If you are an American Christian, chances are you have at least three verses memorized: John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Jeremiah 29:11–
This beloved verse actually comes from a letter Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah 29 is like an Old Testament epistle—like 1 Corinthians or Ephesians or 1 Peter. Daniel and his friends, the king and his officials, the craftsmen and artisans had been captured by King Nebuchadnezzar in Jerusalem and dragged off to Babylon. Jeremiah sent them instructions by mail on how they should live while in exile for 70 years in Babylon.
As encouraging as a reflection on Jeremiah 29:11 in the era of COVID-1 might be, I’d actually like us to look at just the first 7 verses of Jeremiah’s epistle. As we slowly emerge from COVID-19 quarantine and survey the life that lies before us, we have many of the same questions the Babylonian exiles did:
Jeremiah’s answers are as true for us today as they were 2500 years ago.
Where Are We?
In the opening address of his first New Testament epistle, Peter writes, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion…” Peter’s point is clear. When we read Jeremiah 29, we should think: This is us. We are the surviving exiles.
Where am I? This is the most orienting question we can ask in our lives. And if we fail to ask it or we fail to answer it correctly, it will lead to disaster.
The first summer Mindy and I lived in Louisville, we had to make several trips back to Western PA, where her parents and a lot of our friends lived. We would hop on I-71 to drive east up to Cincinnati and across Ohio. But on one of our early trips, I missed a vital junction in Columbus. We were supposed to get off I-71 and get onto I-70. So, here we are, humming along for hundreds of miles thinking we are on the highway headed for Pittsburgh. All of the sudden, I see Lake Erie. We’re in Cleveland.
The exiles had to realizes where they were. They weren’t in Jerusalem anymore. They weren’t in God’s country and the people around them weren’t God’s people. They were in a foreign land among foreign people in a city destined for destruction.
Brothers and sisters, we’re living in Babylon.
Just because you drive in the same direction at the same speed as everyone else around you does not mean you’re headed to Pittsburgh. When it’s too late, you may find yourself staring at Lake Erie.
The true danger when you are living in Babylon is not that the king might throw you into a fiery furnace. The true danger is that you forget where you are, and when the music begins to play and everyone else around you starts bowing down to the king’s golden idol, you bow down and worship the golden idol, too.
What Babylon needs is not Christians who join in doing or believing what other Americans do and believe, or what other conservatives do and believe, or what other liberals do and believe, or what other social media personalities do and believe, but Christians who join in doing and believing what God’s people in exile have done and believed for thousands of years.
Our imagination and our manner of life must be shaped by the story of the gospel. People who know where they live are a people “with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). And when we live this way, the Babylonians begin to realize where they are living, too. Paul writes: “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Philippians 1:28).
The Lord God has done amazing things through his people living in exile:
- Joseph saved the entire world from starvation while living in Egypt.
- Moses’s entire career–the Exodus, the Red Sea, Mt. Sinai, all of it–took place outside the land of Israel.
- Esther and Mordecai conquered Haman while living in Persia.
- Daniel triumphed over the Lion’s Den in Babylon.
- Jesus did most of his ministry and miracles in Galilee of the Gentiles–not in Jerusalem.
But all of these people knew where they were. They knew they were exiles. Do you?.
Why Has This Happened?
The temptation for the exiles from Jerusalem—after King Nebuchadnezzar trounced Jerusalem and looted the Lord’s Temple and took the best and brightest into captivity in Babylon—including the heir to David’s throne—is to think that someone else had seized control of the narrative: Someone else—other than God—is writing the story now! This is why the first words of Jeremiah’s letter are these:
I have sent you into exile. I have.
This is a matter of sovereignty. King Nebuchadnezzar looks across his vast empire and declares to the world, “I have done this!” (Daniel 4:28-30). The Lord tells his people, Do not buy the propaganda coming out of Babylon. I have done this. I am still your Sovereign Lord and King–whether in Jerusalem or Babylon. I am in control.
The Exile in Babylon is the worst thing to happen to God’s people in the entire Old Testament. But what the exiles didn’t realize at the time was that God was saving them. A few years later, Nebuchadnezzar would return to Jerusalem and burn, kill, and demolish everything left in the city.
A lot could be said about propaganda in this age of COVID-19, and people are searching for answers. Why has this happened? Why are we here? What the people of God need to know is that this is the Lord’s doing. We can be confident wherever we find ourselves, “for God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Whatever is taking place today is absolutely necessary for sparing you and I from an eternal destiny of wrath. There is no extraneous, unplanned part of God’s plan. What is happening must take place to ensure that “all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.”
