Exodus 20:1-7, James 3:1-12
Blasphemy: Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

"You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7

The first commandment was aimed at the heart, the second at the mind, and the third at the tongue. What a traitor the tongue is! It betrays our nationality. You only have to listen to someone for a few minutes to hear their regional accent or discover they are from another country and that English is a second language. The same is true of our spiritual origins and spiritual health.

1. The Significance of Names
In the Old Testament, a man's soul and his name were almost indistinguishable. His whole personality was present in his name. Therefore, to know a person's name was to gain an insight into his nature and in some way acquire a relationship with him. That is why the mysterious messenger who wrestled with Jacob at Jabbok refused to disclose his name. "Jacob said, 'Please tell me your name.' But He replied, 'Why do you ask my name?"' (Genesis 32:29). The same attitude is seen when Manoah enquired of the angel of the Lord: ""What is your name . . . ?' He replied, 'Why do you ask my name?"' (Judges 13:17—18). A change of name indicated a deliberate and decisive change in a person's life — as when Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5), when Jacob becomes Israel (Genesis 32:28) and, later, in the New Testament, when Saul becomes Paul (Acts 13:9). David our new Curate and Jane his wife have just had a baby. They have called her Anastasia - not because of Walt Disney's new film, not because it sounds nice, but because the word means resurrection.

A name with tremendous meaning. My name means Martyr or crown. It has special significance to me. It reminds me to try and live up to my name sake, the first martyr of the church. In the Old Testament, to have done something in someone's name or to call upon their name were actions of the utmost seriousness. To call on a person's name was to make them effectively present. Understanding this helps us to grasp the meaning of many passages related to this commandment.

The Orthodox Jews thought that the name of God was so sacred that when they were writing His name with quills, they would immediately throw them away and use a new quill. And when they were reading the Old Testament Scripture and came to the name of God, they would not pronounce it. This is true today. I receive literature from various Jewish sources. Orthodox Jews will not write the name of God. They will spell it G-d. We may be amused by this, but they have an immense awe and reverence for the name of God. What about us? A lot of us do not appreciate the real value of God's name. God's name has real value and worth. The significance of God's name must be looked at in two ways — its significance to God and its significance to us. In other words, we must look at what it shows us about God and how that should affect our behaviour.

2. The Meaning of the Name of God
The "name" of God stands for so much more than the mere pronouncing of his title of address. It includes:
His Nature, Being, and very Person (
Ps 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12),
His Teaching or Doctrine (Ps 22:22; John 17:6, 26), and
His Moral and Ethical Teaching (Mic 4:5)

It means far more than the three letters that compose it—G-O-D. God's name is nothing less than a revelation of His glory. To know His name is to know Him.

2.1 Dignity
First, it suggests dignity. A person's name distinguishes him from other people. It may be one which he or his ancestors have covered with glory by their achievements, and which he carries with pride. It is his property, and no one can take it from him. In the case of God His name is unique. There is no one else 'of that name'. It is 'the name which is above every name' (Philippians 2. 9), and belongs to the Creator, Preserver and Ruler of the universe.

2.2 Authority

Then His name stands for authority. 'Use my name', people sometimes say to us, and we know that the person's name carries authority and power. If you had one of the really old British passports, you would find that it used to bear the signature of the Foreign Secretary. It was in his name that you presented yourself as a British citizen to customs officials, and were allowed to cross frontiers. God's name is like that. Everything in heaven and earth must one day give way to His authority, and acknowledge His power (Psalm 72. 17).

2.3 Integrity
Thirdly, His name stands for integrity. We often speak of a firm or of an individual as 'having a good name'. We mean that they are people to be trusted, who will not fail us or let us down, and on whom we can rely completely. And God is like that. His name is beyond reproach. His word is utterly to be trusted. No wonder the psalmist said, '0 Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth!' (Psalm 8. 9).

