What's in a Name?

Series: God Reigns

Sermon by David Strain on Jan 24, 2016

Exodus 20:1-17

Download Audio

Now please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to the book of Exodus, chapter 20; Exodus chapter 20. Page 61 in the church Bibles. We continue this morning our ongoing expositions in the Ten Commandments, thinking today about the third commandment which you will find in verse 7, though we’ll read all ten commandments together. Before we do that, it’s our custom to pause and pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to come and help us understand God’s Word. So would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?

O Lord, would You send us the Holy Spirit so that as we hear Your Word read we might be given understanding and faith to receive and rest upon Jesus Christ, who speaks to us here. For His sake we pray, amen.

Exodus 20 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“And God spoke all these words, saying,


‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.


You shall have no other gods before me.


You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.


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.


Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.


You shall not murder.


You shall not commit adultery.


You shall not steal.


You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.


You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.

Some twenty-five years ago, an American pharmaceutical company went looking for a name for their business. It needed, of course, to be distinctive, easy to remember, something that would clearly brand the company and give it an identity in the marketplace. Of course they had no way to know then that the name they chose would have such a negative effect upon investors and public perception in 2015. Today, ISIS Pharmaceuticals are discovering one of the great truths at the heart of our passage - that names matter. Names matter. We’re thinking about the third commandment. Exodus 20 verse 7, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD shall not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” And I want us to think about three things in this commandment. First of all, a definition. We’ll think about God’s name; what does it mean? Then secondly, we’ll think about our duty, both positively and negatively. And then thirdly, we’ll think about our destiny. These three things are being taught to us in this commandment. First a definition, then our duty, then finally our destiny.

  1. The Definition of God’s Name.

First of all then, a definition. Apparently, I learned this, this week, until very, very recently, the almost universally sung, “Happy Birthday,” is under copyright. So whenever it’s sung on television or you hear it on the radio, apparently royalties were due to Warner Chappell Music who own the copyright. There’s a sense in which the third commandment is saying the name of God is under copyright so that whenever you use it, we owe Him royalties; we owe Him honor. We owe Him reverence and praise. How we speak about Him matters a very great deal. And we’ll see why, in particular, when we understand what is being signified by “the name of the Lord your God.” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” What’s in a name? Why is a name, why is this name in particular, so very important? Well the name of God in Scripture, like many of the names in the Bible, is much more than a mere label, more than a tag. That’s not how it is in our culture, is it? Generally speaking, David Strain, my name, tells you nothing about my character or about my history. If all you had to go by was my name, you’d still largely be in the dark about me.

That’s not the case with God, with the name of God. God’s name, it is shorthand. It stands for His being and His work, so that God’s name is virtually a definition of God Himself - who He is, what He’s like, and what He does. It is a summary or a reminder to us that when we use His name we are invoking more than just a tag or a label that refers to some being distant from us and aloof. We are, rather, invoking the attributes of God, the nature and being of God and His work. So, for example, when Moses met God, you remember on Mount Sinai back in Exodus chapter 3, in the burning bush God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And He said, “Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you. This is my name forever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” “ am who I am,” which in Hebrew is contracted to “Yahweh,” which in our English Bibles is rendered by the word, “LORD,” in all caps, is God’s name. And it’s more than a mere label; it’s virtually a definition, a declaration of fundamental truths regarding His being and nature. He is the eternal, self-sufficient, independent, un-derived, un-created God, the great I AM. He is prone to no change. There’s no flux or mutation in Him. There is no variation or shadow due to change. He is the one who is and who was and who is to come. I AM. So the name of God is shorthand for His being, His nature, His essence. When you use it, you are invoking the full panoply of His attributes and the totality of His being.

God’s Name Signifies His Saving Work.

The name of God also signifies more than His being but also His saving work. In Psalm 106 verse 8 we are told God saved His people “for His name’s sake.” Psalm 54 verse 1, the psalmist prays, “O God, save my by your name.” Proverbs 18:10, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower. The righteous man runs into it and he is safe.” The name of God is shorthand not just for His being, glorious and incomprehensible and worthy of all praise, it’s shorthand for His mighty works, especially His saving work, His redeeming, rescuing work. He is known by His name among the people whom He has saved.

