WHAT’S IN A NAME?
What comes to your mind when I say the name Mother Teresa? Probably traits such as compassion and selfless service on behalf of others. How about Martin Luther King? We may think of a champion of racial justice and non-violence. What about tennis great Roger Federer? Perhaps we think of athletic skill and a dedication to excellence. The late Princess Diana? Grace and elegance may come to mind. We could include someone you know, someone close to you like your mother. What you think of will depend, of course, on your mother. But perhaps characteristics like warmth and unconditional love stand out.
When we hear a person’s name we can’t help but also think of their character. Their name brings to mind certain qualities and attributes. Their name represents who they truly are.
What is true for us in the 21st century was even more true during biblical times. In Scripture names were given or sometimes changed because the name literally spoke of the person’s character. For instance, Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter which means rock. Jesus did this to represent the strength and steadfastness that would mark Peter as an apostle following the resurrection, and also to signify the unshakable nature of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah sent from God. In the Old Testament Abram, which means exalted father, had his name changed by God to Abraham, which means father of a multitude, for from Abraham and Sarah came the nation of Israel.
Names, both today and in biblical times, are very important. And that is true also for God. God’s name represents His character, His nature. That leads us to the third commandment in our study of the Ten Commandments, which is found in Exodus 20:7. There God said, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” Or the more familiar version says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
Let’s begin by discussing the name of God and why that is so important, and then we’ll consider what it means to take it in vain or to misuse God’s name. You may recall from earlier in our study that God revealed His name to Moses at the burning bush. In Exodus 3:13-14 we read:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
“I am who I am,” said God. That comes from the Hebrew verb “to be.” He is the self-existent God. “I am who I am.” Unlike the idols of the surrounding nations, no one created God and God is not dependent on anyone or anything for His existence, His identity, or His power. No one determines who God is or what God is like. God is who He is, who He chooses to be.
This verb also implies a future sense. Biblical scholar Bernard Ramm notes that it carries the meaning of, “I will be continuously with you as future events unfold,” or “I am a God who participates in your history so that as events come I am in them.”
So in sharing His name with Moses, God also reveals His character and identity – I am who I am. Furthermore, God will be with His people to lead them, sustain them, and protect them. “I will be continuously with you.” God’s name speaks of the love and faithfulness that are central to His being, and which He showers on His children.
When we come to the New Testament, we gain a fuller understanding of God because we know that God the Son came to us to bring us forgiveness and salvation. Before Jesus was born God the Father, through the angel, instructed Joseph that the son born to Mary was to have the name Jesus, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning the Lord saves. (Mt. 1:21) The name of Jesus revealed his purpose and character.
So the name of God is not simply a few random letters strung together so that in English we end up with G-O-D, God and in Spanish it’s Dios. No, the name of God refers to the character and nature of the self-existent One who created all things.
But not only is this God our Creator, He is also our Savior, even as the name Jesus means the Lord Saves.Jesus died on the cross for our sins so we can experience the salvation of God. And because a name has to do with the true nature of a person, we are saved in or by the name of Jesus – not because the name is somehow magical but because His name stands for who Jesus is and what He did. And so the apostle John, toward the end of his Gospel (20:31), said he wrote these things “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Paul declared in Rom. 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” for in calling on His name we are calling on the Lord Himself.
And so whether we are talking about the Hebrew name God spoke to Moses – Yahweh, I am who I am – or the English translation – God – or the name of God the Son, Jesus, the name of God is holy and is to be honored. For it refers to who God really is – our Creator who in love has become our Savior. God’s name reveals His love, His mercy, His holiness, His faithfulness, His sacrifice on our behalf. God’s name represents all the good that God is, and so we are to treat it reverently.
What does it mean then, to misuse God’s name, or to take God’s name in vain? The most literal meaning of this word in the original Hebrew language is “to empty.” To take God’s name in vain is to empty it of its good, holy, and glorious content. It is to negate all the good that God’s name stands for – His sacrificial love to give us life, His faithfulness, His grace, His holiness, and so on.
So when God commanded that we are not to take His name in vain He was saying that we are not to carelessly use His name in a way that steals from, waters down, negates, or distorts God’s character. We are not to empty God’s name of who God is. When we do that, we not only dishonor God but we also hinder others from learning of and embracing God for who He truly is, for we misrepresent His name, and thus we misrepresent God Himself.
