Everybody has a favourite Bible verse or several that they keep referencing to. Whether you are a pastor, missionary, seminary professor, student or the average pew dweller, you must have at least one passage you have memorized. We find them engraved on plaques, in greeting cards, on calendars or quoted on other items around the house.
But how many of the most popular ones do we know the biblical context? How many of them are loved by some and others keep them out of their lives?
“Which verses are you referring to?” you may be asking.
A popular one that we see around, especially in late spring, coinciding with graduation season, is Jeremiah 29:11, which is a promise of God’s plans, His will for His people.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. (Jeremiah 29:10-12, NIV. Emphasis added.)
According to several folks I know, this passage holds absolutely no promise for Christians today. What is their reason? The historical context of Jeremiah is the prophet warning the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah of their impeding doom. The Babylonians are coming and will destroy the nation. In verse 10, Jeremiah prophecies the length of time of the exile, 70 years. The kingdom of God’s people is destroyed, which seems to go against this promise of prosperity. According to some people I’ve talked with in order to hold on to this promise you have to be able to “remember” your time in the Babylonian exile, which no one today can.
Instead of dismissing Jeremiah 29 as a promise only for the exiles or the returning exiles, why can’t we take a promise for ourselves? What would the spiritual implications or personal context for twenty-first century Christians be?
“The plans I have for you, to prosper and not to harm…” says the Lord (paraphrase). God’s plan is for us to prosper… God’s plan in for Him not to harm us… So what’s the issue here? Just because the Lord’s plan is for something, does that necessarily mean in the physical sense or in monetarily? By no means.
Although the “Prosperity Gospel” movement has claimed this promise for themselves, in a twisted and materialistic sense, that does not mean that we cannot hold to this promise in a spiritual sense.
Here is a popular phrase from Joshua 24:15 (one version), which many who reject the Jeremiah passage hold on to.
“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The problem is there are major sections of the passage missing. Missing to fit their personal theological views? To each their own reason.
Here is the full passage from Joshua 24:
Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (vs. 14-15, NIV. Emphasis added.)
While Jeremiah was written to the exiles, Joshua was written to the Israelites who had just conquered the Promise Land. If you dismiss Jeremiah for the sole reason that you cannot remember being in the exile, then we have to reject this passage on similar grounds, we cannot remember our time as slaves in Egypt.
Why is one passage rejected while the other is not? Is one more inspired? Can it’s promise be more easily understood or applied today? Absolutely not. Both passages are in equal standing.
Instead of rejecting passages due to false gospels claiming them we need to studying all the contexts of the passage in light of how it fits in the grand picture of God’s redemptive story. Once this is all said and done, we can safely look at how it applies to our personal lives, and our culture.
We can examine many more passages that are accepted and rejected. I will leave it at this. When you are reading your Bible, studying it alone or in a group, please remember the four types of contexts before you claim it or reject it: historical, cultural, literature, and theological. The final one is personal context, this is when you can apply the truths found in the passages to your own life.