands to love our neighbor and that what comes out of us can defile us are better places to think through how our speech should be governed.

But if the third commandment is about making sure we don’t speak God’s name in the wrong way, then wouldn’t it just be easier to never say it at all? In fact, this is what orthodox Jews have done for centuries. In order to make sure they never break the third commandment, they simply do not pronounce the personal divine name that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai, YHWH. Their logic is that if they never say it, then they certainly cannot use it inappropriately. Instead when they came across God’s name in reading the Bible, they would not pronounce it, but saying something else, like “LORD” or “the Name.” Side note: this is picked up in English translations. If you see the word LORD in all caps in the Bible, that is actually the name YHWH in Hebrew, but it has been rendered in English as LORD instead of YHWH.

As much as I admire the commitment of the Jewish people to honoring the name of God even to the point of not saying it aloud, I think something deeper is going on in the third commandment. It certainly includes rash oaths, and disrespectful language, but it goes much deeper than that. It is about more than just what comes out of our mouths, but our whole lives.

Listen again: You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

Briefly, I want to look at two ways we break the third commandment, then how Jesus changes everything, then three ways we can keep the third commandment.

1. Using God’s Name

First, we break the third commandment when we use God rather than fear him. A name is more than just a set of sounds. It is an identity, an authority. When you give someone power of attorney, you are empowering them to make decisions ‘in your name.’ When you sign a contract, you put your name on it, you make promises with your authority that you will do what you said, and people can hold you accountable because your name is there. The name of God is a revelation of his identity, who he is, as well as a claim of his authority. That is the reason we pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ and that we say that ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.’ God’s name is not a magic set of letters we must make sure we never say incorrectly, but is connected with God’s identity, authority, and his presence.

We misuse the name of the LORD, take it in vain, treat it as nothing, when we use God’s name for our own ends. We take what we want, what are our plans and hopes and dreams, and stamp them with God’s name to give them respectability or authority. We know how destructive this can be. We saw it with apartheid, where a vision of segregation that justified oppression was stamped with Christian language and God’s approval, but was nothing but a twisting of scripture to fit ideological ends. That was profaning the name of the LORD.

We saw it when the evangelical church became the “Reich’s church,” the state church of Naziism, where Christians stamped the party with God’s approval and only a small group resisted. We saw it when the crusades were stamped with God’s approval and preached as divinely inspired, giving license and absolution to all the atrocities committed there. This is profaning the name of God, whenever we use God’s name for our ends.

I know Canada is in full-swing of election season. I know forty days feels like a long time, but imagine the circus I have lived with my whole life in the States. The election cycle is filled with politicians breaking the third commandment left, right, and center. Every policy decision from reparations to free markets to education reform to socialism to redefinition of marriage are all being taken by someone and stamped with God’s approval. Many of these policies are completely incompatible with each other. This happens even the church, with all sorts of incompatible positions. No wonder the world is confused on who God is and what his way looks like. But even if the policy was in line with God’s word, we still break the third commandment if we attach God’s name to our project in order to achieve our ends, such as getting votes. God’s name easily becomes a tool in the toolbox of us getting what we want in whatever cultural battle we are fighting and that is taking it in vain.

On a more personal level, we can do this whenever we use God’s name as a blank check for our decisions and activities. If God always approves of everything I want and strive for in my life, then perhaps I am not dealing with the real God. Perhaps I just stamping what I want with God’s name in order to make myself feel good about my decisions. We should be diligent to discern what God’s will is, according to his Word, and then still be cautious about stamping thing with God’s name. God’s name is to be feared, not used for our ends.

2. Hypocrisy

That is the first way we can break the third commandment: using God’s name for our own ends. The second is hypocrisy. While the translation ‘misuse God’s name’ is right, it more accurately says, “bear God’s name for nothing.” Christians are people who bear the name of God. When we belong to Jesus Christ, we have been given his name. This is what it means to be ‘Christian,’ a little Christ. When we walk out of the doors here into the world, we bear the name of Jesus for all to see. When we say one thing on Sunday morning and live another during the week, we treat the privilege of bearing God’s name as if it was nothing. The biblical word for this is hypocrisy, the image being of an actor wearing a mask that hides his true face.

