So we have a major problem, brothers and sisters: as human beings we love ourselves more than we love anyone or anything else. This self-love lies at the root of everything that has gone wrong in our lives, in our relationships, in our societies. Self-love lies at the root of all shame and fear in this world. And over our last couple of weeks in the Book of Exodus, this problem has really been highlighted strongly to us.
Back in Chapter 19 the people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and the Lord sat down on the top of the mountain, as if on a throne. And then in Chapter 20 the Lord began to speak to the people. He said, “Listen, I love you. I have proven that by rescuing you from Egypt. Now, if we are going to continue in relationship together, we are going to have to make some changes. And the first change is this: “You shall have no other gods before me.” In other words: “You need to learn how to set aside your self-love and learn how to love me instead.”
So there it is: if we want to have a relationship with God, we are going to have to give up self-love, and relearn how to love God above all.
Which is a problem, isn’t it? Because self-love, shame and fear have been woven into who we are as human beings ever since the time of Adam, our first father. So for God to say, “You need to give up self-love,” is almost like saying, “You need to stop being human.” Which is impossible!
The good news is that God also included some Good News in his first commandment: because giving up self-love is impossible for us, God is going to do it on our behalf.
And the way he is going to do it is by making a covenant with his people. Through this covenant, he is officially transferring Israel’s citizenship out of Egypt — out of this harsh, enslaving, competitive world — into his own kingdom of unlimited, unconditional love. Essentially, he is adopting them as his children, and bringing them back into the garden where our first parents lived before everything went wrong.
We could say it like this: God’s covenant changes a person’s identity so that they stop being human. Through the covenant, the people of Israel cease to be the children of Adam, they become the children of God.
And over the last couple of weeks we have discovered that we also have access to this covenant through Jesus Christ.
But of course, even though our transfer back into the garden happens all in a moment, our healing from self-love does not happen all in a moment. It takes some concentrated time in paradise before our spirits learn how to relax and see God clearly once again as our gentle Father. As we learn to see our Heavenly Father more and more clearly, his love for us will inevitably rise up to burn away the shame and fear that keeps our love turned inward upon ourselves.
Which is a wonderful promise!
But then we wanted to know how to participate in this process. Because it is obvious that God expects his people to participate. He expects his people to learn how to love him as he has loved us. So we asked him for some practical tips on how to love him.
And his first practical tip came last week, in the form of his second commandment: “Make no idols. Do not pray to any fellow creature as if they are gods. Instead, come directly to me! You are my children now, and I am your Father. Just come to me directly and ask, and you will receive.”
So that is the first way God wants us to love bim: he wants us to treat him like the good and generous Father that he is. As we learn to do this more and more, we will find ourselves healed of our self-love.
But here, in verse 7, we find that the Lord is not finished speaking. We want some practical tips on how he wants to be loved? We want some more details on what life in his kingdom is supposed to be like? God is happy to provide. So he goes on:
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
…and this seems a bit strange, doesn’t it!
I mean — correct me if I’m wrong here — God is telling his people what changes he expects from them if they want him to live with them. He is outlining the foundational values of his kingdom. These commandments are Israel’s new constitution! The first one was, “You shall have no other gods before me,” which does seem very foundational. The second one was, “You shall not make for yourself any idols,” which also seems very foundational.
But now the third most important commandment in the constitution is, “No swearing”?
This is the first time in history that God has spoken to his gathered people, and the third most important thing he wants to say — more important than “Do not murder,” or “Do not commit adultery,” or, “Do not steal” or “Pay your taxes” — the third most important thing on the list is: “No cussing”?
So that means misusing the name of God — saying things like, “Oh, Gooood!” or “Je-sus Christ!” — is a worse sin, a more fundamental sin, than murder!
No. Not really.
This will take some explaining, I think.
See, our fundamental problem of self-love affects everything in our lives. It even affects how we read God’s law. Because we are creatures dominated by shame and fear, when we read God’s law, our instinct is to minimise it, to make it easier to follow. That way we can protect ourselves from the shame and the fear of failing to keep it.
So, for instance, last week’s commandment was, “Make no idols.” And we noticed that our instinct is to restrict the commandment to physical idols. That way we can pride ourselves on how well we are keeping that commandment. After all: I don’t bow down to any physical object anywhere on this earth. Do you? I didn’t think so. Congratulations!
It was only when Jesus deliberately expanded that commandment to include any kind of manipulative, self-centered attitude toward worship that we realized we really have no hope of keeping the second commandment perfectly.
