What is God’s name? Is it Jehovah? Is it Yahweh? We don’t actually know. Because ever since God revealed that name to Moses, more than 3000 years ago, the Israelites were scared to speak that name or write it down. In places they wrote down just the consonants, JHWH or YHWH. But they never dared write down the vowels so Jehovah or Yahweh are just guesses. And the reason that to this day a devout Jew will not speak aloud or even write down the name of God is that they are afraid of breaking the Third of the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 20:7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
We all know the old King James version translation. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
The Jews avoided using the name of God completely in case they inadvertently broke the Third Commandment by committing the sin of misusing it.
But what does it actually mean to take the name of the Lord in vain? Most people misunderstand this phrase. It is not really about bad language or swearing. It is not really to do with joking about God, laughing at God, mocking God, trivializing God. It is not even about using the names of God or of Jesus in profane or blasphemous ways.
Some people think taking God’s name in vain is about treating the name of God as empty or meaningless. But that is the opposite of the case. A person who misuses the name of God fully recognises the great power which there is in the Name of God or the Name of Jesus. Their sin is to try to use that power for their own ends, for their own purposes and for their own glory instead of for God’s purposes and for God’s glory. People do this in at least three ways.
1 USING the name of God or of Jesus to convince other people to believe us
In the Old Testament Israelites were permitted to take oaths using God’s name.
Deuteronomy 6:13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.
So an Israelite could guarantee that what they were saying was the truth by invoking God’s name. Even in modern English, some people might say, “As God is my witness.” Consequently, one example of misusing God’s name would be to call on the name of God to support a lie. Jews have always believed that it is an offence against the Third Commandment to lie when under oath. It would equally be a sin to use God’s name to make a vow or a promise which we have no intention of keeping.
Leviticus 19:11-12 ‘Do not lie. “ ‘Do not deceive one another. 12 “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
The idea that God’s name guarantees the truth of what a person says has led to the tradition in English courts of law to swear an oath on the Bible. “I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus changed all that. Matthew 5 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: … 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The letter of James says the same. Janes 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.
Because of these verses, Nonconformist Christians have always refused to swear an oath on the Bible so instead they are allowed to confirm their testimony by a statement of Affirmation. “I do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Since we declare and affirm rather than swearing oaths in God’s name, it is not likely that believing Christians would break the Third Commandment by swearing falsely or by lying under oath. But sadly some Christians do misuse God’s Name and the name of Jesus in other ways.
2 USING the name of God or of Jesus to make other people do what we want them to do
People can take the name of God in vain when they misrepresent God, or use God as a pretext for some earthly ends, or when they claim to speak on God’s behalf when in truth they do not. In the days of Jeremiah, God was very angry with false prophets.
Jeremiah 6 13 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 14 14 Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. 15 Therefore, this is what the LORD says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine.
These false prophets were claiming to speak on behalf of God with God’s authority, when in fact they were lying. They were saying God had said something which He had not said. Some professing Christians do this. Have you ever heard somebody say, “God wanted me to do this.” Or, “God didn’t want me to do that.” “God didn’t want me to come to work today.” Even, “God wants me to tell you this.” Using God as an excuse for our own actions. If they are not sharing a genuine revelation from God, such people are taking the Name of the Lord in vain. I am reminded of the story of the Curate who was sneaking out of a retreat when he bumped into the Bishop. “The Spirit is leading me to go into the village and do some shopping,” the Curate explained. The Bishop replied, “I trust that the Spirit and yourself are aware that today is early closing day.” Claiming to represent God or to be speaking on behalf of God when we know we are not is misusing the name of the Lord.
I have heard far too many preachers misuse the name of God. It is a favourite trick of the false-prophets of the Health Wealth and Prosperity heresy. Like the televangelists who basically tell people, “God wants you to give me your money.” Don’t be fooled by the very persuasive pseudo-spiritual language they use. Anybody claiming to speak for God when they do not is breaking the Third Commandment.
It is equally wrong when people misappropriate the name of God or the name of Jesus to support a particular cause, however worthy that cause may appear. In his excellent book The Screwtape Letters C.S.Lewis explains this sin very well. People can easily be tempted to treat God as a means to some earthly end or another, instead of respecting God for who He is. C.S.Lewis gives this example. Whether the man decides to be pro-war or anti-war, the trick is to make a man so passionate on one side that he begins to use his religion as nothing more than an argument to justify his opinion. He will begin to form arguments that God would be for the war or against the war. The man will to twist the living God into what he wants God to be. The man’s earthly passion co-opts God. He never really worships God, but turns God into an idol, which the man uses for his own purposes.
From the devil’s point of view, “Whichever (cause) he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce” in favour of the cause. … “Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours.”