I have held on to this quote from Brendan Manning since I first heard it almost 25 years ago: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Let me say that again: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

When we, that is, Christians, profess Jesus publicly on Sunday, but dishonor him with how we live on Tuesday, we treat the name of God lightly. We break the third commandment. In our lives, we must be aware that we are representatives of our heavenly Father. We, the church, must acknowledge the ways that we have proclaimed good news to the poor on Sundays, but judged them throughout the week, how we have sung “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,’ but lived as if Jesus only loved our children and children like them, how…you know this. We as individuals and the church have taken Jesus’ name upon our lips and lived a different way than what he calls us to live. That hypocrisy profanes God’s name.

As with all the commandments, it touches not just our outward behavior, what we say, what we do, how we act, but reaches down into our hearts. Honoring or dishonoring the name of God is not just something we do with our lips, but with our hearts, and with our lives. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

No one will be guiltless who misuses God’s name. God takes this so seriously that the punishment for breaking the third commandment is death. Death. No one will be held guiltless and the deserved punishment is death.

How Jesus fulfills the Third Commandment

There is good news for all of us, like me, who have taken God’s name lightly in our lives. Jesus Christ, who glorified God’s name with the whole of his life, has given us his name.

Jesus Christ kept the third commandment perfectly. He glorified and revealed the Father in every word and every way. Listen to Jesus in John 17: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so the that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:25-26).

Jesus offered the perfect praise, the perfect honor, the perfect use of God’s name in all he said and all he did. For Jesus, his yes was always yes and his no was always no. He came and glorified the name of the Father. Jesus came not concerned for his own name, but for the name of the Father and gave his life, among other things, to glorify God’s name and make him known. Having done this, Jesus received the name and is proclaimed as the only name by which we must be saved. Listen to this from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that as the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11).

If we break the third commandment by what we say with our mouths and what we do with our lives, we find in Jesus one who has kept the third commandment with every word that came from his lips and every action of his hands and every disposition of his heart. In all these ways, he offered the perfect life and perfect praise to the Father. Jesus Christ was completely guiltless. And yet, it is Jesus Christ who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. It was Jesus Christ who died the death of the guilty, though he himself was guiltless. All of us who have profaned the name of God with our words and works have had our place taken by the only one who ever honored God’s name completely. God will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name, and Christ the guiltless died in the place of the guilty.

Three days later, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and was exalted and given the name that is above every name and it is this name that he has given to us. When we call on his name, we the guilty are counted as guiltless. This is good news. We receive his perfect name and belong to Jesus Christ.

How We Keep The Third Commandment

But how now are we to keep the third commandment? We talked about two ways we break the commandment, how Jesus changes everything by keeping it completely and then dying, rising, and giving us his name when we call on him in faith. But what does it look like for us now to try and keep the commandment? Let me suggest three ways:

1. Call upon the name of the LORD

We honor the name of God and use it wisely when we call upon Christ for salvation. Instead of using God’s name for our ends, we use it for the reason God gave it. “For there is no other name given among mortal by which we must be saved.” We need the name of Jesus Christ, because it is the only name that saves. Calling upon Christ in faith is the right way to use the name of God.

2. Integrity of life

We honor the name of God when our life matches our words. When the songs and prayers and creeds of Sunday are joined with a Christian life throughout the week, we bear the name of God in a way that honors him. Since we have been given the name Christian to bear into the world, when our life matches with what God says in his Word, then we give faithful witness to him and honor his name.

3. Speak truth about God

We honor God’s name when we speak the truth about Him. His name is connected with his identity, his authority, and his presence. This is why we couple care with passion when we pray, sing, or share the gospel. We must speak from our heart, but we must also speak the truth about who God is, which requires us knowing the truth about who God is. This is, in part, why regular study of Scripture has been a hallmark of Christian discipline, particularly in the Reformed churches. When we speak the truth about who God has revealed himself to be in his Word, we use his name well. 

Whether in word or deed, whenever we treat God’s name as if it is nothing, we find ourselves guilty before God. But Jesus Christ not only perfectly honored God’s name, but died in the place of the guilty and gave us his name. We honor God’s name when we call upon Christ in faith, when we live with integrity in our Christian life, and when we speak the truth about God.

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