And these two great themes, the being of God and the saving work of God, come together wonderfully. They coalesce in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. John 8:38 we learn that Jesus bears the name of God because He declared before Abraham was, “I am.” His own name, the name Jesus, means “the Lord shall save His people from their sins” - Matthew 1:21. The name, Jesus, means “Yahweh - the God who saves.” That’s His name. Jesus, similarly, Romans 10:13, the Apostle Paul quotes from the prophecy of Joel. He says, “Whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” But “the LORD,” there in the prophecy of Joel, is the word, “Yahweh.” It’s the divine name. The God who said, “I am.” Whoever calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved. But Paul has it as a reference in Romans 10:13 as a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. So you see how Paul thinks? The name of God, the name Yahweh, belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever calls on the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved. He is the God who saves. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved but this name, the name Jesus. Jesus is the one in whom we may know God who is God our Savior.

The Name of God is Unspeakably Precious.

So what’s in a name? Well, when it’s the name of the Lord only, the whole encyclopedia of God’s self-revelation to sinners, only the story of saving grace comprehended and climaxing with the cross of Jesus Christ - what’s in a name? When it’s the name of God and the name of Christ, everything’s in a name! Everything is in a name! It’s life from the dead. It is pardon and peace. It is wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. The name of God is infinitely precious because it stands for His being and His work, who He is and what He has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ; infinitely precious. Nothing more sacred than the divine name.

I was thinking about analogies and I remember hearing and seeing the kind of reactions, I suppose, many of us would feel to the burning of the American flag. We’re provoked by that. It’s an outrage. It’s a desecration of a sacred emblem of our national identify, right? You see the flag being burnt - that’s the kind of feelings it provokes in us. When you take the name of God in vain, when you use it casually or flippantly, when it appears in your mouth in anger and frustration, when you use it as a curse word, what are you doing, but as it were setting fire to the insignia by which God makes Himself known to the world. Ought there not to be outrage in our hearts, distress? Ought it not to be a great provocation to us when we see God’s name so misused? The unspoken truth behind the third commandment is not just that Christians should not misuse God’s name. It is, rather, that there is hardly anything more out of place for a Christian to do. That a Christian should misuse His name, it can scarcely be imagined! It should seem unthinkable to us. The one we most love, the one under whose rule we gladly live our lives, the one we profess to trust and adore that His name should ever find a place in our lexicon of curse words, that it should ever be a term found on our lips more in rage or frustration than in adoration or praise, that is, that is unthinkable for a child of God, or it ought to be. We need to understand that the name of God is more than a label. It’s shorthand, it’s a virtual definition, it stands for His being and His saving work. It is therefore unspeakably precious.

  1. The Christian’s Duty Towards the name of God.

Then secondly, I want you to notice what we are told here about our duty. First of all, our duty positively, what we are to do, and then negatively, what we are not to do. How to use and how not to misuse the divine name. First of all, our duty positively - how to use God’s name. Look at the text again. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” That word, “take,” literally means “to lift up.” To lift up. “You shall not lift up the name of the LORD your God in vain.” Often used in a legal context, in taking a vow, someone would lift up their hand and swear by the name of God in a way, actually analogous or somewhat similar to our practice to this day. You swear by the name of God. The phrase also appears in the context of worship. Psalm 63 verse 4, the psalmist says to God, “In your name I will lift up my hands.” Psalm 134 calls on all people to “lift up hands towards the holy place and bless the LORD.” Whether it’s in prayer or praise, in solemn oaths and vows, in prophetic oracles and in preaching the Word of God, whenever and wherever and by whomever the name of God is invoked, there is in Scripture a universal expectation that it will be done in reverence and honor and in holy awe. So that the third commandment is more than a mere prohibition and a warning, it is an invitation and a summons to take up God’s name and to honor Him and to bring Him glory. It presses upon us a duty to praise and to worship, not to stay away, but to press in, reverencing His name, His being, His saving work to the glory and praise of our God.

