Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2012 3:58 pm
The Messenger, August 30, 2012
What’s in a Name?
By WALLY BUMPAS
Special to The Messenger
Do you remember the televangelist scandals of the 1980s? A couple of prominent evangelical leaders with large followings were found guilty of sexual and financial misconduct. Comedians and the media had a delightful field day. Which of the Ten Commandments were most obviously trounced by these men?
We might respond with the seventh (adultery) and the eighth (stealing). But what about the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7)? The real tragedy went far beyond the moral failings of men. The greater tragedy was that the name of God was mocked. “See, I told you. That’s what all Christians are.”
Question 99 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: What is God’s will for us in the third commandment? Answer: That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In a word, it requires that we use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess Him, pray to Him and praise Him in everything we do and say.
Question 100: Is blasphemy of God’s name by swearing and cursing really such serious sin that God is angry also with those who do not do all they can to help prevent it and forbid it? Answer: Yes, indeed. No sin is greater, no sin makes God more angry, than blaspheming His name. That is why He commanded the death penalty for it.
We might want to dismiss the third commandment as not all that serious, especially if we are not in the habit of saying God’s name and putting “damn” on the end of it. But is foul language all this is about? It certainly includes that, as the two catechism questions make clear. To use God’s name thoughtlessly or as a curse word certainly violates the third commandment. One thinks of the ubiquitous “OMG” used probably a billion times a day in social media.
To use God’s name loosely or incorrectly is roughly the definition of blasphemy in the Bible. And yes, it did bring the death penalty in certain cases (see Leviticus 24:10-16). One wonders whether the Israelites ever had the nerve to carry out the penalty after Moses was gone, but its mere existence makes the point. Does our catechism go a bit too far when it says, “no sin is greater”?
In Biblical times, names meant much more than they do now. Names often revealed some fact about the name bearer. For example, “Moses” sounds like the Hebrew for “drawn out of the water.” God’s names are descriptions of who He is. This is why we find verses like, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name” (Psalm 29:2), and “be careful … to fear this honored and awesome name, the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:58). Regard for God’s name is regard for God Himself.
Looking at Exodus 20:7, the verb “take in vain” comes from a root that means an empty pit. The meaning of the word is to empty something of its content. We might amplify the commandment like this: you shall not take God’s name, His character, His honor — and empty them of their content.
This is obviously done by throwing around the names “God” and “Jesus” thoughtlessly. But it is also done when Christians, who bear the name of Christ, live in such a way that the truth of God is emptied of its content.
The powerful Stephen King short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (made into a movie in 1994) is set in a state prison in Maine. In an early scene, the prison warden is welcoming a group of new inmates. In the film version, he tells the men they will all be issued a Bible and says, “Rule number one: no blasphemy. I’ll not have the Lord’s name taken in vain in my prison.” As the story unfolds, we learn that the warden is actually the worst violator of his favorite commandment, not because of his language, but because he is all the while running a money laundering scheme. At one point he resorts to murder to keep his scheme going. And all this while professing “the Lord’s name.” Near the end of the story he is exposed, and rather than turning to “the good book” that he could quote so fluently, he takes his own life. If that were a true story, one wonders if the inmates would ever again give Christianity a hearing. The warden had taken the name of the Lord and emptied it of its content.
We all violate the third commandment. The only man who never did was Jesus Christ, who summarized His own life by saying, in John 17:6 “I have manifested [God’s] name.” He offers pardon to all who come to Him in faith and repentance. The Christian who has tasted this pardoning grace will have a new understanding of God’s name. He will sing with the psalmist, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8). And he will see his life as no longer his own, but as a gift to be lived “for the sake of the Name” (3 John 7).
Editor’s note: Wally Bumpas serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dyersburg.