Romans Lesson 41 - The Venom within Us All
As a child, did your parents ever wash your mouth out with soap when you talked back to an adult or said a bad word? I'm sure we all got that at least once or twice! Well in today's study of Romans chapter 3, the Apostle Paul will reveal to us that our mouths are dirty and in need of a good washing. Soap, however, won't do the trick. So grab your Bible and join Stephen in this sermon as he gives us the only thing that will: Scripture.
“The Venom Within Us All”
In 1899 four reporters from Denver, Colorado, met by chance on a Saturday night in a Denver railroad station. The four men worked for the four major Denver papers: the Post, the Times, the Republican and the Rocky Mountain News. Each of these four men had the tough assignment of finding a scoop for the Sunday edition. They were hoping to spot a celebrity arriving that evening by train. No celebrity showed up – nothing newsworthy was happening.
That’s when the four men went down to a nearby saloon where one of them suggested they just make up a story. At first, the men laughed about it, but then they grew serious enough to concoct together a story so incredible that, they believed, no one could deny it and their respective bosses would congratulate them for uncovering it. Since a local story would be too easy to prove wrong, they decided to write about someplace far away. They agreed on China. By 11:00 o’clock that night, they had crafted their lie. Their scoop would be that the Chinese government was planning to tear down the great wall of China as a sign of international goodwill to invite foreign trade. The next day, all four Denver newspapers carried the story on the front page. TheTimes headline read: “Great Chinese Wall Doomed! Peking Seeks World Trade!”
To their surprise, and chagrin, their fabrication was picked up by other newspapers and eventually ran throughout the country. Problem was, the story picked up even more fabricated details along the way, ultimately stating that a demolition team was arriving from the United States to dismantle the Great Wall.
When the news eventually reached China, many were sure it couldn’t be true. Others were enraged by the audacity of the western world. Particularly angry were members of a secret society nicknamed “Boxers” – a group of Chinese patriots who hated any form of foreign presence. Moved to action by this news story, they attacked the foreign embassies in Peking and spread out, killing their primary targets – American and British missionaries.
Armed forces arrived from 8 different nations to protect their countrymen who had been caught inside of China during this time of bloodshed. The uprising was finally crushed. But not until, as The World Book Encyclopedia reported, houses, churches and schools were burned to the ground and English and American missionaries, along with many Chinese Christians were slaughtered.
The World Book Encyclopedia, 1977; p. 435
This international crisis, caused by a lie that originated in a Denver saloon became known ever since as the Boxer Rebellion.
What Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis and Hal Wilshire started with their mouths and their pens led to incredible death and destruction.
Story adapted from R. Kent Hughes, The Disciplines of a Godly Man (Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois), 1991, p. 129
It should be no surprise to us to find in the middle of the Apostle Paul’s description of human depravity, a description of the tongue. The destructive power of words.
Paul writes in Romans chapter 3 verses 13 and 14, “[the throat of mankind] is an open grave, with their tongues they keep on deceiving; the poison of vipers is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
Thus far, in this inspired sketch of human sinfulness, the Holy Spirit has revealed through Paul, in verses 10-12, who we are.
There is none righteous . . . none who understands spiritual things; none who seeks after God; all have turned aside and become like soured milk.
That’s a revelation of who we are apart from God’s redemptive work through Christ!
But here in this 2nd section, for our study today, we are shown what we say.
In verses 10-12 we have the revelation of mankind’s evil condition.
In verses 13-14 we have the revelation of mankind’s evil communication.
And Paul now delivers 4 more indictments on the human heart. This is the diagnosis of depravity.
And it’s not a very pretty sight.
I have never gone to be checked out by the doctor, in all my life, without having them all do the same thing. I guess they learned in medical school that you begin the examination by reaching into that cabinet, pulling out that wooden Popsicle stick, putting it in their mouth until they gag and commanding, “Say ahhhh.” Which makes you gag even more.
Truth is, a good physician knows that the mouth is a key window into the physical condition of the body.
The Divine Physician is no less thorough. He begins by opening the mouth and looking into the throat and at the tongue of mankind.
In this paragraph, the Divine Physician through the Apostle Paul will makes 4 statements that reveal the Divine Diagnosis of the corruption within the human heart, revealed by the mouth, the throat, the lips and the tongue..
