Do Not Misuse God’s Name

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Exodus 20:7

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “The Ten Commandments for Today,” and today we are looking at the third commandment, which deals with the proper use of God’s name.

Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (NIV)

A lot of people when they hear the third commandment think it only has to do with using God’s name as a swear word. That is part of it, as we will see, but there is so much more to it than that. But before we can even get into the commandment itself, we must first understand the importance of a name, and particularly, the importance of God’s name.

I. What’s in a name?

So what’s in a name? Why is God’s name so important that God includes this commandment as part of the Ten Commandments? We must understand that a name is more than just a label. A name signifies one’s character, reputation and authority.

First of all, a name signifies one’s character. When we think of God’s character we think of how God has revealed himself to us: through his word, through his titles in Scripture, through his attributes, his law, his works and his deeds. All of this is wrapped up in Gods’ name. In John 17 Jesus prayed to the Father about his disciples. He said, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. . . I have made you known to them.” (John 17:6,26) In both of those verses what Jesus literally says is this: “I have revealed your name to them. I have made known your name.” God’s name signifies God’s character.

Secondly, a name signifies one’s reputation. In Biblical times people chose names for their children very carefully. They considered the meaning before they gave it. We also see the significance of reputation when we think about the importance of the family name. When one family member does something dishonorable, it brings disgrace on the whole family. Why? Because they share a name, and names signify reputation.

And then a name also signifies one’s authority. It is significant that we did not name God, but God revealed his name to man. When man gave names to the animals, it was a sign of man’s authority over the animal kingdom. Man gives names to false gods and in the process shapes that god’s character, reputation and authority (e.g. Greek gods). But God revealed his own name to man, because God has absolute authority, and that authority is signified by his name.

Think about a messenger for a king. The messenger has no authority on his own, but when he comes in the king’s name, the people better listen. That’s why when David came against Goliath in battle, he said to him, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (1 Samuel 17:45) David recognized the authority behind God’s name.

The two most important names of God are “Jesus” and “Lord.” The name “Lord,” is the Hebrew name, “Yahweh.” This is the name by which God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush. It is a name that literally means, “I am who I am.” It speaks of God’s self-existence, eternity, and sovereignty. (Exodus 3:13-14) Yahweh, Lord, is the name specifically mentioned here in the third commandment. The name Jesus means “salvation.” Acts 4:12 says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) The apostle Paul combined both names when he wrote that “God gave [Jesus] the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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 2:9-11) God’s name is important because it signifies his character, his reputation and his authority. And that is why God commands us to use his name properly.

II. The commandment: “Do not misuse God’s name.”

Now that we have looked at the significance of God’s name, let’s take a closer look at the actual commandment itself. “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” (Exodus 20:7)

    A. What does it mean to misuse God’s name?

What does it mean to misuse God’s name? You’re probably more used to hearing this commandment phrased as “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” That’s the way the more literal versions translate it. The word translated “take” means to carry or bear something. The word translated “vain” means emptiness or worthlessness. So to take God’s name in vain means to empty his name of content or to make it irrelevant. Taking God’s name in vain would mean any empty, frivolous or insincere use of God’s name.

    B. How do we misuse God’s name?

How do we misuse God’s name? There are several ways we can misuse the name of God. Let me share with you three.

        1) We can misuse God’s name with our words.

First of all, we can misuse God’s name with our words. We need to be careful with our words. James 3:8 says that “The tongue . . . is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” How do we misuse God’s name with our words? Through blasphemy, irreverence, cursing and profanity.

Blasphemy: Blasphemy means speaking directly against God and his character. Exodus 22:2 says, “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.” When the Israelites made the golden calf, they also blasphemed God with their words: “They cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ . . . they committed awful blasphemies.” (Nehemiah 9:18)

Irreverence: A second way we misuse God’s name through our words is when we speak irreverently about God. I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to God as “somebody up there” or “the man upstairs.” The very angels in heaven bow their faces before God in his presence. We need to be reverent when we speak about God.

Cursing: A third way we misuse God’s name with our words is when we curse. When we say the words, “D-mn it,” or “God d-mn it,” we are taking God’s name in vain. Cursing expresses neither faith in God nor worship, and it is not a proper use of God’s name. When you do it, confess it to God as sin, and seek to remove cursing from your life.

Profanity: And then the fourth way we misuse God’s name with our words is when we use profanity – when we say things like, “Oh my God” or use “Jesus Christ” as a curse word. Some people object, “But I don’t really mean anything by it when I say ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ like that.” But that is exactly what is wrong with it. You have emptied God’s name of meaning and are just using his name as a common curse word. Once again, if this is a habit for you, confess it to God as sin, and ask God to help you remove profanity from your life.