What Shall We Do?
If we are in Babylon, and it is the Lord who has exiled us here, this poses a final question: What shall we do? Jeremiah provides several practical instructions, but he sums up the heart of the matter in verse 7:
Seek the welfare of the city. Seek its shalom, its wholeness, its peace, its prosperity, its wellness. Honestly, this is the opposite of the instructions the exiles want to hear. They didn’t love Babylon. They longed for Jerusalem. They longed for the dwelling of God with men. They longed for the end of injustice and the restoration of righteousness. They longed for the return of the King.
Additionally, this seems nonsensical. What was the point of seeking the welfare of a city doomed for destruction? And yet, may I remind you of one of the three Bible verses you have memorized: “For God so loved the world—a world doomed for destruction—that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Brothers and sisters, if God has loved the world in this way, so should we.
When the welfare of the city becomes the driving, overarching motive in our lives as elect exiles, it reshapes the way we read the commands before it:
“Build houses and dwell in them” (Jeremiah 29:5). How do we build houses for the welfare of the city? All of the sudden we realize, the home I am building is not a compound with walls to keep Babylon out. My home is to bring the citizens of Babylon in. My couch is a place for broken sinners to experience love and forgiveness. My table is a place for lost college students to eat and be fed. My yard is a place for children from broken homes to play and feel safe.
“Plant gardens and eat their produce” (Jeremiah 29:5). Be fruitful. Build businesses. Invest. Watch your seeds grow and prosper. Be creative. Produce art and music and architecture and letters and videos and photos. But plant your gardens for the welfare of the city.
The purpose of your business is not simply to turn a profit. The purpose of your work is not merely to feed your family. Christians in exile build businesses that bless the city. Christians in exile do work that benefits others. Christians in exile produce art and videos and literature and online content–fruitful in a thousands different ways–because they are seeking the welfare of the city. Whatever work you do, wherever you garden, that patch of soil has been given to you to produce fruit that brings welfare to your city and beyond. Are you being a faithful gardener?
Marry and have children (Jeremiah 29:6). Do we envision our marriages and our families as gifts to the city? Your relationship with your spouse is meant to bring God’s peace, his shalom, there. The way you love and relate to your wife is either filling your community with gentleness, love, sacrifice, and respect, or filling it with vitriol, belittling, indifference, and harshness. If God has blessed you with a healthy marriage, you need to share that marriage with others. Your marriage does not exist just for you and your spouse. It exists for the welfare of Babylon.
And children are our chance as parents to bless the future. Our families are incubators for the city’s next policemen, husbands, businessmen, mothers, school-teachers, governors, statesmen, entrepreneurs, doctors, and blue-collar workers. A case is currently unfolding in Georgia–a father and son hopped in a truck together, chased down a black man jogging through the neighborhood and ended his life. Fathers, how are you going to be a part of putting an end to that era of Southern life once and for all? Are we parenting for the welfare of the city?
“Multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:6). The people of God ought to multiply not for their own sake but for the sake of the city. Your city needs churches overflowing with believers consumed with a passion and zeal for Christ. They need men and women whose hearts and minds are not captured by the idolatry of Babylon but by the truth of the gospel. They need Christians flooding their streets and filling their neighborhoods and workplaces and classrooms with kindness and mercy and justice and peace. I was listening to one of Mark Dever’s recent sermons, and he was making the point that your neighbors need you to be committed church members for their sake. Your lost neighbors need you to know God’s Word for their sake. Multiply, brothers and sisters, and do not decrease!
“Pray” (Jeremiah 29:7). Jeremiah writes, “Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” If you want to find young men and young women who took Jeremiah’s letter to heart, go read Esther or Daniel.
There’s an irony to the famous story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. The high officials in Babylon were jealous of Daniel, and they wanted to destroy him. But the problem was, they couldn’t find any dirt on him. He never broke the law. He was always seeking the good of the city. He was wiser than all of them by ten times and advised the king well in every matter. There was only one complaint they could find against him: Daniel prayed.
They tricked the king into making an edict against prayer. Daniel kept praying. They came to his house, found him in his prayer closet and arrested him.
Here’s the irony: Who do you think Daniel was praying for day after day? Daniel had read Jeremiah’s letter. He was praying for them. Praying for the very people seeking to destroy him. Daniel was praying the same prayer Jesus himself would pray from the cross: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Jesus Christ, the exile of heaven, came down to this world destined for destruction to seek your welfare. To rescue you from a city about to be engulfed in flames. Can you do the same for your city?