A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on July 7, 2019.
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Exodus 20:1–7).
The third commandment is a familiar one to most people. Even someone with no knowledge of the written Ten Commandments has likely heard some form of this prohibition. Generally speaking, the third commandment is often understood as a prohibition against profanity. Despite our familiarity with the commandment, it is likely that few fully understand it.
What does it mean to “take the name of the LORD your God in vain”? What is the significance of “the name of the LORD,” as opposed to, for example, Jesus’ prohibitions against swearing by heaven or earth or Jerusalem (Matt. 5:34-35)? And, why does the Lord say that He “will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain”? Perhaps we do not know this commandment as well as we think. The third commandment serves not only as a prohibition and warning, but it also serves as a teacher in understanding the Lord our God.
In the literary flow of the commandments the third commandment shifts to third person, from “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” to “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” The shift seems to accentuate the revealed covenant name of God, Yahweh, translated “the LORD.” Understanding the significance of the name of the Lord is the key to understanding this commandment.
As translated here “the LORD” is the Hebrew name Yahweh, which is a proper noun derived from the verb “to be.” As He revealed Himself to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). His name is His essence: He who is, without beginning or end, “a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (WSC 4). Therefore, the third commandment is teaching us that there is weighty significance to our Lord’s name, revealing to us who He is, and as such we must revere His name.
Revere God’ Name
While lost somewhat in modern understanding, there is significance to a name, especially God’s name. For example, when you and I first met, you likely revealed your name to me and I to you. From that point forward I knew you by your name and vice versa. If someone says my name to you, you do not think of someone else; you think of me. You do not think of someone else’s attributes when you hear or say my name; you think of mine. Similarly, yet far more significantly, God has revealed Himself in His name, a name that stands for His titles, attributes, ordinances, Word, and works.
Through the progressive revelation in the canon of Scripture, we grow in our knowledge of who God is, expanding our understanding of everything that is summed up in the name of God. This makes our dependence upon the written Word of God all the more clear: The name of God stands for who He has revealed Himself to be, not what we think about Him. We are never allowed to agree that God is different to various people, or to say: “To me God is…” The name of God is objective truth, not subjective interpretation.
Literally translated, the third commandment begins: You shall not raise up [or bear up or lift up] Yahweh’s name for emptiness [or falsehood]. The general idea is that we are not to misuse or abuse God’s name in thought, word, or deed. Drawing from the basic understanding of this commandment, the Shorter Catechism summarizes, “This third commandment forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God maketh himself known” (WSC 55). To misuse or abuse what God has revealed of Himself in His Word is sin.
God has chosen to reveal Himself in His name according to His Word, and therefore we are to revere His name. So, Jesus taught His disciples to begin their prayers, “Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9). God’s name is not mundane and is to be regarded as holy, set apart, not for vanity but for praise. How important is revering the name of the Lord? So important that a warning is attached to the third commandment: “the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
While no specific punishment is given in the commandment, we have the historic account in Leviticus of Shelomith’s son who “blasphemed the Name, and cursed,” and at the Lord’s direction he was stoned to death. God commanded and instructed the death of this boy for taking the Lord’s name in vain. That is how serious God is about His name. To revere God’s name then is a serious matter, and we should treat it as such, but we live in a fallen world and an increasingly dark culture. As Christians, it is imperative that we recognize vanity.
In a fallen world, recognizing the misuse and abuse of God’s name is less obvious, because we are so easily numbed to its misuse and abuse. As Christians we must saturate our minds, and thereby our hearts, with the Word of God to know the right and wrong use of the name of God. What are some of the misuses and abuses we should recognize?
First, we take the Lord’s name in vain when we use it but do not fear it. History is full of examples of atrocities carried out in the name of God. From the Crusades to the Post-Reformation wars, God’s name has been attached to a myriad of horrible things. More recently, for example, in our own country we have created a brand of so-called Christianity vainly employing the name of God for worldly wealth and health. In American politics, up until recently, the name of God could be strategically used to garner votes.
Writing in 1993, Michael Horton described this phenomena: “God has been used to justify American nationalism, militarism, opposition to child care for working mothers….He has been used as a mascot for the conservative white, middle-class establishment, the guarantor of such evangelical rights and family values as that of owning submachine guns. This smacks “using God” and exploiting religion when evangelicals do it every bit as much as it does when mainline liberals paint God red” (Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom, 101-102). When we use the name of God for our own agenda rather than for fearful worship of Him, we take His name in vain.
