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Sermon Message

"God's Holy Name"

Exodus 20:7
Theme: The third commandment prohibits us from treating God's name in an unworthy way.

(Delivered Sunday, July 27, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)    


This morning, we continue our study of the ten commandments by looking together at the third of the ten. But before we do, let's take a moment to consider this commandment in its context.

The first four of the commandments - or, as they have collectively been called, "the first table of the law" - govern our relationship with God. In giving us His law, the first thing God did was to guide us into a right approach toward Himself. These first four commandments give us the proper basis for obedience to the remaining six. We must always view the second table of the law from the perspective of the first. Or put in the way Jesus taught in His summation of the law, we must always view the second command to love our neighbor as ourselves from the perspective of the first command to love God with all our heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:34-40).

So then, the first four commandments teach us how to love God. The first commandment teaches us that we are to have no other gods but the one true God. The second builds on the first, and teaches us that we are not to place our worship of this one true God upon a thing or a place or a ritual of our own creation; that we are not to attempt to make an image or likeness of Him and bow down to it, but are to worship Him as He has revealed Himself to be; that we're to worship Him in spirit and truth. The third commandment, again, builds on these first two; and teaches us the sort of reverence with which we are to practice the worship of the one true God. We are not to take His name in vain, but are to treat all that is true of Him with the utmost reverence. And finally, building on the first three, the fourth commandment teaches us that we are to remember and honor God's special day; and are to be sure that we set that one day a week apart from all others and devote it to His worship.

Another way to put this is to say that the first four commandments give us the "who" (the one true God), the "where" (not upon an image), the "how" (with reverence), and the "when" (with one day in seven) of the worship of God. Today, we take up the matter of "how" - that is, the attitude of heart in which He is to be approached and worshiped. God communicates this to us in the form of a prohibition. He says,

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 (Ex. 20:7).

* * * * * * * * * * *

One of the most telling things about a person is what they do with God's name. The Bible tells us that the mouth is the revealer of what is in the heart; because as Jesus said, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). Nothing demonstrates the truth of this more than how someone uses God's name.

Many people, for example, reveal what's in their hearts by the fact that they use God's name in a way that dishonors Him, or treats Him as something common, or robs Him of His glory. Have you ever noticed how people who are self-confessed unbelievers will, in spite of their unbelief, evoke God's name almost constantly? When He extends His good hand to them, they want nothing to do with Him; and yet they habitually use His name to curse their car when it wont start, or to express their frustration over the weather, or to exclaim their shock over some unexpected turn of events. The pressures of life bring out what's in the unbelieving person's heart; and what's in their heart is revealed in how irreverently they treat God's name. As the book of Revelation describes the terrible outpouring of God's wrath on sin, it tells us several times that those who receive God's punishment "blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory" (Rev. 16:9; see also vv. 11 and 21).

And yet, consider from the Scriptures how the godly person uses God's name. His name is not used by them as a curse, but as a refuge and a cause for hope - for the Bible tells us that "The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe" (Prov. 18:10). They reverence His name and treat it as sacred - obeying His commandments and keeping His word, that they "may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD" (Deut 28:58; see also Psalm 111:9). "They will hallow My name," says God; "and hallow the Holy One of Jacob, and fear the God of Israel" (Isa. 29:23). They seek to spotlight the greatness of His name - praying such things as, "So let Your name be magnified forever ..." (2 Sam. 7:26); and, "I will praise Your name, O LORD, for it is good" (Psalm 54:6). And even in the times of deepest trial, they will say, "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21). Such uses of God's name reveal the condition of the godly person's heart.

In fact, the godly ones who love God's name are grieved when others misuse it. "O God," they cry out, "how long will the adversary reproach? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?" (Psalm 74:10). King David put it in very strong terms when he said, "Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against You wickedly; your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies" (Psalm 139: 19-22). The godly long for others to reverence His name; saying, "The LORD is great in Zion, and He is high above all the peoples. Let them praise Your great and awesome name - He is holy" (Psalm 99:2-3).

