Ethics of Christian Love: “Integrity with God” (part 4 of 13)

Matthew 5:33-37; Exodus 20:7


Have you ever dealt with someone you could not trust?  I suspect we all have.  You know that awful feeling of having been misled, the feeling of having been used because someone did not tell you the truth or distorted the truth.  To tell the truth, to have integrity, to be in touch with reality, is basic to being emotionally and spiritually healthy.  To be called a liar, or two-faced, is so threatening because if it is true it means one of several very negative things about us.  Either we are deliberately misleading people, or we are too weak to face reality so we make it up as we go (one definition of mental illness), or we are too afraid to face the consequences of our actions.  “You have my word” is a statement intended to back up what we say with who we are.  Our signature on a contract is ‘our word’ in writing.

Yet people do distort the truth, perhaps out of insecurity, maybe a desire to be accepted, or a need to be loved.  People lie for personal gain or to cover up their faults or guilt.  Because of the lack of integrity in so many, people use oaths; although it is clear from the passage we read in Matthew that Christ considered an oath a way for an untrustworthy person to reinforce his word.  No amount of swearing oaths can determine what the truth is.  The honesty of the person is what counts.  Jesus commands, “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

So what has all of this to do with taking God’s name in vain?  In fact, our integrity with God is a key issue in this commandment, but we may need to re-think it.  Sometimes we think about the commandments as if God has some need for us to obey them.  We have sometimes implied that God has a need to be honored, and that he is offended if we swear, using his name.  What I am suggesting to you this morning is that this command does not deal with God’s need, but ours.  God is dealing with our integrity in our relationship with him, or our lack of integrity with God.  This command is about our covenant with God and ways in which we break covenant with him.



In order for us to be clear on this, we need to see a couple steps.  The first one is to begin to understand what the name of God meant in the Jewish culture of the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament a person’s name was very important.  It was intended to reveal who a person was.  They did not distinguish between name and person.  This is a bit foreign to us; although if someone mocks our name we tend to feel it personally.  We generally pick names because they happen to strike a parent’s fancy or because we particularly like aunt Jenny, so we honor her by name our child after her.  Generally a name is merely a public statistic, a designation, a combination of syllables to get a person’s attention.  It was very different.  Jacob meant deceiver, and he lived out that description and became a real con-man.  After he wrestled with God his name was changed to show the life changing even that had happened.  Israel, his new name, meant “one who wrestled with God and won.”  The same is true for Abraham (father of a multitude), and Isaac (laughter for God’s gift).



God gave his name to Israel.  It was a very powerful symbol.  In fact, being able to use the names of God meant that he was present with them.  The name of God created fear, because any misuse meant offending God.  It meant declaring oneself out of relationship with him.  Mostly they just used a series of letters which they did not pronounce – YHWH.  They held the person so close with the name that any use of it was either worship or blasphemy.

An example of this identification happened just a few years ago.  There was a big scandal in Jerusalem over the issue of a new stamp.  The stamp was issued to celebrate a new synagogue, with a picture of the building on it.  It was predicted to become a collectors item because of it’s beauty.  However, someone put the stamp under high magnification and found that the name of God was on one of the windows of the synagogue pictured on the stamp.

For the orthodox Jew to use the stamp would be gross blasphemy.  They could not allow the stamp to be issued because then just everyone would be handling God’s name.  In fact, they couldn’t destroy it either, because that would be offensive.  In the end they decided to put them into a safe and let them disintegrate.  Even though this sounds extreme, it demonstrates our point about God’s name seen as his person.

The Bible uses many names to describe God: Yahweh = the name God used to reveal himself to Moses at the burning bush.  This reveals him as the author of life and salvation.  His “I Am” expresses the fact that he is the infinite and original, personal God who reveals himself in covenant relationship with his people.  Some of the related names that describe God are Jehovah-jireh (The Lord will Provide), and Jehovah-shalom (The Lord is Peace),   There are many more.  El is the general word for God and is used in combination with many words to describe God.  Elohim is the plural, a veiled reference to the Trinity; El Shaddai means God Almighty; and of course there are many other terms that refer to God: for example, Father, Abba, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here is the core teaching: using God’s name is a recognition that they we are in covenant with God, in relationship with God.  The simple use of it is an act of worship.  Taking that name in vain, to treat it lightly, to use it in an oath, to use it as a swear-word, is to declare that one is not in relationship with God.  It is declaring that we are out of covenant with him.  You quickly see that cursing with God’s name is only one part of the total breakdown of a person’s integrity with God.

We begin to see that God did not give this commandment only because he wanted to protect his good name.  He is not a crabby old man who is over sensitive about breaking the rules of protocol.  Rather, this commandment was given by a loving God who is so aware of human need.  This third commandment was not designed to protect the holiness of God, but to promote integrity and covenant faithfulness among his people.

What happens when we lose our integrity with God?  If we look at the history of Israel it meant national disintegration.  God was always calling them back from covenant-breaking practices, from doing what was right in their own eyes.  He was constantly calling them, as he is calling us from saying we are his people while we live from Monday through Saturday as if he is not central in life.  That inconsistency makes the name we use in worship a mockery, like a swear word.  This is hypocrisy that tares away at our self-worth and destroys our witness.  It leaves us spiritually empty.  In Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 we see that it is their lack of integrity with God that draws his anger.

They claim to be God’s people, but prevent others from entering the kingdom of God because of their actions.  Their dishonesty with God has destroyed them on the inside.  They have become empty, selfish, like pretty tombs that look nice and are full of rot and filth.

It would be so much easier this morning just to say that this commandment says, “You shall not curse” and leave it at that.  Then we could simply look down at people who use God’s name to make their point.  It does speak about cursing, and the public declaration that we are out of relationship with God.  More than that, it calls us to look at ourselves, at our integrity, at the honesty with which we use words in the worship service.  Are we faithful in our covenant with God all the time, not just in church?  We are as guilty of breaking this commandment when we worship and then walk out of here without being moved or touched or changed, as when we use his name in a curse.  We have taken the name of God in vain when we speak of our desire to be faithful to our relationship with him,  and turn around and treat other people badly.

This morning we call our covenant God – “LORD.”  We profess subjection to him.  We say, “OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH.”  We call him “FATHER.”  We say we love him.  Yet, if we are honest we have to admit there are times we feel like we lose touch with him.  We project our anger on others.  We get lonely, depressed and anxious.  We pigeon-hole religion so that it becomes relevant only in crisis and on Sunday morning.  All of this using his name in vain leaves us spiritually weak, shattered, uncertain.  We are all left to face the reality that there are times when we have been and are covenant breakers.

God’s reaction to our lack of integrity with him is to ask us to return to him, to confess our sin, and in dependence on him to become what we say we are: his people.  That kind of mercy and loving kindness is the reason we can risk worship.  He is the reason we can risk growing so that we become integrated people, people becoming whole in Christ, people being healed by the Holy Spirit.  The third commandment calls us to keep our relationship, our covenant with God as consistently sacred in all of our lives.