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The life and legacy of Moses: Honor God—or dishonor yourself

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:7-11

The Third Commandment states, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7). As with the other commandments, “you” is plural, so that this commandment applies to every one of us, with no exceptions.

“Shall not” shows that this is a commandment, not just a suggestion or principle for life. It is as important to God as the commandments not to murder or commit adultery. This is crucial to God.

“Misuse” means to take his name “in vain.” The word means “groundlessly, emptily, without basis,” and includes frivolous, insincere, or unjustified use of the name of God. Its original context was legal in nature. When a person testified before the elders or council, he was to speak “in the name of God.” This was something like our oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The commandment was not to promise truth “in God’s name,” then lie or deceive.

Who to honor

“The name of the Lord your God” is the central phrase of this Third Commandment. Jewish people associated the “name” of a person with his or her basic identity. For this reason, biblical characters were often assigned names to describe them. (“Esau” means red, because he was red-headed; “Isaac” means laughter, because Sarah laughed when God said she would have a son.)

And so the “name of God” deals of his basic character and identity. To speak of the “name of God” was to deal with his very nature, being, and person. For this reason, the names of God in the original biblical languages were sacred to the Jewish people. Each of them said something important about God.

YHWH meant “the One who was, is, and ever shall be.” This name showed that God is eternally the Lord.

“God” here is “Elohim,” literally “the God of gods.” This says that he alone is God, above all other deities worshipped around the world. In a day of polytheism and henotheism (each country had their own god), he alone is the God of the universe.

“El-Elyon” (Genesis 14:22, Deuteronomy 32:8-9) means “God most high,” showing that God rules the world today.

“El Shaddai” (Exodus 6:3) means “God Almighty,” and shows that he has all the power of the universe, and we have none.

“Pahad” means “the One to be feared” (Genesis 31:42; 1 Samuel 11:7). We are to approach him with awe and reverence.

“Adonai” (Isaiah 6:1) means “Lord of all,” the one who reigns.

“Jehovah-Jireh” (Genesis 21:22; 22:14) means “the Lord who provides” for our every need.

“Jehovah-Tsidkenu” (Jeremiah 23:6) means “the Lord is our righteousness,” so that we can be holy and righteous only as he makes us so.

“Jehovah-Shalom” means “the Lord is peace” (Judges 6:24), pointing to the fact that only God can give us peace.

These are just some of God’s names in the Scriptures. As you can see, the “name of God” describes his character, identity, person. In other words, the name of God means God himself. Consider some examples:

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1).

“May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you” (Psalm 20:1).

“Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds—his name is the LORD—and rejoice before him” (Psalm 68:4).

“He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name” (Psalm 111:9).

“The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).

“A scroll of remembrance was written in [God’s] presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name” (Malachi 3:16).

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).

“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5).

“Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew. 18:20).

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“‘Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again'” (John 12:28).

“These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

“The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name'” (Acts 9:15-16).

“God exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name, 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” (Philippians 2:9-11).

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1).

“On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords'” (Revelation 19:16).

Here’s the point: to misuse God’s name is to misuse God, to abuse him, to slander his character and reputation. This issue was so important that the third commandment is the only one of the ten with an immediate threat of punishment. It stands to reason, then, that we would want to know how to keep this commandment—what it means to dishonor God’s name, and to honor it.

How to dishonor God

The first way people break this commandment is to use God for ourselves. In biblical days people would swear falsehood in court, in the name of God. They made business deals or personal promises in his name, then broke those contracts. They used God’s name in a profane way, to curse someone or to express anger.

We obviously break this commandment today if we use God’s name in profanity. Such language has no place in Christian character or conduct. And when we use God’s name in swearing or cursing, we dishonor his character. We abuse his reputation. We use him for ourselves.

We also use God’s name when we manipulate others with it. The preacher who says, “God told me you need to give money to this ministry”; the husband who says, “God told me to divorce you”; the parent who says, “God will punish you if you don’t do as I say.” We take his name “in vain,” for our own purposes. We use God for ourselves. And this, the Lord of the universe will not allow.

A second way people break this commandment is to make faith into religion. For instance, the Jewish people took this commandment to mean that they should never pronounce God’s personal name. Only the High Priest, once a year on the Day of Atonement, was allowed to speak YHWH, and only in the Holy of Holies.

The scribes even wrote YHWH so that the people wouldn’t pronounce it. The original Hebrew language had only consonants. So the scribes took the vowels from another name for God, Adonai, and put them under the consonants YHWH. This was to tell the reader to say “Adonai,” not “YHWH.” Over the centuries we’ve combined the added vowels with these consonants and created “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” but this was almost certainly not how the name was originally pronounced.

When the scribes would come to YHWH, they would put down their pen, stand in the corner for a time of meditation and prayer, then take off their clothing, wash, put on new clothing, take a new quill pen, and write YHWH. They would then burn this pen and clothing, put on their old clothing, take up their old pen, and continue their work.

We can still make faith into legalistic religion today. If your faith consists of the time you spend at church, the Bible study and prayer you do at home, the money you give, so that you think God likes you better when you are religious and is ashamed when you’re not, you’ve made faith into religion. Faith is relationship, expressed in religious ways. It is not a set of legalistic rules. Or else we misuse the name and worship of God.

3. The third way people break this commandment is to trivialize God. We can compartmentalize him, so that he is only one part of our lives. We know we’re going to heaven, that we have our “fire insurance,” so we can come to church to pay our religious dues. But we don’t let our religion affect our lives.

