In speaking of his former sinful life prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul shamefully noted some of the atrocities which he, as a person of authority among the Jews, had committed against Christians (Acts 26:9-11). He had imprisoned them, he had participated in putting them to death, and he had punished them often in all the synagogues. These atrocities build up to something even worse: Paul had “compelled them to blaspheme” (26:11).
What was the exact nature of this blasphemy is uncertain. The meaning of “to blaspheme” is “to speak in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates, maligns” (Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich 177-178). As Paul was seeking “to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” it was against Jesus Himself that he was compelling Christians to speak in this disrespectful, demeaning, denigrating, and malign manner. Whether Paul was successful in making any Christians blaspheme is uncertain. The language leaves room for the possibility that they all held “fast the profession of our faith without wavering” (Heb. 10:23). But the language also indicates that Paul used force in his efforts to compel them to blaspheme. This force obviously included the threat of death. Unfortunately, it oftentimes does not require much force at all to compel many professing Christians today to blaspheme the name of the Lord.
All have heard the vain and degrading ways that the name of the Lord has come to be used. “Oh, my God!” is no longer a distressed plea to the Father, but a mere expression of surprise in which the speaker has no thought of God whatsoever to cross his mind. Some claiming Christianity will attach the name of God to a curse word, thus linking to defilement the One who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13). Many mock the holy names of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ by twisting them into such derisive appellations as “Lordy,” “Gosh,” and “Jeez.”
Some may attempt to justify such breaches of reverence on the basis that the speaker “does not mean anything by what he says.” This, dear reader, is the precise problem. To use the name of the Lord without meaning anything is impossible, because the name of the Lord means something. God told Moses: “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations” (Exo. 3:15).
It was by the Lord’s name that He was to be remembered and worshipped. It was not to be a meaningless word applicable to manifold uses. “That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth” (Psa. 83:18). The name of God belongs to God alone—it is not to be given to another person, nor to another person’s situational vocabulary. God Himself said, “I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another” (Isa. 42:8). Yet, some would endeavor to take from the Lord His name and His glory in one fell swoop.
The Lord has never taken such misuse of His name lightly. The third commandment stated, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exo. 20:7). And indeed under the old covenant such blasphemers were not held guiltless. The Lord commanded Moses:
And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death (Lev. 24:16).
Immediately after receiving this instruction, the Israelites carried out this very punishment against a blasphemer (24:11, 23).
Blasphemy did not suddenly become pleasing or acceptable to God under the new covenant. Blasphemy is one of the traits a person completely “puts off” when he “puts on” the new man of Christianity (Col. 3:8). The apostle Paul acknowledged that before his conversion he had been “injurious” and “chief of sinners” when he had been a blasphemer, and in need of mercy (1 Tim. 1:13-15). The book of Revelation does not portray blasphemy as a practice of Christians, but of a “beast” (Roman emperor—13:1, 5-6), of recipients of God’s severe wrath (16:9, 11, 21), and of “the great harlot” (Rome—17:3).
What is it that “compels” a professing Christian to blaspheme? It is not love of the Lord. It is not an understanding of His will conjoined with a strong desire to please Him. But these are the things which compel the true Christian to live the life that he does. While many early Christians were “compelled to blaspheme,” there was a stronger force compelling them not to blaspheme. Many resisted even the threat of death to avoid blaspheming the name of the Lord: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (12:11). Instead of allowing the hot flame of temper or the rolling waves of emotion to compel him to blaspheme, the Christian will allow the worthy name of the Lord to compel him to see it held in the highest regard.
“Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven” (Psa. 148:13).
Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.