Saturday, June 27, 2009

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain

Ever since I was young, the conventional application of the 3rd commandment has never set well with me. There is a tradition, handed down in our churches and ingrained in our societal standards, that this commandment forbids the expletive use of the word "god." I was never allowed to say, "oh my God!" much less issue a petition for damnation (I'll let you interpolate the phrasing).

Here was my struggle: tucked in between two introductory commandments and a fourth commandment, all of which dealt with core theological and pragmatic issues, I'm supposed to accept that God included a ban on Jews running around using the expression "Oh my Yahweh!" It just didn't fit. I'm no linguist, but I was pretty sure that expression wasn't around back then. Could it be that there's something much more significant God wants us to see in this commandment?

Let's begin with the Name. Of course, we all know that g-o-d is not the real name of God. What is God's name? I AM. Yet, there must be something more transcendent about this name than just the configuration of letters (after all, that's not even the original language). No, a name bears one's power. Their authority. The Romans had a saying, "There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved but the name of Caesar." It implied their emperor's power to save. Imagine the shock of Peter's hearers when he turned this truth toward another name. The name of Jesus.

The temple in 1 Kings 5:5 was built, not for God, but for God's Name. In Malachi 1:11, God says that it is His Name that will be great among the nations. Jesus commanded His followers to baptize people in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We get the picture that one's name is his power, his authority... even his reputation. The 3rd commandment is the first trademark law. God is, in essence, protecting His brand.

How could one defame God's Name by their use of it? By "taking" it. The word for taking could be translated carry, lift up, or one might say to "wield" His name. God showed His might and power. Demanded exclusivity. Declared Himself too great for any depiction by an image. And then, what is Israel to do with such a mighty power? Can they "take" it whenever they wish? No. God's name--His power--must not be invoked in vain. It must not be invoked for empty, worthless reasons.

And now we again get to ask ourselves, how do we today take the Lord's name in vain? Is it in flippant use? Perhaps. But I think there are far deadlier breaches of this command each day in the Christian faith. Bearing the very name of the incarnate God, "Christians" are His priests, His ambassadors speaking His truth to the world. Do we bear that name in vain? Or worse, every time we bow our heads in prayer, do the words "in Christ's name we pray, amen" flow with reverence, or in vanity?

If we look beyond the societal norms that stem from this command, we allow the scripture to speak a convicting message. I am challenged to fully understand and hold with great reverence the privilege of pray and the call to be His priesthood.

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