Good News For a Church in Exile
Study One : Removed (Jeremiah 29:1-4)
The Situation. In 597bc, King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army led thousands of citizens of Judah into exile. The captives included Jehoicahin (whose uncle, Zedekiah became king in his place), Ezekiel and Daniel. By the rivers of Babylon, the captives were strangers in a strange land. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to them; his letter is recorded in Jer 29:1-23.
The exiles in Babylon are not the only ones to be described in the Bible as strangers in a strange land. 1 Peter 1:1, 1:17 and 2:11 describes Christians in this way too! Those who follow Jesus live throughout the world, but the world is not their home. Sometimes the strangeness is particularly apparent.
The Strangeness. One study, quoted in “Everyday Church,” describes the strangeness like this. The Church has moved from being from in the centre to the margins; from being a majority to being a minority; from feeling like settlers to feeling like sojourners; and from having a position of privilege to being one voice in a plurality of faiths.
We can see this in Jer 29:1-2. The Judeans in Babylon no longer had the symbols of their faith (the temple, the Promised Land, the king), so it was harder for them to show who they were. Their ceremonies were nearly impossible; they were now living in a place where “Sabbath rest” or “clean food” meant nothing. The call to sing “one of the songs of Zion” (Ps 137:3) was just mockery to them. They were being pressed on every side to forget about the Lord their God. Some clung to the hope that things would soon change, and that they would get back to what was familiar and safe.
The Significance. Jeremiah’s letter, however, gave them hope in a different way. He didn’t tell the exiles that they would soon come back to Jerusalem. He reminded them that they were where the Lord wanted them to be. “I carried into exile” (Jeremiah 29:4). The people saw that their captivity spoke of judgement. Jeremiah warned that a worse judgement was to fall on the city they had left behind. Their being taken out - and living as strangers in a strange land - was actually their salvation!
The writer to the Hebrews makes the same points about those who follow Jesus. Hebrews shows how faith led the OT saints to live as strangers (11:13-16) and calls us to have the same faith. It bids us to go out of the city, bearing the disgrace Jesus bore (13:11-14). We are where the Lord wants us to be, to serve Him as we announce, and await, His salvation!
Study Two : Relinquish (Jeremiah 29:8-9; 15-23)
No going back. Some among the captives taken from Jerusalem to Babylon prophesied that the exile would be brief, and everything soon back to how it had been. Jeremiah answered these false prophets in his letter. God hadn’t sent them (Jer 29 v.9); Jerusalem would fall (vs.16-18).; the false prophets would soon lose their lives (v.21). There was to be no going back.
“No going back” is basic to Christian living. See 1 Peter 1:13 (look forward in hope), 2:1-3 (go on, not back) and 2:11 (“abstain from sinful desires”). God calls us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16), so followers of Jesus must relinquish every thought of going back to sinful ways.
There are two other ways in which there can be no going back:
1. No going back - in attitude to others. The message of the false prophets was popular because the exiles didn’t want to be in Babylon! Through both Jeremiah and Peter, however, God the Holy Spirit calls us away from bad attitudes towards others. In particular, we are to relinquish the desire to:
(i) imitate. The book “Everyday Church” (p.55 on) spells out the problems that arise when the Church tries to copy the world. The Church’s relevance is its distinctiveness - the difference the Gospel makes, as it leads us to love.
(ii) reciprocate. In an unkind world, there is the temptation to give as good (or as bad) as you get. So, some followers of Jesus try to live by two sets of standards: they can show love and grace, or be hard and uncaring. The false prophets were “two-faced” in this way (Jer 29:23), but Christians are called to follow the crucified Christ (1 Peter 2:21 on).
(iii) deprecate. Things are more “cut and dried” if we simply denounce people for being different from us - and there are many actions and attitudes that need to be condemned! But our holy God, who hates sin, has shown His love of sinners. 1 Peter 3:15 says that with gentleness and respect (i.e. remembering we are under God) we are to explain the hope we have.
2. No going back - attitude to circumstances. The false prophets were just saying what people wanted to hear. The exiles were encouraging them to have their dreams (Jeremiah 29:8). They wanted to live in dreamland, where everything was as it used to be. They were forgetting that it had been no easier to serve the Lord then (29:15-19)! We are to relinquish a desire to go back. We are not to live in dreamland. We are to serve the Lord now!
Study Three : Re-imagine (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
God uses unexpected commands to lead people to deeper insights to His kingdom as they trust Him and obey. To the exiles, the Lord’s unexpected command was to settle in Babylon. They were not to forget where home was, but were to accept their situation as strangers in a strange land.
Those who follow the Lord Jesus know that home is with Him. We find ourselves living as strangers here (see 1 Peter 2:11). The book “Everyday Church” describes our situation as one of witness, mission and movement. This calls for a re-imagining of how our lives are to be lived. The word to the exiles (Jer 29:5-7) guides us here. They were given four commands:
(i) Dwell (v.5) To “build houses” and “plant gardens” suggests a long-term commitment. The Lord told His people to have a presence in the strange land. The Church is called to show its presence too (see 1 Peter 2:12). The authors of “Everyday Church” write: “In particular, Peter calls us to a distinctive attitude towards others...That makes a profound difference when we enter the public square or the workplace or the home.”
