February 5, 2022 - 3rd Commandment

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Today we’re going to look at the 3rd Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” or “for an empty reason.” God’s word here addresses not only the trashing of God’s name or the profaning of what is holy, but our use of language in general. What comes out of our mouth reveals the condition of our heart.


A man purchased a parrot which had picked up a vocabulary of obscene words. After being embarrassed several times by the parrot, the man throws the parrot in his freezer for half an hour. Then he asks the parrot, “Are you going to use language like that again?” And the parrot says, “No! I promise!” But before too long, the parrot falls back into using obscenities. So the man throws the parrot back into the freezer for an hour and a half. Then he pulls it out and ask, “Now, are you going to quit using that kind of language, or am I going to have to do this again?” Covered with ice crystals, shivering and gasping for breath, the parrot says, “No! Please! I’ll never do it again! I just have one question. What word did that chicken in there say?”


Jesus says in Matthew 12:34, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Jesus teaches that what comes out of our mouths comes from the very core of our being. Words are an expression of our character. Our choice of words speaks volumes as to who we are. Every careless word we speak opens a window into the basement of our soul. That’s why God sets aside 1 commandment to talk about our use of language.


Words are far more than hot air. Words are more than sounds. They are more than strokes printed on a page. Words can change reality. Words can alter the course of history. Without words, civilization as we know it would grind to a halt. We would all be reduced to the level of grunts and shrugs. Language was a giant leap forward on the ladder of human progress.


Words have the power to inspire, the power to enlighten, the power to comfort, the power to wound, the power to build up, the power to deceive. Words have the power to help, hurt, or heal. Words can build or destroy careers. Once spoken, we cannot take them back.


God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In other words, you shall not call on God’s name for nothing. The 3rd commandment deals with the issue of verbal profanity. Profanity means to treat what is sacred with abuse. We must not abuse God’s holy name by using it for a worthless, trivial, or downright unholy purpose. God says, “That’s my name – don’t wear it out!”


God’s name is to be treated with the utmost awe and reverence. What did Jesus say about the name of God in the Lord’s Prayer? “Hallowed be thy name!” Back in the Late Bronze Age, the name of God was classified information. That’s why it was such a privilege for Israel to be on a first-name basis with God. God’s name was considered too sacred to speak out loud except on the most solemn occasions. God’s name was so top secret, the Jews eventually forgot how to pronounce it. They would substitute the word Adonai or “Lord” to avoid pronouncing it.


Would that we had the same respect for the sacred name of God! We must not empty God’s name of its meaning by wearing it out, by using that name as a cuss word, by using it as a cheap or careless exclamation. God’s name is sacred.


Think what happens when an obscene word is used too many times. A 4-letter word is a powerful symbol. It has shock value. It is designed to send a provocative message. But when you use an unprintable word over and over again, it loses its power to provoke. So it is with the name of God if we overuse it. The same is true for the name of Jesus. To use that name that is above all other names in a careless way is to drag that name through the mud.


Language about God is serious business. To curse the name of God or blaspheme that name was a capital crime in the OT. To swear by God’s name is also a serious act, not to be done frivolously or falsely. If we swear to God, we are calling on God to punish us if we do not mean what we say. Marriage vows – baptismal vows – ordination vows – are all promises to God, and God considers them binding. We need to avoid carelessly using the name of God to back up our claims or promises, particularly if they are false.


The term profanity also includes the abuse of the English words “damn” and “hell.” Both of these are top sacred words. One of these words means eternal condemnation. The other word means the ultimate place of punishment. These words become profanity when they are used in unholy ways. I will not use either word carelessly to blow off steam. I use the word hell quite regularly, but only to emphasize my belief that hell is a real place. Some say “hell” all the time, but don’t believe the place is real. Likewise, damnation is a frightful reality. If you do not solemnly mean what these words mean, you’d better not profane those words by saying them.


Abusing God’s name is profanity. But what does the Bible say about obscenity (an area not covered in the 3rd commandment)? Obscenity is the use of what is considered foul language, as defined by the human culture where the offense takes place. There is no official George Carlin list of forbidden words. There are very few words on anyone’s list that everyone considers to be indecent or obscene. What exactly is obscene language is in the mind of each listener. The list of such words varies from person to person, and even changes over time. Words from Old English become more or less shocking than they used to be. Even the old King James Version uses as least two words that are still on my list of words I won’t say, while one standard racial slur has gone from printable to unprintable in my lifetime.


