I was surfing through Twitter one day when someone made a joke using Prophet Muhammed’s name (I can’t remember the details of the joke). A Muslim responded that they don’t play with the name of their prophet like that and it is we Christians that have that liberty. Many Christians who responded to his statement said he was an extremist and that Muslims are too quick to react to anything involving Muhammed.
Just this week, a member of a Whatsapp group I belong to reported that he posted a joke involving Muhammed in another group and that he was called out for blasphemy. He wrote: “God loves us, that’s why he gave Elneny (a football player for Arsenal FC) injury. God sacrificed Mohammed and not Jesus this time. Plot twist.” As usual, the people who complained about this post were deemed extremists who have allowed religion to “eat their head.” A group member even remarked that if it were the other way around (Jesus being the object of the joke), they would have laughed together with the Christians.
From these two episodes, I perceive that it seems many of us believe there are only two options: you either joke about God’s name or you are a religious extremist. We talk as if the only alternative to not being a religious extremist is to join in when people make offensive jokes about something sacred. Given this mentality, it is no wonder that Christians – who love to project a positive image in the wider society – have been comfortable with all sorts of jokes involving Jesus’s name; and in many cases, we are even fine originating those jokes ourselves. Therefore, when we see Muslims who will not take it, we prefer to label them extremists even if they have not or do not plan to act violently towards those who make such offensive jokes. It’s as if the very act of saying “this is inappropriate” now constitutes extremism and violence.
However, while Christianity forbids violence towards unbelievers and those who make a mockery of the triune God and his name, it does not approve, validate, or normalise such mockeries. Our God is holy and everything that pertains to him – especially his name – must be treated with utmost reverence and awe.
One of God’s complaints about post-exilic Israel was the irreverence with which they treated him. “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name” (Malachi 1:6).
What was the problem here? Israelites were offering defiled food on God’s altar. They brought animals quite well but they were blind, lame, and diseased ones. Many of them vowed to give the acceptable male in their flocks but ended up giving God the blemished ones (verse 14).
God even asked them an important question: “Try offering them to your governor! Would he accept you?” (verse 8). This is a rhetorical question. God’s complaint was that they had the temerity to bring to him animals that even their governors would not accept.
God would not permit this status quo. If they called him father then he deserved honour and if they called him master, then he deserves respect.
But more importantly, God did not only deserve the honour and respect of the Israelites, but he also deserved that of all the nations of the earth: “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations” (verse 11). Said differently, “I am a great king, and my name is to be feared among the nations” (verse 14). As the King of kings, he calls the kings of the earth to serve him with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling” (Psalms 2:10).
Notice that God and God’s name are interchangeable. To honour God is to honour God’s name, and vice versa. In his place as the sovereign king of the universe, God deserves the fear, respect, and honour of all nations; his name must (and will be) great among the nations. God did not conceive his relationship with the world as only that of love; it is also a relationship that fear, honour, and respect must characterise.
In Hebrews 12, the author of the epistle calls on those of us who are receiving the kingdom of God to worship him acceptably. But what does it mean to worship God acceptably? It is to do it with reverence and awe (verse 28). Christians know they are to worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:22) but do we also know that acceptable worship must be with reverence and awe?
Similarly, Paul tells us that we are to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1). The fear of God should be a motivation towards holiness. Even servants should respect their masters out of reverence for God (Colossians 3:22). Said differently, the fear of God must characterise the entire Christian life. Just as we do all things to his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31), we should also do them with the fear of God.
God is to be honoured because he is holy. God’s holiness is not merely his moral quality, it is his transcendence; in other words, the quality by which he is God and no one else is.
“Holiness is a biblical and technical term signifying the God-ness of God, the combined quality of being infinite and eternal; omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; utterly pure and just; utterly faithful to his own purposes and promises; morally perfect in all his relationships; and marvelously merciful to persons meriting the opposite of mercy,” according to J.I. Packer.
In Isaiah 6:3, we see the heavenly host saying “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty,” a refrain that we also find in Revelation 4:8. As the Psalmist says, “God is greatly feared among the heavenly hosts” (Psalms 89:7).
According to Moses, God is “majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders” (Exodus 15:11). John the Revelator adds: “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest” (Revelation 15:4).
The point here is that God is holy and we must fear, respect, and honour him as our holy God. In fact, God’s holiness is his most fundamental attribute. His love is holy love; his justice is holy justice; his wrath is holy wrath; and his mercy is holy mercy. Therefore, to take God’s love and mercy as a basis for dishonouring him/his name is to misunderstand God’s identity. Yes, God loves us and he draws us to himself as our loving Father, but that love is a holy love, it must come with boldness, gratitude and also honour and godly fear. This should be our prayer: “That it may please thee to give us an heart to love and dread thee, and diligently to live after thy commandments; We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.”