(ii) Grow (v.6) God’s plan is to fill the earth with people who know Him (Genesis 1:28). Abraham was promised descendants as many as the stars (Genesis 15:5); the covenant family is God’s plan! But Galatians 3:7 says, “those who believe are children of Abraham.” Knowers of God, therefore, are born “not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). It is God’s Word that brings us to life and binds us to love (1 Peter 1 :22). To obey the command to grow, then, we must proclaim and practise our faith.
(iii) Seek (v.7) God told the exiles to be agents for good in the corrupt and evil society in which they found themselves. They were to be salt and light materially - in business and infrastructure, culturally - in arts and morals, and spiritually, as they made known the truths of God. The same mandate is given to followers of the Lord Jesus in 1 Peter 2:13-17, 3:11-17. This is to be worked at practically; is is something to pursue.
(iv) Pray (v.7) The Lord is God of all the earth. He told the exiles to pray for the peace of their captors - because that was in His hands too! We are called to serve as intercessors (see 1 Peter 1:17, 4:7), and to plead for the peoples of the world - especially those among whom we live.
Study Four : Receive (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
“For I know the plans I have for you...” is one of the great and precious promises of the Bible. It would have seemed bittersweet to those who first received it; it foretold a seventy year exile before there would be a return to Jerusalem. The Lord’s Word, however, did give His people hope.
(i) A Promised Hope. The message received was put positively. It was a “gracious promise” of “plans to prosper” to give “a future and hope.” That it was worded in this way tells us (1) that we must bear in mind that God deals with us as a covenant community, as well as individuals; and (2) that what God promised went beyond a return to the earthly Jerusalem. The Lord’s word also gave hope of the true promised land - a home in glory.
This is the hope given (individually and collectively) to those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:3 speaks of having a living hope through the resurrection of the Lord; 1 Peter 5:10 reminds us that God calls to His eternal glory. This hope is certain, because Christ died and rose again. It is the hope that is to be cherished by all who follow Him.
(ii) A Persevering Hope. Until the things hoped for arrive, our experience is one of exile. For the captives, this meant humiliation. They had been important people in Jerusalem; they were nobodies in Babylon. For those who follow Jesus, “exile” also involves humility. 1 Peter 4:16-17 speak of the suffering that might be experienced for being a Christian.
There are two points to note about suffering. First, it is not punishment, nor is it atoning. Since Christ’s finished work covers every sin, there is nothing left to pay! Instead, God uses suffering to show us that we truly belong to the Lord (1 Peter 4:14) and to make us more like Him (1 Peter 4:2). Then, secondly, suffering is not to be promoted, nor is it to be avoided. The Christian is called to keep on doing good (1 Peter 4:19).
This brings us back to Jeremiah 29:11, God’s promise for us to receive. The Lord says that He knows. We are assured that this is the true grace of God (1 Peter 5:12). We are to receive God’s Word, trust it and obey it. If that causes suffering, we are to commit ourselves to our faithful Creator and continue to do good. In this way, we show our faith, as we look forward in hope to what God has promised and prepared in Christ Jesus, and as we receive His will for our lives day by day.
Study Five : Return (Jeremiah 29:12-14)
Jeremiah 29 records the prophet’s letter to the people who had been taken captive from Jerusalem to Babylon. These exiles were in a strange land, far removed from things that had bolstered their faith. Followers of Jesus are in a similar situation (see 1 Peter 1:1) - especially when the drift of society is away from the things of God. God’s Word calls us to relinquish any resentment about our circumstances and instead to re-imagine our calling. The Bible teaches God’s will. As we trust in Him, we receive His promises for the future which lead to a present obedience. To this we need to return.
(i) Worship. Jeremiah 29:12-14 spells out to what we must return. The focus in v.12 is on worship, and especially on prayer. “You will call upon Me and come and pray to Me.” The thought is of praying collectively, but in a simple and sincere way. Before the exile, the Children of Israel often were drawn away from worshipping the true God truly. They worshipped the Lord in ways He had not commanded, or worshipped idols instead. We are to return to the heart of worship: knowing that God is all!
(ii) Wholeheartedness. We must also return to wholeheartedness. “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (v.13). This means more than being really earnest; it means that every part of our life is turned towards God. This thought is echoed in 1 Peter: it says to followers of Jesus, “Though you have not seen Him you love Him ... and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1:8). We are to be wholehearted, setting our hope “fully on the grace to be given” (1:13).
Jeremiah 29 affirms the result of wholeheartedness. “I will listen ... I will be found by you.” The promise is the real, powerful, presence of God! Daniel and his friends knew this (see Daniel 2:19-28). The book, “Every-day Church” observes, “God does not call us to mediocrity ... He gave his Son and sends His Spirit so that we can be his people and live as his people” (p.180). The key to this is in our return to wholeheartedness.
(iii) Waiting. We must also return to being a people in waiting. The exiles were waiting to go back to Jerusalem; followers of Jesus are waiting to go on to the new Jerusalem (see 1 Peter 1:3-5). That hope spurs us to lives of holiness and service now (see 1 Peter 1 :13-15) - with a joy that signals our hope, and a grace that reflects our faith in the Word of grace in Christ Jesus. It is to this that we need to return, that we might live for the Lord everyday!