And that is what happens to this third commandment also: we read “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” and our instinct is to minimise it. We say, “Ah, this means No Swearing!” After a little while, with a little practice, we learn how to stop using any of God’s names as an exclamation point. And then we can pride ourselves on how well we are keeping the third commandment!
But that application of this commandment — the idea that we should not use any of God’s names as exclamations — is really the last and the least possible application. It is possible for a person to never use any of God’s names as swear-words…and still be found guilty for misusing God’s name on Judgement Day.
So…yes, misusing the name of God is a worse sin, a more fundamental sin, than murder or any other sin further down the list. But we will only understand why if we stop minimizing it, go back, and maximise it again to its full, original meaning.
What did God mean when he said, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God?”
In order to understand any sentence, really we need to start by making sure we understand the words in the sentence. So we have ask, first: what does the “name” of the Lord really mean? Then we have to make sure we understand what “misuse” means in relation to “the name of the Lord.”
So: what does “the name of the Lord really mean?
A person’s name is never just a word, it is never just a particular combination of letters; it is a symbol that points to that person’s reputation, that person’s character. So:
When God says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” what he means is, “You shall not misuse the reputation of the Lord your God.”
Okay. Side question: what is the reputation of the Lord?
Well, so far in Exodus we have discovered that he is Holy. That means he is distinct, completely set apart, perfect. And as one expression of his perfection we have discovered that he is the Covenant-Keeping God: he never breaks a promise. And, back at the end of Chapter 15, he introduced himself particularly as “I am the LORD, who heals you.”
And that is just a short list of course. But even based on that short list we could summarize by saying that God has a “good name.”
Okay so far?
All right. Next question: what then does it mean to ”misuse” God’s good reputation, God’s good name?
Well, once this covenant ceremony has been completed, the people of Israel will be God’s children. Which means they will be representatives of God their Father. More specifically, back in Chapter 19, God told them they will be a “kingdom of priests’: the official connecting point between God and the rest of the nations in the world.
Now, priests who represent God are obligated to represent God accurately, right? They are not allowed to tell lies about who their God is!
At a most basic level, that is what this third commandment is saying: “You shall not tell lies about the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who tells lies about him.”
But come on now! Who is going to deliberately lie about God’s good character? Who among God’s people is going to go around saying that God is actually an unholy, covenant-breaking God who is a killer instead of a healer?
No true child of God is going to tell deliberate lies about God’s character, amirite? So as long as we can avoid using God’s name as an exclamation, as long as we describe God accurately with our words, it looks like we can mark this commandment off as completed then, yeah?
…yeah, we already know there has to be more to this commandment than just how we use our words. I’m sure we are all familiar with the proverb that says, “Actions speak louder than words.” So I’m sure we all understand that it is possible for a person tell the truth about God with their words while at the same time misrepresenting God with their actions.
So now we want to know: what actions are forbidden by this commandment?
Well, in Moses’ next book, the Book of Leviticus, God gives this very specific example. He says, “’Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. Why not? Because: I am the Lord.’”
In other words, God is saying, “Look, I am the Covenant-Keeping God. I never break a promise. When you make a promise using my Covenant-Keeping Name, and then you break your promise, you make me look like a Covenant-Breaking God. You misrepresent my reputation. And I will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses my name like that.” So:
One specific action we should avoid is the sin of perjury. Perjury means swearing to tell the truth, and then lying.
Now, usually we think of perjury as something that happens only in a courtroom, but actually it applies to many things in life. For instance: signing a business contract, and then breaking it, is a form of perjury, a way of swearing falsely. And if that person is a child of God, then they actually sign that contract in God’s name. Which means, if they break the contract, then they have broken this third commandment: they have just told the world that God is a contract breaker. They have lied about God’s good name, they have misused the name of the Lord.
Okay. That is useful. But is that all? Is perjury the only action forbidden by this commandment?
Oh…no: there is much more.
For instance, about 1000 years after Moses, a prophet named Jeremiah was looking around at what the nation of Israel had become, and this is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people who come through these gates to worship. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, then I will let you live.
“’But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe” — safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?’”
