Snake Venom

““Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies.” “Snake venom drips from their lips.””
Romans 3:13 NLT

Paul continues his Old Testament quotes with verses from Psalms 5 and 140. The first is “My enemies cannot speak a truthful word. Their deepest desire is to destroy others. Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with flattery” (Psalm 5:9). This Psalm was written by David, who was mourning the behaviour of those he regarded as his enemies. He wrote it during his morning prayer time – “Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly” (Psalm 5:3). So, we have the contrast between David, close to God in prayer and presence, and his enemies who are closer to the devil, the father of lies. 

The reference to “snake venom” comes from Psalm 140:3, where David wrote, “Their tongues sting like a snake; the venom of a viper drips from their lips”. We of course will immediately remember the snake in the Garden, with his lies that drew the first man and woman into sin. And David viewed the same behaviour in his society, where people continued to speak the lies of the snake. Sinful and lying talk that hurt and poisoned those around him. 

But in both Psalms, David found solace in the presence of God. Referring to his enemies, the followers of the father of lies, he finished Psalm 140 with, “But I know the Lord will help those they persecute; He will give justice to the poor. Surely righteous people are praising Your name; the godly will live in Your presence”. 

Paul in his letter to the Romans was comparing the behaviour of sinful people in his Roman audience to the same behaviour noted in the Psalms. And he seemed to be saying that some things never change. We pilgrims today can draw the same conclusion, as we look on at the behaviour of our politicians and other leaders. There are even some in our church denominations who would be included within Paul’s accusations. 

So we pilgrims read the Book of Romans, sobered by Paul’s warnings, by his accusations, knowing in our hearts of our propensities to sin, included with those he was railing against in Rome. We are grateful for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, in allowing these words to be recorded. God, through His Spirit, influenced David to write these verses in the Old Testament, and Paul, to repeat them in the New. A significance that we should not miss. In repentance we bring our own behaviour under God’s spotlight and receive the cleansing through Jesus’ blood, bringing us back on track in our hours of need.

Dear Father. Once again we embrace the entirety of Your Word, omitting nothing, because all Scriptures emanate from You. We are so grateful. Amen.

Trouble and Calamity

There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honour and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism.”
Romans‬ ‭2‬:‭9‬-‭11‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Paul continues his letter to the Roman Christians about the dangers of sin, evil and wickedness. Words that really have the same connotations and, as we would expect, they will have the same consequences. Perhaps there are some today, reading these verses in Romans, who are getting the impression that in Paul’s day, life was riven with overt and disgraceful displays of pure evil. We would be misguided should we believe that, because, as we read Paul’s list of misdemeanours, we find that much of the evil he describes is hidden from public view. It applies to attitudes of heart, and deeds committed behind closed doors. 

In our society today, much of the evil Paul was so dismayed about has come out into the open, with, for example, marches and events promoting and celebrating evil behaviour, with legislation helping to ease restrictions on laws and precepts originally established by God, and pressure on society to conform to a new morality which has no place in the Kingdom of God.

Paul therefore warns his readers that for those who continue to practice evil acts will end up in bother, or, as he wrote, “trouble and calamity“. But why did Paul highlight that Jews would experience “trouble and calamity” in advance of the Gentiles? After all, as it says in Romans 2:11, “God does not show favouritism“. Paul himself was a Jew, so perhaps that influenced his thoughts. After all, his nation, the Jews, were God’s chosen people, so they should have been well aware of what constitutes evil behaviour.

Notice the words that Paul uses – “ keeps on doing”. Paul was highlighting constant bad behaviour. A lifestyle of evil. Paul wrote about the consequences of this in his letter to the Galatian church. We read in Galatians 6:8, “Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit“. “Trouble and calamity” and “decay and death” all result from sinful behaviour. Perhaps some have already made the connection between evil practices and avoidable diseases, or liver, heart or lung failure. But that will not be the only result of evil. Paul’s thoughts also extend into what is going on in people’s minds, and ultimately, what impact evil behaviour will have when people encounter that terrible day when they stand before God’s white throne?

