“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.”
Reverence for God’s Name is often thought of only in terms of avoiding blasphemy. But this commandment was originally understood to refer to the use of God’s Name to ‘guarantee’ an oath or a vow. Such oaths had to be true, and such vows had to be kept at all costs, otherwise God’s Name would be profaned. If we call Him as witness to a lie, for example, we deny His integrity. Hence by Jesus’ day the scribes had gone to great lengths to define exactly what constituted invoking God’s name, so that they could contrive to swear oaths while (they thought) avoiding all reference to Him. (Matthew 23:16-22)
The commandment does not forbid the use of God’s Name – only its misuse. The careless or flippant use of His name in everyday conversation (e.g. as an expletive) demeans and insults Him. But it is used correctly when in so doing we acknowledge that He is God. Such are the following examples – all (interestingly) on the lips of non-Israelites: Rahab (Joshua 2:12), Ruth (Ruth 1:17), and the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:12).
But God’s Name can be attached to other forms of speech, as well as oaths and vows. Every prophet who stood up to declare, “Thus says the LORD…” had the awesome responsibility to speak God’s word and not his own (Jeremiah 23:25-36). But there were many who abused God’s name by using it to give spurious authority to false promises and prophecies. Not only did they claim divine authority for their own ideas, but at the same time they brought God’s true Word into disrepute.
Sadly, such behaviour has not been confined to the Old Covenant. The credibility of the Church – and our God – is regularly threatened by preachers who claim divine authority for all kinds of bizarre doctrines, and twist God’s word to justify sinful actions (Jude 4), or to manipulate other people (e.g. threatening them with divine vengeance in order to influence their behaviour).
Bearing the name of Christ (I Peter 4:14-16)
Christians can’t escape this issue just by avoiding certain verbal formulae (Matthew 5:34-37). As soon as we confess ourselves as Christians, the name of Christ is attached to everything that we say and do. This means that His reputation is irretrievably bound up with the reputation of His Church. And the outside world instinctively knows this. Nothing discredits the Gospel so quickly and thoroughly as the misbehaviour of those who should be Christ’s ambassadors. Whether it’s paedophile priests, philandering vicars or money-grubbing televangelists, the media are quick to sniff out our failures and then take great delight in publicising them. It’s very tempting to disown those churches or individuals who are caught out, but the fact is that every church and every Christian is capable of sinning, and nobody can say, “It can’t happen to us or to me.” (I Corinthians 10:11,12) Now God’s people have never been good at living up to their own standards. Paul could say to the Jews, “You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” (Romans 2:23,24) To our shame, the Church has been little better.
And this is no minor issue. “The LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.” It is the subject of one of Christ’s most solemn pronouncements: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22,23)
Live lives worthy of God (I Thessalonians 2:12)
Since God’s name embodies His whole character, “it is profaned whenever any detraction is made from His supreme wisdom, infinite power, justice, truth, clemency, and rectitude.” (Calvin) Do our lives bear witness to these great truths, or detract from them? When unbelievers look at us, do they see us serving our Lord and Saviour – or our own interests?
We are saved by grace, not by our behaviour (thank God!). And yet our behaviour matters; Paul did not just preach the gospel, but exhorted his converts to live out the implications of their new faith (I Thessalonians 2:12; Philippians 1:27; Ephesians 4:1). “If we comply not with the will of God, we mock Christ in calling him Lord, as those did who put on him a gorgeous robe, and said, Hail, King of the Jews.” (Matthew Henry) (Luke 6:46)
So Christian belief is inseparable from Christian living (I John 2:3-6). If our faith is genuine, and we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, then the fruit of the Spirit will become evident in our lives. And that is what will bring glory to God.
For God has chosen to reveal Himself to the world mainly through His people. “God underwent three great humiliations in his efforts to rescue the human race. The first was the incarnation, when He took on the confines of a human body. The second was the cross, when He suffered the ignominy of public execution. The third humiliation is the church. In an awesome act of self-denial, God entrusted his reputation to ordinary people.” (Dorothy L. Sayers) If the world does not know Him, it’s not usually their fault but ours (Ezekiel 36:22,23). But it could be so different. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, although they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.” (I Peter 2:12)