The first diagnostic statement is this:
- The throat exposes hidden depravity
Notice again in Romans 3:13a, “Their throat is an open grave.”
What does he mean?
A. T. Robertson translates the perfect passive participle more literally, which helps to clarify Paul’s meaning – he translates it, “an opened grave.”
Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI); 1931, p. 345
In other words, it is not referring to someone who’ve been buried in an open tomb – or a coffin without a lid; no, Paul is referring to a grave that has just been opened.
And the stench of death and the horror of decaying flesh is exposed to all.
We know from Biblical illustrations as well as Roman history that during these days, coffins were not used. In fact, the ordinary grave of a common person would be alongside a roadway – marked perhaps by a tree.
The majority of people couldn’t even afford a simple grave marker – so burial involved simply placing the corpse in a shallow hole, covering over the body with earth, followed by a pile of stones on top to keep the animals from getting to the body. For those who were wealthy, land could be purchased where a chamber tomb would be built or even carved out of a hillside – with shelves carved inside it for the deceased family members. It was in this kind of family tomb that Jesus Christ was temporarily placed.
But the majority of people were buried in shallow holes which, through flooding or wind storms, the falling of a tree or any number of things could open a grave and reveal the decaying body.
The grave that has just been opened – whether in a cave or along a roadside – would cause people to turn away from the horrible sight.
Here’s Paul’s point: just as the opening of a grave reveals the death that is within it, so the opening of the human throat reveals the death and corruption and decay that is in the human heart.
The word Paul uses here for throat is larunx which gives us our English word, “larynx.” The larynx, or the throat is simply the doorway to the corruption within – and the words that come out of that doorway reveal the decay and wickedness and corruption within the human heart.
Jesus Christ said it this way, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” (Matthew 12:34)
Solomon wrote, “the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.” Proverbs 15:28
In other words, the mouth inevitably spills out the secrets of the sinful heart.
Gary Graff is a pastor in Lancaster, Minnesota. He wrote about a man he knew that went shopping one day at the local mall. When he finished shopping and returned to his car he noticed a foul odor coming from under the hood of his car. He lifted the hood and discovered a rather mutilated cat that had been caught in the fan belt. For those of you who love cats, this story will be troubling – for the rest of us, it’s just one less cat in the world!
Well, anyway, this unfortunate cat had sought shelter from the cold by getting up onto the engine block of this man’s car. When the man got in and started his car up and, uh . . . you get the idea!
So there this man stood that afternoon in the parking lot of the mall, looking at this mangled cat. He decided to empty the contents of one of his shopping bags into another bag and then proceed to scrape and pull and push the remains of that cat into his empty bag. Finally he got all the grisly remains into the bag, slammed the hood down and walked back toward the mall to wash his hands. Just as he reached the entrance, he happened to look back, and when he did he noticed something unusual. He had tied a knot in the top of the department store bag and had left it on the hood of the car. He saw a middle aged woman standing next to his car, looking suspiciously back and forth in both directions; then she grabbed the bag off the hood of the car and walked quickly towards the mall, past him and into store. The man thought, “This is too good to be true!” He decided to follow her and see what would happen next. Pastor Graff wrote, “She went into a restaurant in the mall and was seated in a private booth. Once seated she proceeded to untie the knot and survey her stolen prize. As soon as she opened the bag and saw the dead cat inside she screamed and then fainted. Of course, the management was alarmed that a customer had fainted in their establishment and so they called the paramedics. In no time, the woman was strapped to a cart and ready to be hauled off to the ambulance. The man just couldn't resist. He had taken the bag from the booth and just as they were putting her inside the ambulance he ran over and said, "Hey lady, don't forget your bag!” And he laid the bag on top of her.
This woman thought she'd gotten away with a prize, but instead, she got a grisly bag of bones.
Take the nicest looking person – the nicest clothes – the nicest smile – the nicest connections – the nicest background – that man or woman who thinks if anybody has it together, it’s them – just open their mouth – lift the hood up – look inside the bag and you will discover the corruption and decay and sin and death of the human heart.
One writer put it this way, “A spiritually dead heart can generate only spiritually dead words. [But] the natural or unbelieving man keeps his throat wide open, and in so doing continually testifies to his spiritual death by the foulness of his words.”
