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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:A Fiery and Deadly Poison
Text:LD 43 Romans 13:8-10, Psalm 52:0 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 9th Commandment (Lying)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 271 - Gladness in Worship
TH 51 - O Jehovah, Hear My Words
Psalter 89 - The Secret of a Happy Life
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

A Fiery and Deadly Poison

HC LD 43, Romans 13:8-10, Psalm 52:1-5, James 3:1-12

Our brother last week began his sermon with the bold assertion that there are thieves in our church. Using the path he opened, I’ll say there are gossipers and slanderers in the church. And that’s not a statement to condemn you; it’s an honest evaluation. Christians gossip and slander. In today’s pastoral voice, Luther was quoted describing Christians as “Simul Justus et Peccator” - saint and sinner at the same time. But this doesn’t mean we excuse our sins against the 9th commandment. It was given to Israel after she was redeemed from bondage. It’s repeated in Romans 13 for Christians. It’s required by the redeemed.

In looking at the commandments, there’s a positive and negative side. This is reflected in our catechism. By thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, it means - not only that we abstain from false testimony, gossip, and slander; but we also love, speak, and confess the truth. Both are important. But today, I want to focus more on the negative. If we neglect to address the clearly negative aspect - which is how it was written - we don’t feel the full impact of the law given to redeemed people, who are capable of false testimony, gossip, and slander. These are fiery, poisonous, hellish and deadly sins that destroy others. James 3:6 called the tongue a fire - even set on fire by hell itself. James 3:8 says it’s full of deadly poison.

I shall explore the texts in 2 points. Firstly, the people with this fiery and deadly poison; and secondly, how fiery and deadly is the poison.

Firstly, the people with this fiery and deadly poison. We learn that it’s a characteristic of wicked unbelievers. In Psalm 52 we see how they break the ninth commandment. It’s in their nature. And Psalm 52 is unusual because it addresses neither God God nor God’s people, but to one particular wicked unbeliever. In the ascription, it’s described as David’s maschil, when Doeg the Edomite came to tell Saul where David was. If you recall, Saul was chasing after David, and David sought refuge in the house of Ahimelech the High Priest. And Doeg also went on to slaughter the priests in Nob. He used his words to destroy and then he used his hands to kill. Verses 1-2 say, “Why boastest thou thyself in mischief, O mighty man? the goodness of God endureth continually. Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs; like a sharp razor, working deceitfully.” He was a mighty man - meaning, a warrior or a hero - like how Goliath was called a champion - same word. He was a man of war. David complained about this warrior who sought to destroy him with his words and the priests with his sword. The psalm speaks to those who persecute God’s people. A case can be made for the word “Edomite” to be translated as red. And if that’s the case, it speaks of a person given to violence. Doeg the one who spills red blood. But that only confirms what is already clear in the text. Doeg, and people like him, are wicked.

We see in verse 2 that such a person loves evil more than good, lies more than righteousness. He loves devouring words. He delights in creating mischief. Clearly, these are not believers that fall into slander or wicked plots. These are unbelievers that love evil lies to destroy with their words. Just as David laments because of the destructive plots of Doeg, this song represents Jesus’ lament over the destructive plot of Judas - the son of perdition - and the priests and false witnesses. They came to destroy him. It’s like Jezebel who called false witnesses to accuse Naboth. And people trusted these 2 or 3 witnesses; this led to Naboth’s execution. The words were devouring words. This is the characteristic of the wicked unbeliever. And their end is eternal judgment - verse 5, such a person will be destroyed forever; he’ll be rooted out by God. And James 3:10 contrasts such an attitude to the rightful attitude of believer - that these things ought not to be found in a believer - meaning, it’s the characteristic of an unbeliever. It’s an unruly evil. 

But the reason why they were deadly, poisonous, unruly, is because of the origin. James 3:6 said the tongue was set on fire by hell itself. And when we look at the Pharisees and Judas, their words were instigated by the devil. Jesus rightly accused the unbelieving Pharisees of doing the devil’s will; John 8:44 - “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” They eventually killed him by cooking up lies. When Judas couldn’t take the truth of who Jesus said he was, he went to the chief priests. Satan entered him. Yes, not every evil word spoken to destroy is instigated by the devil - but Satan is the origin. The devil sought to destroy Adam and Eve through a lie. That’s why he’s called the Father of lies. And we feel the effect until today. 