2.4 Character
The names of God reveal something of His character. The various names of God represent His many praiseworthy attributes. The different names of God have specific meanings.

Elohim means "the Creator of all that is". It is the name used in the opening verse of the Bible: "In the beginning Elohim (God) created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).

El Elyon means "God the Most High". This name emphasises God's rule and Sovereignty. Melchizedek was "priest of El Elyon (God Most High)" (Genesis 14:18). 2.4.3

In Exodus, we read the story of Moses and the burning bush: Yahweh is "I AM THAT I AM". It speaks of God's self-existence and eternity. It is also used in God's revelations of Himself as Redeemer. The Old Testament understanding of the name passes from the Old Testament into the New.

The names of our Lord Jesus Christ reveal His character, worth and work. The name "Jesus" means "Saviour". It is a very special and precious name. Men are healed and evil spirits are cast out through the name of Jesus (Matthew 7:22). The name of Jesus carries power. It is the authority by which the Holy Spirit comes (John 14:26). It is the authority for salvation (Romans 10:13) and baptism (Matthew 28:19).

The Apostle Paul wrote: "Therefore God exalted him (Jesus) to the highest place and gave him 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). Once we appreciate the power of Jesus' name, we will have a fuller understanding of many familiar passages: The Lord's Prayer, "Hallowed be your name" (Matthew 6:9); Christ's promise at the Last Supper, "I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name" (John 16:23); His final command, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Lets recap. We have considered the significance of names and specifically, the meaning of the Name of the Lord.

3. Misusing the Lord's Name

What does it mean to misuse the Lord's name? To "misuse" God's name is to use it for no proper purpose. There are three ways we can do this:

3.1 Blasphemy - To express shock or surprise, "O God!"
Confirm something that is false - a false oath. "I swear to God, its true"

3.2 Hypocrisy - Using words without thought or deeds "I'll pray about it."

3.3 Familiarity - Taking the Lord for granted "Praise the Lord"
Notice that this commandment does not exclude legitimate oaths, for they appear frequently (e.g., Deut 6:13; Ps 63:11; Isa 45:23; Jer 4:2; 12:16; Rom 1:9; 9:1; 1 Cor 15:31; Phil 1:8; Rev 10:5-6). Lets consider these three one at a time.

3.1 Blasphemy
This means the using of God's name as a swear word. Swearing has become so common it has become part of everyday conversation and even entertainment. I was watching a TV programme the other evening and the announcer said, "The next programme contains strong language and may offend some viewers." It is a sign of our society that it does not offend all viewers. "Do not swear falsely by my name" (Leviticus 19:12). Let me give you some examples of what I mean. If we get angry, it can be "Jesus Christ". If we hear bad news, "Oh God". If we want to persuade someone, "For heaven's sake". If we have forgotten something, "Oh Lord". Expressions such as "For God's sake" are often used as verbal exclamation points. People might be surprised to learn that this is blasphemy but that is what it is. We often hear people say, when rebuked, "That's not swearing — I didn't mean it disrespectfully. I could just have said 'damn'. I didn't mean anything by it." Exactly. I worked for Barclays Bank in my summer holidays as a student. The chief cashier was always the first to till up at the end of the day - to balance his credits and debits columns and match them to the cash in his till. When ever he had finished and the rest of us were struggling to get finished, he would cry our "The Lord's my Shepherd." In one way it was a sigh of relief, in another it was a taunt. At the time the gentleman gave no indication of being a Christian, but even if he was it was still blasphemy. One day when he called out "The Lord's my shepherd..." I responded gently, "I don't think he is." which prompted a good deal of discussion with the other cashiers and gave me an evangelistic opportunity. One way to handle blasphemy when we hear it from someone we know, is to reply something along the lines of "It hurts me to hear you use the name of someone I know and love." See what happens. Blasphemy is serious whether used provocatively or ignorantly.