John MacArthur Jr., Romans (Moody Press; Chicago, Ill), 1991; p. 188
Paul goes on to give us the second diagnostic observation of mankind’s evil communication: he writes (Romans 3:13b), “With their tongues they keep deceiving.”
So the throat not only exposes hidden depravity, but secondly, the tongue produces great deception.
The verb here means to lure into a trap. It was used by the Greeks to refer to a fisherman baiting a hook with a small piece of food to disguise the danger. When the fish grabs on to that food he thinks he’s going to get a meal, but he instead, becomes the meal.
Ibid, p. 188
One of the characteristics of the human race is the ability to deceive. To deceive themselves and deceive others.
The Apostle Paul is quoting here from Psalm chapter 5 where David writes of the human being, “There is nothing reliable in what they say; their inward part is destruction itself.”
The prophet Jeremiah said that wicked man is able to “bend his tongue like a bow; lies and not truth prevail in the land; for the proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know Me,’ declares the Lord. “let everyone be on guard against his neighbor, and do not trust any brother; because every brother deals craftily, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. And everyone deceives his neighbor, and does not speak the truth, they have taught their tongue to speak lies.” (Jeremiah 9:3-5)
The Apostle Paul used the imperfect tense in this verb, translated “deceiving.” You could translate it, “with their tongues they continually keep on deceiving.”
In other words, mankind is by nature a deceiver. Now that doesn’t mean that he can’t tell the truth from time to time – that he can’t be honest. Paul is referring not so much to singular acts but to the fact that lying and other forms of deception are a continual, habitual part of man’s character and makeup.
That’s why you never had to teach a child how to lie; how be deceptive or how to be dishonest. Sinful nature has it mastered and by the age of 5 it naturally parades across the stage of human experience.
The costumes of deception will only adapt to the different scenes of life.
My wife and I were watching an episode of Candid Camera a couple of months ago. In a little gift shop the merchant, who was part of the setup, told customers who had brought their Christmas presents to the counter, that if they wanted him to, for a 50 cent fee, he’d make up a higher price tag and put it on the gift, so the recipient of the gift would think that they paid more for the gift than they actually did. I was amazed at the people – of all ages – without blinking an eye, paying the 50 cents and saying things like “This is a great idea.” Only one man said, “No, I shouldn’t . . . I’m buying this for a family member who’s in seminary.”
I was at Home Depot a few months ago and asked for some help loading 10 bags of fertilizer onto my truck. A young man in his mid 20’s came out and began to help me. He asked, “Have you rung this stuff up yet?” I said “Not yet.” He said, “Listen, I’ll tell ‘em you only got 5 bags . . . that’ll save you 20 dollars and if you’ll give me $10, you’ll still save $10 on the deal.”
If you can believe it, this guy was wearing a tee shirt with the name of a Baptist church in town – on the back of his shirt was a verse of scripture. I said, “You’re gonna lie and you want me to steal?” He sort of laughed nervously . . . that wasn’t the response he was expecting. He said, “Hey, this stuff is overpriced anyway . . .” I said, “Did you forget what shirt you put on this morning?” He looked down and said, “Oh man.” I said, “I’m gonna call your pastor.” I said, “And I’m the pastor of a church in town too . . .and I know who your pastor is.” He said, “God’s after me.” I said, “He evidently is.” So we had a little revival service out in the parking lot – he admitted he was away from God and promised he’d never do it again. I only hope if he did it again, he’d at least change his shirt.
The nature of man is to lie and deceive.
Deceiving with malice; deceiving out of fear; deceiving for financial gain; deceiving by virtue of silence; deceiving by boasting; deceiving by exaggeration; deceiving through insincere promises; deceiving with pious language; deceiving by withholding the truth; deceiving for personal advancement; deceiving through innuendo and deceiving by means of flattery.
These are only a few ways the tongue deceives itself and its world.
Paul writes, “with their tongues they continually keep on deceiving.”
The third diagnostic observation is this:
- The lips speak untold damage
Paul descriptively writes in the last part of verse 13, “The poison of asps (or vipers) is under their lips.”
William R. Newell points out that “the fangs of a deadly serpent lie, ordinarily, folded back in its upper jaw; but when it throws up its head to strike, those hollow fangs drop down, and when the serpent bites, the fangs press a sack of deadly poison hidden [at the base of it’s mouth], thus injecting the venom into the wound.
