FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #8
“’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
Question: How should we understand this verse today? How should we apply it?
When we read a verse like this, we tend to highlight it, put it on a motivational poster, and use it to say that God promises to fulfill my individual plans for my individual future. This is not the way to read and understand the Bible.
First, we must realize that context really matters when we interpret and apply the Bible. This promise is in “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). So for me to claim this promise as written directly to me is to rip the verse out of its context.
The plans God has is not for an individual, but a people and a nation and they are specific to the context: that God will bring them from exile in Babylon, restoring them to the land and to relationship with himself.
Just because the promise was not made to us, it does not mean that it was not written for us. There are still principles we can draw from this letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon. I think Paul picks up on the principle when he wrote the Christians in Rome: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Again, the temptation is to take this verse out of context and make it apply to my individual situation. The good Paul is talking about is being conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29-30). This is not a promise that God will do whatever we determine is good; the promise is that whatever circumstances we might face, we can be confident that God will accomplish his purpose and conform us more and more into the image of Jesus.
This is the principle underlying the promise in Jeremiah 29. Things look hopeless for the children of Israel. God had promised Abraham (their ancestor) land, children, and blessing. Now the children have been removed from their land and it seems like they will not be able fulfill their purpose of being a blessing to all nations. God is assuring them that, even though things look hopeless, he will accomplish his purpose for them. The promise was partially fulfilled when the children of Israel returned to the land (something Ken talked about in his sermon). Ultimately, God’s plan was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.
So, we cannot claim this verse as a promise that God will fulfill my individual plans for my individual future. However, because Jesus has risen from the dead and because the Spirit has been poured out on us (Romans 8) we can be confident that God will fulfill his promise: one day we will reflect perfectly the glory of Jesus.
(Side note: another verse I’ve often heard people use as a promise of personal power is Philippians 4:13 – Jesus will help me be a better soccer player, student, investor, etc. The wording of the promise itself reminds us not to rip it out of context: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Looking at the context, “all this” refers to Paul’s ability to be “content in every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (v.12). Clearly this is not a promise that Jesus will give us the strength or ability to do whatever we want. Rather this is a promise that we can be content in poverty or wealth because our confidence is not in wealth but in Christ’s power).
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