Bumper-sticker Christianity quickly falls apart. By that I mean those verses and quotes that pass around the rear end of a car or fit nicely atop someone’s Facebook wall. We say them, they make us feel good, and everyone is the better for it, right?
Some may argue that this is harmless.
If I’m honest, this has always bothered me. I love the Bible. I love studying it and I love watching God come alive all around me as I understand Him more each day. I’m not sure if it’s that, or my contrarian personality, which causes me to cringe when I watch well-intentioned Christians quote Scripture out of context. I’m confident this isn’t done with any ill intent. But it happens often. Let me give you one of the big ones that gets used.
“‘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.’” Jeremiah 29:11
Who wouldn’t love that verse? The only problem is that we use that verse as a blanket description of God’s intent for our lives today. So why is that a problem? Because God said it to a specific group of Israelites at a very specific time in history. We know this because chapter twenty-nine begins with this setup:
“This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” Jeremiah 29:1
Last I checked, nobody alive today fits this criteria. Yet we still want that promise. (I doubt we’d still want that promise if it meant we had to experience what the Israelites did). If you are a big fan of Jeremiah 29:11, it may be difficult to see the point I’m making. Here is a more obvious example taking a quote from the same book as above.
“God’s prophets are all windbags who don’t really speak for him.” Jeremiah 5:13a NLT
Imagine if I had that on the bumper of my car! Oh, the conclusions people would make. Does this verse mean we should discredit all that Jeremiah, a prophet of God, says in this book? If you read the Bible without context you might get to that conclusion. But in context it is obvious to see that he is referencing other people who claim the title but don’t accurately represent God’s intentions. Jeremiah doesn’t fit that category. Since we would naturally assume that context matters for chapter five, we must also assume that context matters for chapter twenty-nine.
My wife used another analogy recently that also explains this well. Jeremiah 29:11 is a letter to these Israelites that we “intercept” today. To the degree that we fit with the letter’s original audience is the degree that it might apply to us. If I wrote a letter to a friend of yours but you read it first, you could learn about me and about how I treat your friend. You could even guess how I might treat you. But it would be silly to assume that what I said to your friend directly applies to you. One of the reasons this is tricky for us with the book of Jeremiah is that in the New Testament we read lots of letters written to churches. Those are easier for us to apply today because we have more in common with the recipients. But that is also why we must use context when going further back in history to a book like Jeremiah which is written in a very different context. We can learn much about God, about God’s heart for His people, and draw conclusions about how He’d treat us based on Jeremiah 29:11. As long as we keep it in context.
You might argue that Jeremiah 29:11 is still universally true depending on how we define the word prosper. I disagree. Imagine telling Dietrich Bonhoeffer that he was prospering for his faith (or any other handful of martyrs for that sake). Yes, following God brings hope unlike anything else. Yet, universally promising prosperity of any tangible kind is a big stretch. For many Christians throughout history, God Himself is the only reward they had for their obedience. Consider some of the “Hall of Faith” people mentioned in Hebrews chapter eleven.
“But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.” Hebrews 11:35b-39
Would anyone really argue that Jeremiah 29:11 applied to them?
Now that you are likely experiencing a bit of disequilibrium, what’s the healthy response to this?
Should we stop reading the Bible for fear we’d misapply it? Fear not, we all end up misapplying the Bible in one way or another. I’m sure God will have a good time correcting our confused theology in Heaven. However, the goal as a growing disciple is to continually grow deeper in our faith and obedience. I think it begins with challenging our notions of certainty and humbly following after Christ. It begins with finding community around you who challenge your faith and the conclusions you draw about God and the Bible. And it will take a willingness to acknowledge when it’s time to change your mind about something. Unless we are willing to do this, we will stunt any spiritual growth possible.
Could Jeremiah 29:11 apply to your life today? It’s possible. But it certainly isn’t a default.
Studying the Bible, living in community, and humbly challenging our opinions are all ways to grow closer to God and to see His Truth in deeper ways. While it may seem that we have much to lose in this approach, the reality is that we have way more to gain. I’ve spent decades studying God’s Word and continue to be amazed at the richness of things I hadn’t never seen or understood previously. And it has caused me to change my mind countless times.
Don’t miss the context.