The Third Commandment: “I AM is My Name Forever”

Exodus 3:14-15 (text); Leviticus 24:10-16; Romans 2:17-24; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 36
August 12, 2012, Pasig • August 19, 2012, Imus

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As I was preparing this sermon, I recalled an article written by a British reporter in the Philippines in 2006 about the strange ways Filipinos name or nickname their children. Joker and Ace; Jejomar, a combination of Jesus, Joseph and Mary; doorbell nicknames such as Bing, Bong, Ding Dong, Ping, and Ting; Candy, Caramel, Cookie, Peanut and Popcorn for five daughters; and the most bizarre of all—Hitler Manila, who in turn named his sons Himmler and Hess.

What’s in a name? Names are important to people. Surely, if people made fun of your name, you will be offended. In the old days, names defined people. Before Filipinos started naming their children English names, religious names were common. But now Juan turned into John, Jesus to Jesse, Pedro to Peter, and Jaime to Jamie. Even Bayani has become Hero. And who would name their children today Bituin, Dakila, Dalisay, Igme, Lingkod, or Liwanag? In Western nations, last names used to be related to the vocations of ancestors: Smith, Carpenter, Mason, Brewer, Plummer.

Many Biblical names are related to the circumstances at birth or the roles of individuals in God’s salvation plan. Adam means man. Peleg was so named because it was during his time that the land was divided. Abraham means “father of many.” Melchizedek means that he was a king-priest. Isaac was so named because his mother laughed at the impossible idea of having a son at an old age. Esau means hairy, and his other name is Edom because he is red-skinned. Jacob was renamed “Israel” because he wrestled with God. Naomi means pleasant, but because of her bitter tragedies, she wanted to be called Mara. Of course, we all know that Joshua and Jesus mean “Yahweh saves” and Jesus’ other name Immanuel means “God with us.”

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane

"The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane" (1858) by John Quidor (click image to enlarge)

Children, what do you say when you see something gross or disgusting, or taste something that you really don’t like, like ampalaya? Do you say “Yum!” or “Yuck!” or “Yucky!”? Do you know from where that word comes? In 1 Samuel 4, we read about one of the darkest hours in Israel’s history, when the Israelite army was routed by the Philistines during the time of Eli the priest. The defeat cost the lives of Eli’s two sons, and when he heard of it, Eli instantly died. Worse, the ark of the covenant was also captured. And the wife of one of Eli’s sons who were killed was about to give birth. So when she also heard about this terrible news, the birth pains came, and she gave birth to a son, whom she named Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” (v 21). She too died soon after Ichabod was born. So the name Ichabod then became associated with things that are tragic, bad, and later, ugly and disgusting. Ichabod was also later shortened to Icky, which later became Yucky, then Yuck.

Unlike Ichabod’s name which is associated with bad and ugly things, God’s name is a most holy name. God revealed himself in many names to his people, but he has a most holy name par excellence. This name is in our text: “I Am.” The Third Commandment warns us, “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” (Exod 20:7). Because God’s name is so holy, Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 36 and 37 explain many ways in which we are to “hallow” and use his name with fear and reverence. But they also tell us how we profane or blaspheme God’s holy name.

Today, we will study the holy name of God, supported by the biblical teachings of Q&A 99-102 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in our theme I Am is My Name Forever” in three parts:

(1) The Meaning of “I Am
(2) The Holy Use of “I Am
(3) The Unholy Abuse of “I Am

The Tagalog translation of Exodus 3:14-15. Notice that the name of God is written in all caps. In verse 15, the translation shifts from the literal "I AM WHO I AM" to "LORD."

The Tagalog translation of Ex 3:14-15. Notice that the name of God is written in all caps. In verse 15, the translation shifts from the literal "AKO AY ANG AKO NGA (I AM WHO I AM)" to "PANGINOON (LORD)." For the use of ALL CAPS, see, e.g., Psa 99:1-5.

The Meaning of “I Am

What is God’s name? We begin with the familiar story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush at Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai. God called Moses’ attention through the amazing sight of a bush that was burning, but not being consumed. At the burning bush, God commissions Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. He is to go to the people and tell them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.” So Moses asks God, when “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (v 13)

So God answered Moses, “’I Am who I am… Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” Many Christians do not have a grasp on the great significance of God’s name, “I Am.” What kind of name is “I Am”?

Moses and the Burning Bush by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) (click to enlarge)

Moses and the Burning Bush by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) (click to enlarge)

In ancient Hebrew, the term “I Am” is written as four letters YHWH, with no vowels. Of course, the Israelites knew how to pronounce the Hebrew words, even though the vowels are not written. It was only in the medieval period that the vowels were added to the text. How then did YHWH become “Jehovah”? In the early 16t h century, German scholars combined the vowels from Adonai with YHWH, so it was transliterated as “Yahovah,” becoming “Jehovah” in English. But linguists agree that the best pronunciation of the divine name YHWH is not “Jehovah,” but “Yahweh.” So when Jehovah’s Witnesses people come knocking on your door, ask them, “Who is ‘Jehovah’?” because there is no such name in the Bible.