James 3:6 describes how the tongue sets on fire the course of nature and it’s been set on fire by hell itself. The phrase “setteth on fire the course of nature” is not easy to interpret. It can also be translated as “it sets on fire the wheel of birth.” It gives a picture, using a modern day illustration, of a burning car; wherever it goes from its origin to its destination, it sets the path on fire. Or using a Biblical illustration - Samson tied the tails of 300 foxes together by pairs with a torch each and let them go - wherever they ran, crazed with fear and panic, the fire set the vineyards ablaze. So when we gossip, slander, testify falsely against a neighbor, it first starts from our mouths and wherever it travels it sets everything on fire. And verse 6 says that it’s set on fire by hell itself. The first lie started it all - all the heartache, all the pain, all the destruction - until today, fueling the destructive tongues of the wicked to destroy the righteous; but also fueling the tongues of the redeemed to destroy one another!

Yes, even the regenerate Christian is guilty of this sin. Don’t forget, the 9th commandment was written for the redeemed - they were saved from Egypt to serve God. Similarly, Christians are saved from their sin should not give into this sin. The church of Corinth was not just a sensual congregation, but a gossiping one. Paul chided them in 1 Corinthians 5:1 - “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication [not even] among the Gentiles.” There gross uncleanness against the 7th and 9th commandment. The Corinthians were flaunting it by gossiping about it. Also, church splits don’t happen in the world - but in church. We love gossip. We slander. We cast aspersions. Conservative Christianity can be very much like that. We thrive on outrage. We jump on words. In the name of purity, we justify slander that destroys others. In the name of ultra-orthodox purity, we are harsh to condemn the already ultra-orthodox as not ultra-orthodox enough.

In James 3:1, the early church leader was troubled. He addressed his brethren and discouraged them from being teachers, since they had no control over their tongues. Apparently, he observed in verses 9-12 the hypocrisy that was going on in the Jewish church. We see that on one hand, they were blessing God, but on the other, they were cursing men. Christians can often not be dependable - like a fountain that supplies fresh and brackish water. Unreliable. And incongruent. A fig tree should not be bearing olives, or grape vine, figs! Christians shouldn’t bear forth the works of the flesh. But we know this is common. Romans 7 speaks about the Christian struggle to be consistent. Galatians 5 speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, but also the works of the flesh. There was variance or contentious quarreling in the church. They were biting and devouring one another. And this is why Paul had to teach them the fruit of the Spirit. Paul had to address it among believers. James had to address it among believers. Jesus himself had to address it - out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Why? 

Because they knew how fiery and deadly was the poison. That’s the second point. And it was fiery and deadly that it was hard to control. In verse 3-6, James compared our speech to 3 things - a bit, a rudder, and a fire. The point of these illustrations are the same. The tongue can cause much damage. Once a horse is directed to a certain direction, it’s hard for someone other than the rider to control the horse. Once a ship is steered to a certain direction, what external force can change its direction? Once a fire has been started and is raging in a forest fire, firefighters can lose their lives. The point of these illustrations is the same - the tongue is untamable once it’s been unleashed. Verses 5-6 tell us that it’s a world of iniquity. It seems like it’s the last great territory that can’t be controlled. Verses 7-8 say that while most every other thing has and can be controlled and tamed - the tongue cannot be because it’s an unruly evil. We’ve already seen how it’s like fire - setting ablaze its path. It destroys.

The commandment states clearly that we should not bear false witness against our neighbor. This certainly incorporates lying - but it’s more insidious - it speaks about words that are used against others - whether truth or lies. In Psalm 52:4 speak of devouring words. Doeg used his words to destroy people. We learn that they can even be truthful words used to get people into trouble. Doeg reported to Saul that David was given refuge by Ahimelech. David called these mischievous and deceitful words. But those words were true. Doeg was simply reporting to God’s anointed - the king - on David’s whereabouts. So why did David say that Doeg loved lying more than righteousness? After all, the rest of Saul’s servants were hiding the truth. And the reason for that is because the rest of the servants knew that Saul wished to harm David. I’m not saying that therefore white lies are okay - they are not - but even the truth can be used in a destructive way where God considers it prejudicial against truth. Just as the Devil didn’t completely lie when he said that taking the fruit will make Adam and Eve like God - it did. Just as God was immutable in his goodness, the fruit would make Adam and Eve immutable in their sin. But the Devil used that truth to destroy.

Because of Doeg’s words, he was given authority to slay the priests. It was gaslighting. He fed by truth his ultimate goal of destruction. So he killed with his words. So thou shalt not bear false witness has to do with words, and not just lies, but words used to hurt others, bearing witness against him. This is, of course, by no means the only sin, even in the immediate family of lying, much less in the broader family of all the sins that we commit with our tongues. And the catechism explains what are some of these more obvious sins that wicked unbelievers and believers are also guilty of.

