Ten Words to Live By

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This is the third word that God spoke. This is the third word to live by. We typically think of this as the command against cussing. Well, that’s a start. In fact – just notice from reading Exodus 20:7 – this is about so much more than “cussing.”

What does it mean to misuse God’s name? Why does God take it so seriously?

Since the Exodus, God was known among the Israelites as Ha-shem, which means “The Name.” The people knew God’s name, but God is so holy that even his name is holy. Sinful people like us should not mention that name without preparation and serious intent.
To the ancients, names have power – they are not merely words. Of course words have power and names are even more powerful for with a name you have a handle on something. You can manipulate it. You can define it. And so, if God has a name there is a temptation to define him – to use that name for influence, power, and protection.

What a burden to know God’s name in a world that puts so much stock in words and especially in names! What was God thinking in revealing his name?

If you know God’s name then you know exactly what he was thinking. God reveals his name to Moses through the burning bush (Exodus 3). Moses needs a tag, a label, a handle to get a grip on this God who wants him to go to Egypt and demand the release of the captives. That’s a huge and daring task and he wants to know if he is going to have the power to back up these claims. Besides that, these suffering Israelites aren’t just going to accept the wild claims of some old goat-herder. He had better have a business card, some credentials to make his case.

But there’s a risk in God giving out his name! What if Moses or anyone else wants to steal God’s identity. Anyone can go around speaking in the name of the Lord. Anyone can use God’s “PIN Code” of a name to open up the vaults of heaven. What was God thinking in revealing his name?

If you know God’s name then you know exactly what he was thinking. God’s name is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” God is telling Moses (and everyone else who hears his name) that you cannot use this name to manipulate me. You cannot use this name to reduce me, to define me, to summon me, to dismiss me or to control me in any way. So there is no risk to God in revealing his name.

But there is a risk to the people who know the name. Although God is not tamed by his name, the name is a holy and powerful name. It is still the name of a God who is greater than idols and has the power to define not only himself but also the created order.

The name of God tells us that in our relationship with “the one who will be what he will be” that He is always present and we must come to know him not through a magic formula, or a theological statement, or a pious poem, but through his character.

He reveals that character in these Ten Words:

If the character of God is so untamed, then certainly it means something to speak his name. Yes, we ought to take care to how we drop his name and how we hand out his business card. Its no risk to God – after all he will be who he is. And yet that’s just the problem, when we blithely bring God into a situation we invite the one whom we cannot control. How then should we use and not use this Holy Name?

Thankfully, Jesus taught us what this third word to live by really means. There’s a certain danger of misuse when it involves swearing by God’s name. Telling the truth and verifying trust often depends on people swearing by the name of a god or a holy thing. Jesus teaches us to simply speak the truth. If your Yes is Yes and your No is No all the time then you have the character of God and are not simply dropping his name to make your point. (Matthew 5:33-37) If you don’t normally speak the truth, don’t bring God’s name up to prove you are not lying. You may want God there when you speak truthfully, but the “I AM” was also there when you were lying and bending the truth.

I am glad that Jesus taught us what this third word to live by really means. There is a certain danger of misusing God’s name to punish and curse people. After all, if he really does hold people and their offspring accountable for three or four generations, then suddenly the name of God is a powerful weapon against the people who irritate us and abuse us. So we go through life like a bunch of magicians out of a Harry Potter tale invoking God’s name in our curses. We might use words like “damn or hell” – that’s elementary. But when we are advance, we simply take a self-righteous stance and use God as an excuse for retaliation or exclusion.
Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us to love our enemies. He taught us to use God’s name in prayer for those who do us wrong. (Matthew 5:43-48) Paul, who persecuted Christian families, understood what Jesus was teaching when he wrote “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14)
Jesus taught us to make things right with a brother or sister before we come before God and try to worship him on our moral high ground. According to Jesus, God is better praised in valley of humility and reconciliation rather than the lofty high ground of personal offense or religious principle. If we love even our enemies and settle matters quickly with each other before they grow into feuds and grudges, then we have the character of God – we are perfect even as he is perfect. If you need to get something right with another person, don’t bring God’s into it by asking him to take care of something he expects you to deal with. You may want God to show up when you put on your Sunday best, but the I AM was there when you were nursing your grudge.

God takes it seriously when we invoke his name. The Name of God is the beginning of holiness. When Jesus taught us to pray he taught us that the first thing to say is “Our father who is in heaven, holy is your name.” Learning to respect God’s name is the first step to respecting that which is holy – things like the soul and the image of God in other people. The name of God is not a handle that we use to manage God; it is a handle we use to manage ourselves. That’s why he puts his name on us when we are born into Christ. Live up to your family name and live out the character of the God who will be who he will be.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 14 October 2007

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