Names and the Name – 18

On Blasphemy 3

The Scriptures regularly identify God’s name with the cultus – God’s name was both blessed and blasphemed in cultic activity, depending on whether the worship took place according to the divinely given pattern or not. Not only do various psalms (7:17; 8:1, 9; 9:10; 18:49; 20:1, 5, 7; 29:2; 30:4; 34:3; 54:6; 68:4; 86:9, 11-12; 92:1; 96:2, 8; 97:12; 99:6; 102:21; 103:1; 105:1, 3; 106:47; 113:1-3; 115:1; 116:4, 13, 17; 118:26; 122:4; 124:8; 129:8; 135:1, 3, 13; 145:21; 148:5, 13) testify that worship happens in the name of the Lord, but Malachi 1:6–8, Ezekiel 20:27–28, and 22:26 reveal how Israel blasphemed God’s name when they abused the cultus. Although far less frequent, the NT (Rom 15:9 [quoting 2 Sam 22:50 and Ps 18:49]; Heb 2:12 [quoting Ps 22:22] and Heb 13:15) also identifies positively worship with God’s name. The NT episode of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 was fundamentally one of blasphemy, as was possibly the disgrace of the wife who prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered (1 Cor 11). Jesus also warned his disciples against those who would put them out of the synagogues under the ironic understanding that they were ‘offering service to God’ (John 16:2).

Blasphemy is taken with the utmost seriousness in the NT. Indeed, and ironically, part of Saul’s blasphemous tirade against the early church was with a view to trying to get Christians to blaspheme God’s name (Acts 26:11; 1 Tim 1:13). Paul tells Timothy that via the rejection of faith and a good conscience, Hymenaeus and Alexander shipwrecked their faith and were subsequently ‘handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme’ (1 Tim 1:20). James teaches that the dishonoring of the poor is to ‘blaspheme (NIV: ‘slander’) the honorable name by which you were called?’ (Jas 2:67).

Jude speaks of ungodly people have crept in into the Christian community unnoticed and who ‘pervert the grace of our God into sensuality’ and deny Jesus Christ. They rely on dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and ‘blaspheme the glorious ones’ and ‘all that they do not understand’ (Jude 1:4–10). It seems that blasphemy is shunned so severely by the apostolic band for three related reasons: (i) their love of God, and so of his name; (ii) their concern that God’s name not be ‘blasphemed among the Gentiles’ because of their lawbreaking and immoral behaviour (Rom 2:24, citing Isa 52:5); and (iii) their love for God’s truth (2 Pet 2:2; cf. 2:1112).

Jesus’ claim to forgive sins (a claim made manifest in his proclamation but hidden in the heart of the Father) led to the charge of blasphemy, and rightly so if he were not God (Matt 9:3; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21; cf. Matt 26:65; Mark 14:64). But that he is God is precisely the point. Indeed, ‘unless Christ is God, his word of forgiveness is empty of any divine substance’. Brueggemann notes, following Hannah Arendt, that forgiveness was Jesus’ ‘most endangering action because if a society does not have the apparatus for forgiveness, then its members are fated to live forever with the consequences of any violation’.

Jesus’ response to the Jewish leaders’ charge of blasphemy in John 10:33 (a charge that if true he should rightly have been stoned to death for, according to Leviticus 24:10–16) is noted in John 10:3538: ‘If he called them gods to whom the word of God came … do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father’.

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