Honor God's Name

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“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).

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“What is God’s name?” she asked. Not sure I had heard right, I asked her to repeat herself. “Can you tell me what God’s name is?” she asked again.

How do you answer a question like that? I was a first-year seminarian, about to lead my first chapel service in a Fort Wayne nursing home. The woman who asked the question exhibited a number of the characteristics associated with the mid- to later- stages of dementia. You learn a lot at the seminary, but there aren’t any courses that specifically deal with this sort of situation.   

I first thought of the old joke: “What is God’s name?” Answer: “Andy.” You know, as in the gospel song, “In the Garden”… “Andy walks with me. Andy talks with me. Andy tells me I am his own.”

But something, or perhaps I should say someone (the Holy Spirit?), prompted me to take the question seriously. I didn’t know this woman or her history. I didn’t know if she was simply testing me, to see what kind of a teacher I would be. I didn’t know if she had years of Sunday school lessons, Bible studies, and sermons tucked in the recesses of her mind. I didn’t even know if she was a Christian. For all I knew she had never heard the Gospel message.

The thought came to me: “This might be the last chance she will ever have to hear of Jesus’ perfect atoning sacrifice for her sin and the sin of the world. She might never again have the opportunity to hear of the love and mercy, grace and forgiveness of the one true God—the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have to answer this question seriously and give as good an answer as I can.”

Trusting the Word of God to do its work and be effective even in the most difficult of circumstances I forged ahead: “What is God’s name?” I repeated. “Well, God’s name is the way in which He has revealed Himself to us, His essence and His attributes. In the Old Testament, God’s covenant name is Yahweh. When Moses asked God for His name at the burning bush, the Lord replied in Hebrew: ‘Yahweh,’ which means ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ In declaring His name as Yahweh, the Lord God was expressing His character as the dependable and faithful covenant God who desires the full trust of His people.”

She was nodding, so I continued: “In the New Testament, God has revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus, which means ‘The Lord saves,’ was the name given to Him at His birth because ‘He will save His people from their sins.’ Jesus is His personal name. The title Christ or Messiah means ‘the Anointed One.’ Jesus has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Prophet, Priest, and King. So when you pray ‘in the name of Jesus,’ you are confessing that you know and trust that God will answer your prayers for the sake of His Son Jesus the Christ, our Lord and only Savior from sin, death, and the devil.”     

I went on: “God has also revealed Himself as the one true Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Jesus gave His Church the Great Commission, He said: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ In Baptism, God, the Holy Trinity, receives you into fellowship with Himself, and applies His name on you through the water by the power of His Word. In Holy Absolution, He bestows forgiveness in that same name through His called and ordained servants.”

“What is God’s name? It is Yahweh, the covenant Lord, ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ It is Jesus Christ, true God and true man. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. It is the one true triune God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

It was a long answer to a short question; but what else would you expect from new seminarian? We tend to like to show off our newfound knowledge. Her simple childlike reply, “I thought so,” told me that she was satisfied with it. It also indicated that God’s powerful, holy name, had already been at work in her heart, and was continuing to sustain her faith even despite her failing health.

God’s name is unique, powerful, and deserving of highest reverence. That is why God gives us His Second Commandment with a warning: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.”

What does this mean? Martin Luther explains: “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

The ESV translation of the Second Commandment reads, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The term “in vain” means to empty of significance, to disrespect, to belittle. And so, the issue of the Second Commandment is reverence—the reverence due to a holy God.

We are an irreverent society. We like to knock people off their pedestal. We are happy to hear about the weaknesses and failures of others. How else do you describe the popularity of tabloids and magazines, television shows like TMZ and Entertainment Tonight? Why else would anyone want to know what the Kardashians are doing? We have an obsessive need to burst everyone’s bubble, to reduce everyone to our level of ordinariness (or even beneath us)? Is that why we are also irreverent with God’s name? We don’t even want Him considered special?

Actually, this isn’t a new problem. George Washington found it necessary to address this issue in an order to the Continental Army on August 3, 1776: “The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice heretofore little known in the American army, is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will by example as well as by influence endeavor to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hope of the blessing of heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.”

When most people today think of cursing and swearing, they are actually thinking of profanity or vulgarity, the four-letter words that it seems you will hear almost everywhere from barroom to boardroom to your own family room these days. But while such salty language is certainly coarse and inappropriate, it is not a sin against the Second Commandment. It not a misuse of the name of God. It does not take God’s name in vain.