What then does “Yahweh” mean? The word is related to the Hebrew root for “to be,” and this is why it is translated “I Am” (v 14). “Yahweh” thus means “I Am.” It is the holiest name for God in the Old Testament, so the Jews do not even pronounce the word, but read it as “Adonai,” the word for “Lord.” Although God first revealed himself as Yahweh here, he was already known by this name earlier. In Genesis 17:1, we read, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord [Yahweh] appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I Am God Almighty.’” In Genesis 28:13, Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven, God appeared to him and said, I Am the Lord [Yahweh], the God of Abraham your father.”

So Yahweh is God’s name as he revealed himself to his covenant people, namely, Abraham, Jacob and Moses. He is therefore personal and has a real relationship with his people. Because his name “I Am” is always in the present tense, it means he is the same in the past, present and future. That is, he is unchangeable from eternity to eternity, just as Moses says in Psalm 90:2, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

Because he is the “I Am,” he knows the end from the beginning. This is why he never changes his mind, and there is no shadow of change in him (Jas 1:17). And he does not need anything or anyone; in fact, he exists in himself. He is the complete opposite of his creation: we are completely dependent on his Providence.

It is this unchangeableness that is a great comfort to his people, because it means he keeps his word and fulfills his promises. All that he promised in his covenants with Abraham, Moses, David and with his Son Jesus Christ will be fulfilled because “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). When he says you were predestined, you were called, and you were sanctified, he means it. When he says your sufferings are nothing compared to the glory that awaits you, he guarantees it. When he promises he will be with you till the end of the age, he will fulfill it.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the name “I Am” seven times, the first time being, “I Am the bread of life” (John 6:35). The other ones are: I Am the light of the world”; “I Am the door”; “I Am the good shepherd”; “I Am the resurrection and the life”; “I Am the way, the truth, and the life”; and, I Am the true vine.” The Greek construction of this phrase puts the emphasis on the “I,” so when literally translated, it reads, “I, I myself, am.” In Greek, this is a very rare word order. Even the Greek translation of our text in Exodus 3:14 uses this same construction. In this manner, the Apostle John is writing what Jesus is declaring, “I Am Yahweh. I Am God.” This is why the Athanasian Creed states, “So likewise the Father is I Am, the Son I Am, and the Holy Spirit I Am; and yet they are not three I Am‘s, but one I Am,” if “I Am” is substituted for “Lord.”

This means only one thing: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the Almighty, the Providence, and the unchanging “I Am” or Yahweh. His name is to be hallowed with fear and reverence.

The Holy Use of “I Am
In our day, the use of the Lord’s Prayer has disappeared. Most Christians don’t even know how to recite it. In the Heidelberg Catechism, we read that there are six petitions in this model prayer taught by our Lord, and the first one is, “Hallowed be Thy name,” or, “Let your name be kept holy,” or “Let your name be treated with reverence.” We pray that God’s name be treated with the highest honor, and as distinct from all other creatures.

How is God’s name hallowed? The second part of Q&A 99 of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us how we are to treat God’s name: “that we use the holy name of God in no other way than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.”

First, we are to fear and reverence his name. Our call to worship enjoins God’s people to praise God who is the King of righteousness and justice, “Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!” (Psa 99:5) “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear” (Isa 8:13). Isaiah tells us about one reason why Israel must honor God’s name. The first is the blessing of many children, “For when he sees his children… they will sanctify my name… the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Isa 29:23). Mary praises God because “he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).

Second, we honor the “I Am” when we publicly and rightly confess him with our mouths. Jesus says he will honor “everyone who acknowledges me before men” (Matt 10:32). Paul says that saving faith in Christ is evidenced by “confess[ing] with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9-10). Are you intimidated when our relatives, friends and co-workers ask us what we believe?You shouldn’t, because when they ask you about your Christian faith, you have a great opportunity to bring them to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ.

Third, we are to truly worship him and give him glory because he is holy. “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness” (Psa 29:2). In heaven, the saints and the angels sing a song of praise to glorify God’s name because he is holy, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy” (Rev 15:4).

Fourth, we are to glorify God not only with all our words, but even more, with all our works. Our Lord exhorts us, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).Paul adds, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). Peter exhorts us to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). Since those around us know our confession of faith in Christ, we are to demonstrate to them that we honor and glorify God’s name with our actions and words. If we do not live up to our Christian standards, Paul says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom 2:24).

Hallowing God’s name is required of all his people. But dishonoring and abusing his holy name is found among many of us in our word and deed, whether believer or unbeliever.

The Unholy Abuse of “I Am
We are not to “take God’s name in vain.” What does this mean, and in what ways are we guilty of violating this commandment, even of abusing God’s name?

The Hebrew verb for “take” literally means to “lift up.” So we’re not to ‘lift up’ the name of God “in vain.” “Vain” is the adjective of “vanity,” which also means “empty,” “falsely,” or “worthlessly.” So “to take God’s name in vain” means simply to “lift it up” for an “empty” or “not good” purpose.

The first part of Question 99 tells us: “That we must not by cursing, or by false swearing, nor yet by unnecessary oaths, profane or abuse the name of God; nor even by our silence and connivance be partakers of these horrible sins in others.” How do we abuse God’s name?