The confession mentions bearing false witness against another and twisting his words. The reference here, as well as in the 9th commandment has to do with a courtroom setting - bearing false witness before a judge and falsifying a man’s words. If you leave out facts or color the truth, telling part of the story, repeat the account slightly differently, use a different tone, add or subtract, or suggest, or take words out of context, we are bearing false witness. When Joseph told his dreams, his dreams were being misinterpreted to mean that he desired preeminence. When Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple to rebuilt in three days, the false witnesses accused him of wanting to destroy the temple. When God approached Adam, he blamed Eve that God gave him. There was criticism. A critical spirit is bearing false witness.

And one of the ways to do it’s as the catechism says - by gossiping and slandering. The word gossiping means backbiting. This is what Doeg was guilty of. He told on David, with the hope it would get David in trouble. Now, the difference between backbiting and slander is only in its openness. A slanderer does it to your face. A backbiter does it behind your back. All gossip is sin - to ruin a person’s reputation. But backbiting is usually more dangerous - as the fires smolder hidden for a while, influencing others until it erupts, destroying and confounding everyone. As you know, I come from a fundamentalist and not a reformed background. A fundamentalist is an evangelical who’s always zealous against something. And while the zeal for truth is commendable - what was a common and encouraged behavior - was the casting of aspersions on others who may not be the same as them in beliefs, done to warn or turn others against them, without giving due consideration to all facts.

Furthermore, the catechism speaks of how joining in to condemn rashly without hearing the whole story is also a sin against the 9th commandment. Have you heard of the mob mentality? Jezebel stirred up the people. Haman stirred up Ahasuerus. The false witnesses stirred up the people against Jesus and Stephen. In Acts 6 when the people were not able to dispute Stephen, they got false witnesses and they stirred up the people to capture him. That happens very frequently even among Christians. And that is why, listening to gossip is as bad as being the gossip. Proverbs 18:13 says “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.”

And our catechism explains that we must avoid all lies and deceit as the devil’s own works. There are things which are prejudicial against the truth. Not just things against others as the commandment states - bearing false witness against thy neighbor - but all things against truth. We lie for profit, by being silent, by flattery, for self-preservation, etc. There’s no white lie. All lies come from Satan and all liars will be destroyed along with Satan by God in the lake of fire. There is a greater fire than then fire of the tongue. There is a greater fire than those who propagate fire must be fearful of. There is a cup of God’s wrath - of deepest, darkest, bitterest poison that is far deadlier than the poison of tongues.

But we are thankful that those who trust in Christ, can have that judgment quenched, and can have their tongues quenched. Dearly beloved - there is no way to control and tame your tongue - without repentance, and without the grace of Christ. At the garden, Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves. We can never control our tongues. Only Christ who covered them with animal skins can quench the fire on our tongues. The more we submit to him, the more we surrender our speech to praise Him instead of persecuting others. How can we who are redeemed, given these commandments, live any longer by giving ourselves to the sins of the tongue? No matter how we justify them as Doeg might have? But Christ has saved us. He has flooded us with his Spirit. The blood that has flowed from his hands and feet and wounded side has cleansed us so that from us we should no longer curse man and bless God - but bless man and God; that we should not give off sweet and bitter words, but words that heal and build up. The tongue cannot be tamed, but its sinful impulse can be destroyed by Christ who has destroyed the power of the devil. That we may in turn no longer serve him and his lusts.

Remember, dearly beloved, Christ was betrayed by the words and the kiss of Judas; he was betrayed by the words of Peter who denied him; he sentence was sealed when the false accusers came forward; when they stirred the hearts of the crowd to yell “crucify him!” to desire in his stead to be a released, a liar and a murderer. Dearly beloved, Christ has taken our place, so that all we Barrabases would be released. Be bore the brunt of the fire of words, and the fiery wrath of God; he drank the bitterest of poisons, so that we might be changed. And the way he did it was to be silent. He refused to answer his accusers. He held his tongue, not because he couldn’t defend himself; but because he wouldn’t defend himself. And when we look at what he did, to see what he has suffered for us and for his body, the church; this affects how we use our words towards others - that the lost may by our words be saved; that the church by our words be built up. How can we speak against each other when Jesus died for the sins of our tongues as the God of truth?

Sermon Outline:

1. The People With This Fiery and Deadly Poison

    A. The wicked and unbelievers

    B. The lying devil

    C. The regenerate Christian

2. How Fiery and Deadly Is the Poison?

    A. It cannot be controlled

    B. It destroys

    C. It can be quenched

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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