How is it that we can take God’s name in vain by emptying it or robbing it of its true content and nature? It happens in several ways. Probably the first way that comes to mind is by actually using the name of God in a profane way, or by cursing. When we utter God’s name, or Jesus’ name, in a profane or disrespectful way we are contradicting the name and its meaning, and thus we dishonor God.
For when we think of who God is – His immeasurable love, His abounding grace, His endless mercy, His never-failing commitment to us – and how God’s name represents all of that, it should evoke from us a sense of love, gratitude, reverence and awe. How can we then take God’s name and use it as a way of expressing our anger or disgust? That is to take the high and exalted name of God and bring it down to the level of vulgarity. That robs the name of God of all the good and wonder it truly represents.
Think for a moment of someone you dearly love, perhaps your spouse, your children, or your parents. Can you imagine taking their name and using it disdainfully? When you hit your thumb with the hammer would you shout their name in pain and disgust? When your request for a raise is denied would you mutter their name in anger? Of course not. For they are people of great value to you. You love them dearly. And because their name represents who they are you would never use their name in a disrespectful way. So when we consider the greatness of God and the wonder of His love for us, why would we use the name of God, or the name of Jesus our Savior, that way?
Now, some may suggest that they don’t really mean anything by what they say. Perhaps they grew up around rough language and using God’s name in such a way is just the way they talk but they don’t really mean anything by it. But that just illustrates what God is forbidding in this commandment. To use God’s name in a cursing fashion but then say we didn’t really mean anything by it is to empty God’s name of it’s worth and value. It is to treat God’s name as if it has no importance – it’s just a word we utter – but it has great importance because it is the name of the perfectly good, holy, and loving God who gave us life.
Furthermore, Jesus sees right past that excuse and tells us that it is much more serious than that. In Mt. 15:18 Jesus said, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.”
The words we utter, even if we don’t really think about them first, are nevertheless a reflection of what is in our heart. So we can’t truly say about someone, “Well, he has a problem with his language, but he really does have a good heart.” No, for according to Jesus the words we speak are an accurate barometer of our heart. So if we speak God’s name in a profane way, and especially if we do it habitually, we need to ask God to cleanse our heart. And then we need to nurture our heart with the truth of who God really is so that His love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness fill our heart. Then we will have no desire to use God’s name in a profane way but will want to speak words of tribute and praise to the God who loves us so.
Now of course, there are other ways of emptying or robbing God’s name of its true nature and greatness. So even if we do not have a problem of speaking God’s name profanely, this commandment still applies to us.
Another way that we misuse God’s name is when our character and actions do not match our calling. If we claim to be a follower of Jesus and thus bear His name, yet live no differently than the world around us, we’ve misused God’s vain. By our manner of living we have emptied God’s name of what it represents because while we bear His name, our way of living does not match what God’s name stands for.
This commandment warns us against taking God lightly, against giving God our Sunday mornings but then excluding God from the rest of our lives. For the God who freely loves and forgives us is also the God who calls us to follow Him in wholehearted surrender to His lordship. Jesus not only calls us to believe in Him but to follow Him, just as He called the original disciples to follow Him in a new way of living, a way that fulfills God’s good purposes for our lives.
What we proclaim by our lifestyle speaks very loudly. We speak not only with our mouths but with our lives, so we misuse the name of the Lord when our manner of living contradicts what it means to be a follower of Jesus; then we have taken God’s name in vain. We’ve attached God’s name to ourselves, calling ourselves Christians or followers of Jesus, but then we’ve emptied it of its meaning because we don’t live that out.
If we come to church and sing praises to God but then our praises are not matched by the way we live, we’ve taken God’s name in vain. Our words of praise to God are emptied by our unwillingness to live out the implications of the words we speak. Of course, we will never live the Christian life perfectly, but we should at least do so consistently.
There’s one more way we misuse the Lord’s name and empty it of its meaning, and this is one we might not typically think of, but it is very serious and unfortunately, very common. This happens when we bring division to the Body of Christ, separating ourselves from those we may not agree with or even attacking them, or when we are reluctant to associate with those who come from a different economic class, educational level, social status, or racial or ethnic background. I think we all would agree that it is wrong to do so, but what does this have to do with dishonoring the name of the Lord?
John 17 records a prayer of Jesus from the night before He was crucified. Knowing He was about to leave this world and His disciples behind, Jesus prayed for what was most important. Much of His prayer focuses on the unity of His followers. In vs. 23 Jesus said in His prayer that when we are brought into complete unity, then the world will know that God the Father sent God the Son into this world and through Jesus God has poured out His love upon us. So our unity is essential to our proclamation of the gospel.
