Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? In common understanding, the Commandment forbids using the word God as a profanity. And ultimately, this ends up being a legitimate concern, although I have come to believe that it misses the central point of the prohibition.

The challenge we have here is that the Bible doesn’t define taking the Lord’s name in vain. And there are several very reasonable alternatives as to what it might mean.

Here, I want to offer my understanding of this Commandment, with the biblical reasons for it.

The Ten Commandments (both in Exodus and Deuteronomy) form the core of God’s covenant with his chosen people. As his covenant people, they were to swear their loyalty to God and God alone: “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

By swearing their covenant allegiance to God, they became identified as the people of the Lord. The prophet Micah says it this way: “For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever” (Micah 4:5).

This means that the people of God bear his name. They have taken the name of their God. In this sense, “taking the name of the Lord” is not primarily about saying the name itself. It is rather a statement of identification.

The New Testament people of God also bear the name of the Lord. Just before his ascension, Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded them. In true Christian baptism, as we publicly swear our allegiance to the one true God, we take upon ourselves the Triune name. We bear the Lord’s name.

The question, then, is whether we bear the name in vain. We take the Lord’s name in vain, I believe, not simply by saying it lightly. We take the Lord’s name in vain when we, who claim to be his people, live in a way indistinguishable from those who do not bear the Lord’s name.

When we do this, we make God trivial in our churches and in our culture at large. When those who bear the name of the Lord seem essentially the same as those who don’t, who could blame people for coming to the conclusion that God himself is inconsequential?

Yes, there are other ways of making light of God, and using the Lord’s name as profanity is one of them. It is right, I believe, to consider such talk a violation of this Commandment.

But Christian, while you might be bothered by the flippant use of the Lord’s name by an unbeliever, the more pressing question is this: how are you bearing the Lord’s name? You, not the unbeliever, bear the name of the Father and Son and Spirit. Are you bearing that name in vain?

Jesus and the Ten Commandments

All of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments: no other gods, do not murder, etc. But what I want us to consider here is how Jesus read the Commandments.

Matthew 5–7 records Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” A significant portion of that sermon (5:17–48) gives us Jesus’s view of the Law. Jesus begins by telling us that he has not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” In fact, he offers a condemnation to anyone who “relaxes one of the least of these commandments.”

Too often, we have the idea that the Old Testament is full of rules, but that in the New Testament, God drops the rules in favor of grace. Careful attention to Jesus’s preaching should disabuse us of that notion.

The rest of Jesus’s sermon follows a pattern. He begins by citing an element of the Old Testament Law, using the phrase “You have heard that it was said.” He then pivots: “But I say to you.”

Now, are we supposed to think of Jesus as adjusting God’s Law? Is Jesus coming along and revising what God has said? This is very unlikely. Indeed, he has just told us that he didn’t come to set the Law aside.

Instead, Jesus is telling us what the Law meant all along. And when we read his sermon, we find that the actual requirements of the Law are harder than we ever imagined.

We know that the Law says that we are not to murder, and most of us feel confident that we’ve kept that Law. But not according to Jesus. Jesus tells us that hatred in our hearts is forbidden by the Law. Those moments in which someone has provoked us to the point that we would harm them (if we could get away with it), we have violated the Commandment.

The same is true with adultery: the standard is not merely physical fidelity to your spouse. Jesus condemns a lustful look as adultery of the heart. Our hearts make us lawbreakers.

What Jesus does here is no accident. He bookends his discussion of the law with two impossible statements. He says, “Unless you righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And then, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That is Jesus’s understanding of the Law. And if we understand him rightly, this should terrify us. If perfect obedience to the Law is the standard, and the Law includes our hearts, we all fall short.

That is the point of Galatians 3:10–11: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

The Law exists, not so that we might keep it and earn God’s favor, but that we might see that we fall short and seek God’s mercy. And the mercy is found in Jesus Christ, who alone kept God’s Law, earning life, and took our punishment, that we might be forgiven.

What Does the Gospel Do?

The gospel is the absolute core of true Christianity. Paul himself tells us this. Writing to the Corinthians, he says, “I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Corinthians 15:1–3).

In other words, for Paul, the gospel was that which is the highest priority. It has first importance.

If the gospel is so important, we must make sure that we get it right. Most anyone who has spent time in church knows that the word gospel means “good news.”

But what is this good news? Or, to ask it another way, what is the problem that the gospel offers to solve?

