In my years of teaching seminary courses, I often played a game with my students. I said to them, “If you had the opportunity to write a new constitution for the United States of America, a constitution that would include a new bill of rights containing ten declarations, what would you choose for those foundational precepts?” I asked them whether they might want to include a law to safeguard the sanctity of human life or one to protect private property. Then I asked them whether they would consider using one of those ten declarations to mandate that parents be honored or to prohibit coveting.To top it all off, I asked whether any of them would vote for a foundational legal document that included in its top ten laws a mandate protecting the use of the name of God.
You see my point. When God gave such a document, constituted His people as a nation, and created the foundation for a godly society, He included in His top ten commandments a law that regulated the use of His name: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (). The inclusion of this commandment in God’s Old Testament law shows beyond doubt that He places a very high premium on the importance of His people recognizing His name as holy and treating it that way. We see that same premium in the prayer that Jesus gave to His disciples, the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
As we’ve seen, the disciples came to Jesus with a request: “Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus said, “In this manner … pray,” which set the stage for His teaching of a model prayer, an example of the kind of conversation and communion believers should have with God. He then gave them authority to address God in prayer as “Our Father in heaven,” and we looked at the significance of that form of address.
The next words of Jesus’ model prayer are these: “Hallowed be Your name” (). We have a tendency to read these words and to conclude that they are part of the address, that they are simply an acknowledgment of an existing truth. That is, we believe we are saying: “Our Father in heaven, Your name is holy.” But that’s not the format of the prayer. This line of the Lord’s Prayer is not simply an assertion that God’s name is holy. Rather, it’s a petition.
Everyone knows what a petition is—it’s a piece of paper that people pass around for others to sign in hopes that this written evidence of agreement on an issue will induce the government or the ruling body of some association to change the rules of the game. A petition, then, is a request. For this reason, those specific requests Jesus gave His disciples in the Lord’s Prayer are known as the petitions. These are the priorities that Jesus indicated His disciples should ask for in their prayers. And the very first thing that Jesus told them to pray for was that the name of God would be regarded as holy.
What does it mean to say that God is holy? It means that He is different from anything that we experience or find in the material universe, that God the Creator differs from all creatures. The primary way in which God differs from all creatures is that He is uncreated and eternal, whereas each of us is created and finite. We are not eternal but temporal. If nothing else separates the Creator from the creature, it is that high, transcendent element of God’s own being, so marvelous, so majestic that He is worthy of the adoration of every creature.
I can’t emphasize too much how important it is that we grasp that this line of the Lord’s Prayer is not just a part of the address but a petition. We must see this if we are to understand what Jesus is teaching us about prayer. Jesus is not saying, “Father, Your name is holy,” but, “Father, may Your name be hallowed.” That is, He is teaching us to ask that God’s name would be regarded as sacred, that it would be treated with reverence, and that it would be seen as holy. We must see this if we are to pray according to the pattern Jesus set for us.
The Sacredness of God’s Name
I find it striking that when Jesus taught the church how to pray, the first thing He chose to tell us to pray about is that the name of God might be regarded as sacred. Very few people today would list the hallowing of the name of God as a top priority for the supplications of the people of God. It almost seems foreign to our environment to place so much emphasis on proper treatment of a name.
Yet, I am aware that it annoys me when people simply mispronounce my name. I am embarrassed to think I am so vain and proud that it bothers me when people call me “Sprowl” or “Sproll” instead of “Sproul.” When a person calls me “Sprowl,” I’ll say, “You call me Sprowl and I growl, my name is Sproul, it rhymes with soul. It’s soul with ‘pr.’” Do you feel similarly bothered when people mispronounce your name? I suspect you do. Why is that? It’s because they don’t seem to be taking you seriously. It suggests that they don’t even have enough concern for you as a person to get your name right. We somehow feel slighted if our names are forgotten or mispronounced.
Well, God is not sensitive in the sense that He is upset or loses His dignity if someone doesn’t regard Him properly with the pronunciation of His name. But Jesus gives this petition within the context of a set of petitions. The Lord’s Prayer continues like this: “Hallowed be Your Name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (). I’m going to take the liberty to speculate here. I often have wondered whether Jesus, when He set forth the priorities of prayer, had a reason for listing the petitions in the order that He did. First He listed “Hallowed be Your name,” second was “Your kingdom come,” and third was “Your will be done.” Those petitions may be distinguished one from another, but they’re so interconnected that we dare not divorce them from one another. I’m convinced that although we pray for the manifestation and the victory of the kingdom of God, it is futile to hope for the victory of God’s kingdom on this planet until or unless the name of God is regarded as sacred, because God’s kingdom does not come to people who have no respect for Him. Likewise, we pray that the will of God will be done in this world, but God’s will is not done by people who do not regard Him with reverence and with adoration. So the very beginning of godliness, the very beginning of transformation in our lives and in our society, begins with our posture before the character of God.
