A popular passage for many to lift from the Bible, and quote is the one found in Jeremiah 29:11 – “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.” (ESV)
It’s a comforting thought, to think that God has plans to take care of us and give us a future, but Bible students should be a bit careful about how they pick passages here and there, and apply them.
Firstly, and not least of all, the passage in Jeremiah has a specific audience, context and historical application. God was not vaguely speaking, through Jeremiah, concerning anyone and everyone, and He was not directly speaking to any single individual in the twenty-first century; rather God was speaking through the prophet directly to those Jews who had been exiled during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and who were living as exiles in the foreign land of Babylon.
Jeremiah’s message was that though they were in exile, God still loved them, and He had a specific plan for the Jewish people, especially those who were in captivity. Or more properly, God had a plan for their descendants; because most of the members of that particular group, in this plan, would die while in still captives in Babylon, for the captivity was scheduled, by God, to last 70 years (cf. Jeremiah 29:10).
But eventually, when the 70 years was over, God would return them to the land of Israel, to the city of Jerusalem. (cf. Jeremiah 29:14) Moreover, we know that in the fullness of time, God had further plans to bring forth His Son from among those who had returned back to Jerusalem. God’s Son, the Messiah, would thereafter provide opportunity for the faithful to receive the full blessings of God. This was the future God spoke of through Jeremiah, and this was the hope.
But secondly, the promise was not without some conditions. Consider verses 12-13 of the same passage. “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.” (ESV)
It is a historical fact, and the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther all speak to this fact within the Bible, that when the 70 years of captivity came to an end, not all of the Jews returned back to Judah and Jerusalem. Many more were content to remain where they were. But God was speaking to this, when He told them that in order for them to return, they would first need to be seeking for God with all their heart. Those that returned were the ones desiring spiritual prosperity more than they desired the physical prosperity they might have already found in their new homes.
God’s promises of blessing His people were always so conditioned.
Many hundreds of years before, God had told the Israelites, through Moses “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.” (Exodus 19:5; ESV) If they wanted God to treasure them, protect them, guide them and care for them, then it was necessary for them to seek God with all their heart, and obey the things He told them to do.
It is interesting, that while there are many who want to take Jeremiah 29:11 and apply it to themselves, even though, in context the specific plans God has in mind were long ago fulfilled, there seem to be far fewer who want to take Jeremiah 49:12-13 and apply it to themselves. This in spite of the fact that it is verses 12 and 13 which are most clearly echoed in the New Testament, and in spite of the fact that the promise of verse 11 is hinged upon properly understanding the conditions of the next two verses.
It was Jesus who applied these principles to His disciples, teaching them in the Sermon in the Mount. He taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be
opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7: 7-8; ESV)
Jesus goes on to say that God does want to provide for His children, which recalls the promises of Jeremiah, but, as God pointed out to Jeremiah, the full blessings of God are only going to be found by those who are actively seeking them in obedience to the commands of God, and seeking with “all of their heart.”
None of us are going to stumble accidentally into salvation, or wake up one morning to find God has suddenly given us spiritual maturity apart from any efforts of our own. It is the one who is actively seeking who is going to find these things. Passive faith achieves nothing of lasting value. This principle was true in Jeremiah’s day, it was true in Jesus day, and we should know that it still holds true today.
The church of Christ invites all true seekers to study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.