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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Blasphemy: no sin is greater
Text:LD 36 and 37 & Leviticus 24:10-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 3rd Commandment (God's name)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 29

Psalm 111:1,5

Psalm 66:1,2

Hymn 1

Hymn 83

Scripture reading: Leviticus 24:10-16 (the focus of the sermon is on this passage)

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Days 36 and 37

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Did you know that blasphemy is still illegal in some parts of the world?  For example, in Tasmania, it’s in the Criminal Code, section 119.  This is under chapter 13, “Crimes Relating to Religion.”  The law says, “Any person who, by words spoken or intended to be read, wilfully publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of a crime.”  Libel refers to defamation.  The law obviously isn’t enforced and enforcement would only be possible with the written consent of the Attorney-General.  Though there is discussion to abolish it, it’s still on the books. 

Society has changed radically over the last few decades.  It’s now socially acceptable and even expected for people to take God’s Name in vain.  But there is a new form of blasphemy.  It’s now often socially unacceptable to say things like “a woman is an adult human female.”  To say things like that has become the modern equivalent of taking God’s Name in vain.  My wife Rose went to a public high school in Canada for Grades 10-12.  She remembers students being kicked out of class for taking God’s Name in vain.  Recently there was a story about a Roman Catholic high school student who was not only suspended but arrested by the police for saying there are only two genders.  That’s the new blasphemy.

Society changes and the Criminal Code may change, but God’s law never does.  The Third Commandment will always forbid taking God’s Name in vain.  For Christians who have been saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we ought to be determined to honour God instead of blaspheming him.  So this afternoon, we’re going to learn about blasphemy through what God reveals in Leviticus 24:10-16.  We confess in Lord’s Day 36 that no sin is greater than blasphemy and we’ll see how the Bible undergirds that claim.  We’ll see how:

  1. Circumstances don’t excuse it
  2. Listeners are implicated by it
  3. Death was the punishment for it

Our text takes place as the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness.  They had left Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land.  When you read through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, you often find “sojourners” mentioned alongside the Israelites.  For example, sojourners are mentioned in Exodus 20 in the Fourth Commandment.  The sojourner among them was also to rest on the Sabbath.  A sojourner was someone who wasn’t a native Israelite.  Amongst the Israelites there were people of different ethnic backgrounds.  And with some of them, it was because they were married to Israelites.

So it happened that there was a woman named Shelomith from the tribe of Dan who was married to an Egyptian man.  Together they had a son.  Because his father was an Egyptian, this son wasn’t regarded as a full Israelite.  He got into a fight with a man who was a full Israelite.  We don’t know what the fight was about and there’s no point in speculating.  What is clear is that during the fight words were spoken.

And those words were blasphemous.  Verse 11 says that he “blasphemed the Name and cursed.”  The word that’s used there in the original Hebrew for “blasphemed” actually means something like “attacked.”  He defamed God.  When we hear the word “blasphemy,” we usually think of the common forms we hear around us in the world.  But in this case, the blasphemer actually attacked God’s Name.  He would have said something to the effect that God is worthless, useless, and powerless.  A good comparison would be what happened in 2 Chronicles 32 with Sennacherib, the king of Assyria.  As he besieged Jerusalem, he blasphemed God’s Name by saying that he was powerless to help the Jews.  In the ancient world, attacking someone’s god with words was seen as a way to not only demoralize your enemy, but also to weaken them.  In this case in Leviticus 24, God’s Name was attacked so the blasphemer could win the fight.  He abused God’s Name to try and make his enemy weak.

There were bystanders who heard it.  Our Catechism says we shouldn’t share in this horrible sin by being silent bystanders.  These people weren’t silent.  They brought the blasphemer to Moses to determine what should be done with him – they knew he’d done wrong, but they didn’t know what to do about it.  And neither did Moses at that moment.  So the blasphemer was put in custody until God would reveal what he wanted done. 

At some point God made it clear.  The blasphemer was to be punished with death.  This was a serious sin against God, an attack on his glory.  Therefore it had to be punished with the most severe penalty. 

And the circumstances surrounding this do not mitigate.  In our legal system, there are circumstances that come into play when considering sentencing.  There are mitigating circumstances which can lead to a lighter penalty and there are aggravating circumstances which can lead to a heavier penalty.  That whole idea is based on biblical teaching.  For example, God makes a distinction between sins committed willfully, with “an uplifted hand” and those sins which are committed in ignorance.  Ignorance is a mitigating circumstance, wilfulness is an aggravating circumstance.  But when it comes to this blasphemy here, there are no mitigating circumstances.