First, our mouths are filthy by cursing. By using the name of God in unholy ways. “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (Jas 3:9-10). James says this happens to believers when we curse another person after we bless God in worship. In our ungodly society, the mention of God’s name is frequently done in anger, pain, surprise, excitement, or some other deep emotions. God’s name is even used for cursing. This gracious and merciful God who saves is treated as carelessly as if He is a nothing.

We may think that only unbelievers are guilty of this offense. But there are many common expressions that we as Christians should avoid using. Children, how many times do you see “OMG” in your texts or Facebook or even in conversations? Or even in praying, every breath we take, or to fill in spaces, we say “Lord” or “Father God.” Many people are not even aware that the common expression “What the hec-” is invoking hell as a curse, and that the Fr-word is merely a substitute for the F-word. How about calling God all kinds of names we associate with mere people: “Awesome God” or “Cool” or “Jesus is my homeboy” or Boss or Driver or “Jesus is Rad” or or Revolutionary or Superstar or a Superhero like Batman or Spiderman?

No, to call Jesus as one of these names is a gross violation of the Third Commandment. Because Jesus is the “I Am,” as he tells the unbelieving Pharisees, “Before Abraham was, I Am (John 8:58). Shall lowly creatures like us dishonor and blaspheme the Eternal, Almighty, Thrice-Holy God by attributing to him profane, creaturely names?

How about calling believers or the church “Jesus Freaks,” “The Revolution,” “Elevation,” “Resurgence” or “The Carpenter’s Shed.” An emergent church is called “The Scum of the Earth Church,” with a newsletter called “Rubbish.” Its pastor says he works for this church because he was “hoodwinked by the Holy Spirit” and wrote a book called Pure Scum! This is not a joke. 1 No, the church is none of those things, because we are a Holy Nation, a Royal Priesthood, God’s Treasured Possession, a people for whom the holy “I Am” gave his own life!

Second, we are not to swear by God’s name falsely, commonly called perjury. “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I Am the Lord” (Lev 19:12). “It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deut 6:13). We may swear an oath only by God’s name and only in a godly manner, as in a court, when we swear to ”speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Even when we take our marriage vows, we are to do it only by God’s name, and take it to heart “as long we both shall live.”

So if you deliberately speak falsehood, or are not seriously taking your oath, you are guilty of making light of God, as if he does not even exist as One who punishes guilty liars.

Third, we are not to make unnecessary oaths or vows. An oath involves invoking God’s name, or other names, to guarantee the performance of the vow (see also Num. 30:2). Jesus forbids this kind of oaths, but instead, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:33, 37). Our words and actions should be the guarantee of our vows. Moreover, we are not to make oaths in the name of created things, or anything other than the name of God, because this would be idolatry. We are calling upon someone greater than ourselves to keep us true to our word. Vows may be made in the presence of many witnesses so that these witnesses will help to ensure that the vows will be kept. But ultimately, it is God himself who is the only One greater than us who sees us with our vows. Only the all-knowing and all-powerful, and all-present God ultimately holds us accountable to our vows. Therefore, swearing by a name other than God’s name is attributing God’s perfections—holiness, justice, righteousness, love, mercy—to one who is not.

Fourth, we are not to be silent when God’s name is blasphemed by others. “If anyone… is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity” (Lev 5:1). This is so lacking today among evangelicals, all in the name of peace, unity and niceness. But what if a popular pastor or theologian preaches another gospel or other heresies? He makes the God of Truth a liar! We are not to be silent when the holy “I Am” is blasphemed. Paul did not mince words in naming names (1 Tim 1:20) and calling false teachers “fools” (Gal 3:1, 3), “accursed” (Gal 1:9), and “corrupted in mind” (2 Tim 3:8). He commands us to expose them because in their greed, they use and sell the name of Jesus for accumulating riches, “They must be silenced, since hey are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Tit 1:11; cf 2 Pet 2:3).

Preaching a false gospel is one way of lifting up God’s holy name in vain. And Q&A 100 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that “no sin is greater and more provoking to God than the profaning of His name.” God will not hold us “guiltless” if we lift up his name as empty or false. In the Old Testament, the penalty for violating the Third Commandment, for blaspheming God’s name, is death by stoning (Lev 24:15-16). This is why the Pharisees always wanted to stone Jesus because they thought that he was committing blasphemy by claiming to be God. Those who profane the holy name of the “I Am” by not paying homage and reverence to the Son of God may escape God’s wrath in this age, but certainly not on Judgment Day (Psa 2:12; Rev 19:15).

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the only One who kept his word perfectly. He fulfilled God’s law perfectly. He honored, hallowed and glorified his Father’s name to the letter. He confessed his Father with his mouth at the pain of death. His life is a reflection of God’s holy name, because he himself is the “I Am.”

In the Roman court, Pilate asked him to confess the truth. And Jesus answered that his only purpose in coming to the world is this: ”to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

May you, as those who confess Christ, hallow, honor, reverence and glorify his name in all your words and works.


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