[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermon given to The Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, December 4, 2021.]
When we think about taking God’s name in vain, the usual concern is that we have used God’s name trivially in an expression, and so we think that if we can avoid using God’s name or Jesus’ name in various swear words and euphemisms that we have obeyed this commandment. When we look into the Bible, though, we can clearly see that this is not the case. Today I would like to examine a subject that is both important in the Bible as well as something we may not often consider. How is it that our actions and our behavior impacts the name of God? What does God’s name refer to in scripture in the first place?
Let us begin, as we often do, by looking at the ten commandments and seeing how it is that the third commandment is framed in scripture. Let us first turn to Exodus 20:7. Here we find the third commandment listed very briefly. Exodus 20:7 reads: ““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.” We should note that this is one of those commandments that remains entirely the same in its second appearance, in this case in Deuteronomy 5:11, which repeats the commandment without any addition or change whatsoever.
When we hear about the name of God being taken in vain, we see the following stories, and they ought to give us a bit of a pause when we reflect about how God’s name is being taken in vain. Let us, for example, discuss what we find in 2 Samuel 12:13-15. Here, at the end of a lengthy and tense showdown between King David and the prophet Nathan, we find the following things said about taking God’s name in vain. As 2 Samuel 12:13-15 reads: “So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” Then Nathan departed to his house.”
It is easy for us to ask in such a situation how it is that David’s behavior gave occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme–to take God’s name in vain. In 2 Samuel 12:9, we see the following discussion about David’s son. 2 Samuel 12:9 reads: “Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon.” Here we have a discussion of the sins of David, namely having taken the wife of Uriah to be his own and then having killed Uriah with the sword of the people of Ammon. What allowed the enemies of God to blaspheme was that David, a man anointed by God to be king over God’s people, had despised the commandments of God. By such behavior God’s own name and reputation were brought into disrepute, as there are still people to this day who cannot understand how God could have allowed David to have done what he did and to have restored him to His good graces after David repented.
In looking at the relationship between behavior and how it is that God’s name is affected, there are at least a few occasions where the Bible itself indicates that our behavior and God’s reputation are intertwined. Before we look at those, for example, I would like us to turn to an example where Moses uses a concern of God’s name to encourage Him not to destroy rebellious Israel. We see this example in Exodus 32:7-14. Exodus 32:7-14 reads: “And the Lord said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.” Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, and said: “Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.”
Here we see that Moses was able to persuade God not to bring destruction upon Israel because of God’s concern for His name and reputation. By pointing out what other nations would say as well as the importance of God’s reputation in being faithful to His promises in making a great nation out of Israel, despite their unworthiness, Moses was able to plead successfully with God that He should not destroy them although they had been wicked and idolatrous. God cares enough about His reputation that it affects his behavior towards others and the judgment He gives to His people, and He similarly expects us to restrain our behavior in similar circumstances as well.
Let us also note here that the reputation of God is far more widely spread than simply the matter of the words that we use to describe God. It was not for using euphemisms or expressions of God’s name in a literal sense that made David’s sin an opportunity to blasphemy. It was his sin despite ruling over God’s people and claiming to be a godly person. This is something that all of us are at risk for. To the extent that we are known to be or to claim that we follow God, our sins and shortcomings tend to lead others to think less of God as they think less of us. How we behave shapes how people think of God, and therefore our behavior as representatives of God matters a great deal to God, who is, as we might imagine, rather ferocious about defending His good name in a world full of slander and misrepresentation.
That does not mean that the Bible is only concerned with the negative aspect of taking God’s name in vain either. There are occasions where God talks about how His name is magnified. For example, Psalm 34:1-3 talks about the magnification of God. Psalm 34:1-3 reads: “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.” Here we see that while evil conduct leads others to blasphemy and causes them to take God’s name in vain, so too praise and godly conduct magnifies God’s name by bringing glory to it. Those who care about God and about their relationship with God also care about God’s name and reputation, because those of us who are called by God’s name share in the honor or dishonor of that name.
