As we continue through the Ten Commandments, we remind ourselves of the Law’s purpose. The Law was given as a sign of the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel to serve as a witness against the nation of Israel (and against us). We remember that as we read through the Law, we read it as a mirror and not a checklist. As we read, God’s Law exposes to us the sin in our own lives: those things under which we would all be condemned without the grace of God. In reading the Law, we are drawn to recognize our great need for God’s amazing grace, which is found only in the one who fulfilled the Law, Jesus Christ. God shows His grace so that what He has purposed from the foundation of the world would be accomplished: that His people would become cultivators and that His own image would multiply throughout creation in humankind. We arrive, together, at the third and fourth commandments.
Exodus 20:1-11 HCSB (emphasis on v. 7-11)
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.
Do not have other gods besides Me.
Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands.
Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses His name.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.
As we begin to think about these two commands, we must begin again with verse one. It was God who first rescued and delivered Israel. God, who was not in bondage, delivered a people from bondage. God was holy.
The holiness of God is something we don’t often think on, and I wish that we did. It is God alone who holds His position. God alone has His essence. God alone is the originator of all things. God alone has all authority. He is set apart, not because we have set Him apart, but because by His own nature He is wholly other and completely unique in His being.
At any sporting event, there is one part of the event that stands out from the others. When the National Anthem is sung or played, the audience removes hats, and stands in silence with hands over hearts. The only thing that can be heard is the National Anthem and, when it is finished playing, there is a great applause in celebration of the American nation. This, I think, is the best way that I can illustrate what holiness is for us. The National Anthem is set apart. It is other. It is unique. It is approached with reverence and with awe. In response to the National Anthem, the American people celebrate.
There are some similarities when we think about approaching the God of the universe. Because of what He has done, we can approach Him. If He is holy, we approach in reverence, with humility, on our knees, and to honor our king. There is something to be said about the way that we approach God in the organizational church today. 1 Peter 1:14-15, encourages us to be holy by not conforming to the ways of the world. To be holy is to be set apart. Specifically, it is to act in a way that is consistent with God’s character. If we, then, approach God in any manner that seeks to satisfy the cravings of self, then our worship is not consistent with the character of God because holiness is defined by God’s own character. How we present ourselves in worship does matter. If we participate in praise for the purpose of having fun, being entertained, or pleasing our own ears, we have not approached God in response to His holiness.
This being stated, there is a great reason to celebrate. God has offered salvation to us as a gift! As I think about the type of approach God’s presence draws us to, I think of what we see in Scripture. Never do we see people coming before God to be entertained. Never, when people encounter God, are they seeking an emotional high. Never are God’s people satisfied by the moment of praise. They are satisfied by God. In response to God, they offer themselves as reverent, humble sacrifices before the Lord. Abraham was willing to give up his only son. Moses was speechless. Paul lost his sight. Peter realized the centrality of Christ. John fell lifeless before the throne of God. Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt. When we encounter a holy God, we are ruined (not entertained). When we praise, we praise in response to what God has done and not to somehow fulfill a need that we think we have. There is a certain reverence that is absent in so many organizational churches. While the hype, lights, instrumentation, genre, and talent of the musicians may be good, they can always become a distraction for us. When we come before God to present ourselves in worship, we come in reverence because God is holy. We also are to be holy, not approaching the God of the universe for selfish gain.
The Law, especially as we will see in commandments three and four, highlight God’s holiness and our insufficiency. I might remind us once again that this Law is a mirror and stands as a witness against us.
In verse 7, we receive the command not to misuse God’s name or use God’s name in vain. In order to provide a little deeper understanding for us, we observe the Hebrew word that is translated, here, as misuse. The root word נשא (nasa’) is a word that means to lift up or to bear. It is a word, in this sense, that means to lift up in worship or to carry.
There is a mistake that many people often make as they interpret this command particularly. It is often taught that using or taking God’s name in vain is an act limited to bad language. We often take this command to mean that God’s name should not be used as an expletive or that we ought to avoid phrases like “Oh my ***!” While these things are true and fall within the parameters of the command, the nature of the command runs so much deeper than this. To stop here is to content one’s self with a shallow interpretation of the text and to fail to look into the mirror of the Law. We, again, find ourselves having to explore the historical context in which the commands were given.
The Israelites had just been freed from their bondage in Egypt. In Egypt, a great many gods were worshipped, and they were worshipped by the people for the purpose of earning blessing. They would lift up the names of their gods so that they would receive the blessings of their gods. They would also assign patron deities to their cities so that those cities would succeed. They lifted up and bore the names of their gods so that they could gain. When the only God ((יהיה commands that His name not be taken or used in vain, He is issuing this command in contrast to the tendency that people had to lift up and bear the names of Egyptian gods for the purpose of gaining blessing and success.
