The Lord's Name

Reading: Exodus 34.1-9; Matthew 7.21-27
Several years ago the Brisbane Courier-Mail commented on the marriage of two persons with the surnames Lovely and Beloved. What a combination! All surnames have a history. We wonder, however, the history of those two and whether all descendants have happily embraced them.

Most of us have been in the situation where someone's name has slipped our memory, though we can, we believe, "still see his/her face as clear as yesterday". Sometimes we can have an interesting "wrong number" telephone conversation, but there is something missing if it remains anonymous.

Of course, some people know all the right names, but don't really know the people concerned. They are just "name-droppers" - using other people's names to boost their self-image.

In the third commandment, the Lord says to us, "Do not use my name for evil purposes, for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name." (Ex. 20.7)

The Name

To us, a "mere" name is of little consequence - it is the person who matters. In Bible times, however, names were much more closely identified with the person and character that they represented. The name of God spoke very definitely of his Presence, Power and Character. Already, in considering the first commandment, we noted that God had revealed himself to his chosen people Israel by the personal name of Yahweh or Jehovah (Lord), a name that says God has always existed, yet which always reminded them of his love, his revelation, his redemption - and the covenant.

Not Misusing the Name

The expression "in vain" here (in the King James Version) is associated with ideas of "emptiness, worthlessness and deception" - translated "for evil purposes" in Good News. Out of reverence for the name Yahweh, the Jews before the time of Christ had ceased to say this name when the Scriptures were read in public worship. They substituted Adonai, meaning "Lord, Master". But is this what God meant?

The LORD had called his people into a personal relationship with himself (note v. 2). This relationship must be expressed in their worship and in their lives - whatever name-word for God they might end up using.

Of course, it was clear that the Name must not be used in false testimony - nor in magic incantations. But the reference was (and is) much broader than this.

The command certainly excludes the profane or careless use of God's name (so common today) - it is a very serious matter to use God's name and "mean nothing by it". Also excluded is hypocrisy, so strongly condemned by Jesus - the taking of the Name on oneself to claim a relationship with God which is not real. It also excludes the presumptuous use of the name - the claim to do things in the name of God without his authority and blessing.

The command gives a solemn warning - "I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name". Sometimes we may be inclined to take this command as if it is a fairly mechanical matter of not very great consequence. But it is centrally concerned with a living, vital relationship with the Lord. The breakdown of this relationship is very serious.

Hallowing the Name

Of course, Jesus emphasised a positive side to this commandment in the first petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Hallowed be your name" - or, as the Good News Bible puts it, "May your holy name be honoured" (Mt. 6.9).

We need the corrective of the negative command, but have not kept it fully until we are led to positive obedience. The warning against the wrong use of the Name should not lead us to the non-use of the Name but to the right use of it - in sincere prayer and in consistent Christian living.

Jesus makes this clear in his solemn words near the end of the Sermon on the Mount - "Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do. When Judgement Day comes, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord! In your name we spoke God's message, by your name we drove out many demons and performed many miracles!' Then I will say to them, 'I never knew you. Get away from me, you wicked people!' " (Mt. 7.21-23).

The well-known parable of the wise man and the foolish man follows. This emphasises the importance of not only hearing the words of Jesus but doing them. The words "not every one", while a warning against using his name in vain, also clearly imply the necessity of calling him Lord.

Calling on the Name of the Lord

In Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost he quoted from Joel, "And then, whoever calls out to the Lord for help (literally, calls on the name of the Lord) will be saved" (Acts 2.21).

Peter makes clear that this "calling on the name of the Lord" involves both repentance (acknowledgment of sin and turning from it) and faith (trust or dependence on the forgiveness of sins made possible in Jesus Christ).

It is quite clear that, from the earliest Christian times, the divinity of Jesus Christ had been recognised (note other references to this verse in Rom. 10.13 and 1 Cor. 1.2). We note what Peter said about Jesus to the Jewish leaders - "Salvation is to be found through him alone; in all the world there is no one else (literally, no other name) whom God has given who can save us" (Acts 4.12).

We must, then, call on his name and this involves genuine repentance and faith.

Called by his Name

In a number of passages in the Old Testament, God's people are described as being "called by his name". We note, for example, Jer. 14.9, "Surely, Lord, you are with us! We are your people; do not abandon us." Here the words, "We are your people" are literally "We are called by your name". In 2 Chron. 7.14, "my people who are called by my name" are urged to humble themselves and pray.

This claiming of the Lord's name was not always genuine. Yet where it is genuine it speaks of the new relationship with God which belongs to those who have come to Him in repentance and faith. They are born anew (Jn. 3) and as true children of God can approach him as Father (note the Lord's Prayer).

Praying in his Name

Jesus said, "And I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father's glory will be shown through the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it" (Jn 14.13-14). To pray "in Jesus' name" is not meant to be a "correct" way of praying. It is an acknowledgment that Jesus is the only way for us to approach the Father (v. 6). It is not a magic formula that secures God's blessing on our every whim. It is the approach of those who seek to know and to do his will.

We are to pray "in Jesus' name" - coming as God's children and as Christ's servants.

Saying "Lord, Lord"

Yet in all of this there is a solemn warning. God's name is not to be taken lightly. Repentance must lead to actions and a life-style that will show that we have turned from our sins (Lk. 3.8). Faith must demonstrate in good works the purpose for which God has saved us (Eph. 2.8-10). The character of our heavenly Father must be seen in his children (1 Pet. 1.14-16).

In other words, "Lord" must be always be more than a name-word for God - it must express a relationship and a whole attitude of life. Anything less is to take the Lord's name in vain.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 5th October 1997
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
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