“So the God who is love is first and foremost light, and sentimental ideas of his love as indulgent, benevolent softness, divorced from moral standards and concerns, must therefore be ruled out from the start,” said J.I. Packer. “God’s love is holy love. The God whom Jesus made known is not a God who is indifferent to moral distinctions, but a God who loves righteousness and hates iniquity, a God whose ideal for his children is that they should be ‘perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48).”
We saw in Malachi 1 that to honour God is to honour his name. According to Exodus 20:7, this includes not taking his name in vain. According to John Gill, this means we should not “make use of the name Lord or God, or any other name and epithet of the divine Being, in a light and trifling way, without any show of reverence of him, and affection to him; whereas the name of God ought never to be mentioned but in a grave and serious manner, and with an awe of the greatness of his majesty upon the mind.” Adam Clarke agrees that this commandment forbids “all light and irreverent mention of God, or any of his attributes.”
In Israel, they so honoured God’s name that it was forbidden for them to pronounce YHWH aloud. While we don’t need to do this we must embrace the attitude that led to it in the first place: the desire to honour God’s name.
Peter tells us in his second epistle that Lot was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless in Sodom. The KJV said he was “vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked” (2 Peter 2:7) and the NIV said he was “tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (verse 8).
This tells us that there is a whole world between indifference to the dishonouring of God’s name and violence towards those who so dishonour it. We can refuse to be violent and also refuse to be indifferent. Like Lot, we can be vexed and tormented in our righteous souls when God’s (the Father) name (or Jesus’s name or the Holy Spirit’s name) is used in a dishonouring way instead of joining in the laughter.
Laughing is good, a merry heart does good like medicine (Proverbs 17:22), but there are boundaries we should not cross. One of the purposes of many OT laws is to instil in the people the difference between the holy and the common. Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah had to learn these lessons in foreboding circumstances (Leviticus 10:1-2, 2 Samuel 6). God’s name is holy and we should treat it with the reverence it deserves in our conversations.
Many of us have been guilty of using Jesus’s name as a joke in ways that dishonour his person and his work. In an attempt to be the cool kid, which is often the Achilles Heel of Christians, we have surrendered God’s holy name for the affirmation of the world. The world thinks we are cool, unlike those “extremist” Muslims who are quick to react to the dishonouring of the prophet’s name, but at what price? Have we gotten that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:4).
A chapter before this, James had warned us that putting a leech on our tongue is an important step towards putting our whole body under subjection (James 3:1-12). Paul also warns us against “obscenity, foolish talking or coarse joking, which are out of place” (Ephesians 5:3-4). According to Albert Barnes, this verse warns us against “obscene or indecent conversation … that kind of talk which is insipid, senseless, stupid, foolish … that which is light and trifling in conversation” A lot of us are guilty of this sin. We have idolised laughter and a merry heart to the point where we can joke and laugh about anything.
While Christianity is not a kill-joy religion, it is a religion that upholds the holiness of God and is committed to the moral and spiritual transformation of believers into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). “‘A merry heart is a good medicine (Proverbs 17:22), and Paul commends the speech that is “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6); but coarse vulgarity is to be avoided, and still more so that “jesting” (Gk. eutrapelia) which Aristotle defines as ‘cultured insolence,’” said F.F. Bruce. “Above all, light and irreverent talk about sacred things is to be utterly reprobated … Tongues which are habituated to the praise of God should not readily lend themselves to language which dishonors his name.” 
The alternative to avoiding religious extremism and attacking those who dishonour God and his name is not for us to join in such dishonour or be morally indifferent about them. Rather, we must be vexed within our righteous souls, refuse to join in such dishonour, and, if possible, express our disagreement in the meekest way possible.
As we saw, God is the sovereign king of the nations and he wants to be honoured among them. If the nations will honour God’s name, those of us who are believers in those nations must show them how by honouring the same name in our speech. The name of the triune God should not be our plaything. We must learn to differentiate between the common and the holy.
God has called us to draw near to him but he still demands that we draw near with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28). He is our loving father but, as he asked the post-exilic Israelites, “If then I be a father, where is mine honour?”
1 Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
2 Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
who wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.
3 Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee
perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.
4 Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
 J.I. Packer, Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2013), p. 26.
 The Book of Common Prayer (London: Oxford University Press), p.61
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodger and Stoughton, 1988), p. 162, Scribd.
 Riversoft Systems (2022). My Sword Bible. Retrieved from https://www.mysword.info/
 F.F. Bruce, Ephesians (Bath: Creative Communications Ltd, 2012), p. 131, Scribd.
 Reginald Heber, Holy, Holy, Holy, in Trinity Psalter Hymnal (Willow Grove: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018), 230.