I happen to think that that last question is immensely important. Let’s be honest: each of us has problems in our lives we’d like to see solved. Some of us are wrestling with financial problems, or relationship problems, or health problems. On the bigger stage, there are world conflicts and economic hardships.

These are all real problems, and I would never want to minimize their importance.

But when the Bible talks about the gospel, when it tells us why Jesus died, it doesn’t address those problems—at least not directly. The central problem that the gospel seeks to solve is the problem of sin.

Here’s another way of thinking about this. All of the problems I mentioned above are horizontal problems. They are problems that we have with each other, or with the world around us. They involve the problems of this life.

But the gospel aims to address a problem that is primarily vertical: the sin problem that alienates me from God. Consider here Ephesians 2: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world…, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

This is our ultimate problem. We are sinners, and so by nature (and by choice!) we are “children of wrath.” That phrase means that we have earned our judgment before God. And that is a real problem.

But notice how Paul continues: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

You see, God himself has dealt with the sin problem. God the Son has died in our place, taking the penalty that our sin deserves, so that we might receive acceptance from God the Father. This is the gospel; this is the grace of God on display!

Receiving the gospel is not a solution to every human problem. Indeed, there are times that faithfulness to Jesus will increase our horizontal problems. But receiving the gospel solves our most important problem, making us right with God through Jesus Christ.

God’s Perfect Presence

The Lord is present already in the year ahead of us.

This is one of the central truths of Psalm 139. Here, David meditates on God’s attributes. The psalm divides neatly into four stanzas of six verses each.

In the first stanza, David stands in awe of God’s complete knowledge of all things. But David’s words are more devotional than academic. He is not reflecting on God’s knowledge in the abstract, but God’s knowledge of him.

In keeping with this personal tone, I want you to know that God knows you. He knows your very thoughts (v. 2), and the words that you will speak, even before you say them (v. 4). This knowledge is greater than we can ever fathom (v. 6).

In the second stanza, David marvels at God’s inescapable presence. Truly, there is nowhere to which you might go where God would be absent. David poetically runs from heaven to hell, from east to west, and confesses that in all places, God is there.

The third stanza gives us the foundation for God’s perfect knowledge and pervasive presence. God is the Creator of all things. In David’s poem, he stresses God’s purposeful creation of him. God knit David together in the womb of his mother.

Holding the entire poem together is verse 16: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

The reason that God knows everything David does, and everything we do, is that he is the Creator. The reason that God is present always and everywhere with us is that he is the Creator. God made you, and that means more than your physical being. God has planned your life.

David’s analogy works like this: God is the author of creation. Creation is his book. His book is created, quite literally, by his words. We know that in the book of Genesis, God creates all things by speaking.

A human author of a book simultaneously is not part of his book while also being fully present in every part of his book. This is the kind of analogy that David is presenting for us. Because God has written all our days even before we have lived them, he knows all about us. Because God has written all our days, he is fully present in them. Nothing escapes his attention.

For some people, these truths about God are terrifying. Indeed, even for those of us who love God, the idea that he is always aware of each detail of our lives is intimidating. We are driven, like Adam in the Garden, to seek to hide from God. We must not hide from God, but invite his searching gaze, seeking forgiveness for our sins in Jesus Christ.

For those of us who love God, his unbreakable, unshakable presence with us, even in these uncertain days, is the source of all our comfort. Because a good God has written all our days, even when we are most perplexed, we can trust him.

Why Did Jesus Come?

The Incarnation is at the very center of the Christian faith. In fact, if a person denies the Incarnation, he has denied Christianity itself. Listen to the words of John: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).

That’s quite strong. It would be hard to given more importance to the Incarnation than John does here.

Why is the Incarnation such a big deal? Why does it matter that God the Son took a human nature?

The Bible actually has a couple dozen or so passages that specifically say things like “Jesus Christ came to” do this or that. That is say, we don’t have to speculate about why Jesus came. We can actually hear God’s own Word on the matter.

The vast majority of these references tell us that Jesus came to save us from sin. For instance, Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He came to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45), which means we needed to be ransomed.

He came “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

The rest of the New Testament writers taught this as well. Peter preached that God sent Jesus “to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:26). Paul tells us that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The writer of Hebrews says that “he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

And John says that God the Father “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). A “propitiation” is a sacrifice that satisfies God’s just wrath.