Cursing by God’s name is blaspheming God by speaking evil of Him or mocking Him; or calling down the anger and punishment of God upon oneself or any other person or thing. Job’s wife foolishly counseled him to “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). The people at Jesus’ trial cursed themselves and their children: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). James and John asked Jesus if they should ask God to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-55). But Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Swearing by God’s name is taking an oath in which we call on God to witness the truth of what we say or promise and to punish us if we lie or break our promise. Jephthah made a thoughtless oath that cost the life of his daughter (Judges 11:30-40). Peter denied Jesus with an oath (Matthew 26:72) and then invoked a curse on himself as he swore, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:74). But Jesus said, “Do not swear at all… Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

But as shameful as such misuse of God’s name is, there is a greater abuse: lying and deceiving by God’s name. Lying and deceiving by God’s name is teaching false doctrine and saying that it is God’s Word or revelation. While other forms of misusing God’s name imperil the speaker, teaching false doctrine has the potential to not only condemn the speaker, but also the hearers by leading them astray from the truth of God’s Word. There is no greater sin against the Second Commandment than using God’s name to preach, teach, and spread false doctrine.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.” We are to revere God’s name. We are to fear and love God so that we do not use His sacred name casually or disrespectfully. We are not to misuse God’s name by wishing harm to others or to back up our falsehood. We are not to add or to take away from God’s Word, but proclaim it fully and truthfully. We are not to take God’s name in vain, to cast it about thoughtlessly or frivolously.

I must admit that when people say, “O God,” I don’t get as upset as when they say “Christ” this or “Jesus” that. To me, the word god is more generic. It’s common to all religions and has many meanings, different for a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian. That’s also why I don’t get all bent out of shape when people talk about taking the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” from our money. Not everyone is talking about the one true God, but a generic “god” of civil religion.

But the name of Jesus Christ is different. That name is important in my Christian faith. That is the name of the Son of God who became flesh and blood like me—who loved me enough to die on the cross in my place. That is the name through which I am saved and have forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation. Peter proclaims the sovereign authority of that name: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Jesus Christ: That is the name upon which I am to call upon in prayer. Jesus Himself has promised His people: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23).

Jesus Christ: That is the name God exalted over every name and then sat Him at His own right hand. Paul says, “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” (Philippians 2:9-11).

So, do we? Do we bow our knee or head at the name of Jesus, not necessarily literally, but do we bow spiritually? Do we humble ourselves, and honor that name before the world? The Second Commandment confronts us with a personal question: how deeply do we revere our Savior?

There is a liturgical custom that each time the name of Jesus is mentioned in worship—in a Gospel reading, hymn, or prayer—all worshipers should slightly bow their heads. I don’t personally follow that practice, though I do bow my head whenever the name of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is mentioned. A Jew never says Yahweh, the name God told Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). When those letters appear in Hebrew text, a Jewish worshiper will avoid saying the sound. He will switch to Adonai, another Old Testament name for God, but he will never say Yahweh, for that would be sacrilegious and irreverent.

Do you feel that way about the name of Jesus? Do you take it that seriously? Paul says, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17). Luther includes that thanks in his explanation of the Second Commandment in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

In the Large Catechism, Luther recommends beginning and ending each day, and each meal by making the sign of the cross and commending ourselves to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He suggests that when we are in trouble or fearful, we cry out, “Lord God, protect us!” or “Help us, dear Lord Jesus!” When we meet with unexpected good fortune, we could say, “God be praised and thanked!” or “God has truly blessed me.” For all this is bringing God’s name into the service of truth and using it in a blessed way. In this way God’s name is hallowed, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

Honor God’s name! Remember what it stands for! Remember who it stands for! When you hear the name Jesus, think of Him on the cross going through hell in your place. Think of Him rising on Easter and going to prepare a place for you at His side for all eternity. Honor God’s name by listening. Each time you come to worship, relish the opportunity to join with fellow disciples to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His words of hope and direction. Honor His name by coming into His presence with thanksgiving as you come to His Table and receive His body and blood to fill yourself with His love and forgiveness.

Honor God’s name! Trust in the promises God has given you in His name. Call upon His name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Keep His name holy by continually striving for purity of doctrine and living a holy life. Look to that name for your salvation, for “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Indeed, God promises: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). By the power of God’s holy name there is salvation and eternal life. By the power of that holy name you have forgiveness. Indeed, you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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