So this brings us to a question: How do you use God's name? Do you treat His name with reverence? Or do you treat it as something common and unworthy of respect? What does the fruit of your mouth communicate to the world about the condition of your heart toward God? Can you see how much is revealed about us through our use of God's name?

* * * * * * * * * *

This commandment prohibits us from treating God's name in an unworthy way - and behind it is a command to have the right heart-attitude of reverence toward God. Let's begin our look at considering ...


The focus of concern is God's "name". God Himself says, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain ..."

Notice that, in saying this, He uses first the sacred name "Yahweh" - the covenant name He gave to identify Himself to His chosen people Israel. When He revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, and told Moses to tell his enslaved people that He was coming to deliver them, Moses said, "Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" And God told him, "I AM WHO I AM"; and said, "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you" (Ex. 3:13-14). This name is translated in most of our Bible's by "LORD" in all-capital letters. It's the most sacred name in all the Bible.

And notice that, second, He uses the name "God" - the "mighty One". In the Hebrew, it's in the plural form; which is a way of expressing the overwhelming majesty of God. And we need to remember that He speaks in this passage to individuals - speaking in the second person singular. He speaks as if to say, "I am your God - you as an individual person standing before Me!"

What a majestic combination these two names together are! What a glorious thing that the LORD would declare Himself to be our God! How worthy these names are of the utmost reverence of anyone who takes them upon his or her lips!

* * * * * * * * * *

But it's important to remember that God's "name", as it is mentioned in this commandment, means much more than simply the letters of a word. His "name" is to be understood as the totality of all that God Himself is and does.

When we talk about someone's reputation, we might say something like this: "He's got a very good name in this town." In saying this, we don't mean that the form of his name is particularly outstanding. Rather, we mean that his character and reputation are good. Or, if a company sells a product, they may want to inspire confidence in their product by saying something like this: "Our name is on it." And again, this doesn't merely mean that the letters of their name are stamped on the product. Rather, it means that the whole character and reputation of that company stand behind that product. Similarly - although in a much greater way - God's "name" is meant to stand for all that is true of Him. His "name" refers to Him in His full character, nature, power and works - everything that's true about Him.

There's a marvelous illustration of this from the Old Testament. It was the time when Moses prayed to God and said, "Please, show me Your glory" (Ex. 33:18). God said that He could not allow Moses to see Him; "for no man shall see Me, and live" (v. 20). But God did tell Moses that He would place him in the cleft of a rock, cover him with His hand, and pass by; and God said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you" (v. 19).

So the next day, it happened. God passed by Moses and proclaimed His "name". And what did God proclaim? Did He merely describe the letters of His name? No; He proclaimed much more than that. He proclaimed His character and nature to Moses. He passed by, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation" (Ex. 34:6-7). He described what He is like. That's how God "proclaimed" His own name.

So, when we see that God gives us this commandment concerning His "name", we're to understand it to mean more than a call to show reverence to the letters of a word. We're certainly to do that; but we're being told to do much more than that. We are to show the utmost reverence toward all that is true of God - His character, His attributes, His power, His actions and His will. We're to show reverence to everything by which He has made Himself known to us - His word, His promises, His descriptive names and His commandments. We're also to show reverence to those means by which He has commanded us to approach Him - His gospel, His church, His worship, baptism, the Lord's Supper, oaths, vows, prayers and acts of obedience and repentance. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it, "The third commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God's names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works." That is the scope of this commandment.

* * * * * * * * * *

The second thing we should notice is ...


The Hebrew word translated "vain" in this commandment means "empty" or "to no good purpose". To "take" something "in vain" means to utter it, or use it, to no good use - in an empty and pointless and unworthy way. Specifically, God says, "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain ..." And of course, we know that by this is meant not only God's "name", but also that nothing that is true about Him is to be taken up by us in an empty and unworthy manner. Nothing by which He has revealed Himself, nor any of the ways by which He has commanded us to approach Him to be taken up by us in a vain manner. We are to treat all that is true of Him in a manner that is in keeping with their true majesty. We are to treat the things of God as incomparably sacred. We are to handle them with the greatest reverential care possible.