William R. Newell, Romans Verse by Verse (Moody Press, Chicago, Ill); 1938, p. 83.
The Apostle Paul is basically saying that in the human mouth is a sack of venom and the tongue dispenses it with it’s words, like a snake injects it with its fangs.
We were born, as it were, with moral poison sacks under the roof of our mouths; and we naturally strike at one another with venomous words.
Ibid, p. 83
The Apostle James wrote in his epistle, “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and [it is] full of deadly poison.”
A couple of years ago I was in Africa, I believe it was while we were in Nairobi we visited a Reptile House. It was their version of a zoo, only much smaller – one building with an open courtyard, surrounded by glass rooms or cages where snakes were kept. In the middle of the courtyard was a circular wall, waist high that surrounded a shallow pond where one crocodile lay sunning itself. We noticed immediately upon arriving that the man who would be our tour guide had only one arm. He explained that he lost the other one to that very same crocodile in the pond – we kept our distance. Whenever you visit a zoo in the states, the snakes never move, do they?! Tap on the window, move your hand up and down, make faces, whatever, those snakes aren’t interested. That’s because they’re used to you. Well, in this reptile house, the snakes were so wild and so new to their surroundings that they recoiled as we got close to their cages. We could reach our hand toward the glass and they would and lunge at us – fortunately we were on the other side of very thick glass. We eventually came to the prize catch of the establishment. The tour guide proudly introduced us to a 6 foot long black snake called, The Black Mamba. Our guide said, “There is no serum for this venom in Africa . . . there is no need for it – for if you are bitten, you have 7 steps before you fall over dead.” I wasn’t confident in that glass anymore. In the meantime, our tour guide said it was feeding time and went around to the back and threw into the cage a live mouse. It immediately could sense danger and it hid behind a piece of wood. The snake moved in and struck the mouse. The mouse literally wobbled for a split second and then fell over, dead. I was more than ready to leave at that point. I’d seen enough.
The Apostle Paul, himself, was bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake while marooned on the island of Malta. The story is recorded for us in Acts chapter 28. Evidently it was extremely venomous because the text tells us that the islanders watched Paul, expecting him to, “suddenly fall down dead”(v. 6). Which he didn’t, by the miraculous intervention of God.
It’s interesting that the description of the tongue’s power is put into this kind of analogy by Paul. He says, under the diagnostic influence of the Great Physician, “There is poison in our mouths. Our tongues are like fangs which dispenses the venom and it can and will destroy everything around us.”
That means one of our most dangerous enemies is sheltered in our mouths. Webster defined the tongue as, “that little movable muscular structure attached to the floor of the mouth.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary
Did you know that according to the Bible, one of the greatest distinctives of the believer is how you flex that muscle? I want to develop that in more detail in our next discussion as we continue through verse 14. I want us to take an honest look at what the Bible tells us the believer’s tongue should look like – how it should operate – how it should act.
In the meantime, let me give you something to put into practice immediately.
Several years ago I shared with this body of believers an acrostic on the use of the tongue. A few months ago I had someone come up to me and tell me they still remembered that acrostic and used it often as a guideline.
It is the acrostic - T.H.I.N.K.
T – Is it true?
H – Is it helpful?
I – Is it inspirational?
N – Is it Necessary?
K – Is it Kind?
If what you are about to say doesn’t pass the T.H.I.N.K. test, it shouldn’t be uttered to another person. That gives new meaning to the old saying, “T.H.I.N.K. before you speak.”
That’s good advice for the church by the way . . . it’s good advice for life. In fact, it could literally revolutionize your work place, your home, your personal relationships, and the unity and fellowship of the church.
Is it any surprise that the Apostle Paul, in writing to a church – a group of believers, urged them with these words, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to every person.” (Colossians 4:6)
Seasoned with salt . . . I want to look more closely at that phrase, next time we’re together.
The distinctive mark that reveals unbelief is the unbelievers mouth. That’s what Paul is saying in Romans chapter 3 verse 13. So also then, the distinctive mark of a maturing believer is discovered in the seasoning of the words that roll off that “little movable muscular structure attached to the floor of the mouth.”
I love you Lord, and I lift my voice,
To worship You, O my soul rejoice,
Take joy my King, in what You hear,
May it be a sweet, sweet sound, in Your ear.
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