What is the remedy for an evil lifestyle? We read in 1 John 1:9, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness“. But that was a Scripture written for the benefit of Christians, so it is unlikely that people who live in an ungodly way would read it and make the connection. God in His wisdom has given us some guidelines for drawing people away from a life of sin. People preached a tremendous sermon on the Day of Pentecost. We read in Acts 2:37-38, “Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit“”. But how did Peter’s words “pierce their hearts”? I’m sure the people who heard his sermon could have let his words flow over their heads. It is the Holy Spirit who brings conviction of sin, as we read in John 16:8, “And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment“. As believers, we only have to deliver the message of the Good News. The Holy Spirit will do the rest.

Notice that Peter’s sermon included the message of repentance and turning to God. Sometimes I think we evangelical pilgrims forget that message when we are talking to people about God’s love and grace. The only remedy for an evil lifestyle is repentance, turning away from their evil behaviour and instead towards a life living God’s way. Confessing sins on their own, important though that is, is not enough. 

We pilgrims continue to preach the Gospel at every opportunity. Spreading the word of God’s love and kindness. Telling people that the time is short. And praying that God will touch them and draw them into His eternal presence.

Dear Father God. We are so grateful for Your words of instruction. Please help us to heed them ourselves, as well as share them with others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

God in a Box

“Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭1‬:‭21‬ NLT

In some ways the first sentence today doesn’t make much sense. But it all depends on the meaning of the word “knew”. People might know things about God, perhaps like a Professor of Theology in some University or academy somewhere, needing to teach about various religions but not believing in any of them. Such people might know that He exists, or that He is worshipped in that building just down the street. They might even read the Bible from time to time. But they lack a personal relationship with their Creator. They just think that He has no relevance in their lives. And they go on living a sinful and independent life, seemingly impervious to what that will mean long term. 

Before we pilgrims take the moral high ground and discount such behaviour in our own lives, we should pause and think. Does the following scenario seem familiar or is it nothing like us personally? Imagine a person, a Christian, who claims to have a personal relationship with our loving Heavenly Father, but expects it to be on their own terms. Perhaps they have a “Quiet Time” in the morning, with prayer and Bible notes. But for the rest of the day they keep God in a box of their own making, lifting the lid when they need help, or when it’s time for going to church, or the prayer meeting, or Bible study. The rest of the time they try and protect areas of their lives from God’s penetrating stare, just in case He puts a finger on something uncomfortable in their lives and suggest some changes. If necessary such people may even move on to a different church before the real person is exposed. Is this fact or fiction? 

Is our imaginary person someone who Paul had in mind, at least in part, when he wrote our verse today? Perhaps there were a few people like this in the Ephesian church. In Ephesians 4, Paul wrote, “With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity.” (Ephesians 4:17-19).

There is no middle ground in being a Christian. In Revelation 3, the Apostle John wrote down the words of Jesus, to be delivered to the church in Laodicea. We read, “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Revelation 3:15-16). We cannot claim to know God and then ignore Him. 

In today’s verse, Paul goes on to say that the people he had in mind, “began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like”. Isn’t it strange how our minds can rationalise our thoughts, to get us out of uncomfortable places. We can end up watching an unsuitable TV programme, rationalising that we would never use language like that, or behave in that way with someone of the opposite sex. Or we may click on a link to a news article that, really, we shouldn’t have. We can have a tendency to think up a picture of a God who won’t mind. Who will turn a blind eye to such behaviour. After all, we think, a loving God would never reject us because of such things. But, of course, we pilgrims would never behave in those ways to think up these “foolish ideas” about God. Would we?

Thankfully, we have a loving and gracious God, who never turns away a repentant child of His. The Psalms are oozing with words and songs of thanks and worship. We have Psalm 7:17, “I will thank the Lord because he is just; I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.” Or Psalm 103:1, “Bless the LORD, O my soul: And all that is within me, bless his holy name.” (KJV). But God’s heart is encapsulated in Isaiah 55:6-7, “Seek the Lord while you can find Him. Call on Him now while He is near. Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong. Let them turn to the Lord that He may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for He will forgive generously“. 