In other words, God is saying, “Look, I am the LORD, who heals you. But if you refuse to be healed, if you continue to deliberately cheat each other in business, if you continue to oppress refugees and the poor so that they die for the lack of food and shelter and medical care, and then you show up in worship as if everything is okay! — you make it look like I endorse your actions. You make me look like I am also a robber, a killer, instead of a healer. And I will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses my name like that!” So:
In addition to perjury, the other specific actions this commandment forbids is stealing, murder, and adultery. But just in case we are tempted to minimise those sins also, just in case we are tempted to say, “I’ve never cheated on my spouse, I haven’t killed anybody, I am not a thief!” the scripture makes it clear that stealing means refusing to deal with each other justly; murder means refusing to have compassion on the poor; adultery means entering into worship and expecting God to close one eye to all the corruption.
Okay. That is even more useful. But is there still more that can be said?
I’m afraid so.
A few minutes ago we wondered who among God’s people would go around saying false things about God, and we thought surely no true child of God would tell deliberate lies about God’s character!
But it turns out that it is possible to use words to lie about God without directly lying about God.
Here is an example, again from the prophet Jeremiah. He was looking around at the train-wreck the nation of Israel had become, and this is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophecy the delusions of their own minds. They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name. So, let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully.”
In other words, God is saying, “Look, why are you all seeking guidance for your lives from dreaming prophets when my written Word is being preached faithfully to you? When you look for guidance apart from my Word, you are deliberately forgetting my name — my character and my promises — that Moses first wrote down for you a thousand years ago. And when you do that, you are misusing my name.” So:
In addition to perjury, stealing, murder and adultery, the other specific action this commandment forbids is speaking a message — or listening to a message — from God that does not actually come from the Word of God. It is possible for a preacher or a prophet to say, “The Lord is infinitely gracious!” — which is a true statement about God — but then turn that true statement into a lie by saying, “Therefore, he is going to close one eye to your corruption.” If God’s people seek spiritual guidance from anything other than the faithful preaching of God’s Word, they are misusing the name of the Lord. And if God’s preachers offer spiritual guidance from anything other than God’s Word, they are misusing the name of the Lord.
…okay. Useful. Are we done yet, or is there still more?
Well, if you have been worshiping with us over the last few weeks, then you will not be surprised to find out that Jesus himself had quite a bit to say about this commandment. Just as God sat down on Mt. Sinai and taught his people what he expected of their new life together, so also Jesus sat down on a mountain and taught his people what he expected of them: the famous Sermon on the Mount that we find in the Gospel of Matthew.
And because Jesus is God’s Son, all he really did was repeat what his Father once said from the top of Mt. Sinai — but explaining those commandments in much greater detail.
So what did Jesus have to say about this third commandment?
He said, “Look, you are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Jesus is reminding God’s people that they are supposed to be a kingdom of priests, the connecting point between God and the rest of the nations on earth. As such, they must represent God accurately to the world in their words and in their actions.
“So,” Jesus says a little while later, “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ That is a good idea! But I tell you, even better: do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Basically, Jesus is telling God’s people that it is better to never sign a contract than to sign one we lack the power to keep. It is better to say, “Yes, my intention is to accomplish this or that,” or, “No, I am not planning to accomplish this or that,” rather than make guarantees about what we will do. We are not God; only God has the absolute power to say he will do something and then do it. Therefore, in all humility, God’s children need to be very careful not to start making promises as if we are God. As James, Jesus’ younger brother, points out later on in the New Testament, the most we should say is, “If if is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” Anything else is actually boasting — and misusing the name of the Lord.
But that is not all Jesus had to say about the third commandment. Later on in his Sermon on the Mount he said this: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
Just like Jeremiah, Jesus is very concerned about preachers and teachers who really sound like they are saying true things about God…while at the same time twisting those true things into lies. They come along saying, “I had a dream! I had a vision! I have a Word from the Lord for you!” But Jesus says, “Watch out! Pay attention! They will not admit to you that they are false prophets. In fact, in some cases they will not even know they are false prophets. But:
“By their fruit you will recognize them. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
“Let me be very clear about this,” Jesus goes on: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Only the one who produces good fruit in their lives will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
So it really is possible for a person to never use the name of God as a swear-word and still be found guilty of misusing God’s name. It is possible for a person to preach the Lord’s name clearly and still be found guilty of breaking the third commandment — all because they refused to do the will of God, they refused to represent God as he really is: they refused to deal justly in business, they refused to care for the poor, they refused to remain faithful to their wives and families.
“Listen carefully,” Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
So it is even possible for someone to use Jesus’ name to perform amazing healing miracles, and in the end be found guilty of misusing Jesus’ name. Why? Because even though they used the power of Jesus’ name to manipulate the world, they refused to let the power of Jesus’ name manipulate them so that they could set aside their self-love and learn to love God and others instead.
