The 3rd Commandment; Using God’s Holy Name Reverently

February 18, 2024 / No. 4233M

Dear radio friends,

One thing we are taught in school is the proper use of words. How to form and pronounce them properly; how to distinguish one word from synonyms or homonyms; and of course, we learn the meaning of words. So today in the school of God’s law we are going to learn how to understand God’s words.

We learn this lesson by taking as our starting point the third commandment. As found in Exodus 20:7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” In this commandment, Jehovah teaches us how to use His holy name reverently.

At first glance one might think that this commandment pertains only to one word, that it refers only to our use of the name Jehovah. The Jews of long ago decided that, and so resolved that if the wrong use of the name of Jehovah was a great danger, they simply would not use that word. We will see how broadly the commandment applies: it refers not only to His name as expressed in a word, but to all His revelation. Also this commandment encompasses all our life!

The object lessons embodied in this commandment are three: first, we will have a lesson about God’s name as the revelation of who and what He is. Second, we will learn about God’s name as the expression of His authority. Third, we will learn about God’s holiness, for the truth that God is holy underlies the third commandment.

As we learn these lessons we will be paying attention to Jesus’ words in John 5:19-47. I will not read this passage now, on account of its length, but will refer to passages in it throughout this message. John 5 is one place in the gospel accounts in which Jesus addresses the broad subject that the third commandment addresses.

We begin with the lesson about God’s revelation. The basic function of God’s name is to reveal Him. Our names serve a different purpose: they identify us, and distinguish us from another person. Our names do not reveal anything about our character, or our place in the church or in society; they are simply identifiers that our parents gave us at birth, because they liked the name. But God named Himself; and His names reveal Him to us. Because He is the only God, He did not need to give us His names in order to distinguish Him from other gods.

To understand the need for this revelation, bear in mind that we could not know God if He did not make Himself known. For one thing, He is invisible; our earthly senses cannot perceive Him. For another, sin has blinded us, so that when we see evidence in creation that He is God, we deny that this evidence really points to Him. This blindness of our understanding also  makes impossible that we should ever seek His friendship; when Adam and Eve sinned, they, and we in them, chose to be God’s enemies. Never in our own power will we now choose to be His friends.

However, God chooses to be our friend—not the friend of every human, but the friends of those whom He has chosen in Christ. To that end, He reveals Himself to us. This revelation consists of making Himself known in Scripture, in creation, and in the government of the universe. But it also consists of working in our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit so that we know He exists and are drawn into His friendship.

All of this serves the purpose of making this point: the name of God is the revelation of Himself to His people. Every name of God, in the sense in which we think of name, says something about Him. That He is God points to His power. That He is Jehovah points to His faithfulness and unchanging covenant love. That He is Lord teaches us that He is master, sovereign, with authority. He is the Holy One. He is the Father, the origin and source of all things. And He has more names.

But the third commandment applies to all His revelation of Himself. He reveals Himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus told us in John 5:20 that the Father shows Him, the Son, all things; and in verse 20 that another (God) bears witness of Jesus, that is, that what He says is true.

God also reveals Himself in Scripture, God’s Word; for this testifies of Christ (John 5:39). And He reveals Himself in creation; the psalmist, in Psalm 8, exclaimed the glory of God as He saw it manifest.

So we have established this point: the name of God refers not just to a word, or a few words, by which we refer to God, but to all of His revelation by which He makes Himself known to us.

In the third commandment, God requires us to use His name with fear and reverence: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The vain use of God’s name is the empty, or worthless, use of that name. We may not use God’s name without meaning. Positively, we must use it in a way that expresses awe of God, and shows we revere Him.