But what if we ourselves are a victim of this habit? Its easy to tell whwen others do it but what about us? Then we must tackle the problem at its source. You must ask yourself whether you have ever really started the Christian life, and entered God's kingdom, and whether He has cleansed your heart from sin. Once He has become your King and Saviour, you will never want to use His name in that way again.
You will not want to, but at first it may be rather difficult to stop, if the thing has become a habit. Nature has done quite a lot to help us there.

The tongue is not on the surface of our bodies, where everyone can see it, like the nose or the ears. It has been parked securely behind two thick lips and two strong rows of teeth. It is as though nature were saying to us, 'You are going to have some difficulty with this particular instrument, and so I am putting it under guard for you.' The trouble is that most of us find these safeguards are not enough. We not only need a sentry, but a censor. It is just here that we shall find prayer such a help. The psalmist prayed, 'Set a watch, 0 Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips' (Psalm 141. 3). That is a prayer we need to use constantly.

The moment we feel the temptation to swear or to blaspheme, we must learn to send up a quick prayer for help: 'Lord, guard my lips.' If we can get into this habit, we shall find ourselves conquering the other one.

3.2 Hypocrisy
Milton has called hypocrisy 'the only evil that walks invisible, except to God alone.' It means to act a part, pretending to be what we are not, and you will remember that it was the particular failing of the Pharisees in Jesus' day. They were very religious people, but all too often their religion was simply a veneer—a beautiful coating of mahogany over cheap and ordinary chip board. Let us look at the two kinds of hypocrisy of which they were guilty.

3.2.1 Words without Thoughts
Words are rather like currency. The Euro isn't doing very well at the moment. It will buy far less today than it would when introduced. Its perceived value has seriously deteriorated. It does not stand for what the European currencies stand for. So it is with words. They all too frequently devalue with use, and do not convey the meaning they should. How often we catch ourselves saying 'The Lord's Prayer' or 'Grace', and we realize that we have not been attending to our own words. 'What was that you said?' a friend of mine asked a boy in his class one day. 'I don't know, sir,' was the reply, 'I wasn't listening.' I am afraid that is how we often treat God. The words we use have too little behind them. They are hollow. They are vain, and like the Pharisees' prayers, they are a pretence (Mark 12. 40). 'I often say my prayers, but do I ever pray? And do the wishes of my heart go with the words I say?' So runs a children's hymn, but it asks two very practical and important questions and probably most of us have discovered that it needs real discipline and concentration to conquer this tendency. Some people have found that it helps to utter the words they use, if not aloud, at least forming them on the lips. Others find it helpful to write out their own prayers, or use prayers which others have written. There is certainly room for experiment in trying to overcome this danger of hypocrisy in prayer.

3.2.2 Words without Deeds
You may remember how disappointed Jesus was once to find a fig-tree with plenty of leaves, but no fruit (Matthew 21. 18-20). He compared it to the Pharisees: plenty of talking about God, but very little living like Him. 'Why call Me, Lord, Lord,' He said to them, 'and do not the things which I say?' (Luke 6. 46). To profess to follow Christ, and yet not to do as He says, and live a life which is unworthy of Him, is to take the name of the Lord in vain. Many Christians Sunday by Sunday stand up in church and make a confession of their belief. The confession is known as the Apostles' Creed. It starts: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." Martin Luther met a man weeping by the roadside and enquired what was the problem. The man told emotionally of how his house, his property, his wealth had been burnt down the night before. Luther asked him if he knew the Creed. He said "Yes" and Luther requested the man to recite it. "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." Luther said, "Stop, would you please repeat it." "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." And Luther said, "Well, that's it then, if you really believe that you've got nothing to worry about." The question is do we honour him as Sovereign God? If we do not honour Him by respecting His names, we break His commandment. If we doubt His ability to care for us and keep His promises and complain about circumstances, then we do not honour Him as Sovereign God. The Psalmist said, "I will declare your name" (Psalm 22:22), expressing that he desires to speak about all that God is. When we use one of His names in an empty, negative context we are degrading Him. Not only is His name significant to Him, but it should be so for us.

