Friday, 23 August 2013

Theology in the museum

Steps leading up to the Pergamon altar
Berlin has many wonderful museums. We only had time to visit four.

First was the Pergamon Museum which contains a restructuring of the large pagan temple in Pergamon. It certainly gave us an insight into the pressures to conform that faced the early Christians there on a daily basis. It was the centre of the city's activities, and as John says in Revelation 2 it was the seat of Satan. We sat awhile and thought of Antipas, the faithful witness mentioned by John. No doubt, he was not the only martyr there.

The museum also has a restructured Ishtar Gate and the grand and graphic entrance into the city of Babylon. Daniel and his friends would have walked this way when entering the city and would have noticed the attempt by Nebuchadnezzar to give timpression that he was almighty. Thankfully, it did not impress them and cause them to adjust their allegiance to God.

The museum also has relics from other empires and countries that once strutted across the stage. It reminds us that no matter how weak the kingdom of God seems it will survive and no matter how strong the opposing kingdom seems it will disappear and become a historical detail.

The second museum we went to was the Neues which mainly contains relics connected to ancient Egypt. Although Egypt had a long period of prominence, it too disappeared as a power eventually. I only saw one tentative mention of the Exodus and no mention of Moses despite the historical record in the Old Testament that he once belonged to the family of Pharaoh. The most striking feature of this museum was the hopeless view of the after-life believed and practised by the Egyptians. In contrast, we have the living hope given to us because of the resurrection of Jesus.

The third museum was a Jewish one. It is a very impressive building and its inner design is also well done. The section given to the Holocaust is very moving. It reminds us what human sinfulness can agree to do. And it was disturbing to note that anti-Semiticism has a long history in Europe. We could also see that Jews had contributed in many ways to culture and life in general. Yet I did not sense a great deal of optimism regarding the future. It was important for us to think about the gospel future promised to Israel in Romans 11. Hopefully, today's generation of Jews will experience it.

The fourth museum was the German Historical museum. A great deal of it was given to describing the awful consequences of German militarism of the last 150 years. For me, I was glad to see the place given to Martin Luther and his contribution to the Protestant Reformation. In God's purpose, the contribution of one German to the salvation of mankind is far greater than everything else produced by Germany. And it was good to thank God for the grace given to Martin Luther and his determination to stand for the doctrine of justification and to give the Bible to the German people in their own language.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Theology in a zoo

We came to Berlin yesterday and already I would say that it is an interesting city to visit. There are many sites to choose from and no doubt we will go to some of them soon. Nevertheless we spent our first day at the zoo, an experience we often do when we go to a city that has one. Berlin has a world famous zoo, but we had other reasons for going to it.

One is that going to a zoo is the closest we can get to experiencing something similar to what God gave to Job as a remedy for his distress. Not that we had the depth of distress he went through. In fact, we had no obvious distress when we went to it. Yet going round the zoo and looking at all the different animals gave fresh insight once more into the capabilities of the Creator, of his wisdom and delight in what he has made. We recalled how Genesis One reveals his pleasure in what he did as Creator.

I suppose a zoo is also an attempt by humans to recreate a kind of paradise in which features of Eden can be copied. This particular zoo includes garden in its name and there are beautiful gardens and fountains. 

Moreover flesh-eating and grass-eating animals living in proximity to one another. While the tigers we saw did not quite lie down with the kid in the zoo, they were close enough for visitors to see them one after the other. Of course, things would not be so peaceful if all the ditches round each compound were filled in and the tiger could get within a paw's reach of the goat. (One of them kept coming back to see us.) Like all human attempts to recreate paradise, a zoo falls very far short short of the ideal. Still, wandering round it can create longings for the perfect world that is yet to be.

Moreover a zoo reminds us of James' comment that humans have managed to tame all kinds of animals. The day we were there it was the sea lions' turn to reveal that they had been tamed to perform tricks for the amusement (and applause!) of the onlookers. Yet several of the onlookers also revealed James' main point that we often find it hard to control our tongues - they could be overheard having verbal disagreements, even arguments.

Can we not forget theology for a couple of hours? Not really, because why would we want to forget about God. We have not yet planned what we will do tomorrow, but we will try and bring God into it.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Christian assurance

The question of assurance is one that disturbs many genuine Christians. This is not a problem confined to those who may be pessimistic about life. It is clear from First John that lack of assurance was also a problem in the early church (1 John 5:13). Assurance is a spiritual blessing given by God to those who walk closely with him.

Assurance begins when we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, when we respond to the gospel message, confess our sins and commit ourselves to Jesus. But we react to salvation with different degrees of assurance, with some having great confidence and others not having it to the same extent. But it is not possible to have assurance without believing in Christ.