There ought to be, for example, when we think about what God’s name signifies, there ought to be joy in our hearts that moves us to praise. That this infinite, eternal, unchangeable God should set His love upon sinner in eternity, send His Son to atone for sinners in history, give them His Spirit to unite them to Christ, and make them new creatures in our experience, govern our steps and guide or path by His words, bring us under the rule of His grace, order all things for our good and bring us home at last to be with our Savior in glory one day, all of this He does for us and we call Him by His name because we stand in a relationship to Him as a child to his father. We speak of Him with intimacy and familiarity and so there ought to be joy in our hearts. There ought also to be holy awe as the weight, as the gravity of who God is - infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth - as the weight of who God is presses upon us as we take up His name on our lips, it ought to ignite our hearts and buckle our knees in wonder and reverence and praise.

Christian Worship is an Obligation.

And it is into that experience the third commandment is summoning us all to come to Him and to give Him glory and to take up His name with joy and gratitude and holy reverence. That’s what Jesus intended. We said it together as we prayed earlier in the first petition of The Lord’s Prayer - “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” We want to honor Your name; we want to give You glory because we know You as Abba Father. We rejoice to praise You. It is our delight, this urgent duty that You have given to us, because of what You have done for us. God is saying to us in the third commandment, “Take up My name. Take up My name and give Me glory. Take up My name that signifies My majesty, My transcendence, My glory. Take up My name that speaks of Gospel love. Take up My name that is redolent of the cross, that speaks of the nails in your Savior’s hands and feet. Take up My name and sing My praises.” The third commandment calls us to the right use of the name of God as a binding duty. Christian worship is not an option; it is an obligation. Christian worship, opening your mouth and singing from your heart to the glory of God, pressing in close to Him in prayer, hearing His Word, is vital, necessary, obligatory for a child of God. He summons you to it by the third commandment.

How Not to use God’s Name.

And then negatively, here’s how not to use His name. Look at the text! Notice that phrase, “in vain.” “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” It means to lift up something to nothingness, meaninglessly, thoughtlessly. You might translate this very woodenly as, “You shall not lift up the name of the LORD your God to nothingness.” Now that can happen in a variety of ways. The obvious way we all think about it using God’s name as a curse word. And of course that’s clearly within the scope of this prohibition but it happens in other ways more subtlety. For example, we take the name of the Lord our God in vain, we lift it up to nothingness when we take it upon our lips thoughtlessly, when we sing His name while our minds and hearts are elsewhere, when we pray His name but we haven’t really prayed in our praying. When you prayed The Lord’s Prayer a few moments ago, were you just doing, were you just going through the motions, familiar words, a traditional form, “This is the routine”? Or did you pray in your praying? How easy to take the name of God in vain, to use His name on our lips, to call upon Him with our words but not to engage our hearts. Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, confesses that reality in a way we probably all know well. He said, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below, words without thoughts never to heaven go.” “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below, words without thoughts never to heaven go.” When you come to worship, you must engage your heart as well as open your mouth. How easy to misuse the name of God while sounding like you give Him honor.

Does our Lives Contradict Our Profession?

And even more subtly than that, we misuse, we take the name of God in vain, we lift it up to nothingness when our lips, our profession, and our lives contradict one another. Christians are those who bear the name of God. We’ve been baptized into the name of God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - Matthew 28:19. John, in Revelation 14:1 and 22:4 sees Christians with the name of God and with Christ written on their foreheads. We carry the name of God. It is, if you like, our family name. We bear the name of God before the world. And yet, as Paul reminds the Jews in Romans 2:24 who bear the name of God yet whose lives so thoroughly contradicted that name, that “because of you, God is blasphemed among the Gentiles.” Does your life give the lie to your profession? Do your lips and your life contradict one another so that people around you mutter this phrase, “She calls herself a Christian. He calls himself a Christian. He names the name of Jesus. Did you see what he did? Did you hear what he said?” That’s the challenge of the third commandment.

The Consequences of False Profession.