* * * * * * * * * *

What exactly is this commandment prohibiting? We'd have to say the most obvious thing is the use of God's name as a swear word. It permeates our culture. It's in almost all our movies and television shows. It's in our literature. You can't walk down the street without hearing it. And this commandment plainly prohibits it.

My wife was working with some little inner-city kids in a church we used to go to. Many of these little children who were bused to the church had little or no church background or Bible teaching. During a Sunday school class, one particular little girl raised her hand with a question. She wanted to know why Jesus' mommy and daddy named Him with a "bad word". There was another little boy that my wife had a hard time getting to read a particular Bible verse. It was a verse that spoke of Jesus; but she couldn't figure out why he was so afraid read it aloud. He eventually told my wife that his mommy told him he'd get punished if he used bad words like that. Can you imagine such a thing? The only time these little children heard the name of the blessed Savior was when it was being uttered as a vile curse! Their only conception of God's name is as a bad word! And that was a long time ago. Can you imagine how many children have grown up in pretty much the same way?

Sometimes, when I've talked to guys who use God's holy name as a curse, and I have worked up the nerve to tell them they should do it, I'm often met with this response: "Oh, I know it's wrong; but I don't really mean anything by it." I usually respond by saying, "That's the point of taking His name in vain, isn't it? - that you don't really mean it?" Other times, the response is, "Well I can't help it; because I'm so mad!" And that, of course, isn't much better. Such cursing simply manifests even more of the malice that's in the heart. Others have insisted, "Maybe it's wrong; but for me, it works! Using such strong language gets things done! It sure gets people movin' a lot faster than saying, 'Pretty please'!" But what a horrible thing to have "working" for you!!

These are the excuses people often use for taking God's name in vain. But Jesus said something about all of it - and He DIDN'T speak in vain! He said, "... I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give an account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:34-37). If "every idle word" will need to be accounted for before the One whose name we so abuse, what good will it do to say that we didn't mean what we said, or that we were angry when we said it, or that it worked for us?

What a dreadful it is to take the most sacred thing we could ever take upon our lips - the name of God - and curse with it!! And we must never minimize the evil of such an act. It's not just an offense to the delicate ears of someone's grandmother! It's nothing less than an arrogant slap in the face of the "I AM" - the "mighty One". And let's get personal about it - If you are someone who avoids this sin when you come to church, but have a habit of committing it regularly off the church property - whether it be at home, or at work, or around your neighbors, or in the privacy of your car, or among your friends - your church family may not know about it; but God does. He Himself says that you will be held accountable for it by Him.

You must not use God's name as an expletive, nor misuse the name of His blessed Son. And you must not seek to substitute the name of God with euphemisms, or curse with the name of Mary or one of the saints. You must confess such cursing and profanity for what it is - a very grievous sin of irreverence and a disregard for the holy Person of God. You must repent of it, and seek His help in turning from it. You must let Him redeem your mouth, and purify your heart. God will forgive anyone who confesses this sin and sincerely turns from it. But make no mistake: all who practice this sin, and refuse to turn from it, must - as Jesus the righteous Judge has Himself said - give an account for every form of it before the judgment seat of the very One whose name they blaspheme.

* * * * * * * * * *

Another form of this sin is one that is often heard among professing Christians. It's when God's name is used, not so much as a curse or as profanity, but in a thoughtless and careless way.

I was on a church baseball team many years ago (believe it or not); and the catcher from the other church's team was a typical catcher-type. He was always shouting comments to the pitcher as a way of "psychin'-out" the batter; "Alright; let's take this guy out! He ain't gonna' know what went past him! Let's really zing it by him!" (The catcher was much better at it than I am.) But he'd always end a long string of this stuff with the phrase tacked on at the end, "- Praise God!" Now, can you imagine how that sounded? "Okay; let's punch a hole through this drink of water - Praise God!" That went on the whole game long! And the more I heard it, the more it began to sicken me. It seemed like such a deplorable way to use the magnificent phrase, "Praise God".

