What's in a Name?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Exodus 20:7

A name is closely identified with the one who bears it. However we treat God’s name is the way we are treating him.

Welcome to this third message in our series on The Ten Commandments! We’ve looked at the first. We’ve seen its background in grace and in covenant. We’ve looked at the rival gods that threaten then and now. We’ve seen that God wants to be worshiped not through images, but in response to his Word, and how he has given us his perfect image in Jesus Christ. Today we consider the Third Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7 kjv). Or: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (nrsv).

Remember these words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”? The lovers found out that a name can have great, awesome significance. This is less true in our culture than in many others. With us, it’s often a relative’s name, or a family last name, or what may be in vogue, or what sounds nice. Yet even we know how important names can be. People who speak our name speak of us. When people say it, they’re talking about us. We are very much identified, all of us, with the name that we bear.

The Name and the Person

Sometimes people who know us will give us different names. We call them nicknames. Those who love and admire us may give us names that celebrate some worthy quality. Think of Barnabas in the New Testament. His name was Joseph but his fellow Christians called him Barnabas which means “son of encouragement.”

On the other hand, those who dislike us may give us a name that mocks a weakness or a personal trait of ours. They call us “sissy,” “chicken,” “half-man.” People are gladdened or stung by those names, and they often stick.

In biblical times, names given to Hebrew children had more meaning. Sometimes they took note of a circumstance of birth. When Rachel was dying, she gave the name to her son Benoni, “son of my suffering.” Samuel is called Samuel by Hannah because she “asked him of God.”

Sometimes the names represented the parents’ hope for a child’s future character or achievement. They often included some connection with God’s name: Elijah (Yahweh is God); Elisha (God is salvation). Sometimes God would give to one of his servants a changed name. Abram becomes Abraham, the father of many peoples. Jacob the supplanter becomes Israel, the prince with God. Simon, the man of sand, becomes Peter the rock. This custom of renaming often spoke of a changed life or destiny and what a person would become.

In these cases your name becomes closely identified with the person you are. This was particularly true in the ancient world with deities. The name was considered a part of the god’s being, character and power. In some ancient cultures, it was believed that if you knew a god’s name you gained power over him to get favors and requests. It was never that way in Israel. Yet God bound himself with great promises to those who knew and called on his name.

God’s Name

Now let’s look at some of the names for God found in the Bible. We meet the names El and Elohim in the opening verses of Genesis. These words are also used of “gods” in a generic sense in the Old Testament. Next, the personal name of Israel’s God was formed of four Hebrew consonants (YHWH). No one knows exactly what the vowels were so that we don’t know how this name was pronounced. It was regarded as so holy that people would not speak it. Yahweh and Jehovah are expressions of how some people believe this name was pronounced, but no one knows exactly how.

The next one to note is the name pronounced to Moses, “I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14). That can mean eternal self-existence, or “I will be what I will be,” always the same. Perhaps the best paraphrase is, “I will always be there to help,” in connection with his coming down to help Israel. It makes us think of the great “I am” passages in John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35), “I am the Door” (Jn. 10:8), “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11-15). “I am the Resurrection” (11:25-26). “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14:4-6). And his staggering claim: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Also his words after the resurrection, “Lo, I am with you all the days, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

But in the Old Testament, the one name that seems to linger most is also a name spoken to Moses. We might call it God’s covenant name: “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Notice how God says, “This is my name forever and this my title for all generations” (Exodus 3:15). It’s a name in which he identifies himself with his believing people one by one. He is our God. We can put our names there. Notice how Jesus uses this name, “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Mt. 22:31-32) and many other names in the Old Testament. But this one seems to be the most enduring.

When you come to the New Testament, the name that Jesus gives to us by which to address God is the name “Father.” When he teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, he prays this way (Luke 11:1). He encourages all who trust in God through him to pray that way. It’s the name Father which is patēr in the Greek language, abba in the Hebrew and Aramaic. This term abba was never used in prayer before the days of Jesus, not because it was unfamiliar but because it was so familiar. It’s the name that little Hebrew children used to call their daddy. “Abba, abba, abba” you can hear in a park in Tel Aviv on a summer day even now!