The remedy for those people Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 1:21 is to turn back to God in repentance. We pilgrims are included, because in this life we get tainted by the world and its systems. So, we take all our rationalised baggage, stuffed full of sin, and leave it at the Cross. And, cleansed once again, we can give God all our thanks, and all our worship, our minds “dark and confused” no more.

Dear Lord. At the foot of Your Cross today we gaze upon Your face in worship, with deep thanks for all You did for us at Calvary. Amen.

Consuming Fire

“She glorified herself and lived in luxury, so match it now with torment and sorrow. She boasted in her heart, ‘I am queen on my throne. I am no helpless widow, and I have no reason to mourn.’ Therefore, these plagues will overtake her in a single day— death and mourning and famine. She will be completely consumed by fire, for the Lord God who judges her is mighty.”
Revelation‬ ‭18:7-8‬ ‭NLT

It looks as though the vision portrays an immediate, plague-induced collapse of the world system called Babylon. Judgement and fire follow. The world system and religion glorified itself. Pride and boasting prevailed. The throne of individual lives became the focus. Self satisfaction was the norm. But our mighty God was having none of this behaviour, and His fire, following the plagues, instantly burns it all up. The fire followed God’s righteous judgements. 

The world system is dominated by “Me! Me! Me!”. People stay awake at night thinking of ways to improve their lot in life, even if it means trampling on someone else in the process. We boast about what we have achieved. We take pride in our conquests. Selfishness rules the lives of those in the world. But 1 Corinthians 3:13 reads, “But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value.” Obviously, the world system has, ultimately, no value at all. The world system called Babylon disappeared in a puff of smoke. Gone forever without trace.

There is a cost in following God’s ways. And one thing for sure, glorifying self will not be a part of it. Jesus taught about the cost of following Him. In Matthew 10:38-39, he said, “If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” There is no room in a pilgrim’s life for selfish living. It’s Jesus’ way, His way alone. So we pilgrims ask ourselves the question – who is on the throne of our lives? In response, we live out our lives, always at the foot of the Cross. Always conscious of what He has done for us. When we come to God in repentance, accepting His death for our sins, we die to our selfish nature, and instead put God fairly and squarely on the throne of our lives.

We do not need to fear the fires of Judgement Day. We are not Babylon followers. Instead, we follow God’s ways, storing treasure in Heaven, safe from the fires of judgement.

Dear Father God. Please forgive us for our selfish ways. It’s Your way, or no way. For ever and ever. Amen.

Incense

“Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. Then the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth; and thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and there was a terrible earthquake.”
Revelation‬ ‭8:3-5‬ ‭NLT

In John’s vision, another angel appears. He was carrying a “gold incense burner”, which is a vessel usually ornately carved or adorned with a variety of designs, and punctuated with holes to allow the burning incense smoke or fumes to be released into the atmosphere. It would be suspended by a chain or cord, so that it could be carried around. The angel carrying it “came and stood at the altar”.

What is incense and what is it for? Incense is a fragrant oil or wax that, when heated or burnt, gives out a fragrant or pungent smell. In early Jewish liturgy, incense was burnt as a holy offering to God on a purpose built altar. Spiritually, incense is associated with prayer, symbolically rising into God’s presence as the incense smoke rises into the air. So the prayers of God’s people are considered to be an acceptable offering to Him, confirming that we must never neglect our prayer life. He thinks it is something special and pleasing.

The first mention of incense in the Bible was in Exodus 30, where the Lord gave instructions to Moses about the building of an incense altar. So in this picture in John’s vision, we see that incense was still being burnt in Heaven, this time on a gold altar located before God’s throne. 