Second, we take the Lord’s name in vain when we claim His name but do not know Him. The wake of easy-believism has left a wake of so-called Christians who claim to be children of God but do not truly know Him. Those who vainly claim to be Christians will be astonished on the last day to hear our Lord say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). While receiving God’s name is an act of His free grace through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, claiming to be a child of God apart from Christ is a graceless act of hypocrisy. When we claim the name of God but do not know Him, we take His name in vain.
Third, when we use the name of God to support false teaching, we take His name in vain. The Apostle Peter cautions us, “…there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words….” (2 Peter 2:1-3). Yesterday and today there have been false teachers in the church, using the name of God to spew their false teaching. Claiming to teach the Word of God they instead are hucksters for hell. As a friend of mine says, “If someone says, ‘I have a word from the Lord’ or ‘God told me,’ they better be quoting Bible verses!
We have become so accustomed to such heresy in our culture that we do not see it for what it is: taking the name of the Lord in vain, breaking the third commandment. Often this heresy comes in the unlikeliest of places, like the Christian books. Let us be careful what we read and the thoughts we think and the words we say, because when we use the name of God to support error, even unwittingly, we take His name in vain.
Fourth, we take the Lord’s name in vain when we blaspheme His name. In a culture that incorporates the name of our Lord into a myriad of curses, many Christians have become so desensitized to the point of joining the blasphemy. Case in point: If the words in music you may hear or the movies you watch or the books you read, abuses the Lord’s name and you are not offended, you have been desensitized. Such solemnity has also been lost in our church culture of flippancy. If you wonder what is wrong with our country, start by looking at the American church. And start by looking at how irreverent and disrespectful so-called Christian worship has become. Rather than revering the name of the Lord our God, the Lord’s name is blasphemed, breaking the third commandment.
As Christians let us recognize vanity in the world in which we live and more importantly our own lives. However, we are not to recognize vanity to become the sacred police of a secular society. Note: Your social media rants aren’t helping either. Nor are we to enslave ourselves to the vanity of self-obsessed rules and regulations. If you think your chief end is about you, you missed the first catechism question (Start over).
God has revealed His name to us that we may know Him, and He has commanded us to revere His name that we may glorify Him. And He has revealed Himself to us in the Person of Jesus Christ that through faith in Him “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). In Christ alone, we are recognized by God as His sons and daughters, and by His Spirit we do not take the Lord our God’s name in vain but rather we cry, “Abba! Father!”
We who were created to worship do not worship in vain but have been redeemed to worship the living and true God in the name of Jesus Christ. How precious do you hold the name of God? Rather than taking the Lord’s name in vain, let us rejoice in it! In Christ, we rejoice in God’s name.
Rejoice in God’s Name
Our Lord Jesus taught us to begin our prayers to our “Heavenly Father, which art in heaven” by praising the holiness of His name: “Hallowed be your name.” To hallow is to praise, honor, bless, and even celebrate the name of the Lord our God. Consider the testimony of the psalms, for example: “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness” (Ps. 29:2). What is His name due? Glory! What are we to do in worship? Ascribe the glory due His name! And, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name, in glorious praise! (Ps. 66:1-2). What is His name due? Glory! What are we to do in worship? Sing the glory of His name, in glorious praise! And, “Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!” (Ps. 72:19). What are we to do in worship? Bless His glorious name! For how long? Forever! Amen? Amen! And, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Ps. 103:1). Because you and I were created to worship, and because our God has revealed His name to us that we may worship Him alone, and because He has redeemed us by His grace through faith in Christ, and has adopted us, and has filled us with His Spirit that we may rightly worship Him, every fiber of our being rejoices in blessing the name of the Lord our God.
Therefore, the third commandment teaches us to revere the name of God, never misusing or abusing it, but rather rejoicing in it, ascribing, singing, blessing the glorious name of the Lord our God, which leads us to the table of rejoicing set before us. Upon it rests the bread, signifying the sinless, broken body of our Lord. With it is poured the cup of the fruit of the vine, signifying the blood of our crucified Lord.
Emblems of death do not normally lead to rejoicing, but who cried, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) is not re-crucified. It is a meal of rejoicing, because it depicts the glorious gospel in His sinless life and sacrificial death. And it is a glorious meal celebrated in the name of our Lord, for “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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” (Phil. 2:9-11). Amen.