All of these verses mean this: Jesus’s coming will mean nothing to us if we don’t view ourselves as sinners who need saving. To say that we are sinners demands that God has ultimate authority in the world. His standards of righteous apply to us, and we acknowledge that we have fallen short of them.

To say that we need to be saved means that our sin has a just penalty. We deserve punishment from God. We’ve earned it. If we refuse to say these things, we are denying that Jesus came to save us from our sin. We are denying that we need to be saved at all. There was no need for Jesus to come.

There are many for whom the celebration of birth of Christ is an exercise of sentimentality. And there is nothing amiss about the celebration of the season, the enjoyment of friends and family, and the exchange of gifts.

For those of us, however, who confess that Jesus is the Savior, our rejoicing at Christmas is that the salvation we need has come in the person of Jesus Christ!

The Injustice of the Incarnation

Life isn’t fair. This is, without a doubt, one of the key lessons in life. Life is really quite full of injustice.

This is true in trivial things, when the last piece of pizza always seems to be snatched up by someone else. But it’s also true in matters of great consequence. There are wicked people who seem to go through life unharmed by their wickedness. And there are people, people you know, who seem to endure a bad turn of health, then a financial reversal, then a family tragedy, all despite their goodness and even godliness.

Now, in a biblical sense, this unfairness isn’t ultimately unfair. The biblical reality is that we deserve to live in a broken world, and this for two reasons. The first is that, when Adam fell, he represented the entire human race. Indeed, as the head of all creation, he brought the curse from sin not only on himself, not only on all humanity, but on all creation itself. As the children of Adam, this curse belongs to us.

Second, we not only inherit Adam’s guilt, but surely we have each piled up guilt of our own. We are sinners, all of us. And so what we truly deserve is eternal condemnation. Anything less than that, including the hardships of this life, is actually merciful.

But Jesus Christ, in his Incarnation, subjected himself to all of the brokenness of this fallen world. And it is for Jesus, and for him alone, that all of this unfairness is truly unfair.

Indeed, Jesus’s earthly experience was doubly unfair. First, in the same million ways that we see in our own lives, Jesus endured the curse. People wronged him. The created world, with its thorns and thistles, resisted his work.

This we share with Jesus. But every moment of his earthy existence, he endured another (infinite) wrong): he was being denied the worship and adoration that he deserves. The Christmas carol urges: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail, Incarnate Deity!”

But that veil of flesh was such that almost no one did see. His own family doubted him. God the Son, the Second Person of the Eternal Trinity, was disguised, as it were. The glory of his divine nature was muted for this season.

And so the worship that had been his for all ages was muted as well. Jesus was truly being robbed of the honor that was due him. Every day of Jesus’s earthly life was unfair.

There is encouragement to be found here, and rightly so. Jesus endured through a broken world, and so we should follow in his steps. But this cannot be all that we say here, for Jesus is not only the example of faith, but the object of faith.

This Christmas season, we not only rejoice that Jesus came to earth and suffered like we suffer. We rejoice that he came and suffered on the Cross so that we can be delivered from our suffering. He endured injustice, being condemned by the Father for sin he never committed, so that we, who are sinners, might be shown eternal mercy. Blessed be our Lord Jesus Christ!

Week of December 13

Dear Church Family,
Just a reminder of some upcoming events:
  • Caroling: Our church Christmas caroling will take place on Saturday, December 19, at 2:00pm. We’ll meet at the church, and then walk through our neighborhood, stopping at homes to sing and invite them to our services on Sunday.
  • Pastor’s Open House: Alicia and I will be hosting our annual open house at the parsonage at 1:30pm on December 20. Those who wish to bring snacks should talk to Alicia to let her know.
  • Christmas EveOur annual Christmas Eveservice will be at 6:00pm on Thursday, December 24. Plan to join us as we sing and rejoice at the Incarnation of our Lord.

In Sunday school, we’ll hope to wrap up our current discussion on tongues and other sign and revelatory gifts by reviewing the reasons that we believe that these gifts ceased with the end of the apostolic era of the church.

In the morning service, we’re covering three different Messianic prophecies from Matthew’s Gospel. Each presents its own difficulties: two of them seem to be being used out of context (again), and one of Matthew’s references doesn’t even seem to exist in the Old Testament! While we’ll take some time to work through the details of the text, we’ll keep our attention on Matthew’s chief point: that in the Incarnation, the perfect Son of God allows himself to be subjected to the evils of this cursed world. And he does this so that we can be set free and the creation can be redeemed.