God has not told us what a dirty word is. What has said is found in the NT. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is constructive” (the KJV says “edifying”). Colossians 3:8 tells us to put away slander and “foul talk” from our mouths. Paul uses the Greek term aischrologia (shameful language) in this verse. In Ephesians 5:4, he uses aischrotes (indecency), plus he tells us to avoid (literally) “moron-talk” plus eutrapelia, a word that has been translated “coarse jesting” (NKJV), “coarse joking” (NIV), and “vulgar talk” (NRSV), but may also be translated “buffoonery” or even simply “wittiness,” as Aristotle uses the term to mean. It would appear that whether eutrapelia is bad or not all depends ultimately on where and how the word was used.


Unfortunately, we do not have a list of the words that Paul considered to be shameful. And if we did, it would be in Greek anyway. When I wrote my book What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?, I stated that ancient writers have given us no such list. While technically that statement may still be true, today I would say there is evidence from which we can piece together such a list. A superb resource on the subject is Jeremy Hiltin’s dissertation, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment. There are certain Greek words that tend to be found only in the Old Comedy texts, in risqué authors such as Aristophanes and Lucian, and in graffiti such as we find at Pompeii. They had every one of our obscene words.


Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and most Greek writers after 400 BC tend to avoid such words. By contrast, Roman comics in NT times were fairly obscene even by Roman standards. Plato would have banned aischrologia entirely in his ideal Republic, because of its effects on those who hear it. Aristotle (like Jesus!) was more concerned about what such language revealed about the heart of the speaker. Cicero argued that there is nothing inherently evil in the sounds themselves. Nor can the evil be in the objects or actions spoken of, because there are other words that can be used for the same actions or objects; obscenity, he says, is “nowhere” (except maybe in our minds). Quintilian concurs: “no word is shocking (turpis) in itself…if the thing meant is disgusting, it comes to be understood by whatever name it is called.”


Hultin (page 11) observes, “Greeks and Romans did not generally use obscene words to fill out speech,” nor “in response to a sudden shock.” If one of the ancients banged their foot on a rock, they would pronounce a divine curse on it.


Incidentally, we are told that at Athens, there was indeed a list of forbidden expressions, but these were not what we would consider crude language. Rather, these were slanders such as “shield-thrower” (coward) or “father-killer,” which were viewed as horrible names for which the speaker who used the insult could be punished in court.


What about the Christian approach to obscene language? In DidachÄ“ 3:3 (around 95 AD), it is argued that aischrologia leads to adultery. Likewise, popular preacher John Chrysostom (around 400 AD) declares that aischrologia and eutrapelia are the “chariot of fornication.” His point: Suggestive language suggests a behavior.


Writing around 200 AD, in Book 2 of his book Christ the Educator, Clement of Alexandria has a chapter on aischrologia. He writes, “We ourselves must steer completely clear of all aischrologia, and those who resort to it we must silence with a sharp look, or by turning our face away, or by what is called a grunt of disgust, or by some pointed remark.” Clement quotes Jesus: “The things that come out of the mouth defile a person.” Avoiding indecent language, says Clement, will prevent it from penetrating and injuring the soul. “If he who merely calls his brother a fool is liable to judgment, what sentence should be passed upon obscene conversation?” “It is imperative, then, that we neither listen to nor look at nor talk about obscene things. And it is even more imperative that we keep free of every immodest action, exposing or laying bare any parts of our body improperly, or looking at its private parts.”


Clement teaches that Christ “has forbidden the overly free use of certain terms.” He says, “we have shown that it is not the terms, or the sexual organs, or the marriage act, to which names not in common use describing intercourse are affixed, that we should consider obscene…It is only the unlawful use of these organs that is improper…In the same way, writings that treat of evil deeds must be considered aischrologia, such as the description of adultery or pederasty or similar things.” Here Clement concurs with pagan writers such as Isocrates, who says: “Things that are shameful to do, do not consider these things to be OK (kalon) to speak.” Similarly, Pseudo-Aristotle: “Guard against even speaking shameful deeds with shameful names.” Pseudo-Plutarch likewise argues that a word is only a shadow of a deed.


