The Bible and the American Dream (Part 5)

Understanding True Peace and Prosperity

In spite of such things, we can still experience joy and peace in the midst of all these types of trials through the power of Christ and the promise of God’s presence now and his blessings in the future. This does not mean that a whole host of blessings cannot come in the here and now. However, these current blessings are primarily spiritual blessings of peace, forgiveness, fellowship with other believers, and the ability to be content in every situation we face. 

There are plenty of passages in the Bible to which we can turn to give us hope and encouragement in times of difficulty. We do not need to steal this specific promise God made to Israel. Consider these wonderful words of hope:

  • Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16).
  • Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt 28:20).• Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  . . . Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' (Matt 6:26, 31). 
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).
  • Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  . . . If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14). • My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19)

This fact that our great promise of blessing and prosperity is primarily spiritual in nature does not negate the fact that God might in his sovereignty choose to bless certain individual believers with great wealth and health. That is his divine prerogative. The reality does teach us that we make a grave mistake when we redefine the phrase “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” with our own preconceived sense of what that ought to look like in our physical and material life. We should not highjack this verse and expect such things to happen in our life as we appeal to this Old Testament promise to the people of Judah. God’s promise to Israel cannot be used to demand from God the fulfillment of our American Dream.

Posted by Jeff Spry at Thursday, March 27, 2014 | 3 comments

The Bible and the American Dream (Part 4)

What if God’s Plan for your life is Suffering?

We must understand this Old Testament promise in this way as New Testament Christians of the New Covenant (see Jer 31:31-34). We do not know God’s plan for our lives on earth. What if it is God’s will that we have a terrible life relative to others around us? What if it is our determined lot in life to struggle financially and even be persecuted and uprooted from our homes? What if the only reward we know comes after this life is over and our eternal life begins? 

The idea that God has promised to prosper all Christians everywhere is simply not what the Bible teaches. Consider these verses:

  • God told a man named Ananias that Paul would soon visit him and he should show Paul “how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). 
  • The apostles were beaten by the Jewish leaders and actually rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41). • Paul told Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12). 
  • Paul told the believers in Philippi, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29). 
  • Jesus told his followers, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). • He also said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). 

The Bible does not promise us that we will be free from earthly trouble. In fact, the opposite is true. It seems that often the godliest people are the ones who suffer the most. Instead, we are promised that we will be considered outcasts and will be persecuted for our faith. Can you handle that? Would you still love God and follow Christ if you knew you would suffer in exile as these followers of God did for seventy years? Will you be tempted to question your faith and begin to have doubts about your relationship with God because he has not given you the prosperous life you imagined he promised you? Will you begin to wonder “What have I done wrong for God to reject me in this way?” 

You must be able to answer that question because that is exactly what you will do while you still live on this planet. In a profound sense, this world is not our home. When we are away from our bodies we will be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).  However, until that time, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). The apostle Peter teaches us that we are exiles and strangers on this earth (1 Peter 2:11) and “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). 

In the meantime, Peter also tells us how to live in our time of exile on this earth (see 1 Peter 2:11-20). We are not to sit around grumbling and feeling sorry for ourselves because we are in exile. We are not to sit around waiting for the exile to end. We are to live by faith in the situation in which we find ourselves and believe that our life as an exile is for our own good and for God’s glory as God works out his master plan in the life of his people – all of God’s people. God works with exiles. He changes hearts during exile. All of this takes time (as you well know). 

Peter basically repeats the same “advice” Jeremiah gave to the exiles of his day to the exiles he writes to in his first letter.  Peter tells his audience to “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” and rely on God’s grace as you “endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” Christians must “be subject to every human institution” like the emperor and to the governors. Peter tells his exiles to “honor the emperor” and “be subject to your masters” and to “live as people who are free.” We are to continue to seek the welfare of our community by being a part of it. Get to know your neighbors. Settle in your community. Be active in your town and neighborhood. Interact with your neighbors. We are not to just sit around and wait for our exile to be over when Christ comes. Peter says it is to this type of life that we are called. 