In the afternoon service, we’ll take questions and discuss our constitution.

Some links for this week:


This Week
  • Sunday School
    The Day of Pentecost (Acts 2)
  • Morning Service
    He Would Be Called a Nazarene (Matthew2:13–23)
  • Afternoon Service
    Church Constitution

O Little Town

For this year’s series of Christmas sermons, I’ve been preaching the opening chapters of the book of Matthew. One notable feature of those early chapters is Matthew’s insistence that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy.

Multiple times, Matthew says that some event or another in Jesus’s early life “was done to fulfill what was said through the prophet.” Clearly, Matthew is writing his Gospel for the benefit of those who take the Old Testament seriously. Most likely, he is writing for a Jewish audience, seeking to convince them that Jesus of Nazareth is their promised Messiah.

One of the fulfillment passages occurs at the opening of chapter 2. There, we read of the wise men who come from the east. The appearance of some kind of astronomical phenomenon has alerted them to the birth of the Jewish king. When they arrive at Jerusalem, they ask where this king was to be born.

Interestingly, the Jewish priests and scribes know the correct answer. However, they seem far less interested in the birth of their Messiah than do these foreigners. They tell Herod that the king is to be born in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem plays a very interesting role in this passage, one that is full of irony. Both Matthew and Micah (the Old Testament passage quoted) emphasize the relative insignificance of the town. At the same time, any Jew of that day would have readily identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king, David.

And both aspects were important to Matthew. On the one hand, he wants us to know that Jesus is of nearly trivial origins. At the same time, Matthew is connecting Jesus to David, giving us clues that He belongs to David’s royal line.

This is both a running theme of Scripture and a running theme of Jesus’s life. Throughout the Bible, God makes it clear that he is rarely seen in the lives of the powerful and influential of this world. Instead, God is working in the lives of those that the world would overlook.

And this is just what we see in Jesus’s Incarnation. He’s born in a nothing town, and grows up in an even more nothing town. His family flees persecution. He’s the son of a tradesman. He is baptized in identification with the sins of his people. His earthly ministry, though marked by signs and wonders, is never received by the powerful people in religion or government. And he often made ministry choices that drove away the crowds who were there only for the displays of the spectacular.

And ultimately, he is given a criminal’s death, seemingly under the condemnation of God.

And yet, in God’s kingdom, all this world’s values are ultimately reversed. Paul tells us that because Jesus went through this humiliation, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Weekly Email – Week of December 6

Dear Church Family,

I hope to summarize our discussion of tongues, tying it in to the broader question of the nature and purpose of the sign and revelatory gifts. As I noted last week, this is an immensely important and often divisive topic, and so it is one about which we need to aim to be of one mind, fully committed to biblical teaching.

In the morning service, we continue our Christmas series by considering Matthew’s account of the wise men who come to worship Jesus, with their understanding (from Micah’s prophecy) that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. From Micah, we’ll see more clearer what the Messiah’s character and work would be.

In the afternoon service, we’ll take questions and continue to finalize our constitution.

Some links for this week:

In Christ our Lord,

Pastor Michael Riley

  • Sunday School – The Day of Pentecost (Acts 2)
  • Morning Service – A Ruler Who Will Shepherd (Matthew 2:1–6)
  • Afternoon Service – Church Constitution

Weekly Email – Week of Oct 19

The funeral for Butter will be this Saturday at the church. Visitation with the family will be at 10:00am, and the service will begin at 11:00am. A lunch in the fellowship hall will follow. I would encourage all who can to attend and be an encouragement to the family.

On Sunday, plan to welcome Jon and Amanda Parker as the newest members of Calvary Baptist Church.

On Sunday morning, we will continue our discussion of description versus prescription in historical narrative, and we’ll lay out some guiding principles that will help us determine when a passage of Scripture is merely recording what happened, as opposed to a passage that is giving us an example that we ought to follow.

In the morning service, we’ll survey the first three chapters of Deuteronomy. These chapters are filled with the history of the nation up to this point, and they recount both God’s faithfulness and the unfaithfulness of God’s people. We’ll see that, for the people of God, history is immensely important, as God’s past faithfulness gives us reason to trust him in the future.

Our afternoon service will continue in discussion of our constitution.

Some links for this week:

In Christ our Lord,

Pastor Michael Riley

• Sunday School – Introduction to Acts, part 2
• Morning Service – The Faithfulness of Our God (Deut 1–3)
• Afternoon Service – Constitution