But Jesus gave us this family name to use in addressing God because it speaks of freedom. It speaks of affection. It speaks of confidence, a little child running to a father’s arms. It’s not simply a new name for God but it expresses a new kind of relationship, a child jumping with wild abandon into a loving father’s arms.

And then, of course, the name in the New Testament most precious to believers is the name Jesus which means “Yahweh is salvation” or “God saves” (Luke 1:31; Mt. 1:21). This name was given to him by God’s direction. God gives the child a name which speaks of who he is and what he will accomplish. And this is the name in which some two billion of the world’s peoples today know and approach God.

Wrongly Using God’s Name

What is warned against in this commandment not to misuse or take in vain the Lord’s name? Perhaps the primary thought here is about an oath in which a person calls God to witness. This was done frequently in the Old Testament. “As the Lord lives, I will do thus and so” . . . or, “This thing will surely happen.” It’s a tremendous affront to God to swear by his holy name and then lie (Lev. 19:12). As time went on, people tended to back away from swearing by God’s name. They would swear by heaven, or earth, or by Jerusalem or by the temple. But Jesus says, “Let there be no swearing. Let your word be your bond. Don’t try to guarantee the truth of something by an oath. Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (see Mt. 5:34-37).

The commandment also forbids speaking God’s name carelessly or contemptuously. This is what people generally think of – profanity – literally something inappropriate done before the temple, or in the presence of the Holy. Think of how people commonly do this. They call on God to damn something or someone. They call out God’s name when they’re angry or hurt. When not outright taking his name, they use somewhat sanitized versions: “Gee,” “Jeez,” “Jeepers creepers,” “Golly,” “Gosh.” It’s the only sin I can think of that offers no conceivable pleasure or profit. It only shows how little users are affected by any sense of reverence for God.

And then of course dishonoring God’s name is done by hypocrisy and disobedience. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, chapter 2 (vv. 23-24).

You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written, the name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you.

I mean, this is how God’s name is perhaps most dishonored – when people who profess his name do not live the life to which he calls them. How can they do this? By proclaiming one thing, and doing the opposite, by not walking the talk, by calling Jesus “Lord” and not doing what he says – the biggest stumbling block that we set before an unbelieving world. Billy Graham tells about a man in India he once met who said, “I would become a Christian if I could see one.”

Now all these are ways of using God’s name wrongly. But what does he want us to do with his name? Well, certainly to believe in his name. God wants us perhaps more than anything else to trust in him. Without faith it is impossible to please him. Jesus is the Savior who comes, and by believing in his name we receive life. We’re to call on his name. Believing means calling on him, invoking his aid in every time of need or distress. To whom do we go? On whom do we call when all human help is gone?

Hallowing God’s Name

It means also praying for his name to be hallowed. Isn’t it striking that in the Lord’s Prayer the first petition Jesus gave us was to pray that God’s name would be hallowed, praised, held in reverence (Luke 11:2). He wants us to make the honoring of his name to be the highest priority for which we pray.

And we honor his name in godly living. We dishonor him when we’re disobedient to God, and we give praise to him when we live lives that are Christlike (Col. 3:12-17). By our good works people see God’s name manifested and they worship him (Acts 5:41). And we honor him when we proclaim God’s name to all peoples (Luke 24:46-47). When you’re praying for that, you not only ask for true worship, you not only want revival and purifying of the church, but you want everyone everywhere to know God’s name.

The Power of the Name

“Wonderful” in the Bible is what is said about the power of the name of God, and the power especially of the name of Jesus over all powers of evil (Luke 10:17-20). We see the power of Jesus’ name for healing to the man in the temple (Acts 3:6; 4:10).

Further, Peter, proclaiming the gospel, makes it plain to his fellow Jews and to all others that there is salvation in no other name besides Jesus, no other name in heaven and earth by which we may be saved. We sing it: “None other hiding place from sin and shame, none besides you.”

I’ve used this verse again and again in dealing with people when inviting them to make a response to the gospel. “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Call, call … call on Jesus and you will be saved.