Do you ever use such phrases thoughtlessly? Do you say, "Praise God" without really thinking about how you're using it? Or here's another one: Do you ever preface something you're about to say with the line, "God told me ..."? (If you do, you'd better be absolutely sure He really did speak from heaven and tell you something that He didn't tell the rest of us before you go around making THAT claim! - Deut. 18:20.) Do you ever say you're going to pray for someone and then not do it? Or do you ever thoughtlessly tack the phrase "In Jesus' name ..." at the end of a prayer that you weren't even thinking about? Or do you ever pray something "in Jesus' name" when you're not really even sure it's something that He would have agreed with?

These are ways God's own people dishonor His name carelessly! Such thoughtless phrases are like flies buzzing around in God's holy temple! God has a right to expect these phrases to be used reverently and with a sense of their true meaning - and most especially by His own children! May His Holy Spirit search us in these things!

* * * * * * * * * *

This commandment also forbids us from taking oaths with such phrases as, "So help me, God", or "I swear to God that I'm telling the truth" - and yet doing so in a careless way; or with no actual intention of doing what we say we'll do. To take an oath is to evoke God as a witness to the truth of what we say, or that we really intend to do what we say we'll do. What a sobering thing that is to do! It's something that should only be done with careful thought, and with a full resolve to - indeed - fully mean what we say.

To take such an oath in God's name (such as in a court of law for example or in a personal agreement), is not a wrong thing to do in and of itself. The Bible says, for example,

If a man delivers to his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep, and it dies, is hurt, or driven away, no one seeing it, then an oath of the LORD shall be between them both, that he has not put his hand into his neighbor's goods; and the owner of it shall accept that, and he shall not make it good (Ex. 22:10-11).

God permits His name to be used in this way. But in such a case, God is truly being called in as a witness; and it must never be done lightly because God will not be a party to lies.

Often, people make a habit of such oaths in everyday conversation. They'll say they're "swearin' to God" this, or they're "swearin' to God" that; and they think nothing of it the whole time. Very often, folks say such things when sharing gossip, or rumors, or scandalous talk about other people - never realizing that, the whole time long, God is taking very seriously what they're "swearin'" to Him about so carelessly. What a horrible thing to do with the name of God! What a horrible thing to have to account for!

Sometimes people try to make such oaths when they're saying something they don't really mean; but they try to get around this sin by swearing to something less than God. They somehow feel that they don't have to be so sincere about an oath if it's not an oath to God. This was the sin Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on The Mount, when He said,

"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

Again, we have to consider this in relation to the rest of Scripture. Jesus was not forbidding that we swear to something by the name of God, because the Scripture clearly allows such a thing to be done. Rather, He was forbidding us from swearing by something less than God because we really had no intention of keeping our word. People who do this simply try to substitute an oath to God for an oath in the name of something of God; hoping this diminishes the sin of their insincerity. But in the end, the intention not to do what one says is the same thing as a lie; and in this case, it involves the misuses the things of God. It's being both a false witness and a abuser of the name of God - making it a doubly-wicked sin.

* * * * * * * * * *

Another way God's name can be taken in vain by us is in the making of vows. We can make a vow to God; and yet not keep it. Many people do this. They say things like, "God; if you get me out of this, I promise I'll give my life over to His service." But they make such vows rashly; and then, when it comes to giving their life to His service, they don't do what they said they'd do.

I know of one man who was shot in the leg in Vietnam. He was bleeding to death in a mud puddle. He had grown up in a Christian home; but he had wandered away from the Lord. And now, he was laying in the mud far away from his godly mother and father - shot and bleeding, not knowing if he'll live. He made a vow in the mud puddle that, if God would get out of his situation, he'd serve Him in whatever way He called. God did rescue him; and he did indeed keep his promise to God. I knew of his story because he was my youth pastor in the first church I ever attended. But only God knows how few of such vows are kept, in proportion to how many are made.

