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What Does Vain Mean?

I want to start this study today with a question. This is not a specific question about a verse in the Bible, but more a general question about how you read the bible in general. The question is this, when you come across something in the bible that you already have an idea about, what do you do? Do you dig into the text and seek to gain a deeper understanding? Or do you skip over the things that you think you already understand and leave them behind? This may seem like a strange comparison. You might ask, what would be the point of digging into things that you already understand? The point is twofold. First is to make sure that our understanding of things is indeed scriptural. There are many things in our cultural understanding of scripture that are not actually scriptural and many others that are half-truths. The second is that the scripture is an inexhaustible resource. We can never mine all the good that God has given to us in the scripture in this life. The deeper we dig into one place, the more it reveals about another place. Our focus for today will be on the first point. We have a cultural understanding of the third commandment, but is that understanding what the commandment itself communicates?

Question #99

The third commandment is most often quoted as saying, "You shall not take the Lord's name in vain." Like most of the commandments, the way we normally quote them is a shortened version of the commandment. In a general sense, there is nothing wrong with this, but for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding, we need to look at the whole command. Exodus 20:7 says, "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." The second part of the commandment is a warning that gives a greater gravity and weight to the first part. It tells us the first part is important. So what does it mean to take the Lord's name in vain? Or, as the catechism asks, "What is required in the third commandment?" It gives the answer;

We are not to blaspheme or to abuse the Name of God by cursing,[1] perjury,[2] or unnecessary oaths,[3] nor to share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders.[4] In short, we must use the holy Name of God only with fear and reverence,[5] so that we may rightly confess Him,[6] call upon Him,[7] and praise Him in all our words and works.[8]

The first part of the answer is where most people stop. Over the years, the most common way I have heard people talk about the third commandment is by talking about cursing. And this is a good thing. We should not use God's name as a curse word or in an empty way. We should not use Jesus Christ as an expletive when we are surprised or upset. This is absolutely something that the third commandment deals with. But this is not all that the commandment deals with. One place I find particularly good in the catechism is that it talks about being a silent bystander.

More than Cursing

This is something that is important for us who call ourselves Christians need to understand. We bear the name of Christ. We call ourselves by his name. And how we act under that name is important. That is what is being communicated here. Our actions affect our name. I remember when I first joined the Navy, one of my drill instructors had this thing that he would say over and over. He would come into the room and tell us all to look down at our chest. He would tell us to look right and left and to notice the two names written there. On one side was our family name, and on the other side was the name of the U.S. Navy. He would then say when we went out, if that was to a ship or just out to the store, we were representatives of both our family and our country. The same idea fits here. If we claim the name of Christ and do things, we are representing Christ. We represent him both in the things we do and the things we approve of by our silence.

The Meaning of Vain

The idea of representation brings us back to the question in the title, what does vain mean? The Oxford Dictionary gives two definitions. First is "having or showing an excessively high opinion of one's appearance, abilities, or worth." And second, "producing no result; useless." Both can be said simply by saying that vanity is the idea of emptiness. When we have an excessively high opinion of ourselves, it is an empty opinion. It is a belief without substance. When we do something in vain, it is something that produces nothing. It is work that is empty. To bring it back to the commandment, we can see how this fits. The command is not to use God's name in an empty way. In a way that he has not commanded. In a way that does not bring him glory. There are so many ways that the commandment comes into play when we think about it this way. Things like calling our business a Christian business but not doing anything to promote Christ. Like calling ourselves and our household Christian without doing anything the Bible says makes someone Christian. Do you represent the name of Christ in an empty way?


The third commandment is probably one of the most often broken without us thinking about it. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we do not worship God alone as we should. We can admit that we often make idols out of the things around us, such as money or sports. But do we also consider those things going against the third commandment? When we give worship to things that are not God, we worship in an empty way. When we call ourselves Christians and give greater priority to worldly things than to the things of God, we use the name of Christ in an empty way. My goal here is not condemnation but to make you think about how you represent the name of God in everything you do. Do you obey what he has commanded, seeking to represent the Lord as he has made Himself known in his word, or do you use the name of Christian as an empty title? I make an empty claim if I claim to be a Christian but do not do what the Scripture says. Since we all fall short in this, the distinction between vanity and truth is humility and diligence. Do I know my failings, repent before the Lord, and seek more and more every day to obey all he commands?

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Lev. 24:10-17. [2] Lev. 19:12 [3] Matt. 5:37; James 5:12. [4] Lev. 5:1; Prov. 29:24. [5] Ps. 99:1-5; Is. 45:23; Jer. 4:2. [6] Matt. 10:32, 33; Rom. 10:9, 10. [7] Ps. 50:14, 15; I Tim. 2:8. [8] Rom. 2:24; Col. 3:17; I Tim. 6:1.

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