This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Good Life". See series.
Today we're on our third sermon in a series on the Ten Commandments. Imagine if everybody on the planet obeyed the Ten Commandments. In a matter of weeks we'd see that our world as a much better place. There would be no stealing, no murder. There would be no adultery; people would remain faithful in their marriages. Children would honor their father and mother. We would all be truth tellers—business owners, political leaders, church leaders—everyone. There would be no bearing false witness, and we would be totally content, not coveting our neighbor's wife or our neighbor's house, field, or donkey.
But what about the third commandment? Would keeping the third commandment make any significant difference in our world? Would anyone notice or care if we ignored this commandment? The third commandment appears to be the weakest of them all—an accessory commandment: "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" (Deuteronomy 5:11).
To you this may simply mean to never say "Oh my God," but in reality, this is a massive commandment. It is not easy, and it is not a small matter. In fact, it might be that obeying the third commandment would make the most significant impact on our world. It's a wonderful commandment.
Alan Cole said, "The whole of the Ten Commandments are really the explanation of God's name." And the whole of the Ten Commandments are really the explanation of the third commandment: God's name.
The power of a name
What's the big deal about a name? A name's just a name, right? In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet." In other words, it doesn't matter what you call something or someone—the name doesn't matter. What matters is the thing itself—the flower or the person represented by the name.
In ancient Hebrew culture, however, a name was everything. A name represented the very essence and presence of a person. A person's identity was bound up in their name. A name contained power. And in truth, nothing's changed. Names still hold power today. What comes to mind when I say Barack Obama? Mother Theresa? Adolph Hitler? Steve Jobs? And people change their names because of what they might convey. Marian Michael Morrison became John Wayne. You can't be a cowboy with a name like Marian!
You get your identity from your name. Why did your parents choose your name? Who would you be without your name? Who would you be if no one knew what to call you, if you didn't know what to call yourself, if you didn't know your own name? There's a world of difference when you say, "Hey Mary" rather than "Hey waitress," or "Hey Joe" instead of "Hey Officer."
In the ancient world, when you called on the name of a god, you wanted a specific response from that god—a response that reflected the identity of that god. Baal was the god of the rain. You called on his name "Baal" if you wanted rain. Asherah was the goddess of fertility. You called on her name if you wanted a fertile harvest. When the ancient Israelites used—and when we use—God's name, the name of the Lord our God, we're accessing and calling upon all of who God is. The Hebrew people understood that when they used God's name.
Remember the context of this commandment: Exodus and the Promised Land. The Lord did something for the people before he asked anything of the people. The Holy God of the Universe made a covenant with sinful man! You'd think it would be the other way around, us reaching up to make a pact with God, but he reaches down and makes a pact with us. In the strength of his name God takes action and rescues his people, and then he asks them to honor his name. Everything is about his name. Exodus 9:16 says: "But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth."
The misuse of God's name
Now that we understand more the power of a name and just how significant God's name is, how do we understand this third commandment? How do we misuse God's name? What does it mean to take God's name in vain? In Hebrew, to take something "in vain" means to use it for a worthless purpose. Unworthy use. The ancient Israelites took God's name in vain whenever they flippantly used God's name in making an oath or promise that they didn't keep, whenever they mixed their worship of God with worship of the false gods that surrounded them, and whenever they used God's name for their own gain—to get ahead. How about you? Do you take God's name in vain? Do you use God's name for worthless purposes? Do you violate the third commandment?
There are many ways you and I misuse God's name. Let's talk about three of those ways. The ancient Hebrews would never have dreamed of how God's name is misused in our society; they carefully guarded how and when they spoke the name of the Lord. Stephen Carter, author of Taking God's Name in Vain, says this:
In truth, there is probably no country in the Western world where people use God's name quite as much, or quite as publicly, or for quite as many purposes, as we Americans do—the third commandment notwithstanding. Few candidates for office are able to end their speeches without asking God to bless their audience, or the nation, or the great work we are undertaking, but everybody is sure the other side is insincere … Athletes thank God, often on television, after scoring the winning touchdown, because, like politicians, they like to think God is on their side. Churches erect huge billboards and take out ads in the paper … God's will is cited as a reason to be against gay rights. And a reason to be for them …. Everybody who wants to change America, and everybody who wants not to, understands the nation's love affair with God's name, which is why everybody invokes it.
One of the main ways Americans use and misuse God's name is by using it essentially as a cuss word. This is the first misuse I want to talk about, and this is what most people think about when they think of breaking the third commandment. Do you do this? When something disagreeable happens to you, do you blurt out God's name as a cuss word? "God!" "Oh my God!" "God dammit!" "Jesus Christ!" Would you do this with your mom's name? You wouldn't do this with your mom's name, so don't do it with God's name. Christian, this is the name that saved you! Matthew 12:36 says, "I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak."
The second way we violate this commandment is by building up our own names. Instead of living for and building up God's name, we live for and build up our own. A spotlight is designed to shine on and highlight something other than itself. God designed humans to be spotlights for him. You and I fulfill our God-given design when we shine towards God, when our lives build up his name and his fame. The builders of the tower of Babel designed spotlights to turn inward: "Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves'" (Genesis 11:4). This ended in disaster; it didn't work.