And the consequences of a life that contradicts our lips are much worse than merely the responses of our neighbors and colleagues and family and friends. We also need to bear in mind the reaction of the Lord Himself. Jesus speaks about this in Matthew chapter 7 at verse 21. He reminds us, “Not everyone who says to me,” this is chilling; listen to this. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Not everyone who uses my name will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did I not prophecy in your name? I was a preacher, Lord! Cast out demons in your name! Did mighty works in your name! I was in ministry. I had experiences. I was moved in your name!’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.’” Isn’t that chilling? It is possible to profess faith in Jesus Christ, to say, “Lord, Lord,” Sunday by Sunday, to have experiences, to do ministry in His name, and not know Him. Do you know the Lord you profess? Do you do the works of your Father in heaven, you who bear His name on earth? “God will not hold him guiltless who misuses the name of the LORD,” the commandment warns us. How terrible it will be to lift up His name to nothingness here and to find hereafter that He whose name we’ve borne, whose name we have misused and blasphemed by our carelessness, will refuse to confess our name before His Father, but instead will say to us, “Get away from Me! I never knew you.” Do you know Jesus Christ, you who use His name?

Tragically, lifting up God’s name to nothingness, using His name in vain, is epidemic in our culture, isn’t it? David Wells puts it this way. He says:

“It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that He is ethereal but rather that He has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost His saliency for human life. Those who assure the posters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider Him less interesting than television, His commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, His judgments no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and His truth less compelling than the advertiser’s sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a condition we have assigned Him after having nudged Him out to the periphery of our secularized life.”

If taking the name of God in vain comes easily to you, if it is inconsequential to you, it is likely because God Himself has become weightless, unimportant, and inconsequential to you. And of course the world that dismisses Christ today as weightless and inconsequential did exactly the same thing for the very same reasons during the days of His earthly ministry, didn’t they? They thought Him foolish at best, dangerous at worst. And in an ultimate act of blasphemy, they crucified Him, they lifted Him up to worthlessness, to nothingness, when they lifted Him up to die at the cross. The great irony of the Christian Gospel, however, is that the same Jesus who “made Himself nothing and humbled Himself even to the death of the cross, God has highly exalted,” Philippians 2:9-11, “and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name, Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

  1. The Destinies of Those Who Use God’s Name.

There is a day coming - here’s our destiny now - there is a day coming when blasphemy will cease utterly and every human tongue will acknowledge the truth, Jesus Christ is Lord. He is Lord! Some will confess it with joy as they enter into His presence forever, and some in horror and regret and shame as they are sent into the outer darkness forever. And so the question pressed upon us by the third commandment is, “Which destiny will be yours?” You, who today have taken up the name of the Lord upon you, used it in your worship, when on that day you bend the knee and confess Him Lord anew, will it be with joy having trusted Him in life, or will it be in horror and shame and regret, realizing that you took His name in vain, having rejected His rule, even while you said with your lips, “Lord, Lord”? So if the great irony of the Christian Gospel is that those who denied and blasphemed and crucified Him will one day discover that that denied and crucified Christ is made Lord and King, the wonder of the Christian Gospel is that the crucified, blasphemed and mocked Christ, the Christ the world killed, died for the blasphemer and the murderer who takes His name in vain, today He sits at the throne of God, reigning as Lord to be Savior, not yet condemning Judge. And so today, there’s time to cease taking His name in vain and come to know Him for yourself. Will you here and now bend your knee and say, “Lord,” not merely with your lips but with your heart as you acknowledge your need of Him and trust Him alone to be your Rescuer and Redeemer and King? Let us pray.

O Lord, we confess to You the ease with which we go through the motions and take Your name on our lips while our hearts are cold and dull and our minds are anywhere but here, turned in any direction but toward You. Have mercy on us. Thank You that Jesus has come, bearing Your name, reaching out to us, dying for us, that blasphemers may become children of God. Would You, for Christ’s sake, have mercy as together now, perhaps for the first time, perhaps anew, we bend our knees and confess with more than our lips but with the surrender of our lives, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father? For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.