Have you ever wondered why people use Jesus’ name as a curse word, but they don’t do it with the names of other religious leaders? I mean, you never see someone drop a rock on their foot and go, “Oh, Buddha!” or hit their thumb with a hammer, and yell “Mohammed!” I believe it is because Jesus truly is God, and the same world that uses God’s name in vain also tries to empty the name of Jesus of its majesty and power.

On a side note, while we are talking about language, the Bible not only forbids profanity but also obscenity or vulgarity. (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:6) Obscenity or vulgarity refers to those swear words usually relating to body parts or bodily functions. This is wrong for a number of reasons. It lowers the level of public discourse. It cheapens that which God has called sacred and created good. It also has a tendency to break down certain moral boundaries which protect from sexual sins.

Some people teach that the third commandment also includes a prohibition against obscenity and vulgarity. I believe these are related but separate issues. But notice the difference in God’s priorities here and the world’s. Which does God take more seriously? Profanity or vulgarity? Profanity is specifically part of the Ten Commandments, whereas obscenity and vulgarity are not. Now contrast the world’s attitude. It is much more acceptable in public speech today to take God’s name in vain than to use vulgar language. Think of the movies. In a PG movie you can take God’s name in vain, but certain swear words automatically earn an R rating. We have what is called a TV-Guardian filter on our TV that automatically filters out all profanity and obscenity from the movies that we watch. It is that important to us. And it communicates to our children the importance of the third commandment as well.

So that is the first way we can misuse God’s name – with our words. It is probably the way we most often think about misusing God’s name. But let me share with you two others.

        2) We can misuse God’s name with our actions.

We can also misuse God’s name with our actions. Titus 1:16 speaks of those who “claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” Let me give you five brief examples of how we can misuse God’s name with our actions.

Hypocrisy: First of all, we misuse God’s name with our actions when we practice hypocrisy. God says in Isaiah 29:13, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” When we honor God with our lips but not with our hearts, we are misusing his name.

Ungodly lifestyle: A second way we misuse God’s name with our actions is when we call ourselves Christians but live an ungodly lifestyle. Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” The early believers wanted to identify with Christ, and so they called themselves Christians, that is, followers of Christ. Now think about it, if you bear the name Christian, how should that influence your daily behavior in the world? When you call yourself a Christian, you carry the reputation of Christ with you wherever you go. If you are not living in a way that brings glory to God, then you carry the name of Christ in vain.

Using God’s name for our own ends: A third way we misuse God’s name with our actions is when we seek to use God’s name for our own ends. David’s son Absalom did this when he told his father, “Let me go to Hebron and fulfill a vow I made to the LORD.” (2 Samuel 15:7) Guess what? He wasn’t really going to Hebron to fulfill a vow. This was all part of his conspiracy against his father to take away the throne. We can do the same thing today when we seek to justify a course of action we have chosen by claiming “This is God’s will,” or “God told me to do this.” We need to be careful how we use God’s name.

Praying for our own benefit: A fourth way we misuse God’s name with our actions is when we pray for our own benefit. The words, “in Jesus’ name,” should not just be a tag ending to our prayers. Are we really concerned about seeking God’s kingdom in prayer? Or are we just frivolously praying for whatever we want without seeking God’s will in the matter.

Praying but not believing: And then a fifth way we misuse God’s name with our actions is when we pray but do not believe. 1 John 5:10 says, “Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar.” Thomas Watson wrote that when pray and do not believe, we either make God to be an idol (who cannot hear or answer), or a liar (who will not make good his promise).

        3) We can misuse God’s name with our vows.

So, we can misuse God’s name with our words, with our actions, and then the third way is with our oaths or with our vows. Now there is a place for oaths and vows in the believer’s life. Jeremiah 4:2 says this, “If in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory.” So there is a place for oaths, but we must be truthful, just and righteous in what we vow. So how do we misuse God’s name with our vows?

Idle vows: First of all, we misuse God’s name when we make an idle vow – when we casually say, “I swear,” or “I swear to God.” Once again some people object, “But I don’t really mean anything by it when I say it,” and once again, that’s the whole problem! You are emptying God’s name of meaning. Others object, “But people won’t believe me unless I swear.” That’s why Jesus said about oaths and vows, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ `No.’” (Matthew 5:37) In other words, live a life of such total honesty that your word is always trusted. Think about it. The more a person has to swear to the truth, the less he is actually trusted. Then there are others who say, “It’s just a bad habit, and I can’t do anything about it.” Just because something is a habit does not make it okay. Can you imagine a thief appearing before a judge and saying, “Yes, I know it was wrong, but I just can’t help it. It’s bad habit!” He would only make things worse by admitting that he repeated it!