To lift the name of God
For us to lift the name of God is to offer praise about God or to God. To lift the name of God in vain, or to misuse the name of God, is, then, to offer praise about God or to God with the same reason that the Egyptians lifted up the names of their gods. The reason that the Egyptians lifted up praise to their gods, again, was to gain their blessing in hopes that the gods would grant them success.
Regarding this, I have to ask what our motivation is for lifting up the name of God. By the “name of God,” I mean any title or name assigned to the holy God of the universe. Popularly, we refer to God as God even though His proper name is יהיה. As we lift up the title of God, we do, indeed, lift up God’s name because it is the name that we use to refer to God. Our motivation for lifting up God’s name, then, cannot be to gain His blessing or to gain personal success. To do so is to misuse God’s name. This idea can enlighten the way in which we lift God’s name in both praise and in prayer. If we assume that we can somehow earn any type of blessing by lifting the name of God as we sing, then we have misused the name of our God. If, by coming together and lifting praise, we hope to be satisfied because we have lifted up our God in song, we have misused God’s name and have worshipped ourselves. Praise, offered in spirit and in truth, has to be a response to the work that God has already done. It is not through our praise that we earn God’s work. It is because of God’s work that we are able to praise. If we ever find that we are dissatisfied because of genre or the skill of the musicians, we have worshipped ourselves. If we ever find that it is the act of praise that satisfies us, then we have not trusted in God; but, instead, our own ability to praise God. It is often the case, then, that in their praise, many people and many local bodies of believers misuse the name of God.
Furthermore, if our praise is a response to God, then our praise will be in line with God’s character. If God is holy and if His presence draws us to reverence, then praise, when correctly offered, will always be reverent. If we seek entertainment, if we draw attention to ourselves, if we glorify the music, if we raise up the musicians, or if we require a certain praise environment, we are so guilty of misusing the name of God when we lift His name in song. It is often the case that we lift God’s name in order to honor ourselves. This is exactly the way that the Egyptians lifted up the names of their false gods. When we sing praises, we ought to be actively engaged in the songs, meaning every word that we utter humbly before our God; not to earn His blessing, but in response to the blessings that God has already given. If this Law is a mirror meant to make our sin evident, then we notice that we often lift up the name of God wrongly.
We must also consider our prayer lives. For what purpose do we pray to the holy God of the universe? What do we hope that our prayers will accomplish? Do we pray in order to receive blessing, so that God might grant our petitions or that God might make us successful? If we pray only to receive something from God, we lift up the name (or title) of God in a manner that is unworthy. The Roman emperor Constantine, prayed to God and asked God to give him victory in battle, “If you give me victory, I will become a Christian.” Constantine misused the name of the Lord, God. When all we pray for is healing, we misuse the name of the Lord, God. If all we do is pray that God would bless our church, our homes, our ministries, and our meals; we have greatly misused the name of our Lord, God. We are reminded that God is not like the false gods of the Egyptians. Are we free to make petitions before God? Yes, absolutely! If the bulk of our prayers consist of our trying to get God to do something for us, heal someone for us, grow our ministries for us, cause our children to behave for us, or bring any kind of blessing for us; we have sinned because we have misused the name of our Lord, God. We have used His name like other religions and peoples use the names of their false gods, and this is not okay.
Across this nation in so many churches, prayer is shallow because we limit ourselves to petition. We ask for the physical healing of our loved ones. We pray before all of our meals and ask for God’s blessing (even when we are eating lots of fried food). We ask God to bless our church and grow it. We ask God to keep our families safe. We ask God to bless us financially. We ask God to bless us with jobs. We ask God for traveling grace. We ask God for much. While we do have the freedom to bring our petitions before God and while I think God does care about hearing our petitions, we have to recognize that when petition becomes the purpose of our prayer, we have broken this third commandment. In Philippians 4:6, Paul wrote that we should humbly (humbly is a key word, here) make our petitions known to God. In 4:7, he states that as a result the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. God may choose to grant our petitions or He may choose not to. Our petitions are not the point of prayer. The truth is this: that God has already delivered us and placed His blessing upon us. When we limit ourselves to petition in prayer, we dishonor God because we fail to recognize that He, in His great grace, has already delivered us and already fights for us. Just to drive this point home during the short time we have together, we might look at Jesus own words as He taught His disciples the manner in which they should pray:
“Therefore, you should pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
Your name be honored as holy.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
In His example, Jesus did not begin by asking for blessing, nor did He make petition His priority. He first recognizes the holiness of the Father and concedes that the Father’s will be done, the Father’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven. This is so different from the way we lift God’s name in prayer most of the time. We begin with our own needs and we ask God to satisfy our needs and our wants. Prayer, first and foremost, is recognition of who God is, hoping that God will share with us what He desires from us.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
Only after seeking the Father’s will in prayer, did Jesus offer up any petitions. These petitions, though, were for God to provide needs according to His will and for the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t pray for healing, blessing, satisfaction, peace, or even success. It was provision according to the Father’s will and forgiveness. This requires us to be humbled; not seeking self-gain, greater blessings, healing, or personal success, but instead seeking only after God. He will give according to His will. We are to simply seek after God in our prayer life.