The Importance of Our Words
I don’t think that anything reveals the state of a person’s soul more clearly than the words that come out of his mouth. I understand that Christians are capable of all kinds of sin, but I can’t understand how a regenerate person could ever use the name of Jesus in a blasphemous way. How can you worship Someone whom you routinely blaspheme? I don’t see how it’s possible.
Before my conversion, I thought nothing of using the name of God or the name of Jesus in a blasphemous manner, as a mode of cursing. But after my conversion, I noticed an almost immediate change in my speech patterns. I couldn’t find it within myself to blaspheme the names of God and Jesus anymore. Why not? Because I was in love. I had a profound affection for Christ and a profound sense of gratitude for God, and suddenly things that had rolled off my lips so easily prior to my conversion just simply would no longer come forth from my mouth. A second thing I noticed was that I had a kind of sensitivity to hearing that kind of language from my friends. I realized that when my friends used the name of God or the name of Jesus in a blasphemous manner, they weren’t thinking about what they were saying. I knew they didn’t start out their day by saying, “Today I’m going to blaspheme God’s name every time I open my mouth.” It was simply a habit they had fallen into, an unconscious mode of expression, just as it had been in my life until that point. So even though the things my friends said bothered me, I could hardly feel judgmental toward them because I’d been just as guilty for speaking in this manner for years.
We have seen a radical change in the standards of what is permitted in terms of linguistic expression in our culture. We see evidence of the change in the movie theaters, where any form of expression is permissible now. There are still standards on broadcast television, certain words and phrases of a graphic nature that are not allowed, although there, too, the standards have been greatly relaxed. I can remember how, thirty years ago, it was not permissible to say the word virgin on national television because that word was considered too sexually suggestive. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
However, I’ve noticed that even though some words and phrases are still forbidden on television, when it comes to the name of God, anything goes. We will not allow explicit erotic language on television, but we will allow blasphemy with regard to the name of God. I once watched a half-hour program and counted fifty-eight instances on that program when the name of God was treated with anything but reverence. This commonplace practice terrifies me, but most people today don’t see it as a concern.
Several years ago, I read a magazine article about a truck driver who had been arrested in Maryland for drunk and disorderly conduct. He was verbally abusive to the arresting officers, so much so that by the time they got him to the magistrate for a hearing on this misdemeanor, they wanted the magistrate to throw the book at him. The magistrate saw that according to the statutes of the state of Maryland, the maximum penalty that he could impose on the truck driver for drunk and disorderly conduct was a fine of $100 and thirty days in jail. However, he also noticed on the law books a prohibition against public blasphemy. So he assigned another thirty days in jail and another $100 fine because, in his verbal abuse of the officers during the time of his arrest, the truck driver had blasphemed the name of God. The magazine in which I read about this incident published an editorial vehemently protesting this outdated, arcane, puritanical law that was still on the books and was still being enforced in our modern and sophisticated culture. The editors were furious that anyone in America in this day and age would be penalized by the law for publicly blaspheming God. I couldn’t help but think that the truck driver should be glad he didn’t live in ancient Israel, because if he had blasphemed the name of God in that culture, it would have cost him not merely thirty days in jail and $100, but his life. We live in a topsy-turvy world, where the values are radically different than the values of the biblical worldview.
If God in the Ten Commandments saw the need to require reverence for His name in the time of the exodus, and if Jesus saw the need to call on His disciples to pray that God’s name would be regarded as holy in the Jewish culture of two thousand years ago, how much more crucial is it that we pray that the name of God would be hallowed in our own time? This petition, “Hallowed be Your name,” should be on our lips every day, indeed every time we hear the name of God or Jesus casually blasphemed.
The Foundational Petition
By placing this as the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was giving it a place of priority. He was saying that a proper attitude toward God’s name is the basis of everything, because how we live before God is determined by our attitude toward Him and our view of who He is. No worship, no adoration, and no obedience can flow from a heart that has no regard for the name of God. There’s a psychological truism here. How is it possible for someone to have a high regard for God, an authentic reverence for God, a genuine fear of God, and at the same time have a frivolous attitude toward the use of the name of God? Jesus says here that the way in which we regard the name of God reveals the state of our hearts with respect to our attitude toward God Himself. A lack of regard for His name reveals more clearly than anything else a lack of regard for Him. So when Jesus says we should pray that God’s name be regarded as holy, He is saying that we should regard Him as holy, and that such a posture of reverence, awe, and respect for God should define everything in our lives.
Before God’s kingdom can come to earth the way it has already come to heaven, and before His will can be done on earth the way it is done right now in heaven, the name of God has to be hallowed. There is no blasphemy in heaven. There is nothing profane in heaven. No one in heaven, seraphim, cherubim, or the spirits of men who have departed to join the assembly on high, ever does anything but the will of God in heaven, and they do it joyously, happily, for His glory. If we would honor Him here on earth, we must begin by regarding His name as holy and treating it that way.