“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 a hope and a future.”
Dagnabit, he almost had it.
In Jonathan Merritt’s latest post at Religion News Service (“Jeremiah 29:11 is NOT about you!”), the blogger popular with evangelical Millennials rightly observes that Christians often get the iconic verse wrong.
Usually, pastors and congregants alike feel—somehow—that the verse can be appropriated to mean, primarily, that God intends only good things for us. Us, as in gentile Christians.
Narcissism is alive and well in 2013.
Merritt did a great job explaining the context of the verse, which has to do historically with the coming Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, in the sixth century B.C. The context explains that the prophet Jeremiah was looking ahead to a time when God would restore His people.
And this is where it gets interesting.
Just when I thought Merritt was going to take it home and help us see that God certainly did do that (70 years after the captivity, a new ruler in the empire, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return. We can also see a more advanced return, far into the future and looking forward to the restoration of all things)…he veered off into a dismaying, but familiar territory:
This worldview sees “the Church” as having replaced Israel in God’s overall redemptive plan. It has spawned centuries of mistreatment of the Jewish people and, in a broader sense, robbed Christians of a true picture of redemptive history.
Earlier in his blog, Merritt quotes the authors of “Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes” (you’ll see the greater irony of that title when you realize the mistake Merritt makes), who get it:
“[Modern Westerners] misunderstand the object of the sentence, you, to mean ‘each one of you individually.’ We then read Jeremiah 29:11 as, ‘I know the plans I have for you, Brandon.’ But remember that Israel was a collectivist culture. They understood the object of the sentence, you, to mean ‘my people, Israel, as a whole.’”
My people. Israel.
It’s pretty simple. The Bible is pretty straightforward most of the time, especially when describing the history and destiny of the Jewish people. Many Christians, however, just can’t see it that way. I suspect many don’t want to. “They” (the Jews) killed Jesus, after all, they say. The Jews rejected God’s plan for them, so He transferred the promises He made to the Jews…to the Church.
It’s a baffling and sinister perspective, but I believe it is something close to a plague in the American church.
Quite interestingly, Merritt gives an important clue in his blog, when he shares that he had questions about this growing up:
“The ministers I asked usually offered a vague affirmation of God’s sovereignty and then changed the subject. So I let it go.”
He let it go so far that he too misunderstands the main thrust of the passage:
“In the Old Testament, ‘God’s will’ describes a plan for God’s people. It is less about prospering a person who follows God and more about prospering the community of God as a whole. So a better modern application for this verse might be:
“God has always worked to prosper God’s people and God always will. Just as God worked in history to preserve Israel, so he is now working to preserve the Church. Though God’s Church will undoubtedly face challenges and often be co-opted into the unholy agendas of governments and politicians and false teachers, and though the individual parts of the whole may experience the terrible effects of a sin-stained world, God remains committed to seeing that beautiful body of Christ through to the end.”
Come on, man, you almost had it. God certainly worked through history to preserve Israel, but the key thing is, He still is. Not “worked,” past tense. “Working,” present tense.
This is the key concept for understanding that Jeremiah 29:11, a Jewish prophecy given by a Jewish prophet, is thoroughly Jewish in redemptive history.
This actually helps explain something else I wondered this week, upon reading that Jonathan Merritt will speak at a closed-door meeting of what I call Christian Palestinianists, in Washington D.C.
“Telos 2013,” a three-day meeting in early October, is sponsored by the Telos Group, whose members work hard to bring the so-called Palestinian narrative into American churches. Merritt’s friends evidently invited him because he is a key communicator with young evangelicals, who often reject the worldviews of their parents.
On Wednesday, October 2, Merritt will host a “Movement Building Roundtable,” and presumably the group will discuss stepping-up efforts to pry Israel support from evangelical churches. Merritt’s view of Jeremiah 29:11 will fit right in.
It’s too bad young Merritt’s pastors could not answer his questions about the famous passage.
He could have prospered from right answers, and so could his readers.