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When I was young, my little league team occasionally got together at a pizza buffet after our games. We ate, sipped our Cokes, then begged our parents for quarters to play Pac-Man. When I was a little older, my younger brother and I got a Nintendo with the pinball-themed game Pinbot for Christmas. Beating the high score on Pac-Man or typing my initials (over my brother’s) on the Pinbot leaderboard brought an adrenaline rush. Holding a high score, being on top of a leaderboard, is a place of honor.
In Exodus 20:7, God commands us to put his name at the top of life’s leaderboard. He tells Israel, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” What did keeping this command involve, and what are the implications for today?
Not in Vain
Many think the third commandment just forbids using God’s name as a swear word, so they avoid shouting “Christ!” when they stub their toe or texting “OMG!” to their friends. That’s part of what this command prohibits. If we habitually let “Jesus!” slip off our tongues, we should ask God to help us control them.
But the third commandment is about more than swearing. The Hebrew word translated “in vain” (ESV) or “misuse” (NIV) here is the same used in Ecclesiastes to describe all life as “meaningless” (Eccl. 1:2, NIV). Taking the Lord’s name in vain means using it in an unthinking, careless, or wicked way.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain means using it in an unthinking, careless, or wicked way.
God’s name represents his whole essence and character—all he is and does. So using God’s name flippantly is to treat God himself flippantly. To honor God and his name, we must be intentional with our prayers, not using God’s name as filler—“Oh, Father God, Lord, heavenly Father, Lord”—when thinking of what to say to him (Matt. 6:7). A kid shouldn’t say, “I swear to God” while crossing his fingers behind his back. An adult shouldn’t swear on a Bible in court but lie anyway; this breaks both the third and ninth commands (Ex. 20:16; Lev. 19:12). We must also be wary of using God’s name as a magic word in an attempt to make our wishes and dreams come true (Ezek. 13; Acts 8:9–24).
But with Honor
Even if you aren’t using Jesus’s name as a swear word, to manipulate, or to “cast spells,” the command is still important. The opposite of using God’s name in empty carelessness is to give it the meaningful weight and honor it deserves. The Bible tells Christians to baptize in God’s name (Matt. 28:18–20), to pray “hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9), and to glorify God’s name in all we do and say (Col. 3:17). When we suffer for Christ’s sake, Christians should praise God that we bear his name (1 Pet. 4:16).
What motivates us to give honor to God’s name? Consider this: What if I posted sarcastically on Instagram: “Taylor Swift is OK, I guess . . . if you want to fill your playlist with sad breakup songs.” I’d surely get a reaction. When someone speaks ill of an adored celebrity—whether Taylor, Messi, Drake, or LeBron—people react defensively to protect the star’s big reputation. How much more should we intentionally honor and defend the name of the Lord our God? We have a personal stake in his fame because we’re his people. He rescued us, saved us, and keeps covenant with us.
The Jewish people understand this. When the Hebrew Scriptures are read in a synagogue, many rabbis (throughout history and today) don’t read the name Yahweh aloud. They replace it with Adoni, or “Lord.” Many English translations of the Old Testament do the same. The practice is intended as a way of taking seriously God’s warning that he “will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7).
It may be easier for us to see how a Benedict Arnold, someone who treasonously betrays the honor of his nation, is deserving of bloodguilt, but the Bible is clear the same is true for anyone who dishonors God’s name. If we call ourselves part of God’s people but act in blasphemous ways, this endangers our own souls and those of everyone around us (Lev. 24:10–16).
The bad news is that we’ve all done this. Think about how you’ve used God’s name lightly. As a teacher and author, I must regularly ask, Do I merely use Christ’s name as a signal or to gain a platform? Do my life and prayers give proper weight to Christ’s name? Too often I’m guilty.
Thankfully, there’s a powerful word of forgiveness in Jesus’s name. Misusing God’s name merits guilt, but faith in Jesus’s name wipes that guilt away.
In Acts 3, Peter and John meet a crippled beggar outside the temple. When he looks to them, Peter says, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6, emphasis mine). The man’s healing disturbed onlookers, and Peter had to ask the wild crowd, “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? . . . By faith in the name of Jesus, this man . . . was made strong.” (3:12, 16, NIV).
Misusing God’s name merits unavoidable guilt, but faith in Jesus’s name wipes that guilt away.
Peter makes clear that healing comes to both crippled bodies and broken souls because of Christ’s redemptive work. He tells the crowd, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (3:19, NIV). As Peter later declares to the Jewish authorities, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Jesus says it’s out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). So let’s remember Christ’s great salvation. Let’s put his name at the top of our heart’s leaderboard so we might honor his name with our tongues as well.