Yes, you heard that right: we have just circled back around to where we started, back to this problem we all have with self-love and the question of how to be healed from it.
What Jesus is telling us, as he explains this third commandment in all its detail, is that — if we want to be healed of our self-love, if we want to be saved from the guilt of misusing God’s name — we must make sure that all of our actions match up perfectly with all of our words about who God is. And we must make sure that all of our words about who God is are taken from God’s Word.
Here is the simplest way to say it: we must not be hypocrites. Our words and actions need to match each other, and match our Father’s words and actions, or we will not be healed, we will be found guilty instead.
So what we are finding is that this third commandment is really yet another expansion of the first commandment, the one that says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The Lord began this covenant ceremony by saying, “You must learn to love me as I have loved you.”
This raised a question: how exactly does God want to be loved?
So last week the second commandment explained that, if we want to learn how to love God, first we need to stop treating creatures as if they are gods, because idolatry is ultimately a selfish habit that sabotages our healing from self-love.
Now, today, the third commandment has explained that, if we want to learn how to love God, then we need to stop treating God as if he is a creature — because hypocrisy is also, ultimately, a selfish habit that sabotages our healing from self-love.
So it makes sense to us now why this commandment is the third commandment, the third most important thing God had to say to his people. We were wondering how misusing the name of God can be worse than murder or adultery or stealing. Now we understand: when a child of God lies, or steals, or even refuses to help the poor, that child of God is misrepresenting God’s name, misusing God’s name.
In other words: breaking any of the other commandments also breaks this commandment. When we murder a human being, we murder God’s name. When we commit adultery against a spouse, we cheat on God’s name. When we steal from another human being — or even fail to give to another human being in need — we rob God of his good name.
So I think we can all see now why it would be wrong to minimise this commandment down to “No swearing.” Yes, using Jesus’ name as an exclamation is a misuse of Jesus’ name — we should not do that. But which of these is worse: to misuse Jesus’ name as an exclamation, or misuse Jesus’ name by refusing to love the poor?
When it comes right down to it, scripture tells us God would rather have generous children with potty-mouths, than children with clean mouths and cold hearts.
But of course, as Jesus says in another place, “You should practice the latter, without neglecting the former.” We should do both: learn to always speak the Name with reverence, and learn to love as generously as our Father’s character demands.
So now we really have a problem, don’t we! If this commandment was only about swearing, we could have some confidence about actually keeping it. But clearly this commandment is about making sure our every action in life reflects proper glory upon God.
And that means…we are not gonna make it, are we!
Can any of us honestly say that we have never perjured ourselves? Can any of us honestly say that we have never promised something and then failed to keep that promise? Can any of us honestly say that we have taken every opportunity to love the poor, the powerless, the foreigner and the refugee? Can any of us honestly say that we have never sought spiritual guidance from people who have no idea how to preach God’s Word faithfully? Brothers and sisters, we are guilty of misusing the name of the Lord our God. And as it says here: the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Is there anything we can do to escape our guilt, the judgement that is coming upon us?
Yes. Our Father has provided for us a way of escape. See, we are born hypocrites, promise-breakers. But through Moses’ writing here, the Father over all creation has introduced himself to his people as the LORD, the Promise-Keeping God. And he has also introduced himself as “the Lord who heals.” This is his character. This is his Name.
So listen, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, if you are perishing under the burden of trying to hide your shame and fear from yourself and from everyone else, if you are tired of living the external lie of self-love when you actually secretly despise yourself, if you have realized that there can be no escape from your self-enslavement except to cease being human…then this is what you must do: stop trying to cover your shame with your good name, because you have none. Instead, put your faith in God’s good Name. Put your faith in the Name of the One who has promised to heal everyone who asks.
Do this: ask Jesus to rescue you from the lies you have built up around yourself like walls, the hypocrisy with which you have imprisoned yourself. Ask, and you will receive. Jesus will hear you and answer you. He will invite you to enter into a covenant with him. All you have to do is say “yes”, and sign your agreement by being baptised. And through that covenant ceremony, you will be officially adopted into God’s family. You will cease to be a child of Adam; you will become a child of God — and from there, your healing will begin. He will dismantle the self-protective walls you have built; the light of his beauty will burn away the darkness that is destroying your humanity.
But now, what about those of us who have already been adopted through baptism? If you are anything like me, you look at your lives and see that you are still misusing the name of God in a thousand different ways. In fact, it has been my experience that, the longer I live as a Christian, the more I see just how guilty I am of misrepresenting the God who adopted me: my guilt actually seems greater now than it did thirty-plus years ago!