Barriers to assurance
When a person believes in Jesus initially, usually there is a sense of peace and joy. Sometimes believers continue in that vein, their Christian lives being a steady and continuous development of spiritual enjoyments. But with other Christians, this does not happen. Why is this? There are several possible reasons. I would mention four, with the first one being our own fault and the other three not our own fault.

(a) Carelessness about spiritual things. There are several examples of this in the Bible. We can think of individuals such as King David in the Old Testament and the apostle Peter in the New Testament. They enjoyed great spiritual benefits but because of their carelessness they became self-confident and indifferent to the warnings they received. When that happens to us, we will lose our assurance.

(b) Conflicts with the devil. Satan hates Christians with assurance because they are more bold for Christ. So he will do his best (or worst) to dampen their assurance by various types of temptations. These temptations can be a sudden attack or they can be of a prolonged nature. Fearsome thoughts, blasphemous suggestions, immoral images can be sent into our minds and we think, ‘How can I be a Christian and have these thoughts?’ Although they are are the whispers (or screams) of Satan, we can imagine they are our own. But if we hate their presence, it means they are not ours.

(c) Crisis experiences or dark providences. Times of trouble or ill-health come our way and we ask, ‘Why me?’ Dark clouds fill the horizon and perhaps we begin to think hard thoughts about God. We may imagine that he is against us or that he is punishing us for a sin. And so we lose assurance.

(d) Connected to (c) are the occasions when God hides his face. This can happen at surprising times. We may have had a mountain-top experience and everything is going well spiritually. Then suddenly instead of sensing the presence of God we sense his absence. What God is doing is testing us regarding whether we will remain loyal to him and continue to show love for him. The classic example of this is Job. But sometimes we imagine he has forgotten us and so we lose our assurance.

Bases of assurance
Generally it has been understood that there are three bases for Christian assurance. A model that has been used is that of a three-legged stool, with the seat signifying assurance and one leg being the promises of the Bible, the second leg being self-examination and the third leg being the witness of the Spirit. The first leg, that is the promises of the Bible, is objective; the second leg, that is self-examination, is concerned with our sanctification; the third leg, that is the witness of the Spirit, is connected to our adoption.

(a) The assurance that God’s Word is true. This is not the conviction that is reached by a process of assessment as to the veracity of the Bible by considering such features as fulfilled prophecy or its accurate descriptions of the human heart. Rather it is a supernatural conviction given by the Holy Spirit. It is similar to how a lover responds to a letter from his beloved. Another reading the letter may notice its accuracy, its details etc., but the lover knows it is for him and that the author penned it for his benefit. So we focus on the wonderful promises of the Bible concerning Christ and his salvation. This is an infallible assurance because it is a divinely-wrought conviction in the heart of a believer concerning an infallible book.

(b) The assurance that come from self-examination. The Bible tells us to search ourselves concerning our motives and desires as well as our practices. One such occasion is the Lord’s Supper, but it should not be limited to that event. This leg of the stool concerns our sanctification. What is self-examination? (1) it is not a search for perfection, but for direction, to discover in what way we are moving; (2) it is not a search for strong faith, but for real faith, to see if we love Jesus.

(c) The assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit. As I said earlier, this concerns our adoption. Paul in Romans 8 and in Galatians 4 refers to the role of the Holy Spirit in leading the believer to cry ‘Abba Father.’ The Greek verb that Paul uses means a strong cry, suggesting confidence. The Spirit works in this way. A believer has deduced his assurance from the change in his life, but it still feels weak. So along comes the Spirit and strengthens the assurance, so that even in the most difficult times we find ourselves crying, ‘Father.’

The three-legged stool can sometimes be used when one leg is broken. Similarly a Christian can struggle along with the two legs of the truthfulness of the Bible and self-examination. But just as the stool is most comfortable when the three legs are equal, so Christians are most comfortable and have most assurance when the Spirit is also strengthening their hearts. So we should pray for his presence.

Building assurance
Are there any means we can use to develop assurance? Probably there are many ways but I would suggest three. First, if it is sin that has caused the lack of assurance, then repent of it and stop doing it. Second, if it is providence or divine testing that had caused the loss of assurance, then think of the character of God and his purpose as revealed in his Word. Sometimes he is the gentle potter gently moulding our lives, at other times he is the refiner of silver, taking us through the fire to purify us of our dross. Third, we should argue prayerfully with God, not in a rebellious or sulky manner, but on the basis of his promises.

Blessings of assurance
In a sense, they are probably obvious. The inner life of such a Christian is marked by peace and joy, there is a kind of spiritual relaxing in the love of God, as the believer senses he is precious to God. The assured believer cheerfully perceives God’s care for him and interest in him. Worship becomes a spiritual encounter. His expectation of what God can do is enhanced. As Daniel put it, ‘They that know their God will be strong and do exploits.’ They will have the confidence to engage in witness as well as in worship.