This approach explains the fact that ethical behavior is the same inside and outside the church today. The divorce rate among Baptists is even higher than it is in the outside culture. We make sure we don’t misuse the name of God, we make him a part of our lives, and think that’s all he wants. But it’s not.

Ultimately, to keep the third commandment means to honor God with our lives. To live so that we bring glory to God’s name, character, and reputation, in all we do.

To be a “Christian” is to be a “little Christ.” Our lives now reflect on Christ in all we do. We are the only Bible most people will read, the only church they’ll attend. We are to live so that God will be honored by what we do. As I’ve said before, I became a Christian because of the joy I saw in Christians. So will others, because of us. Jesus was very clear: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

How would your friends and associates say you’re doing with the Third Commandment?

Who needs a Sabbath?

The Fourth Commandment deals with the “Sabbath,” our translation of the Hebrew “shabbath,” which means to rest from labor. Who needs such rest today?

The three greatest killers of Americans are not cancer, heart attacks and accidents, but computers, pagers, and telephones. The annual cost of running red lights, in medical bills, car repairs, etc., is $7 billion. The average amount of time saved by running a red light is 50 seconds. We’re asking the wrong questions.

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, wrote his autobiography a few years ago. In it he told about an unusual event at Edwards Air Force Base in the late fifties. A pilot testing a Mach 2 fighter actually outraced the shells from his cannons and shot himself down. I’ve done that, running too fast for my own good. Haven’t you?

Who needs time away, time alone with God? Jesus did. He spent forty days alone with God in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. When he began that ministry, one of his first actions was this: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Later in Mark’s Gospel we read, “because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'” (Mark 6:31).

Still later in his ministry we read, “After Jesus had dismissed the people, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23). All through his life and even the Gethsemane before his death, Jesus practiced the “shabbath.”

Who needs time away, time alone with God? I have learned this fact: we cannot be much for God until we have been much with God. The issue is not how to prioritize our schedule, but how to schedule our priorities. We must put first things first, for the sake of our souls, our homes, our marriages, our lives.

What is not a Sabbath?

The Fourth Commandment is the longest of the ten, 48 Hebrew words by my count (in contrast to two for the sixth command, “Not shall you murder”). The “shabbath” clearly matters to God.

So we are told to “Remember the Sabbath day.” “Remember” means to observe, to venerate, like “Remember the Alamo.” This is something we choose to do, intentionally and consciously. “Keeping it holy” means to make it separate, different, distinct. A day different than the rest of the week.

The Hebrews worked “six days,” from sunrise to sunset, thus a typical 70 hour work week. Labor was part of God’s will for us in the Garden, before the Fall, and will be as we worship God forever in heaven. But on the “shabbath,” we are not to work at all—and neither is anyone else. Everything alive, even animals, need this time away.

This issue is so important to God, he set the model for us. The God who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps. 121:3) didn’t need a day off. He observed a Sabbath to teach us to do the same. This is the only commandment of the Ten for which God has set a personal example.

What does God not mean? First, the Sabbath is not a legalistic religious requirement. The ancient Hebrews were so concerned with the Shabbath that they devised 39 ways of breaching it, each divided into 39 ways, for 1521 different Sabbath rules. A scribe could not carry a pen; a person could not kill a flea; we could not wear clothing it was possible to carry (because we might get hot and carry it).

A second wrong answer to the question: the Sabbath is not church attendance. The first Christians worshiped God on Sunday. This was the day Jesus rose from the dead, and the day Pentecost birthed the church. Jesus chose to rise on Sunday; the Spirit chose to fall on Sunday. This is the “Lord’s Day” (cf. Ac 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Rev. 1:10).

But the Roman Empire did not observe this day as special in any way. And so the Christians would worship, then go to work. This was a normal day for their culture. They would observe a “shabbath,” a day or time of rest with God, separate from their church attendance.

Unfortunately, things began to change with Constantine in AD 321, who laid down the first law that work in the cities must stop on the Lord’s Day. In 585 the Council of Macon forbade all work on Sunday. Alcuin (d. 804) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) erroneously identified the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath. The Reformers separated them; in fact, Luther (in his Larger Catechism) and Calvin (in the Institutes 2.8.32,34) were very adamant that they are two completely different concepts. They were right.

Going to church is not keeping a Sabbath. You may make Saturday night or Sunday morning your shabbath day, your day to be alone with God. But church attendance is not the same thing as the Sabbath.

How do we keep a Sabbath?

First, get alone. Make a time and a place where nothing else in your life can intrude. Your office at work or living room at home are probably not the best places. Find a solitary place and use it for your shabbath.

Second, get alone with God. Read the Scriptures, asking God to speak to you. Write what he says in a spiritual notebook. Keep a prayer list you work through with him. Read devotional literature which helps you draw closer to Jesus. Listen to him. Jesus stands at our hearts, wanting to come in and eat with us, but we must be quiet enough to hear his knock at the door.

Third, get alone with God daily. One day a week isn’t enough food for our bodies, or our souls. Make a daily appointment to be alone with God, in your shabbath. When is your next appointment with your Father?

Last, get alone with God daily, and retreat regularly. John Stott, the great British pastor and expositor, once remarked that he needs an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year in shabbath with the Father. What do you need? What’s your strategy for this week? This year?

Conclusion

A newspaper in Tacoma, Washington once carried the story of Tattoo, the racing bassett hound. Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

A motorcycle officer named Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it. As he passed the car he saw that the something was Tattoo. “He was picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could,” said Filbert. He chased the car to a stop and rescued Tattoo, but not before the dog reached a speed of 20 mph and rolled over several times. Tattoo was fine, but asked not to go out for an evening walk for a long time.

Who has your leash today, you or God?