[For Yours is the kingdom and the power
and the glory forever. Amen.]” (Matthew 6:8-13 HCSB, italics mine)
As we look into this mirror, then, we recognize yet another way that God’s name is often misused. In prayer we rarely seek after God, and often seek ourselves as we address God. After our prayers, where we have greatly misused God’s name, we have the audacity to sign our prayer in the name of Jesus Christ when we are, in fact, the object of our prayers.
To bear the name of God
Lifting up God’s name wrongly is not the only way that we take His name in vain. We also bear His name in vain. Any time we call ourselves children by God’s name and any time we call ourselves a church under the authority of Christ, and then think highly of ourselves or fail to be a witness or fail to love others without condemning them, we have taken God’s name in vain. Brothers and sisters, and I will suffice it to say this in the interest of your time, the only way that we can ruin our witness is by staying away from the very people who need to see that witness to who Christ is. How can we possibly bear Christ’s name or call ourselves the people of God and stay away from sinners that Christ died to save. It’s funny (by funny, I mean ironic) that we claim to be God’s people, yet only care about preserving our own reputation. Let us not bear God’s name without purpose, specifically the purpose that God has had from the beginning: that His image be multiplied throughout the world.
Looking into this mirror, we recognize that there are places we avoid for the sake of our own reputation when the people in those places need to see a witness to Jesus. We neglect certain people who are in the most need because we are worried about securing ourselves. We do bear God’s name and use that name to achieve an image for ourselves. We are often so guilty of bearing God’s name in vain just as we are guilty of lifting God’s name in vain. We are doubly guilty of misusing God’s name, and this Law (this mirror) reveals that in our hearts and we are condemned under this Law.
The Israelites came out of Egypt, where they were required to work. As we are to approach the holy God of the universe with such reverence that we don’t even use His name wrongly, God commanded that there was one day of the week that the Israelites were to keep holy (Saturday). God’s people were only to take six days to do all of the work that they were going to do in the week. On this holy day, they were to rest from all of their work. They were to rest on the day that was set apart by God for the purpose of holiness.
Rest, then, is not primarily something that was done to recuperate energy, but a state in which people took a break from their work so that they could be more open to God’s sanctifying work. God is holy and desires His people, whom He created in His image, to be holy. The sabbath day is a day on which we should rest from our work in order to pursue holiness. If the Law is fulfilled in Christ, then we take this time to pursue the likeness of Christ. God is Holy. Therefore, we strive to be a holy people.
We tend to spend our time doing and doing and doing and doing things for Christ. It is good to do things for Christ. To build churches, ministries, buildings, relationships, reputations, disciples, homes, resumes, bank accounts, etc… Christ desires that we rest from our work so that we can pursue holiness in Him.
This means something very significant for me as a pastor. It is very easy for me to expend myself for the purpose of ministry. I have to be very intentional about taking time to rest because I can get carried away with my work. Even as I write this, I am at camp with the youth from our church and I, ironically, don’t have the time to rest this week. My to-do list is always so long that I cannot get to everything. There is always someone to visit, a sermon to prepare, someone to counsel, complaints to hear, research that needs to be done, leaders to develop, disciples to make, and evangelism to practice. Yet, God’s command is not that we finish all of the work that we have to do. It is to, no matter how much we have on our plate, take a day and rest so that we can be available as He draws us into holiness. Without rest, our relationship with our Lord will be poor. Without rest, we cannot be holy as God is holy. If I don’t finish everything in a week, so be it. If I fail to rest, my relationship with Christ suffers. If my relationship with Christ suffers, then everything else in my life also suffers.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus states it this way: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’”
We can exhaust ourselves working to death and trying to do everything or we can live in relationship with Christ. God cares much more about our holiness than He does about our accomplishments. As He draws us to deeper holiness, He will reveal the things that He wants us to do. We must rest and we must not require others to do so much that they don’t have the time to rest. If we read this as a mirror, then we notice that we care far too much about our accomplishments. We accomplish these things and say that we do what we do for God and, again, misuse God’s holy name. He desires for us to rest in Him. We break the law because we care far too much about our accomplishments and about the accomplishments of others.
Because we have broken the Law, again, we stand condemned. The Law was fulfilled in Christ and He suffered the consequence of our condemnation under the Law. By placing our faith in Him, we are free from the Law’s condemnation. We are free to come before God with our prayers. We are free to pursue holiness as we rest. We are forgiven even though the Law has proven that we are wretched.