In the vision, John saw incense being given to the angel, who mixed it with the prayers of God’s “holy people”. That’s important. Incense is associated with holiness. Unholy and inappropriate prayers are unacceptable to God. Paul reminded his protégé, Timothy, of this. We read in 1 Timothy 2:8, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In Psalm 141:2, we read, “Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering.” Whatever our liturgy or theology, Biblically, there is an association between the act of lifting our hands and our holy prayers. Just by opening our hands in God’s presence, as we stretch them up to Heaven, bares our souls before our mighty Creator God, in an attitude of worship and service. And by so doing, our prayers somehow become as pleasing as incense before His throne.

As the scene in John’s vision rolled on, he wrote, “The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out”. This had a dramatic impact. The holiness of the incense and the altar contrasted with the unholiness prevalent on the earth, and as a result, the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it to the earth resulting in thunder, lightning and a “terrible earthquake”.  

For pilgrims everywhere the importance of holiness is non-negotiable. We read in 1 Peter 1:16, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”” Believe it or not, there are some things that is impossible for God to do. One of these is that He is unable to accept or allow any form of unholiness in Heaven. Because God is perfectly holy, anyone or anything tainted by even the most infinitesimally small amount of unholiness will fail to gain entry into His presence. And that includes mankind, big time. Thankfully, through Jesus, we can attain that holiness, but we have a big responsibility in ensuring that we remain on the “Highway of Holiness”, as described in Isaiah 35:8. “And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there.” We cannot claim the righteousness that was gained for us by the death of Jesus, and then continue in our old sinful ways. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church the following (Ephesians 4:21-24), “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.”

So we pilgrims turn our backs on our previous lives, tainted as they were by sin and all forms of unholiness. And we keep short accounts with God, confessing our sins with repentant hearts. We have a new nature through Jesus, truly holy. And that is what we must wear.

Dear Father God. Once again we thank You for Jesus, the Alpha and Omega of our faith. There is none other worthy of praise and worship. Amen.

Repent

“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love Me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to Me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches.”
‭‭Revelation‬ ‭2:4-5‬ ‭NLT‬‬

How disappointed the Ephesians must have been to hear Jesus’ next words, just after the encouragement they had just received. To be accused of not loving Him as they should must have hit their hearts like an arrow. A frantic rush of soul-searching must have tumbled through their minds and emotions. And the criticism extended to include their lack of love for each other. Jesus said to them, “Look how far you have fallen!”. Oh dear. As I have said before, mankind generally has a tendency to lapse into a state of comfort, where reduced effort and complacency rule the days. It takes effort, considerable at times, to keep loving God and loving each other, sad though that is. And it looks as though this is what happened to the Ephesians. Jesus went on to remind them of the consequences of continuing as they had been doing; their “lampstand” would be removed from the list of churches. But with Jesus there is always a way back. He encouraged these early Christians to repent. He told them to “Turn back to Me and do the works you did at first”. That is what repentance is all about – it is a turning back from the wrong and sinful ways of life and returning to those that are God-ordained. We don’t know the outcome of Jesus’ impassioned appeal because Ephesus as it was in those days doesn’t exist anymore. It just consists of a number of ruins, including a cathedral that was active up until at least the 5th Century. But perhaps the message from Jesus produced the fruit of repentance and led onto greater things, but of which we have no record.

This message to the Ephesians is a timely warning to us pilgrims. It reminds us, as do the messages to the other churches, of the importance of staying close to Jesus, as we did when we first encountered him. At the point when we were saved. It reminds us to repent when we stray. Because stray we will unless we work hard to keep the faith.

Near where I live there are some “lampstands” being removed. A number of churches in the Church of Scotland denomination are having to close because their congregations have dwindled to the point that it is no longer viable to keep them open. And in some cases, the upkeep of old buildings, monuments to our rich Christian heritage, is no longer affordable. So sad. But Jesus said He would build His church, and He was very graphic in His teaching to His disciples in John 15. We read, ““Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned.” Jesus’s church will not be based on dwindling congregations in dusty old mausoleums, but instead will be a growing, vibrant, fruit-bearing, and dynamic group of His followers. Grafted into the Vine. Loving God and their fellow Christians. Doing the works of His service. Are we pilgrims such fruit-bearers? Or are we useless branches? Hmmm…

Dear Lord. We thank You for this timely message. We repent of the barren times when we have erred away from You and we ask for Your forgiveness. Please help us, Lord , we pray. Amen.