You might think he should get some leniency because he came from a mixed marriage.  But no, God says that doesn’t mitigate.  His mother should have, could have and perhaps did tell him about the holiness of Israel’s God, the one and only true God.  Even if she didn’t, he could have picked that up from being in the midst of Israel.  He could have known that God isn’t to be trifled with.  So later, in verse 16, God says that the sojourner as well as the native will be held to account if he or she blasphemes God’s Name.

You might think there should be some leniency because the blasphemy happened during a fight.  But no, God says that doesn’t mitigate either.  Fight or no fight, he shouldn’t have dishonoured God by abusing his Name and attacking his majesty.   

Loved ones, this episode teaches us that there’s no circumstance in which it’s okay to take God’s Name in vain.  You can’t be excused for doing it to fit in with unbelievers.  You can’t be excused because you grew up in a home where it was commonly done.  You can’t be excused because you hear other people doing it all the time and it just slips out.  Misusing God’s Name is always a serious matter, always a serious sin. 

It is a sin for which Christ died.  Christ died for blasphemers.  In 1 Timothy 1, Paul speaks of how he was formerly a blaspheming sinner, but “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…”  If you’ve ever abused God’s Name, there’s forgiveness through the blood that was shed on the cross.  You can be cleared of this sin through Jesus. 

But then also look at this sin as a sin which nailed Jesus to the cross.  If you love Jesus, then hate this sin.  Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to hate it and fight against it in your life and also in the lives of others around you.     

We’ve already seen that the Israelites who heard the blasphemy in Leviticus 24 did something about it.  But there’s another detail regarding them that we need to see in verse 14.  If you look with me at verse 14, notice how it says that those who heard him were to lay their hands on his head.  What does this mean?

In Leviticus 16, we read about the scapegoat.  The term “scapegoat” comes from this goat in Leviticus 16 that was sent out into the wilderness.  Before it was sent out, Aaron ceremonially placed the sins of the people upon it.  He did that by laying his hands upon the head of the goat.  That act indicated the transferring of guilt from the people to the goat, which then carried that guilt out into the wilderness, never to be seen again. 

The same thing is happening in Leviticus 24 in verse 14.  The people who heard the blasphemy were defiled by it.  Those awful words came into their ears and rested in their minds.  Perhaps you can relate.  You hear someone blaspheming all day long and it can ring in your ears.  It hurts.  It makes you feel guilty for just having heard it.

But God provided a way to get rid of that guilt.   They were to place their hands on the head of the blasphemer.  He would take their guilt from them.  He would bear the guilt from having them hear that blasphemy and having it echo in their minds.  The listeners were implicated in the blasphemy, but they were also then liberated from it. 

You see, one of the awful things about blasphemy is the way that it impacts others.  We hear someone else blaspheming, maybe on the TV or in a song, and it makes us feel guilty – or at least it should.  And there are a few takeaways from this for us as Christians today. 

First, remember the value of the blood shed on the cross.  When you feel guilty for having heard someone else blaspheme and then having it replay in your mind, you can bring that to God and ask him to forgive you because of Jesus and he will.  Christ bore your sins and your guilt also with respect to this.  In his grace God has provided a way to deal with this. 

Second, our Catechism speaks about God being angry with those who don’t prevent and forbid blasphemy as much as they can.  When it comes to other people taking God’s Name in vain, we can kindly ask them to stop.  If you have a good relationship with someone, hopefully they would respect you and not do it, or at least not do it around you.  You can something like, “Hey, we’re friends right, and you respect me?  If you respect me, could you please not say that?  It’s quite offensive.”  Usually if you approach it like that, you’ll find that it helps and they’ll stop.  And if you’re a business owner and employer, you can and you should make it a requirement that your employees don’t take God’s Name in vain.  You have an opportunity as their employer to teach them that God’s Name is special and is to be honoured by everyone. 

Third, we should be diligent about protecting others from hearing blasphemy, especially our children.  There are lots of resources out there providing Christian reviews of TV shows, music, and movies, so you can find entertainment that doesn’t abuse God’s Name.  If those who hear blasphemy are so affected by it, may feel guilty from hearing it, shouldn’t we do everything we can to protect them from it?

Blasphemy is a serious sin and we need to take it seriously.  The Old Testament underlines its seriousness by telling us that those who blasphemed were to be put to death.  That obviously happened in our passage.  The man who blasphemed was stoned to death by the Israelites.  In 1 Kings 21 we read of how two false witnesses accused Naboth of blaspheming.  That was arranged by Jezebel in order to get Naboth’s vineyard for her husband Ahab.  So though he was innocent, Naboth was stoned for blasphemy. 