As exiles, the persecuted believers written to in the book of Hebrews exhibit the characteristics we must all strive to follow. The author continues to exhort them to continue in their faith against all opposition and persecution, saying:

You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (Heb 10:34-39). 

In spite of such things, we can still experience joy and peace in the midst of all these types of trials through the power of Christ and the promise of God’s presence now and his blessings in the future. We will explore this next. 

Posted by Jeff Spry at Thursday, March 13, 2014 | 7 comments

The Bible and the American Dream (Part 3)

Understanding the Promise of Jeremiah 29:11 Today

When we read through this passage (and any other Old Testament passage), we must notice several things within the context. In our context, we first notice that God is speaking to the Israelite nation of Judah. It is always important to make note of the author’s intended audience and follow his use of pronouns throughout the passage. In verse four, Jeremiah is told to write “to all the exiles I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” From that point forward, God speaks directly to those same people. He promises that he will visit them and fulfill his promises given to them and bring them back to their home. He will be found by them when they seek him with all their heart and he will restore their fortunes. In the midst of all these positive declarations, God says that he knows the plan that he has for them and that he plans to give them a future filled with hope.To whom he God speaking? It seems pretty obvious when we change the "yous" to "thems."

Second, we notice that God is addressing a nation, not a single individual person. These promises are given to the people, not a person. It is a corporate promise. We should be very careful in taking a promise given to a nation and applying it to our individual lives in particular moments. 

Third, we have to deal with the fact that the promise given was not given to the people living at that moment in time. The promise was a corporate promise for the people of Judah who would exist a long seventy years into the future. The majority of the people who heard Jeremiah’s letter read to them would never see those promises fulfilled. Their children or grandchildren would but they would not. Therefore, the current exiles had to throw off any short-term I-deserve-the-best-blessing-right-now mentality. They were ordained by God to endure seventy years of captivity along with all the heartache and pain that accompanied such judgment. The prophecy was directed toward a future people – those who would be born in exile. Does it make sense to claim a verse for your personal immediate future when the original verse was not intended to be fulfilled in the immediate future of a nation? 

It is wrong to take this verse as a personal promise that demands God give you the future that you envision and is defined on your own terms of materialistic success. It is not right to manipulate this text to suit your own preconceived notion of “blessing” while giving God the ultimatum of doing so on you own timetable. Regardless of how much better you feel when you read this verse, this verse is not your promise because God was not talking to you. 

So, What about Me? What about Now?

Is there, then, anything in this prophetic promise that we can apply to our lives today? Absolutely. The lesson for us today comes from seeing how God dealt with Israel and learning what that says about God that we should know. We can see God’s character in this passage but we also see that God’s idea of good is not necessarily the same as our idea.

First, we must remember that this promise was given to the people of God in the Old Testament. Therefore, if there is any continuation at all to our day, then this verse must likewise refer to God’s plan for his people of the New Covenant. 

Second, while it is true that the promise of a “prosperous” future filled with “hope” is not guaranteed in the short-term, this promise still has a practical application for the first recipients and for you. This application, therefore, is given to us in the ultimate and eternal sense. The greatest fulfillment of this verse for Christians today is in the spiritual level of fulfillment. The promise will provide the comfort you desire and security you need when you understand it is in our eternal life with God that we will experience the fulfillment of this promise in its fullest sense. It is at this time that God will “gather you from all the nations” and “bring you . . . to the place” that he has prepared for us (Jer 29:14). 

In chapter 25, Jeremiah describes a “cup of the wine of wrath” that all the nations of the earth must drink (25:15). When they drink it, they will become a “desolation and a waste, a hissing and a curse” (25:18). They shall not go unpunished (25:29). The cup of the wrath of God is still waiting to be poured out on this world but for those who call on the name of Jesus Christ, that cup of wrath has been removed. It is this cup that Jesus prayed about in the garden of Gethsemane. Later, abandoned to follow God’s will, Jesus drank the cup of God’s divine wrath. We Christians will never drink from the cup of God’s holy wrath because God’s wrath no longer abides on us. Because Christ has done this for us, we will experience the great truth of this verse when God comes to take us to our eternal home. 

In the next post, we will look at how we can understand this verse until that great day when God takes us to our true homeland! 

Posted by Jeff Spry at Thursday, March 6, 2014 | 5 comments

The Bible and the American Dream (Part 2)

Most of the book of Jeremiah is unfamiliar to Christians today. We know the great promise given in chapter 29 and we know about the proclamation of the New Covenant in chapter 31 but most of the rest of Jeremiah is pretty foggy for us. If we are honest, we have to admit that even the context of the two famous passages above is unknown to us. In this lesson, we will learn the context of the great promise given in chapter 29.

The Theological Context

For twenty-eight chapters, Jeremiah has been prophesying “doom-n-gloom” for the people of Israel. Jeremiah lived during the reign of five Israelite kings.  The people of Judah remained deeply committed to their idolatry. They worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but he was just one of many gods they worshiped. The kings and spiritual leaders even put idols in the Temple of God (Jer 32:33-34). The people intermarried with pagan tribes and even participated in child sacrifice (Jer 32:35). God was ready to discipline his people. 

The Historical Context

When we begin with the first verse of chapter 27, we find the historical context: 

"In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD (Jer 27:1). 

Zedekiah was installed by Nebuchadnezzar as a “puppet king” in 597 BC after the previous king was taken captive to Babylon. This same Zedekiah would later lead a rebellion that would lead to the actual fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Therefore, the incidents described in chapters 28-29 occur between Zedekiah’s rise to power and his eventual downfall. When Jeremiah prophesied, many Jews were living in exile in Babylon and many others were still living in poverty in Jerusalem. There was a lot of tension between these two groups. The people in Jerusalem thought that they were blessed and were in God’s favor while the people in Babylon were cursed and were being punished for their sins. Both groups thought this way but both groups were wrong. God gave Jeremiah the prophetic task of explaining his plan and actions to both groups.

God Places His Yoke on Israel

God instructed Jeremiah to make himself a yoke like those used with plowing oxen.  Jeremiah gave basically the same message (see Jer 27:12-13).  Judah was to consider themselves under the yoke of Babylon, which in actuality was to be under the yoke of Almighty God because Babylon was merely God’s servant. This is not the message the people of Israel wanted to hear. 

False Prophets Speak Lies to Receptive Ears

Amazingly, even as Jeremiah is declaring the word of the Lord, other prophets began to say just the opposite (Jer 25:8, 11-12). The false prophet Hananiah “took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them” (Jer 28:10). He delivered a message that everyone would appreciate and all wanted to be true. He promised that Judah would be restored and that Babylon would fall within two years. Because the time was short, the false prophet encouraged the people in exile to refuse to submit or serve Nebuchadnezzar, directly opposing the word of God given through Jeremiah.  God put his stamp of disapproval on Hananiah’s ministry and just two months later, the false prophet paid the ultimate price for his disobedience. He rebelled against the “yoke of wood” and God placed on him a “yoke of iron” (Jer 28:13). 

God’s Desire for Those Living in Exile

Jeremiah explained that the people of Judah were to submit to God’s discipline in Babylon. How could they do this well? The prophet Jeremiah returns to answer that very question with more words from God. Finally entering into the immediate context of the oft-quoted promise of verse eleven, the prophet writes a letter from Jerusalem to the “surviving elders of the exiles” in Babylon (the very fact that these elders are described as the “surviving” elders gives us a clue to the difficulties they were facing). This letter was to be read to the priests, prophets, and all the people Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from Judah (see Jer 29:1-2) 

First, in the opening line of this prophecy, God declares that he is the one who “sent [the exiles] from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4). Nebuchadnezzar was the tool that God used to do this but God was the originator and instigator of this act. This is the foundation for all he is about to say. To rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and their Babylonian captors was to rebel against God. 

Second, the false prophet declared the exile would only last two years. The true prophet declares that God desires his people to build homes and plant their own gardens in Babylon. They are to marry and have children in their exile. Most astonishingly, they were to be at peace with their captors and work diligently for the betterment of that city and nation that took them from their homes and destroyed their country. 

Why should they do that? According to Jeremiah, the stay in exile will not last two years but much, much longer than that. The prophet delivers the “bad news” next, intermingled with the “good news” in the verse we love to quote so much:

For thus says the LORD: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jer 29:10-14). 

God knows that two years in exile would do nothing of permanence in the hearts of his people. Wise parents also know this. A five-minute “timeout” is often fruitless while a more “oppressive” punishment usually brings about the desired results. In seventy years, God had time to work within the hearts of his people and bring them to full repentance and submission. When they finally began to honestly call on him “with all [their] heart,” they would find him ready to receive them and carry them back home. The time declared for this punishment was not two years but seventy years.  This was not the message the exiles wanted to hear. Against the backdrop of false promises and a quick recovery, God reveals that his wonderful plan for his beloved children is that almost every single one of them would die in Babylon. For most of them, their children would die in Babylon and only their grandchildren would live long enough to see the good news of God’s eventually restoration of their nation. 

We often read Jeremiah 29:11 as if it is nothing but good news for us. However, to the people to whom it was originally written, these same words were surely a bitter disappointment. Seventy years? They had already suffered horribly – losing their land, their homes, their jobs, their families, their friends, their throne, their Temple. They had been forced to march almost 800 miles to be paraded through a foreign city filled with pagans.  Now they are being told to make this hated place their home. They are told to pray for this nation that did this to them and to be a blessing to its king and citizens. It is in the midst of this great despair that God tells his people of his great promise, saying, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” 

Imagine yourself in their shoes in our current era. Imagine being uprooted from North Carolina and taken prisoner by a foreign invader to a land hundreds of miles away. Now, imagine hearing that something good is going to happen but not until the year 2082. If this situation were to occur in my life, I can do some quick math and realize that while I am a relatively young man right now, I will be 116 years old if I live to see this prophecy fulfilled. Beyond that, my 18-year old daughter will be 88 and my youngest son will be 81 years old. For that matter, my first grandchild will probably be in his or her early 60s. The promise seems so far away that I can find little good news in it at the moment. 

How often do we read Jeremiah 29:11 as if those words were uttered by Hananiah? We are too easily led to believe that every problem we have and every difficulty we encounter will be quickly resolved and all will work out to our great benefit and material advancement. We hear the great promise God gave to his exiled children and hear in it the promises we want to receive. In this way, we often treat God like a great cosmic vending machine.  A new raise? Just hit B-8 and watch the blessings fall. Need help with a bad marriage? Just press E-2 and watch God rearrange up all the pieces so we will be happy and content. This is not how we are to interpret and apply this beautiful promise. How then? We will deal with that next time. 

Posted by Jeff Spry at Thursday, February 27, 2014 | 0 comments

The Bible and the American Dream

For many Christians, the idea of the American Dream is not mere idealism. It is also considered to be a biblical promise. There is one verse that is pulled out regularly to prop up such thinking and it is found in the somber pages of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will see this familiar verse printed on coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, picture frames, necklaces, bracelets, and various dust-gathering knick-knacks for your home. The verse is pulled out every spring as another group of graduates leave high school and college to move on to newer adventures and greener pastures. What words are capable of inspiring such comfort during such tumultuous and fearful times in our lives? 

In the twenty-ninth chapter, Jeremiah records the words of God to his people, saying:

        For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope (Jer 29:11). 

Reciting this verse as a direct promise from God leads me to believe that God wants only what I consider to be the best for my life at that particular moment. God wants me to have a good job, a good wife, a loaded checking account, and a good future! Because we read this verse as individualistic modern Americans who have been told our entire lives that we can do anything we want, we tend to think of God’s plan for our lives in that same individualistic and materialistic way. We think that God’s promise only relates to the specific immediate circumstances in our individual lives.

Perhaps we are making a major mistake in reading this verse in this way. A little bit of honest thought and reflection on an often unasked question about this verse is revealing. If this verse is a promise that each of us can claim and cheerfully quote to anyone else, why do we not see this promise fulfilled more often? In fact, why is it not fulfilled all the time for all of God’s people? If God does have plans for you that include great prosperity, then why are there so many Christians around us who experience nothing but struggle and anxiety and poverty? Is this truly an interpretation that finds acceptance only in America? Would our coffee mugs sell in Rwanda or Sudan or North Korea? 

In fact, if we are honest, we must admit that we see the exact opposite throughout the history of the church and into our own day. Perhaps you even see the opposite in our own life. In Hebrews 11, the author recounts the heroic faith of many of our biblical heroes. The faith-filled lives of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Rahab, Samson, David, and Samuel are inspiring and encouraging. God obviously did great and mighty things in the lives of these individual followers. However, in this same passage, the author continues and takes us to a place we do not want to go. He also mentions others who

were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated -- of whom the world was not worthy--wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised (Heb 11:36-39). 

Is this the life of prosperity and hope God promises in Jeremiah? Is anyone willing to sign up for this kind of life? What about Paul, who was sent to Rome in chains and eventually beheaded? Stephen was stoned for speaking the truth about Jesus. Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross. Simon Peter was crucified upside down. Polycarp was to be burned at the stake but when the flames could not harm him he was stabbed to death. William Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake. Dietrich Bonhoeffer died naked in a Nazi prison cell. More recently, a Christian street cleaner was arrested in Pakistan for allegedly piling garbage against the wall of a mosque. He was arrested and tortured and eventually killed by a prison guard with a brick-cutting hammer. We could fill pages with the stories of many more unknown believers who are imprisoned, tortured, or executed each year at the hands of violent anti-Christian forces. 

This forces upon us a difficult question: If you believe with absolute certainty that God has plans only for your prosperity, welfare, and hope, then what is it about you that makes God treasure you over these other believers? Why do you think you are singled out for material prosperity above these and others? 

It is a serious problem to read the Scripture in this “therapeutic” way. It is a therapeutic interpretation because we are tempted to claim certain promises in the Bible but only in instances where the promises are good and beneficial. What about the passages in which the promises are not so rosy and enjoyable? For instance, this same prophet Jeremiah issued other promises in the very same context. Are you as willing to claim them for yourself? In chapter 25, Jeremiah speaks the words of the Lord, saying:

I will bring [invading armies] against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. Moreover, I will banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste . . .” (Jer 25:9-11).

In the very same chapter as the glorious promise claimed by so many today, Jeremiah says:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, “I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them” (Jer 29:17-18).

I doubt any of us have seen these promises on our coffee mugs and Bible covers and t-shirts. These last two passages sound a lot different from God knowing his plans of prosperity and welfare and hope and peace for his children. In fact, it sounds a lot like God knows about his plans to curse and judge rather than to bless. Do you see the problem with our inconsistency? In the same passage of Scripture, we find a promise of blessing and a promise of cursing and both come from our God. How do we know which promise is for us? How do we know if either promise is for us? Why are we so eager to claim the good news and yet ignore any mention of potential bad news? Why do we always quote Jeremiah 29:11 and never quote Jeremiah 29:18? Have we so bought into the American Dream that we cannot envision anything bad coming into our lives? Are we to think that nothing bad will enter our lives from the hand of God? 

A simpler solution is that we simply have not read the Scriptures accurately. In taking a single verse out of its context and reading it in isolation, we have completely misunderstood the intent of the verse. Our misuse of this particular verse reveals our ignorance of the context and the inappropriateness of this common application of this verse/passage. Next time, we will examine how we should interpret this familiar verse and apply that meaning to our lives. 

Posted by Jeff Spry at Thursday, February 20, 2014 | 2 comments