We also take His name in vain when we dishonour the name Christian.
Those of us who belong to God have, in a sense, taken His name, and we must hallow it by our actions. If we commit adultery" with the world, we transgress against His love and dishonour the name Christian — which means "a Christ one". We act fraudulently when our behaviour does not match our beliefs. Judas lscariot believed in Jesus Christ, but his behaviour did not correspond to that belief. We disgrace the name of the Lord when our practice does not match what we claim to believe. When Jesus saw the Pharisees He said, quoting Isaiah: "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." (Matthew 15:8—9).

Jesus demands more than words from the lips, he also demands a commitment from our hearts so that the words can be put into practice.

A pastor once had a member of his church who was a notorious gossip. She would "hang on the phone" most of the day, sharing tidbits with any and all who would listen. She came to the pastor one day and said, "Pastor, the Lord has convicted me of my sin of gossip. My tongue is getting me and others into trouble." My friend knew she was not sincere because she had gone through that routine before. Guardedly he asked, "Well, what do you plan to do?" "I want to put my tongue on the altar," she replied with pious fervor. Calmly my friend replied, "There isn't an altar big enough," and he left her to think it over. We dishonour the name of God if we profess to be that which we are not. We are then hypocrites and "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you" (Romans 2:24). Blasphemy and Hypocrisy.

3.3 Familiarity
Familiarity breeds contempt,' runs the proverb, and contempt of God, His word and commandments, is a very dangerous state of mind. We need therefore to be very careful not to get into a flippant, familiar frame of mind where spiritual things are concerned. Perhaps blasphemy and swearing are a temptation to those who have not had a particularly Christian upbringing. Familiarity is, I am sure, something which those who have enjoyed a Christian home need to be especially careful about. Long acquaintance with the Bible, Church services, hymns and prayers can produce this frivolous, superficial approach which is so dangerous; and once we begin to treat God with less reverence than He deserves, we are treating Him with contempt. Expressions like "Hallelujah" and "Praise the Lord" are thrown about with such frequency that they become empty religious phrases — for us, not for God. I remember at university one of my Christian friends would punctuate almost every sentence with "praise the Lord." We can easily misuse the name of God to manipulate a situation if we think that it will further our cause.

For example, if we ask someone to do something and they react with a great deal of uncertainty and hesitancy, we can be quick to suggest, "Well, ask the Lord to show you in prayer." Is this the right use of God's name? Or are we trying to spiritualise a situation by using God's name? The classic example is when one person tells someone, "I believe the Lord wants us to get married", which I gather has often happened to Cliff Richard! We also take God 's name in vain when we use it as an item for humour and entertainment. This is not to say that we should not laugh. It is healthy to laugh at ourselves, but when unbelievers mock Him and His name on television and radio, do we-just laugh along with everybody else or do we feel hurt because we honour God and His name? Do we stand in awe of His name? (Malachi 2:5).
Blasphemy, Hypocrisy, Familiarity.

4. So how should we use the Lord's Name?
As Christians we take the name of Christ, so the way we behave reflects what we think of God. So let us not be like those Orthodox Jews and treat God's name as so sacred that we do not mention it, but let us learn to love His names and what they stand for. Let us stand up for His name when it is dishonoured. Above all let us live out His name, let us increasingly bear our family likeness, so that people identify us with Jesus.

"Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;

make known among the nations what he has done.

Sing to him, sing praise to him;

tell of all his wonderful acts.

Glory in his holy name;

let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always."
(Psalm 105:1—4)

Material used in this sermon has been drawn from several sources including John Eddison "Understanding the Ten Commandments" (Scripture Union); J. John "Ten Steps to the Good life" (Hodder); and Joy Davidman, "Smoke on the Mountain" (Hodder)