The Wheel of Religion
Dr. Jim Denison
“Wheel of Fortune” is one of America’s favorite game shows, and the simplest. You merely guess the words or phrases behind blank squares. If it’s your turn and you guess the words, you win.
Of all our game shows, this is the one the ancient Jews would most likely have understood. “The Dating Game?” “Jeopardy?” Not likely. But a show about words? Absolutely.
They were fascinated with words, even to the point of veneration. They knew the power of words—once spoken, they can never be taken back; they have the ability to injure, to bless, to condemn, or to save.
And they knew that no word is as powerful as the name of God. I want to show you why that’s so, how we’ve lost that power in our culture, and why getting it back is so important to our souls.
Know the name of God
You shall not, the commandment begins.As with last week, “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.
The 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.
The name of the Lord your God is the central phrase of the 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 means “the One who was, is, and ever shall be.” This name showed that God is eternally the Lord. As C. S. Lewis said, if time is a line on a page, God is the page.
“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. Listen to some examples:
Psalm 8:1: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
Psalm 20:1: “May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”
Psalm 68:4: “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 111:9: “He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name.”
Proverb 18:10: “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”
Malachi 3:16: “A scroll of remembrance was written in [God’s] presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name.”
Matthew 6:9: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Matthew 18:5: “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”
Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
Matthew 28:19: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
John 12:28: “‘Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.'”
John 20:31: “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.”
Acts 4:12: “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 5.41: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”
Acts 9:15-16: “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.'”
Philippians 2:9-11: “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.”
Colossians 3:17: “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.”
Revelation 14:1: “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 19:16: “On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords.'”
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 honor the name of God
The first way we 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 misuse 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.
The third way people break this commandment is to trivialize God. We 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 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.
Billy Graham said, “We take the name of God in vain when we accept it and allow ourselves to be called Christians, but do not live godly lives.”
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” (Matthew 5:16).
Now let’s get personal. Are you keeping the third commandment? Does your language dishonor God? Do you use God to manipulate people? Have you made faith into religious activity without passion for Jesus? Have you put God in a box in your life? Or does your daily life bring honor to the Christ whose name you wear?
With God’s help, we really can glorify Jesus with our lives. Even in the hardest places, it’s possible.
Let me prove it, and I’m done today.
Early in the football season I read a Sports Illustrated article about Kurt Warner, the new starting quarterback of the St. Louis Rams. Warner has an incredible story. Five years ago he was stocking groceries, trying to support his family while hoping for a chance to play professional football. He played in Europe, then the Arena football league in America, and started this season as the third-string quarterback for the Rams. He went on to become the league’s best player.
The Sports Illustrated writer spoke at great length about Warner’s passionate faith in Jesus Christ. And so I’ve prayed for Warner all season, that his life would back up his words under the media scrutiny and glare of the public spotlight. And it has.
In every interview he gave during Super Bowl week he spoke of his gratitude for what Jesus had done with his life. When a Tennessee Titans football player was injured, Warner ran to his side, knelt, and prayed for him. And when his team won the Super Bowl last Sunday evening, on national television he gave all the credit to Jesus.
He kept the third commandment. So can we. And Jesus will be pleased.