Rash vows: A second way we misuse God’s name with our vows is when we make a rash vow. In Judges 11:31 we read of a man named Jephthah who made a rash vow. He said, “Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Guess what came out the door of his house when he returned? His daughter! Jephthah had just set himself up for a lose-lose situation. He was wrong to make the vow, he would be wrong to keep the vow, and he would be wrong to break it! He had already broken the third commandment by making a rash vow. He ended up sacrificing his daughter and breaking the sixth commandment as well.

False vows: A third way we misuse God’s name with our vows is when we make a false vow. Leviticus 19:12 says, “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” It’s bad enough to break a promise when you originally meant to keep it. But we commit a double sin when there is no intention to keep it from the start. The Israelites made their vows using the words, “As the Lord liveth . . .” At first they made their promises in full view of God knowing that he would judge them if they broke their vows. But over time these words lost their significance, and it all just became a ritual. God’s name was emptied of content, and people used it never intending to fulfill their oath.

One special example of a false vow is perjury. One person defined perjury this way: “calling on God to witness to a lie.” When we commit perjury, we pervert justice. We cause the jury to decide falsely and the judge to sentence wrongly, and we do it all in the name of God!

Broken vows: And then a fourth way we misuse God’s name with our vows is when we break our vows. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.” (Matthew 5:33-35) In other words, Jesus is saying that you cannot keep God out of any of your promises. God is everywhere, and all promises are made in his presence whether his name is mentioned or not. We must keep the vows we make. This would include our marriage vows, business contracts, and personal promises made to other people. I like what J.I. Packer says: “The godly man . . . will make promises cautiously but keep them conscientiously.”

And so we see that taking God’s name in vain is much bigger than just using God’s name as a swear word. We can misuse God’s name with our words, with our actions and with our vows.

III. The consequences of misusing God’s name.

What are the consequences of misusing God’s name? Simply put: God’s judgment. Back to Exodus 20:7: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

God will judge those who take his name in vain. The word “guiltless” comes from a verb meaning to be empty, clean or pure. When God holds you guiltless, you have a clean record or an empty slate. There is an irony here. Those who empty God’s name of honor and meaning will not have their slates emptied or be cleaned of their sin. This is a sin that God will not acquit or leave unpunished. Notice it is the Lord who will judge you in this matter. Men may choose to excuse each other on this matter, but God will not hold the person guiltless who misuses his name.

We have all broken the third commandment, and we are all deserving of God’s just punishment. Thank God once again for Jesus Christ who came to be our Savior. He died to take the punishment for your sin so that you would not have to. Once you have broken God’s commandments, there are only two choices. Either you will pay the punishment for your sin, or you can place your trust in Jesus who died to take the punishment for you. God offers you forgiveness for your sins through Jesus Christ. Will you come to him today?

IV. Positive Application: “Hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

Finally, let me close with some words of positive application. We said that every negative commandment has a positive counterpart in Scripture. I believe the positive application of this commandment is found in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9) We should hold God’s name in awe, fear and respect. Everything we say concerning the Lord should reflect the absolute majesty of his name.

  1. We should praise God’s name. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” (Psalm 100:4)
  2. We should walk in God’s name. “All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:5)
  3. We should honor God with titles of respect. We should call him names such as Lord God Almighty, Master, Savior, Jesus, King of kings, etc. We give titles to kings and judges. Shortly after I first became a pastor, I received a letter addressed to “the Very Right and Reverend Bishop Raymond E. Fowler.” Don’t ever call me that – it was a joke letter from a friend. But if we give earthly titles of respect, how much more should we honor God’s name when we speak of him!
  4. We should spread the honor of his name everywhere. “Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” (Isaiah 26:8) This also means we should defend the honor of God’s name. We should hold people to a higher standard, for their own sakes if nothing else! Do you ever challenge people who take God’s name in vain? When I first moved out of the house, I had a non-Christian roommate who often used God’s name in vain. After we had gotten to know each other better, I shared with him one night how much it bothered me. He stopped doing it – at least around me! I realized he was doing it more out of respect for me than for God, but at least it was a step.
  5. We should treat holy things with honor. “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons to treat with respect the sacred offerings the Israelites consecrate to me, so they will not profane my holy name. I am the LORD.’” (Leviticus 22:1-2) George MacDonald once wrote: “There is nothing so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.”
  6. We should bear his name unashamedly. “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:16) If you are a Christian, you carry the name of Christ. There is no greater honor. Jesus has been given the name that is above all other names. Let us honor the name of the Lord our God with our lips, with our actions and with our vows.

© Ray Fowler

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