Honey From the Rock

“If My people would only listen to Me, 
if Israel would only follow My ways, 
how quickly I would subdue their enemies 
and turn My hand against their foes! 
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him, 
and their punishment would last for ever. 
But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; 
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Psalms‬ ‭81:13-16‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

What a wonderful and compassionate God He is! In spite of their rebellious and stubborn hearts, God continually reaches out to His people. The phrase “if My people” occurs several times in the Bible. And in particular in 2 Chronicle 7:14 God again used the phrase “if My people”. We read, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” He was consistent in His advice and appeals to His people, that if they followed His ways all would be well, but if they didn’t, then disasters would overtake them.

The same advice applies today. We see our political leaders diverging from God’s ways, embracing the advice of godless people and following their own deceitful wishes, and by so doing legislating wickedness into our statute books. And unintended consequences emerge, causing difficulties and misery to many. “If My people would only listen to Me” is advice that has been rejected. We see people around us in our communities, who too have rejected His ways, instead blindly following the paths of sin and wickedness that lead to a sticky end.

So we, as God’s people, pray. Seek His face. Repent of our sins. And all in the knowledge that God will truly hear us from Heaven. And we pray that He will have mercy on our nations, forgiving our national sins. But sadly those who hate God will one day discover their eternal punishment. We have to use every opportunity to introduce them, through Jesus, to our gracious God and help them follow His ways. There is no other solution to their otherwise terrible fate.

But to end on a positive, we read the lovely picture of enjoying the “finest of wheat” and “honey from the rock”. A picture of not just ordinary provision, but a banquet of plenty never before experienced. We get a picture of natural and spiritual provision directly from God, bringing a state of satisfaction almost unheard of and only dreamed about. In the eternal context of the previous verse, perhaps God is painting a picture of our Heavenly home. Providing a hint of the wonderful life we will have one day in His presence, a seat at His table of plenty.

‭‭

Being a Fool

“Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!” Psalms‬ ‭53:1‬ ‭NLT‬‬

David, the Psalmist, is again in contemplative mode. In a zone of musings, as he thinks about what is going on about him. He is obviously much influenced by people around him, and he sees their hypocrisy, their lip service to God but in reality they deny Him, even His existence, with their thoughts and actions. And he concludes that they are “fools”. But if he is right, there are an awful lot of fools around us today. Nothing has changed from David’s day. Worse, though, there are many more who openly declare that there is no God. That everything happened by chance. Chemical reactions brought about carbon-based life. A Big Bang caused the universe to appear. And these people then sit back in a self-satisfied state of “knowledge”, not realising that they have talked themselves into being fully paid up members of the Society of Fools.

David draws the conclusion that without an open acceptance of God and His ways, the God-deniers, the atheists and agnostics of his day, are corrupt and evil in all they think and do. They adopt a life that is biased towards their own personal gain, selfishness being fuelled by an evil desire not held in check by the thought there is a God in Heaven looking on. Deep within us is a God-shaped hole that yearns and aches for Him to fill it. And today there will be those who, in spite of their God-denying, will try to fill their internal ache by doing good things for their society, perhaps helping out at a fund raising function, putting out their neighbour’s bins, visiting sick in hospital, or donating to a charity somewhere. 

But David’s musings remain in the zone of the foolishness of denying God, and the impact such denial will have on thoughts and actions, extending as they do into evil, and general corruption. Worldliness on a global scale.

So what about us. Christians can’t sit back and believe they have nothing to fear from Psalm 53. To the contrary, perhaps there is a wake up call here, for us to review and examine our hearts, bringing to the surface all that is God-denying. All that is evil and corrupt. And then bring it under the Blood of Jesus, in sorrowful and heart-felt repentance. Then the grace of God will flood over us once again. Praise His Name!