Our Scripture text today contains one of the most beloved promises in the Bible:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Sadly, a quick internet search will reveal that there is no shortage of scholars and preachers who are determined to steal all the precious promises of the Old Testament from the New Covenant people of God. Their argument is that the promises in the Old Testament had application only to the the "original audience."
While it is true that we must take into account the original context, it is not true that application is limited to that original context. The preaching of Christ and his apostles proves this. In his first letter, Peter, for example, did not hesitate to apply the Babylonian exile to his audience.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.
Without out a doubt the first application of Jeremiah's prophecy was to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, who returned 70 years later by the decree of king Cyrus of Persia. However, we know by the apostolic authority of Peter that the ultimate fulfilment of these words lays in the future with the New Covenant people of God. Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in ancient Babylon is just as relevant to us today as it was to the original audience. These promises are ours! In fact, by being united to Christ who is the true Israelite, all the promises found in Scripture are ours!
For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.
But not only the promises, but also the loving Fatherly guidance that God gives his people in the Old Testament is ours as well. It is that guidance I want to focus on today. According to the word of God from the prophet Jeremiah, you are to Seek to Prosper and Multiply in the Place God Sent You.
As our society is becoming more and more godless and immoral many are suggesting Christians take the "Benedict option." In the face of the immorality and decay of the late Roman Empire many Christians were attracted to the monastic movement. One can ask, "why marry and have children when you see your society falling into a new Dark Age?" Most Americans now believe our nation's best years are behind us. Perhaps the best thing to do is withdraw from society altogether and wait for the Lord to come back. As the old hymn says, "this world is not our home." If this is true, why waste our time building homes?
The problem with that kind of thinking is that the exile will not end anytime soon. The false prophets of Jeremiah's day were predicting that the exile was ending soon. Through Jeremiah, God told the Jewish exiles in Babylon they still had 70 years of exile. In a similar way, Peter tells his readers that Christ's second advent will be delayed until God fulfills his purposes for this age.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
So what are we to do until our exile ends? We are to build homes, families and businesses in the place God has sent us.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
In other words, live normal lives. God's primary means for growing his church as always been the bearing and evangelism of children. Compare these two verses:
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
As godly families multiply, they become salt and light to the broader society. This leads to the second exhortation: Seek the Welfare of the Place God Sent You.
Those who insist that the Old Testament teaches a sub-Christian ethic have not seriously dealt with passages such as Jeremiah 29. The Babylonians were the Jews bitter enemies. As they took one Judean city after another, the Babylonians committed horrific acts of brutality. Not only did they commit the common acts of pillaging of property and the rape of women, they would take babies and dash them against the stones! The Jews were powerless against their oppressors. There was no court they could appeal to. The only court that would hear their case was that of God.
Psalm 137 was composed as an appeal for Divine justice. It begins with a lament:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
As the Psalm reaches its climax, the Jews make their appeal for Divine justice.
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
The Jews were not seeking to satisfy their blood lust. Nor are we to imagine that they literally wanted the infants of Babylon dashed against rocks. They were seeking God's justice by the standards God himself laid out in his Law. According to God's standard--punishment must always be equal to, but never exceeding the crime. The Jews who composed Psalm 137 were doing what the apostle Paul commands Christians to do in Romans 12, to leave vengeance in God's hands. God is more than capable of balancing the scales of justice without literally dashing Babylonian infants against stones!
Moreover, the same God would inspired the composition of Psalm 137 also inspired Jeremiah to write to the exiles in Babylon:
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Centuries before Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount to love and pray for our enemies, Christ through the Holy Spirit was teaching the Jews to love and prayer for their enemies! The same is still true for today. Rather than withdrawing from society, Christians must be leaders in the effort to reform and bless society.
The Christians of Hong Kong serve as a great example of what it means to be salt and light. The Communist Party of China has been attempting to suppress the freedom of the people of Hong Kong by attempting to "pre-screen" candidates in Hong Kong's elections.
In response, hundreds of thousands of students, in what came to be known as the “Umbrella Movement” because of the use of umbrellas against the tear gas canisters used by police, shut down large parts of the city for the better part of three months.
One of the leaders of this movement is a Christian by the name of Joshua Wong. He cites the command to be salt and light and says that Christians have “a more important role in the world other than being just a normal citizen in society who wants to earn money.”
We can see this attitude reflected in Jeremiah 29. The word "welfare" in verse 7 is the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is a word that speaks of all aspects of living in peace and prosperity. It is seeking the very best for our neighbor. This is the second Great Commandment--to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the guiding ethic of both the Old and New Testaments.
But there is a greater commandment--to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. This, too, is found in Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Did you notice all the promises in God's command to seek Him with all our hearts. God tells the Jews and he is telling us today that his plans for us are for our "welfare and not for evil." That word welfare is the Hebrew world shalom again! God's plan for you is the very best!
This is hard to believe when you live in Babylon. It saddens me that so many scholars and pastors have ripped the wonderful promises of Jeremiah 29 out of Christian's Bibles. I know I need to hear that God promises to give me a "future and a hope." I need to hear that when I cry out to God, God promises to "hear" me. I need to hear that when I seek God, I will "find" him. I need to hear that the exile of this life will end someday.
I know that you need to hear this as well!
It is not taking Jeremiah 29 out of context to apply it to the church!
Now it is possible to take a verse out of context. A good example of this is Revelation 3:20:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
This verse is commonly used in evangelism to the unconverted. However, the context make it clear that this is not a word to the unconverted, but to the Christian! The church of Laodicea had grown comfortable in their "Babylon". They had followed the first two commandments God gave Jeremiah: They had multiplied in their prosperity and they had blessed their city. In fact, they had grown so prosperous and blessed their city so much that they forgot about God!
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
I don't claim prophetic knowledge as to why our nation God is in such steep decline. But I find comfort in these words spoken to the Laodicean church.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
Jesus is calling is New Covenant people to do the same thing he called is Old Covenant people to do--"seek me with all your heart."
As we have seen today, God has written many letters to his people in Babylon. Letters from the hand of Jeremiah, letters from the hand of Peter and letters from the hand of John. Let us grow wise by listening to and obeying these letters. Babylon is a hard place to live in, but God has called us to live there so that he might bless us. Let me close by reading to you the closing words of Christ's letter to the Laodiceans.
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ ”
May God give us ears to hear and hearts to obey!