What shall we conclude for our Christian behavior today? Ephesians 4:29 frames the issue well: “Let no rotten/putrid (sapros) word come out of your mouths, but only what is good for a constructive purpose, so that the word may give grace to those who hear.” Words send signals to those around us. Obscenity is designed to jab like a knife. Used too much, and such language may cease to shock others, but will continue its corrosive effect on how we are heard by others. And sometimes, such as when people use the word for what a soda straw or vacuum cleaner does, we may have no idea whom we are offending.


We all know instinctively that certain words are painfully offensive. They communicate far more than their face value. And that’s exactly why God wants us to avoid them. Our language should express purity of heart and good will. Words can be constructive or destructive. We demonstrate the depth or shallowness of our faith, in part, by our use of language. Remember what Jesus says: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” And even if we can keep our mouth shut, we still may need to change what our hearts are full of.


Jesus says that someday, we will be held responsible for every careless word we utter: “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)  God sees every slip of the tongue we make. God observes every insult, records every secret we blab, catalogs every time we misrepresent the truth, witnesses every case of character assassination, takes not of every promise, and remembers every time we profane or abuse the name of God or Christ by dragging it through the mud. Jesus says in Luke 12:2 that what we have whispered in private shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. It’ll be broadcast on the evening news for all to hear. “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”


God does not laugh off the abuse of God’s name. The Good News is that Jesus Christ can erase that tape of incriminating evidence on us. Only Christ can wipe away all that we have ever said or done wrong. All we can do is place our faith in what Christ has done for us.


Friends, the Good News is that not only can we be forgiven, but we can also be different. We can replace our profanity with praise. We can begin to treat the names of God and of Christ with such love and such reverence that we would never dream of dragging them through the mud. And if our hearts are already full of the foul language we have been exposed to, we can avoid feeding ourselves more of the same through what we watch and what we listen to.


The best way to break the habit of speaking “French” is to quit piping it into our brain. Paul writes in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” Paul tells the Colossians, instead of filthy talk, let there be thanksgiving.


“The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” A constant flood of obscenities out of someone’s mouth should be a warning about the condition of their heart. Happiness comes from a healthy heart, a heart that has no need to use the name of God for a cuss word, a heart that has no need to spew out words that drag people down. Love for God will lead us to treat God’s name with awe, with respect; to treat that name as holy. “That’s my name!” God says. “By all means don’t wear it out!”


Before we leave the subject of abusive language, what about Philippians 3:8, where Paul says he counts everything as “dung” for the sake of Christ? Did the word that Paul uses for “dung” really stink? The Greek word Paul uses is the word skubala, a word found only once in the NT. The question is whether skubala means “dung,” or does it mean something like “rubbish” or “garbage”? If you’d like to examine the actual evidence as to how this word was used in Greek, search online for my article “Count It All Dung!”


Skubalon is one of those broad words that can mean either dung or garbage. Even King James English words like “dung” or “manure” do not always refer to intestinal solid waste. Perhaps Paul used this particular Greek word to say what he wanted to say because its range of meaning was similar to this old English word.


We cannot be sure exactly what meaning Paul had in mind when he says he counts all things like dung, so that he may gain Christ. Paul is not using an obscene word (it was a proper word that was used by medical doctors), but it was strong language nevertheless, simply based on what the word means. And the range of meaning for the word he uses should lead us to reexamine how we regard all those values and obsessions of ours which Paul literally “trashes.”


Compared with the value of knowing Christ, everything else to which we devote our lives is “dung.” Do we truly believe that? And do we live like we believe it? To what extent are we like the starving besieged people of Jerusalem in 70 AD, digging through sewers and dungpiles for anything to satisfy our souls? Can we truly believe and live, controlled by the knowledge that compared to Christ, all of the rest is garbage, junk, or even (as King James renders it) dung?


While we’re treating God’s sacred name as holy, God also wants us to treat one special day every week as holy. Why God wants us to do that, and exactly how do we do that, we’ll talk about next time on Biblical Words and World.