On this point, we get tested. Going to school, after all, requires us to take tests; so also the school of God’s law. We are tested every time we read Scripture: do we stand in awe of God? Do we take His word seriously? Do we confess that the miracles recorded in it really happened, and that the history is true? Every time we behold creation, we are tested. Every time there is an earthquake, a tornado, a natural disaster, we are tested. Are these to be ascribed to God’s power, or to chance, and to natural causes? Every time we hear the gospel preached, we are tested. What do we think of this God? Do we deny Him? Do we seek the revelation He gives? Do we love Him? Do we seek Him and the salvation He gives? Or do we receive this revelation intellectually without really thinking; and do we hear the gospel only in the same way?

We fail the test. We do not always receive His revelation of Himself with fear and reverence. We despise Him and His revelation. And, says the third commandment, He will not hold us guiltless when we do; that is, He will be angry and will punish. But He has punished us in Christ, in laying our sins on Him; and Christ reveals the God who is not only just but also merciful, who saves us, by bearing the death we deserved, and giving us life, as Jesus says in John 5:40.

Seeing that we have failed the test, and knowing that we are saved again in Christ, let us now take the lesson to heart: in every way in which God reveals Himself, let us receive that revelation with fear and awe. For by it God makes Himself known to us in love, telling us He is our friend, so that we might also return love to Him.

The second lesson that this commandment teaches us regards the authority of God, for in God’s name He sends some to labor on His behalf. Specifically, this was true of Jesus, as He is teaching the Jews in John 5. He says in verses 36 and 37 that the Father sent Him to work, the work of preaching not only, but also that of saving God’s people. In verse 27 Jesus says that God even gave Him authority to judge. And in verse 43 Jesus sums this all up when He says, “I am come in my Father’s name.” The point, then, is that He comes in the authority of God, to do the official work in God’s behalf. This implies that Jesus must answer to God for how He did the work, but it also implies that how we receive Jesus is how we receive the Father.

Jesus, especially, is both the name (that is, revelation) of God, and the one who comes in the name (that is, authority) of God. But Jesus later sent His disciples to work in His name. Today He gives to the church pastors, elders, and deacons, sending them in His name and the Father’s name. Each of us must receive these in God’s name, as we would receive a little child (Matt. 18:5). And when the church gathers for worship, we do so in His name (Matt. 18:20).

In other words, God’s name is the revelation of Himself, and one specific application of that is His sending others to work in the authority He gives.

That means that the keeping of the third commandment not only involves our view of the many ways that God reveals Himself, but also of the many ways in which He works today in others. A classic instance of the Jews sinning against the third commandment in Jesus’ day was their denial that Jesus really came from God and had the Holy Spirit in Him; they blasphemed by suggesting that Jesus came from, and represented, the devil (John 7, 8). Thus they denied Him as the revelation of God, Him who came in the authority of God. Yet, Jesus says in John 5:43 that if a man were to come to them in his own name, they would receive him!

The question that confronts us, then, is this: do we understand that God has authority to teach, govern, and direct us in the way of salvation? That He has authority to reprove us for sin? And that He does these things by His Spirit, who uses the means of other godly believers who speak to us? And when others come to us with the Word, do we receive them, as sent by God, and as His gift to us? Or do we dismiss them, frustrated because they stuck their nose in our business?

We are indeed prone to take the name of God in vain by not receiving those who come in His name.

The violation of this commandment today, however, is even more flagrant, both by unbelievers and by many who claim to be God’s children. To address that, let us learn the third lesson of the day: the commandment teaches us about God’s holiness.

God is holy. That is more than saying that He does not sin. It is saying, first of all, that He seeks His own glory, and exalts Himself above all. If He were not God, it would be wrong of Him to seek His own glory; it is sin for us to seek our own glory and to exalt ourselves. For us it is sin, because God is above us. But because God is supreme and exalted, and there is none greater than He, it is not wrong for God to seek His own glory; indeed, it is right. Because God is holy, nothing else is equal to Him; and He is perfect in all He does.

Because God is holy, His name is holy. Often in Scripture He is called “the Holy One”; that is one of His names. But when we say that His name is holy, we mean that all of His revelation in Scripture, in Christ, and in creation, serves to exalt Him as the great God. We also mean that His works of providence and salvation, and His sending forth men to preach and bear witness of Him, exalts Him as the only God.