In the New Testament, in John 8, the Jews picked up stones to kill Jesus because they thought that he had blasphemed when he claimed to be God.  Later, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they again falsely accused him of blasphemy and that was the charge they used to bring him to the cross.  And when Stephen was stoned in Acts 7, it was likely because the Jews thought he had blasphemed. 

While most of the instances in Scripture have to do with false accusations of blasphemy, it still stands that the penalty according to God’s law was death.  No one disputed that.  If it was a capital crime to kill a human being created in the image of God, why wouldn’t it be a capital crime to attack and belittle the most holy God himself? 

But what about today?  I mentioned earlier that blasphemy is still technically a crime in some parts of the world.  If such laws were enforced, the sentence certainly wouldn’t be death.  But should it be?  It’s a hypothetical question but still one worth considering because it helps us understand the relationship between what we read in Leviticus and our situation today.

We have to understand that there is one people of God in the Bible.  Old Testament Israel was the church in their day and it’s the same church to which we belong as Christians.  But Israel was not only a religious grouping, they were also a nation, and a very unique nation.  As such they had laws and punishments that were designed for their day and situation.  The church today doesn’t deal with blasphemy by putting people to death.  Instead, we have church discipline.  If a church member insists on taking God’s Name in vain and does so without repenting, they’ll be placed under discipline.  If they still don’t repent, they can be excommunicated.  Excommunication in the New Testament is the church’s equivalent to the death penalty in the Old Testament. 

When it comes to the civil government, we ought to make the case for continuing to have blasphemy as a crime in our land.  But as for how it should be punished, governments are free to determine the appropriate penalty – they’re not bound by God’s Word to execute blasphemers.  That’s because that penalty existed in the context of Israel as both a nation and as the Old Testament church and it’s now been carried over into the excommunication of the New Testament church.   

But someone might say, but what about capital punishment for murder?  We still believe the Bible teaches that the death penalty is appropriate for that – as long as it’s under all the conditions described by Scripture.  So aren’t we being inconsistent by holding up capital punishment for murder but not for blasphemy?   No, because the death penalty for murder is something supported outside of the Mosaic laws and before the Mosaic laws.  It’s mentioned in Genesis 9 when God is speaking to Noah after he comes off the ark.  Noah is like the new Adam representing a new humanity in a new world.  What God said to him about murder applies to everyone.  It’s to be punished with death.  This is also hinted at in the New Testament when we’re told the government bears the sword to carry out God’s wrath on evildoers.  The death penalty for blasphemy is different.  While the description of it is found throughout the Bible, the prescription for it is only found in the Mosaic laws.

So for us today, when we confess in Lord’s Day 36 how God wanted blasphemy punished with death in the Old Testament, we’re not saying that this is how things should be today too.  What we are saying is that this has always been and still is a serious sin.  It is among the greatest sins, in fact.  Even though it won’t be punished with death here on this earth, unless it’s repented of and the person who blasphemes is forgiven through Jesus Christ, it will be punished with eternal death in hell.

Loved ones, instead of misusing and abusing God’s Name, let’s always be careful to use it with the utmost reverence.  God is infinitely holy.  He is infinitely majestic and glorious.  Blasphemy denies that he is like that at all.  It undermines God’s holiness, majesty, and glory.  As such, it’s a horrible heinous sin which we ought to hate with all our heart.  AMEN.


O God of holiness, majesty and glory,

You are worthy of our worship and adoration.  You ought to be worshipped and adored by everyone.  Sadly, we live in this world where your name is often misused, abused, and sometimes even attacked.  It grieves us and we hate it.  We hate it when we’ve been bystanders hearing it and it’s echoed in our minds.  We ask you to wipe away all our guilt with the blood of Christ.  Please forgive us for every time we haven’t used your Name properly.  Please forgive us for every time that we’ve heard your Name abused and it didn’t bother us.  We ask for your grace.  We also ask for the help of your Holy Spirit to hate this sin and to fight against it. Please help us to live in Christ also when it comes to the Third Commandment.  Please give us courage to speak up when we hear other people taking your Name in vain.  Please give us sensitive consciences when we hear your Name abused on TV or in music or wherever.  Please help us to do everything we can to see blasphemy reduced and eliminated.  We thank you that we live in a state where blasphemy is still illegal.  We pray that it will remain that way, as a testimony to the truth of your commandments.                                                    

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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