When we think of the word vain in the expression taking God’s name in vain, it is an obvious thing to reflect on what that means. When we look at Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, we see the following mood of pointlessness and uselessness and futility. Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 reads: “I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered. I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
The advice given by the author of Ecclesiastes, presumably Solomon, seems rather cynical to us, but it gives us a very vivid picture of what vanity and futility mean. As human beings, we are engaged in many futile tasks. Our attempts to set the world aright are futile because we cannot put the world in a better moral state than we ourselves happen to be in. That which is broken cannot be fixed, that which is unjust cannot be made right in the limited time that we have with our limited strength and wisdom and the lack of cooperation from those who are to blame for how the world is, ourselves included. Yet while it is futile and vain to trust in mankind to make the world right, when we behave in such a way as to make it feel like it is futile to obey God or to trust in God, we do violence to God by making it harder for people to trust and believe in Him. And you can rest assured that God will hold people accountable who make it harder for people to believe in Him and follow Him.
We have a rather ominous picture of this fate in Matthew 18:6-7. Matthew 18:6-7 reads: ““But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” We ought not to think that Jesus Christ is exaggerating completely when he says that those who cause others to stumble in their walk with God will face a very difficult fate. It would do well for us to consider more for ourselves how we serve as an example of God’s ways and whether we make it easier or more difficult for others to repent and to follow God and to live a godly and obedient life?
It was said of the Pharisees, for example. In Matthew 23:13-15, we see a negative account of the Pharisees that discusses how it is that they separate people from God. Matthew 23:13-15 reads: ““But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” Let us note that it is not only a problem when people fail to enter into the kingdom of heaven themselves, but also when they make it more difficult for others to do so. When our behavior and teaching actively hinders people from obeying to God, we have much to answer for from God.
While I was in the middle of preparing this message we had a speaker’s class in Portland this past Sabbath and one of the speakers gave a message about taking God’s name in vain and his focus was, as one might expect, on the way that people use expressions that feature either the name of God or Jesus Christ or some sort of euphemism for it. What struck me as most interesting, though, was that while the message itself focused on taking God’s name in terms of verbal language, what motivated him to express his disapproval of such language and his recounting of stories was his reaction to what he judged to be a diminishing of the honor and reputation of God that was expressed in that language. And there is a great deal more that diminishes the honor and reputation of God than the words that people say. It is that larger picture we need to understand when we think of the issue of taking God’s name in vain. Anything that makes people think that it is pointless to rely on God or anything that attacks the character of God is something that takes His name in vain.
When we think of someone who defended the name and reputation of God, the example of Phineas the son of Eleazar comes to mind. Though we have looked at this particular passage before in the context of the covenant that eventually was fulfilled by Zadok’s rise to the high priesthood during the time of David and Solomon, it is worthwhile noting how exactly Phineas showed his zeal for the reputation and honor of God in Numbers 25:1-13. Numbers 25:1-13 reads: “Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and hang the offenders before the Lord, out in the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you kill his men who were joined to Baal of Peor.” And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel. And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’ ”
It must be said that this is very drastic treatment of those who disobey God and who bring shame and dishonor upon God’s name. Yet even if we are not granted the right–at least at this time as human beings in a world that has not submitted itself to God’s rule–to execute this sort of judgment upon others, there is nothing in this treatment of those who violate their covenant with God by behaving in such a flagrantly and publicly immoral fashion by God that violates His character or that has changed in the last 3500 years or so. God still feels the same way and will eventually respond to contemporary provocations in a similar manner Himself, and when we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying for precisely that sort of judgment.
And the Bible is quick to remind us that a great many people who consider themselves to be godly themselves bring dishonor upon the name of God through their conduct. Romans 2:1-24 gives an eloquent discussion of just how seriously those who consider themselves to be religious bring dishonor upon God’s name through their conduct: “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel. Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” as it is written.”