And what are we supposed to do about that?
Well, two weeks ago, when the shame and fear of realizing we do not love God as he deserves came to overwhelm us, our Saviour commanded us to remember. Remember that, through his death and resurrection, we are bound in covenant now to the God whose love is unlimited, unconditional, greater than our small fickle love in every way — and his love is more than enough for both of us.
Then, last week, when the guilt of realizing we are still idolaters came to overwhelm us, Jesus again commandus to remember. Remember that, through his covenant with us, God is already our Father, good and generous beyond all comprehension. We often fail to approach him directly as our Father, but he never fails to approach us as his beloved children.
Well, this week our application is the same: remember. Remember that we are bound in covenant now to the Covenant-Keeping God who has promised to heal us of our hypocrisy. The truth of his Name is greater than any lie we can speak or do — and in this truth we find our hope.
But now, here is a question we could ask: if it is true that we are being healed of our hypocrisy, why does my guilt sometimes seem greater now than it did when I first began?
That, brothers and sisters, is actually one of the features of the healing process in this case. The cure for hypocrisy is Truth; the death of darkness is Light. When our Father binds us into covenant with himself, he tears down our self-protective walls, and the light pours in.
But as we have already noticed, healing from self-love does not happen all in a moment. Healing from idolatry does not happen all in a moment. So also, healing from hypocrisy does not happen all in a moment. Our Father is gentle: he dismantles our self-protective lies piece by piece. Sometimes whole sections collapse at once, yes; but very often years will go by while he slowly and carefully undermines some key hypocrisy in our lives.
The overall point is this: as God’s Truth shines ever more deeply into our lives, it reveals secret rooms in our psyche that even we did not know about. The truth is we are not actually more guilty of hypocrisy now than we were at the start, we are just more aware now of what was always there.
And this growing awareness of our sin is actually one of the marks of a maturing Christian. As we learn to trust God’s Truth more and more, he allows us to see more and more clearly the truths about ourselves that his Truth reveals. And the reason he does this is so that we can first: remember the security we have in his covenant; second: let that security give us the courage to confess our hypocrisy; and then, third: repent of it. Start again.
Our practical goal, as the adopted children of our Heavenly Father, is to learn how to love him before all. His practical advice for us last week was: flee from false worship of every kind. His practical advice for us this week is: flee from hypocrisy of every kind.
And in practical terms this means that we, as Christians, must learn to live honest lives before the watching world. Not because we are afraid of God’s judgement if we fail, but because we do not want to give the nations the wrong idea about who our God really is. We want the nations to learn to love God as we do, and that means we need to introduce our Father properly to the nations. And that means living honestly.
Okay. But does our Father have any other, more detailed, practical tips on what an honest, God’s-Name-honouring, non-hypocritical life looks like?
Yes, he does. He has practical tips like this: remember the Sabbath Day. Honour your father and your mother. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not envy. But we are not going to talk about those practical tips today. If you are interested in knowing more about all that, make sure to come back for the next seven weeks or so…
Brothers and sisters, we have a problem. That problem is self-love. But we have this promise that we will be healed of our self-love. And we are being healed: we are learning how to love God more than we love ourselves. Our Father has already lifted us up out of the mud and corruption alongside the rivers of Egypt to the mountain on the far side of the wilderness.
But our journey toward wholeness is not yet complete. So to help guide us along the way, our Father has put two guard-rails in place. On one side: we must not treat creatures like God. And on the other side: we must not treat God as if he is a creature. On the one side: we must flee from idolatry. On the other side: we must flee from hypocrisy. If we deliberately continue to indulge in idolatry on the one side, then false worship will destroy our families, our churches. If we deliberately continue to indulge in hypocrisy on the other side, then misusing God’s name will destroy our priestly witness before the nations.
So let us fix our eyes upon our destination, and go. And when we do bump up against one guard-rail or the other — and we will! — let us thank our Father for that corrective discipline, repent, and let him lead us back into the way we should go. And look: most of us will spend our lives bouncing back and forth between idolatry and hypocrisy as we travel. That is painful. But that is not cause for despair. Receive this comfort now: even the scars of discipline are reminders that we have been bound in covenant to the One who was crushed for our iniquities; and by his wounds we are healed.
But now, closing question: what exactly is our destination? If we have already been lifted up out of the mud and mire and set upon the mountain on the far side of the wilderness, where else do we have to go?
That is a great question. Come back next week, because our Father is going to reveal that to us also.