Commonly Misunderstood Passages: Jeremiah 29 and Seeking the Good of the City

There I was sitting in a meeting talking about how churches can best reach our post-Christian world. We discussed things churches can do differently to reach a world which appears to want nothing to do with Christian truth claims. This is an incredibly important discussion to have and how we answer this reveals much about our theology. The church exists to glorify God and to reach his world. As we continued in the discussion the leader said it was a good thing the church was no longer a major influence in the culture, and that we shouldn’t fight to regain any prominence in society. To support this, he cited Jeremiah 29:4-7 , a passage written to Israel while in exile in Babylon. The passage reads:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’

Anyone who knows me well, knows I am not good at biting my tongue. I’m working on it, but in a room full of pastors I relish the opportunity for discussion and lively debate. So I dove in head-first by voicing my reservations about his reasoning. At the end of the discussion, neither one of us changed our minds, but it was illuminating. It appeared the leader was applying this passage with little thought of how things have changed from the time of the exile through the work of Christ. How can Christians apply a passage about the exile of Israel without first considering how the work of Christ has changed things?

Sadly, Jeremiah 29:4-7 is quoted ad nauseam today as a model for how Christians should live as exiles in our world. Is this passage telling us to keep our heads down and wait out our time of exile as Israel was called to do? What does it mean to “seek the good of the city” in light of the work of Christ? It is true Christians are both sojourners and exiles, but is that status a one-for-one with Israel in Babylon? I do not believe so. The foundational changes Christ wrought for his people must shape how we view life as exiles who await his return. Let’s turn our attention to rightly understanding this passage in light of Christ.

In order to rightly apply this passage we need to examine the original context, the context of the Church, and then ask how we can seek the good of the city today.


Understanding The Original Context and Ours

What is the original context of Jeremiah 29:4-7? There are several important items we should note to understand what is happening in this passage. First, why was Israel in exile in the first place? God sent them into exile as a punishment for breaking the covenant. After generations of warnings and sending the prophets to call the people back to faithfulness, God finally sent Babylon to destroy Israel and to take the people into captivity. This was a punishment, or curse, for breaking the covenant. God told the people they would be in exile for seventy years. The people receiving these words had just been punished by God by being sent as captives into a foreign land.

Second, why are the people of Israel commanded to settle in Babylon and to get used to it? In the preceding chapter in Jeremiah, we read there were false prophets telling the exiles God was going to set them free early (Jer. 28.4). In Jeremiah 29:4-7 the prophet tells the people to ignore these false prophets. Jeremiah reminds Israel they will be in exile, as a punishment, for the full appointed time. This is very important, the context of this passage is that Israel is in exile as a divine punishment and that punishment is not going to be cut short. How then should they live? Accept the punishment of God by settling in the city. This is how they can show repentance for their sin. Israel’s exile is very different for those who are now exiles in Christ.

What is the context of the church as exiles in Christ? Are we in exile today in the same way Israel was? Clearly not. There are two key differences, both of which are tied to the work of Christ. First, our status as exiles is not the result of our unfaithfulness, rather we are exiles because of Christ’s faithfulness. We are exiles in Christ, not in Babylon. We are not exiles as a result of punishment, but because Christ took our punishment. The importance of this difference cannot be overstated. These two forms of exile are fundamentally different. One is a punishment and one is a blessing.

Second, Christ has commanded his people not to wait out our time of exile, but to be an army seeking to take over this world through preaching the gospel. Christ commands his exiles not to stay in the city but to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:16-20). This is another massive difference between Israel’s context and ours. Our exile is one on mission, it is not a timeout. The job of Christian exiles is to preach Christ’s kingdom as ambassadors (2 Cor. 5.20). We represent another kingdom during our exile, a kingdom that is invading this world because our King is victorious. Our job is to call those who are not a part of our kingdom to convert! This is fundamentally different than Israel’s job to wait for their punishment to end. The difference is we are now in Christ who now has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28.18). We are in his victory.

How To Best Seek the Good of the City

Understanding the original context and how our circumstances have changed in Christ helps us to better apply this passage. So how can Christians “seek the good of the city” today? First, we do so not by retreating or admitting defeat, but by proclaiming the kingdom in every corner of the world. Christ is the Lord over all things and he commands his people to go. The good of every city is not found in post-Christian defeatism, but in realizing there is no such thing as being post-Christian. Christ is King of kings. He rules over every city whether they recognize it or not. The good of the city is found in greater Christian influence, not less. It is the job of the church to refuse the bunker mentality and to instead advance the kingdom by declaring the gospel message—Christ is God’s chosen King who defeated sin and death and who now reigns at the right-hand of the Father.

Once we understand that through his death and resurrection Christ dethroned the rulers of this world, then we can see how different our circumstances are from Israel in Babylon. Israel was defeated by their enemies because of their sin. The church’s enemies have been defeated through the faithfulness and power of Christ. This reality is essential for what it means to be an exile in Christ today. If we really desire the good of our lost cities, then we must refuse the temptation to admit defeat. How can we be defeated if we are in Christ and he is both victorious and ruling over everything? He is King of kings and Lord of lords. We must seek to be his ambassadors who teach the world to obey everything Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:19). Israel’s job was to sit and wait, our job is to go and tell the world who Christ is and what he has done. This is what it means to be an exile in Christ.

By: Levi J. Secord