This is using God and the Christian faith as a means to an end. But God, C.S.Lewis says, “will not be used as a convenience.” Misappropriating God’s Name to justify or to promote a particular cause breaks the Third Commandment. In any dispute, when any nation or group of people claim that God is uncritically on their side then they are in danger of misusing God’s name. In wars, every side claims that God is with them and at the same time pacifists declare that all war is wrong. They can’t all be correct! At one time, God was said to be in favour of slavery, at the same time as His name was invoked to justify violence opposing slavery. The name of God was used to justify apartheid, and at the same time to justify terrorism in opposition to apartheid. Different writers claimed that God was on the side of Remain, while others declared God was on the side of Brexit. Some in each camp definitely took God’s name in vain. In these days the name of God is invoked in support of the wishy-washy false god of “inclusivity”, as people make vague appeals to God’s love while rejecting things God has clearly revealed in the Bible.
I saw an example only yesterday in an advert from a respectable Christian charity. It said, “Jesus would not close his eyes to refugees.” At one level, that is true. But what the advert was actually saying was, if you don’t send us your money you are closing your eyes to refugees and God wouldn’t do that. Never mind if you are supporting refugees in other ways. Never mind if you are giving sacrificially to other equally deserving causes. “Jesus wouldn’t close his eyes to refugees.” The Third Commandment is broken whenever the name of God is hijacked to support some particular cause and the cause itself becomes more important than God Himself. Do not misuse the Name of God or Jesus. God “will not be used as a convenience!” however worthy the cause. It is a sin to use God as a means to an end – instead of letting God use us for His ends. God is never a means to any end. God is the most glorious and supreme end in Himself. God “will not be used as a convenience.”
3 USING the name of God or of Jesus to try to force God to do what we want Him to
The name of God is the most powerful name. Jesus Christ is Lord! The name of Jesus is indeed higher and greater than any other name in heaven and earth. The Name of Jesus can bring healing and deliverance and new birth and all the blessings of salvation! Jesus promised His disciples. John 14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
Yet Christians can break the Third Commandment if they ever treat the name of God or of Jesus as some kind of magic word which can manipulate God into doing what we want. In the days of Moses, a person’s name was believed to be intimately connected to their being and their essence. Giving somebody your name was an act of favour and trust and vulnerability. The Third Commandment forbade the Israelites from attempting to use God’s name in magical ways to manipulate him. It is a misuse of God’s name to invoke that name for selfish or evil purposes or to use His name in magical spells or curses.
Most religions in the ancient world used magic or curses to command a deity to do the human’s bidding. They did this by calling on the name of the deity. The Third Commandment prohibited the Israelites from dragging the name of the Lord down to the level of the names of all those false gods by using His name in magic or curses. This Commandment tells us that we can never manipulate Almighty God by invoking his name – or indeed by any other means. The Lord of Heaven and Earth is never obliged to do our bidding. If Christians believe that God will do whatever we want him to just because we use the name of God of Jesus in our prayers, then we are breaking the Third commandment.
Magic is not a part of everyday life for most people in Britain today, although it still is for many people in Africa, India and South America. But we know what people mean by “magic words”. Stage magicians will often use a “magic word” to make things happen. They might say “Abracadabra”, which actually means in Hebrew “it came to pass as it was spoken”. Ali Baba used “open sesame.” When Sooty waved his magic wand Harry Corbett would say “Izzy, Wizzy, Let’s Get Busy”. Harry Potter has introduced a whole collection of invented Latin-sounding magical words. The idea is that using the right magic word will make things happen.
When children ask for something, parents will sometimes say to them, “What’s the magic word?” We are trying to teach our children to be polite and to say “Please” when they want something. In reality there is a danger that what we are teaching them is that they have a right to receive anything they ask for, as long as they use the magic word “please” when they ask for it.
Sadly, in their ways of praying, some Christians misuse the name of Jesus as if it is some kind of magic word which guarantees that what we want will actually happen. Knowing and using God’s name does not give Christians power over God. Even to think that it does is taking the Name of the Lord in vain. The Lord is sovereign and we cannot manipulate him. Our prayers must always be, “Our Father which art in heaven… Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Not our will but God’s will! Sometimes Christians string together a shopping list of things they want God to do for them, and think that just by tagging on the words “in the name of Jesus” or “for Jesus’s sake” that means that God is somehow obliged to do whatever they have asked for.
THE SIN OF MISUSING THE NAME OF GOD is people USING the name of God or Jesus as if it had some magical power of its own, or as if God is obliged to do something just because they have used the name of Jesus. One obvious example of that sin is found in Ephesus in Acts 19.
Acts 19 13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
The name of Jesus is not a magic word. The name of Jesus is far more important and powerful than that. So – no lying under oath. No claiming to speak for God when we don’t. No attempting to use the names of God or Jesus as a means to an end. No treating those names as if they are magic words to get us what we want. This is what it means to take God’s name in vain. God is saying, “Don’t patronize me. Don’t try to use me. Don’t caricature me. Don’t try to manipulate me. Don’t treat me casually. Take me seriously!” Do not misuse the Name of the LORD your God!