Of course, living in complete unity with even our brothers and sisters in Christ is no small task. In fact, we cannot do this on our own but only by the power of God can we set aside our differences and be truly one. And so in vs. 11 Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Just as God’s name encompasses His character, it also encompasses His power – not because it is in some sense magical but because it is the name of the living God who by His power created the world and sustains the world, and by that same power conquered death and will even raise us to new life.
In His prayer, Jesus connects this powerful name of God with our unity, a unity so strong and comprehensive that Jesus prayed we would be one even as He and the Father are one, and then the world will know that Jesus is indeed the Savior.
So if we are promoting disunity within this particular church, or if we are attacking or tearing down our brothers and sisters in Christ in other churches, we are breaking this commandment, for we are emptying God’s name of the unity His name promotes.
Tragically, that happens far too often. Charismatic Christians look down up non-charismatic Christians, and non-charismatic Christians ridicule charismatic Christians. Calvinist Christians who strongly uphold doctrines such as election and predestination belittle Arminian Christians who allow more room for human freedom, and Arminian Christians distance themselves from Calvinist Christians.
We have people in this church from all these traditions – charismatic, non-charismatic, Calvinist, Arminian – and that is great! We can all learn from each other. While we don’t all agree on everything, we can all be united in love. Then the world will know that Jesus is real, for they will see how He has transformed out lives. It is no great testimony to the world if some Christians who all agree on everything are united. Of course they are. But when those who bear the name of Christ are united in love even though they don’t all think the same, the world will know that the Jesus we proclaim with our words is real, for we also proclaim Him by and through our relationships with one another.
Of course, Christians separate from and even question the faith of those who hold different views from them on other issues as well – women in ministry, or the events leading to the second coming of Christ. Countless churches have divided over the style of worship music.
Yes, there are differences of opinion on these and other matters, and these are important, but not as important as our unity which honors the name of the Lord we all acknowledge. There are appropriate times and places and ways to discuss our differences and learn from each other, but it is always appropriate and biblical to, as Eph. 4:3 declares, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Paul wrote in I Cor. 15:3-5:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died four our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve.”
That is the gospel – Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. That, said Paul, is of first importance, and so on that we must not tolerate other opinions. But on other matters, while we can all have our convictions, we approach them with humility and we treat others graciously, realizing that none of us has perfect understanding. So we strive for unity. Paul wrote in I Cor. 13:3, “If I…can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
All true believers, all who have a genuine faith in Jesus and believe the gospel bear His name, so we want to make sure we are not dishonoring His name by emptying it of its power to make us truly one with each other. Rather we are to honor that name by striving for the very unity Jesus prayed for.
God’s name is holy because it represents the very nature of God. And so through our words, our beliefs, our lifestyle, and our relationships with and attitudes toward our fellow believers, we need to take special care – not because God is insecure and so He has to make sure that everyone honors his name – but because His name is precious. It is so precious that in biblical times the Jewish people would not even say the name of God because they never wanted to say it in a disrespectful way. The name of Yahweh was spoken only once a year – on the Day of Atonement, and then only by the High Priest.
How great it would be if today we showed the same reverence for God’s name. Not that we would never say the name of God, but that we would hold in it such high esteem. And if we are to honor God’s name, it is important that we take the time to rightly understand the greatness of who God is and the incredible gift of all He has done for us. When we take the time to study Scripture so we can learn more of God’s goodness, love, holiness, and majesty our natural response will be to do all we can bring honor to God’s name through our words, our character, our lifestyle, and our relationships.
While this command can be taken in a negative sense – it tells what we are not to do – it must also be seen in a more positive sense. For how incredible it is that God would share His name with us. When we meet someone and tell them our name it is a way of inviting a relationship. It’s a way of saying I would like to get to know you and for you to get to know me; this is who I am.
When God told Moses, and us as well, His name, God was saying, “I want you to know Me, so I give you My name which reveals who I am. I invite you to enter a personal relationship with Me in which you can know Me as the God who loves you, will direct you, will always be present with you and eternally be faithful to you.” By giving us His name God has invited us know Him deeply and truthfully, and to live each moment in the reality, the grace, and the power of His name. So in all we do and all we say, let us strive to bring honor and glory to the name that is above all names.