This picture illustrates the story of when Peter denied Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). While Jesus was on trial at the high priest’s house, Peter waited outside with some servants and soldiers, hoping to hear news of what was going on. Three times, people recognized Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Three times, Peter denied knowing Jesus. The third time, Peter lost his temper. “Then he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’” (Matthew 26:74).
Peter’s denial of Jesus was a serious sin by itself. But by cursing and swearing, to strengthen his lie, Peter sinned against the Second Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). According to Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, this means: “We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name…” Basically, when we use God’s name lightly, or for any dishonest or evil purpose, we are denying Christ.
We are to treat the name of God as a special, holy thing, because we fear and love God. It is frightening to be faced with God’s all-creating power. But at the same time, His forgiving, saving love is more precious than any treasure. Because we fear and love God, we want His very name to be honored, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy name” (Matthew 6:9). So His Second Commandment reminds us to take God’s name seriously, to use it honestly, and not to make a mockery of it – which would be to deny Christ!
CALL UPON HIS NAME!
This does not mean we are never to use God’s name. Luther says we should “call upon [God’s name] in the day of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks” (Small Catechism). God wants us to use His name, to speak to Him in prayer and worship. He even commands us to baptize and teach in His name (Matthew 28:19-20). But calling on God in a meaningless or disrespectful way is like tempting God not to listen when we call on Him. “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:16).
Those who teach false doctrine in Jesus’ name also take God's name in vain. To claim to teach God’s Word is basically to swear: “As God is my witness, this is the truth.” Calling God to bear witness to teachings that are not from God is a dangerous business. Jesus, quoting Isaiah 29:13, warns those who tamper with God’s Word: “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” And James writes, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
Jesus warned Peter that he would deny Him before a rooster crowed three times (Matthew 26:34). After Peter cursed and swore that he did not know Jesus, the rooster crowed for the third time. “And Peter remembered the word of Jesus…so he went out and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). All of us should weep bitterly like Peter when we realize that we have sinned against the Second Commandment. We have taken God’s name more lightly than we should. We have cursed (damned) and sworn without good reason.
But there is good news! Jesus forgave Peter. After His resurrection, Jesus welcomed Peter back (see John 21:15-19). And in spite of Peter’s sins and errors, Jesus called Him and sent Him to proclaim His name (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47). God sends ministers, like Peter, to declare His forgiveness to us: forgiveness won by Jesus’ death on the cross; forgiveness sworn to us in Jesus’ name (John 20:22-23). Because of this forgiveness, we have a right to call on God’s name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving!
IMAGE: Duccio (di Buoninsegna) (c.1260-1319). Christ before the high priest Annas (top); the denial of Peter (below). Panel from the back of the Maesta altarpiece. Location: Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana, Siena, Italy. Photo Credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY