For awhile now I’ve wanted to write about some of the verses that I commonly see/hear Christians take out of context. The goal of the next few entries on my blog are going to be to take some of these verses, look at how people have misconstrued/misused them, examine them in context, and then properly apply them. Here is my warning: this may make you upset because some of these verses are near and dear to many people’s hearts. Yet, if we take the Bible and use it improperly then we can do much more harm than good (see my earlier posts on context for more information about this).
I’m going to start off with a bang by looking at what is perhaps the granddaddy of misused verses from the Bible. This passage has become the cornerstone of many people’s view on God and how He uses people to accomplish His purposes. Sadly, it is so many times taken out of context and twisted to say something it never was meant to say. Yes, I have already written about it but for the sake of this series of posts I’m going to do it again.
Whenever we read the Bible we should always look at the 5 A’s of context:
- Author(who wrote it and why did they feel the need to write it?)
- Audience(who was it written to and why did they need to receive it?)
- Atmosphere(what was the historical and cultural setting it was written in?)
- Accuracy(how does what I am reading align with other parts of the Bible?)
- Application(what can I learn from the passage to apply to my own life?)
With this in our minds let’s read the famous verse:
Jeremiah 29:11New Living Translation (NLT)
 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
I’m sure you’ve heard or read that somewhere in your life before. So many people use it as a safety blanket to say that no matter what is happening in their lives that God has plans for good and not for disaster. They use this to trust that God will eventually bring their lives back to peace and prosperity. So let’s go through the 5 A’s and see if this is what the passage is truly saying:
This book was written eponymously by the prophet Jeremiah who delivered messages from God from the years 626 BC to 595 BC. He is known as the weeping prophet because God used him to foretell of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians during their conquests. The Babylonians enslaved Judah just as Jeremiah foretold but God fulfilled His words through Jeremiah and eventually they were allowed to return under the reign of the Persians after Jeremiah’s death.
The audience that Jeremiah was writing and speaking to were the Israelites who lived in the Northern Kingdom of Judah. They had become disobedient to God and no longer followed Him. Instead, they were led astray by their leaders and worshipped other false gods. As a result, they were allowed to be captured by the Babylonians and taken into exile. While they did not listen to Jeremiah during his time as a prophet they did eventually see God’s message through Jeremiah fulfilled.
As already mentioned, this was written during the time of 626 BC to 595 BC during the time before and during the captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah was warning the people to turn back to God and ask for forgiveness before it was too late. Even afterwards God used Jeremiah to give the exiled Israelites directions for how to live and prosper in Babylon as well as what to expect when they would eventually be allowed to come back to Jerusalem. God’s words were fulfilled during the reign of Cyrus the Persian in 538 BC.
This verse is often used as an insurance policy for Christian living claiming that no matter what a person may presently be going through that God will eventually lead them back to a future filled with hope and good things. The problem is that when this verse is read in context it does not speak to us in 2017 AD. It is written to the captives in Babylon during their captivity giving them a future hope of restoration. Look at the verse in its literary context:
 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again.  For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.  In those days when you pray, I will listen.  If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.  I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” (Jeremiah 29: 10-14 NLT)
Does this look like it was written to Christians living in our current historical setting? Not unless you think God plans to bring back the Babylonian empire and enslave us for 70 years. If that were the case, maybe it would have some application. Yet, we can easily see that this verse is not accurately taken if we try to apply it to ourselves. It may have been written for us to learn from but it was definitely not written to us.
So, if this passage was not written to us then how can we apply it to our lives? We certainly should not take it to mean that life will eventually be sunshine and rainbows and have a magical happy ending. If you think that is what God has planned for His followers here on Earth then you need to go to the hospital and sit with devoted Christians who are dying of cancer, or who have babies that are stillborn, or those who get sick and never recover… the list could go on and on. God did not promise us all wonderfully perfect lives. In fact, this does not line up with what we saw with what Jesus told his followers they could expect out of life.
The New Testament writings of Jesus’ teachings as well as the writings of the Apostles all tell us that we can expect persecution and suffering for being followers of Christ. It has become a very Western way of thinking that we will be healthy, happy, wealthy, and wise until we die in our sleep at the age of 130. This is just not how the world works. Devoted followers of Jesus suffer and die every day and then wonder where our hope and future are!
If all of this is true, can we learn nothing from this famous verse? I should think we can. We can see that God is faithful to keep His promises. We can see that God’s mercy is so great that even in our disobedience He makes a way for us to come back to Him. We can see that God’s purposes will always come to fruition even when we don’t understand them. And we can learn that God is faithful even when we are unfaithful.
Will we all have a hope and a future in this life filled with wealth, health, and prosperity? That is not at all what this passage is meant to teach. What we can learn is that God is faithful and that His purposes will always ultimately be accomplished. And we can be grateful that He brings us into His plans along the way. I hope that this didn’t ruin your day but, rather, that it set you free from a misunderstanding of God’s promises. May we continue to work to read the Bible in context so that we do not fall into the trap of improper expectations of life and of God.