Again, it's not wrong to make such vows. But it's very wrong to make them simply for show in front of other people, or as a part of a custom, or a ritual, or a ceremony - and then to fail to keep them. Solomon was pretty blunt when he said:

When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed - Better not to vow than to vow and not pay (Eccl. 5:4-5).

* * * * * * * * * *

There are many other ways that we can violate God's intention for us in this commandment. We take His name in vain when we make jokes about God or engage in disrespectful humor concerning the things of God (Eph. 5:3-4). We take His name in vain when we profess to be His follower insincerely (Titus 1:16); or when we misrepresent or deliberately mishandle His word (2 Cor. 2:17). We dishonor His name when we grumble about our service to Him and murmur against His ordinances (Mal. 1:12-13), or slander those He has placed in authority over us (Ex. 22:28).

We may think that worrying about such things is an exercise in hair-splitting. But the fact is that such things reveal a lack of reverence toward God from the heart. Such things are a grief to Him, because they reveal a heart that does not truly love and honor Him. It reveals a heart that does not sincerely approach Him in a manner that befits His true majesty.

* * * * * * * * * *

This leads us, finally, to consider ...


God Himself says, "... for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain." This is a rhetorical device - an understatement. Less is being said, in order to emphasize that much more is really intended. To say that the Lord will not hold such a one guiltless means, "The Lord will not neglect the matter; but will most certainly and very severely punish whoever takes His name in vain."

Now, God states this in a way that speaks of a person who habitually takes His name in vain. This should be a comfort to us; because we've all fallen in this sin at one time or another. Jesus has died for all sin - including this sin - and paid for it fully on His cross. And God is a merciful God, who will forgive any sinner who confesses this sin, trusts in the cross of Jesus, and turns from it with a sincere heart. God is not talking here about extracting punishment from His children who - at one time - blasphemed His name, but who now hold His name dear.

But He IS here promising that He will indeed punish this sin in those who will not turn from it. He will not leave them unpunished. It's not a sin that men will punish. People can curse God's name and have it be considered "protected speech" in our culture; but they are not protected from God's judgment. If someone steals, or commits adultery, or murders, or perjures themselves, the courts of men will punish such things. Human courts, however, typically do not punish people for dishonoring God, or speaking irreverently concerning the things of God, or for taking His name in vain. But that should not leave someone to think that they will escape punishment for this sin. God Himself promises to see to the matter.

* * * * * * * * * *

I began our time by affirming that the way we use God's name reveals the truth about what's in our heart. Let me close by sharing a story with you that illustrates that fact.

There was a very wealthy man several hundreds of years ago who had three sons. One day, his wife made the shocking confession to him that only one of the three was actually his.

Years later, as this man lay dying, he wished to pass his estate on to his son; but he didn't know for sure which of the three truly was his son. So he devised a test. He ordered that, after he died, the executors of his estate were to fix his body to a tree and to give each of the three boys a bow and arrow. He instructed that each of the three were to be allowed to shoot the arrow at the dead man's heart. The one who was nearest to the father's heart would be judged by the executors to be the true son, and would be given the entire estate of his father.

Soon afterwards, the man died; and the executors of his estate did as they were instructed. The first son - longing for the father's estate - took careful aim and shot his arrow as closely as he could to the father's heart. And so did the second. But the third son, out of love and respect for the father and out of a natural disposition to show reverence to him, refused to even receive a bow and arrow or dare to harm the heart of his father in any way. And it was at that point that the executors correctly judged that he - rather than the other two - was the true son. You see; he was the one that proved to be "nearest to the father's heart" and thus proved to be a true son of his father. As a result, his father's entire estate was awarded to him.1

Each time someone takes the name of our God in vain - each time someone uses His name in a thoughtless way, or as a curse, or to support an insincere oath, or in any way dishonors the things of God or treats them without the reverence they deserve - they are firing an arrow straight at the Father's heart. And a true son or daughter of God will not do that. A true son of of the Father reveals his identity by the fact that he honor and reverence God's name - along with all that His name stands for.

How near to the heart of the heavenly Father do you really prove to be? The reverence with which you treat His name will reveal the truth.

1This story was adapted from Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), pp. 89-90.

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