Whose name are you living for? Whose name are you building? Where's the spotlight turned? Don't worry about building your own name. You're a spotlight. And the only way you discover what's unique about yourself, the only way you discover your true identity and name, is by building God's name and shining on him. That's what you're designed to do. Imagine how much better a place our world would be if all of us spotlights quit worrying about our own name and were united in shining on and building up God's name.
Thirdly, you violate this command when you read it simply as a "no-no," rather than a "yes-yes." All of the Ten Commandments can be stated in the positive. The big idea of the Ten Commandments isn't to avoid a few no-no's; rather, these commandments affirm life—they're a roadmap to a new, full, wonderful way of life. Don't misunderstand the third commandment as simply a no-no: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." Don't then shy away from using God's name at all! God wants you to use his name!
There's one thing you can't do with God's name: you can't use it in an unworthy manner. But there are a hundred things you can do with God's name! God's name can be spoken, worshiped, trusted, celebrated, adored, shouted, whispered, honored, cherished, exalted, enjoyed. In the name of God, you can pray, heal, protect, preach, baptize, hope, rejoice, love, rest, wait, move mountains. And God has many names: Almighty, Everlasting, Shepherd, King, Rock, Healer, Provider, Holy One, Creator, Redeemer, Most High God.
Psalm 8:1 says, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!"
The penalty of misusing God's name
ABC's Ted Koppel at Duke University's commencement ceremony said: "What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions." As his people, God expects us to obey his commandments—to obey this third commandment by making good use of his name. But we fail. We don't keep the third commandment. We don't use God's name the way he commands us to use it. It would seem that you and I are unable to keep this law. And breaking it comes with a consequence, a penalty: "for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain." This was the worst punishment imaginable: the guilty verdict! We know the implications of this penalty—being guilty before a holy God: God's wrath. What we do with God's name will determine what he does with us. If we take his name in vain, he won't take us. If we take his name in faith, he will take us in grace.
Jesus & the third commandment
You can't fulfill this commandment. I can't fulfill this commandment. But there is someone who obeyed the third commandment perfectly. There is someone who never took God's name in vain. There is someone who lived his life and went to his death perfectly honoring God's name. His name is Jesus. And Jesus changes everything. Jesus transforms the third commandment; Jesus makes this commandment new to us.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus always called God "Father." But one time, at the darkest hour of his life, Jesus couldn't call God "Father." On the cross, bearing the sins of the world, bearing the guilt of third commandment breakers, Jesus looked up to heaven and said: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Forsaken by the Father on the cross because he was shouldering the punishment we deserved, Jesus opened up the way for us to call God by a new name: "Father."
Many people say that they know God, but do you know him by name? Do you know him as "Father"? Long ago Moses said to the Israelites: "Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." Today, Jesus says to us, you can call God by a new name, this is how you should address him: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name." This is what separates Christianity from all other religions. The God of the Bible, this Name who we worship, he's not like any other god. He doesn't wait for us to reach out to him; he reaches out to us. This is the God who, out of his great love for you, sacrificed his only Son in order to make you his son, in order to make you his daughter. The Father and the Son planned it so that through his work on the cross, Jesus would accomplish Isaiah 43:6-7: "… bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." This isn't just any God, this isn't just any name, and this isn't just any father. If you've trusted Christ, he's your Father.
The Ten Commandments don't just tell us what to do; they tell us who we are: children of God, sons and daughters of the Father. Jesus has taken away the frightening penalty of the third commandment, he's taken away our guilt, and he calls us towards a fulfilling life of honoring and enjoying our Father's name.
How to keep the third commandment
We still have a commandment before us: don't take the name of the Lord your God [the name of your Father] in vain. Stated positively, honor this name. How do we do it? What's the one thing we could do to best honor his name? There are many ways of putting this commandment into action, but I don't want to overwhelm you, I want to help you.
Bank on his name. Trust. Bank on your Father. We live in uncertain times: Wall Street has been up and down—mostly down. The one thing or name you can be certain about is this name. Your Father is working out his perfect plan for your life amid all the difficulties and uncertainties. Do you believe that? Edmund Clowney said: "We cannot understand the mystery …. We only know that God used the cross, the greatest crime of history, to bring redemption, and that no suffering enters our lives that does not bring with it grace now and a weight of glory in the future."
For a decade I've been preaching God's sovereignty, but only in this difficult season of life am I finally learning to live as though this is true. Bank on the name. This week, shift where you place your trust. Let the Psalms be your tutor; it is Israel's prayer book of banking on God amid uncertainty, fear, doubt, and pain. What got me through yesterday was Psalm 84:11-12: "For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!"
You keep the third commandment when you act like a son or a daughter, when you live like you have a Father who knows you and loves you and has detailed oversight of your life. Let's keep the third commandment together. Let's live like sons and daughters of the Father. Let's bank on his name this week, no matter what threats come our way. He won't let us down.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Justin Buzzard is founder and lead pastor of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley, California.