Paul’s condemnation of the hypocrisy by which people look down on others for doing the sins that they themselves commit is something we need to pay attention to. It is widely said of people in our present evil age that if people did not have double standards they would have no standards at all. This condemnation is just. We must examine ourselves in the mirror. Do we live up to the standards that we wish to enforce on others? If we do not, we have no credibility to claim to be teachers of the law, or just enforcers of the law. Do we believe in rules for thee but not for me? If so, we are hypocrites deserving of the judgment that we are bringing down on ourselves for condemning others for that which we practice. It is not the hearers of the law or the makers of rules who are justified, but those who obey God’s laws. It is not our words so much as our example that demonstrates whether we honor God. For if we honor God with our lips and our hearts are far from Him, He is not honored but dishonored by us and we will be judged accordingly.
As unsparing as Paul was towards those who were hypocrites, let us also note that to honor God does not necessarily mean that we ourselves will be honored in this life. Philippians 1:12-30 gives a good picture of the complex nature in which God’s truth has always been preached. Philippians 1:12-30 reads: “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice. For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again. Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me.”
The situation that Paul describes here is how life has been for Christians for the last 2000 years. There has been rivalry among leaders and people who preach God out of selfish ambition and not sincerely. It is not our job to try to read minds and hearts; our own are difficult enough for us to deal with. Being a Christian has often meant facing suffering and even death for obedience to Him, and yet we bring glory to God and something of benefit for ourselves when we suffer for righteousness’ sake as Paul and the early church and so many of our brethren throughout history have. And for us, as it was for Paul, whatever happens to us is for our benefit. If we live, there is a chance for our labors to bear fruit. If we die, we gain by not suffering any longer and being sealed in salvation. So long as we live as Paul lived, in obedience to God’s ways and in serve to His will, we can expect that there is nothing that we shall be ashamed about, but with all boldness we may set a godly example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in a world that lives in darkness.
Why does all of this matter in the first place? What is our stake in the honor that comes to God’s name? John 15:18-27 reminds us that Jesus Christ tied our own lives as believers and the treatment we would receive from others to the way that others viewed God and Jesus Christ, and tied that with our shared identity as the children of God given through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. John 15:18-27 reads: ” “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father. But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.’ “But when the Helper comes, which I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth which proceeds from the Father, it will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”
Here we see the result of the relationship that we have with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit and the relationship that Jesus Christ and God the Father have with each other, that we are all connected. The way that people think of Jesus Christ, they will think of God, and the way that they think of God and Jesus Christ, they will think of us. If people hate God, they will also hate God’s people because we remind them of God, as well we should. We live in a day and age where people are growing increasingly hostile not merely to the authority and rule of God over the universe but over the existence and memory of God’s laws and ways. To the extent that is the case, we should expect that those who hate God will also hate us. Those who curse God’s name will also curse us. Those who do not wish to be reminded of how they fall short of God’s moral and ethical demands will despise us and persecute us for seeking to remind them of God’s standards and for trying, however imperfectly, to live up to those standards.
In the end, the boundaries of honoring God’s name and preserving his reputation is a matter of our identity being tied up with God’s honor and reputation. When we are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, we are called by God’s name and are a part of His family. As it is written in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Those who curse God curse us. Those who bring dishonor upon God bring dishonor upon us. Those who attack God attack us. And the reverse is true as well. We have seen that God has always strongly defended His own name, to the point of being willing to put to death and approving of the execution of those who bring shame and dishonor upon His name, as was the case in the sin of Israel with the daughters of Moab and Midian. When God commands us to honor God’s name and to not take it in vain, to ask us to do so is to ask of us no more than we seek to uphold the honor of the name that we ourselves have been given. It includes, but goes well beyond, the verbal name itself. Obviously, we should not trivialize God’s name in any fashion, but that goes well beyond the verbal use or misuse of that name in various expressions and euphemisms. It extends to the example of God’s ways that we set in a society that is ever more hostile to God and His ways. It includes our walk as God’s children, and our resemblance to our heavenly father and to our elder brother, Jesus Christ. To honor God as He deserves is to bask in the reflected glory of that honor that we share as part of His family. To the extent that we desire honor for ourselves, it is a trivial and basic task that we should wish for our conversation and conduct to bring honor to the family that we are a part of.