Because He is holy and His name is holy, He uses His name in a holy way. He does not make fun of His name; He does not use it in a joking manner, or flippantly, but always very seriously.

This holiness of God is supremely manifested in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and especially in the death of Christ on the cross. Jesus came to teach us about God and to cause us to stand in awe of God. Jesus came to pronounce curses and destruction on all who do not stand in awe of God and bow before Him. And Jesus came to die on the cross, bearing our sins, enduring God’s wrath of sin, to earn salvation for His people. There we see God’s holiness. God drew attention to it: three hours of darkness fell over the whole region at high noon. All must pause and tremble before God and what He was doing! And what was He doing? Hallowing, glorifying, His own name. Showing that He hated sin with a true passion. Showing that He would not hold them guiltless that took His name in vain. Showing that His own threat and warning, embodied in the third commandment, must come to pass.

But Jesus had no sin; He had not taken the name of God in vain! Why then must He die? Because He represented sinners, and took our sins on Himself. The Holy God would magnify His name in the death of Christ.

Likewise, the return of Christ for judgment will manifest God’s holiness. Not only will God judge justly and righteously, but He will also make clear that His judgment has as its goal the exaltation of Jehovah God as the great God.

How God uses His name is a pattern for us; we too must use His name with fear and reverence. Do we? Do we consciously? Do we grieve when we do not?

Let us get personal here, as God intends us to. Do we joke about holy things? Scripture, Scripture truths, Jesus Christ, and anything about them—do we find them funny? God does not. He is serious, not light-hearted. So He expects us to use His revelation with all seriousness. To make fun of these in comic strips, TV shows, songs, and in other ways, does not give evidence that we hold His name in high esteem.

Do we use God’s name flippantly, without thinking? Yes, sometimes we do, and to try to avoid it we play the sort of trick that the Jews played: they simply would not use the name Jehovah; we will change the name God to Gosh, and Jesus to Jeez, and then think we did not really violate this commandment. But we did.

Do we ascribe holiness, which God alone possesses, to smoke, or cows, or any such thing? Do we think of any man or creature as being supreme in any respect? These are violations of God’s name.

Nor is God merely reminding each of us individually how to treat His name. In Israel He insisted that the people address anyone in their midst who took His name in vain, and even stone the one who blasphemed (Lev. 24). In other words, we may not be quiet when God’s name is used wrongly; we must address the one who so used it. Parents, God calls us to prohibit the vain use of His name in our homes, and to teach our children to honor His name. Even in society, though it might seem like a losing cause to us, we who have the name of God in our hearts and on our lips must be ready to use it rightly, and to reprove those who do not.

The commandment has specific application to the taking of oaths, perhaps in a courtroom but also in other instances. For the taking of an oath involves taking the name of God on our lips, saying that He is witness to what we are about to say, that He would agree with us if He were present, and He will in the day of judgment agree with us. We may take such an oath; when Jesus said “swear not,” He was addressing the flippant use of oaths among Christians, and not saying that the civil government could not require an oath of us. But let us take such oaths with fear, and remember that at the moment we take God’s name on our lips, we must act and speak as if we are in His presence, and bring honor to His name.

The third commandment teaches us weighty lessons, and we are tested every day as to how well we have learned them. How grievously we fail! When reading the Bible today, did you simply read the words, or did you realize that you were in God’s presence? When praying today, did you pause and reflect that you were speaking to the Holy One, or simply rush in? We fail, daily.

But Jesus Christ did not fail the test. He went to the death of the cross, magnified God’s holiness, lived in light of God’s revelation, rose again to proclaim the gospel of a Holy God, and declare His Holy Name throughout all the ages, and now works in us, renewing us so that we can, and do, love the name of God, stand in awe of our Savior, and resolve by His grace to use His holy name no otherwise than with fear and reverence!