The church’s recognition of its identity as the continuation of Israel, and its exilic existence, provides the context for interpreting Jeremiah 29 today. The question becomes—particularly as the Western church transitions deeper into a post-Christian culture—“How do we sing our song in a strange land?” (Ps 137). As the church journeys through the already but not yet, Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles serves as a prescription text for living in the world, but not of the world. In The City of God, Augustine explains that the Bible provides the history of the world as a tale of two cities. The city of man and the city of God. “Babel/Babylon becomes in the Bible a symbol of self-restraint, imperialistic secularism; control without accountability to the Creator. [. . .] Isaiah saw this spirit in the imperial ambitions of Assyria and Babylon (Isa 10:7-11; 14:4-6; 47:5-7, 10).” In Revelation 18, the Apostle John speaks of Rome and the kingdoms of the world to follow as Babylon, the great seducer of nations, and Peter too refers to Rome as Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13. In Augustine’s view, the city of God is the church—the kingdom people of heaven—living in the world. Like the diaspora in Babylon, the church is a culture within the culture working for God’s glory in the midst of a great and dark secular city scape.
Minister to the City
It remains no wonder that God, in Jeremiah 29:5, tells His exiles to settle in the metropolitan center of the Babylonian Empire. A brief survey of the missional strategy of the Apostles shows that God gave them too an affinity for the largest urban areas. Historically it is evident that culture is shaped by what happens within cities. This has become increasingly relevant to the church today. According to the 1790 U. S. census, ninety-five percent of the American population lived outside of urban areas. The percentage of people living in urban areas by 1890 had grown to thirty-five percent. By 1990 approximately sixty-five percent of Americans lived in an urban setting. The nation’s urban population increased by another 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010. The combination of the exile to Babylon, the missional strategy enacted in the book of Acts, and the rapid urbanization of America, are strong cause for a renewed focus on urban ministry. Despite the focus of much of Christian literature, poetry, paintings, and photography, the height of Christian contentment is not intended by God to be found in sprawling natural landscapes. “The center of God’s creative delight is not a garden, but a city. [. . .] Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift coming ‘down out of heaven from God’ (Rev 21:2).” If we are to honor God’s calling as exiles, the nations are to be reached, and this must begin with the city.
Exhibit Exile Posture
Jeremiah 29:5-7 is clear that exiles are to become citizens and contributors to the city. To be civil is to know how to act in the city. Aristotle said that the first type of bonding a person experiences in terms of kinship is with family. Kinship then extends to extended family, to friendship, and then the culmination of civility comes when a person learns to extend the bond of kinship to strangers. When a person can learn to love the stranger as family, they become a person of civility. Aristotle also said that a man without a city is not a man. He is either superhuman, or a beast. This is not a calling to accommodate the secular world, but a call to engage in what Richard Mouw calls, “convicted civility.” Mouw’s simple premise is that convictions and civility are not at odds. Christians require, not a change in calling, but a reevaluation of their approach to their calling. Further, Christians require a new view of their non-believing neighbors whom they are called to love. “Jeremiah’s life and prophesy is based on faithfulness and sacrificial love, which is a reflection of Jesus. God says, ‘I’m giving you over to them, put your faith and hope in me, and there will be life. This is not your home, but seek the peace and prosperity of your pagan neighbors and in it you will prosper.’”
Many theological views see the “post-exilic Hebrew history and literature as representing the period of sad decline and loss.” Daniel L. Smith-Christopher contends that “the Jewish people is deserving of attention not only in the time when it displayed its power and enjoyed its independence, but as well in the period of its weakness and oppression during which it was compelled to purchase spiritual development by constant sacrifice of self.” An exegetical view that sees the exile as more than merely a regrettable fate for Israel acknowledges that the exile forced the Israelites into the very positive formative act of learning what faithfulness to Yahweh looks like outside the borders of a theocracy. In the diaspora the exiles demonstrated that it is possible to be a faithful people outside a nation-state model, and outside a culture in which God’s people maintain political control. “For American Christians, the task will be the painful process of disengaging from the myths of the dominant ‘Christian nation’ that has so deeply corrupted a radical Christian witness in the world.”
Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Christian majority that has stood in the West as the socio-political order for nearly two millennia will not be the environment in which future Christians will live. Christians will draw increasingly closer to feeling the reality of exile. In an “attempted reassertion of political and social authority,” well-meaning but misguided Christians address this loss of power with a “crusading mentality,” and by “doing theology by megaphone.” The circumstance requires the consideration of a striving for a more civil virtue. Christians must learn to develop a Christ-like language that speaks with, and not at sinners. The post-exilic Scriptures hold many examples for emulation. Virtuous believers like Daniel, Mordecai, Esther, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, and Ezra demonstrated that the proverb is true: “He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend” (Prov 22:11). The key for the people of God is ‘purity of heart.’ In the posture of exile the Western church must do as its spiritual forefathers did before, and must submit its heart to the plow (Hos 10:12).
Exhibit Exile Action
Following the flow of Jeremiah’s prescription for the life of the exiles it can be clearly concluded in what ways God intends His people to be a blessing to the city. The first thing we understand about God is that, in the Trinity, He is communal. He pours Himself out in love and gives His life away as a gift to others—sinners, rebels, and pagans. In His image, God made man to give Himself away. In Jeremiah 29:6 it is made clear that the first step toward true civilization is family; and family starts with marriage. “When we [say] yes to marriage, we are saying yes to the life of the world. We are saying yes to the mystery ahead [. . .] new life. [. . .] Ultimately, saying yes to marriage is about living a life of offering. Marriage is a yes to your beloved, and you and your beloved saying yes to your family. Your family saying yes to the world.” Man is pointed outside himself, to his God, to his family, to his neighbor, and to his city. “Christian culture making [. . .] is a matter of community—a relatively small group of people whose common life is ordered by love. [. . .] It seems small besides the towers of Babel and Babylon. It is like a mustard seed, tiny and seemingly vulnerable. But it is the unseen truth of the universe, the key to the whole story.” Like the Jews in Babylon it remains crucial that Christians not lose their faith identity in pursuing the love of neighbor. This begins with, and is not limited to, honoring the Bible’s command to restrict Christian marriages to New Covenant believers. Christians must strive to introduce non-believers to the gift of Christ Jesus, but limit marriage vows to those of faith. Unity in faith is sacred, and that unity must begin in the home and work outward. Healthy family is the foundation of healthy society.
Jeremiah 29:7 could not be clearer that God’s purpose for His people is that they should give and not take. Most people live in the city because of the abundant amenities the city offers them. Spiritual Israel (the church), is God’s gift to the world. The world is not merely God’s gift to the church—Christ is God’s gift to the church. In the image of God, it is the nature of God’s people to give. Work cannot merely be about oneself, but must serve the needs and wants of others. The righteous person should give freely, and strive to take no more for themselves than what is needed. In God’s image people are makers and creators. Gifts are given by God to be shared and to be stewarded. A mentor transfers wisdom for the sake of unlocking potential in another. This is the stewardship of the gift of knowledge. When knowledge is shared, communities thrive. In like manner, discipleship transfers faith and pays forward the fruit of raising disciples who make disciples, advancing the kingdom of heaven. Work too is a God given gift to be stewarded. Through vocation a person discovers their callings, and in vocation a person creates the goods and services that benefit people for the greater good. The fruit of work is not merely the products, but relationships. The fruit of a Christian’s labor is ultimately fellowship, community, and relationship. More than just consumable products, business creates an economy of community and meets that community’s needs. This has been evidenced in society in the justice system, medical system, education system, welfare system, etc. All of these constructs are imperfect but faithful strivings to apply faith, wisdom, and love, for the advancement of the city’s people, for the glory of God.
A person who consistently seeks God’s will and has a concern for the things that concern God will not easily be led astray by false prosperity teachings like those in Jeremiah 29:8-9. Christians should not idolatrize ease, comfort, and material wishes in denial of the will of God for the good of their souls and the care of others. If Christians are to be about the welfare of others, they must make sacrifices and cease neglecting to love the stranger, the sojourner, the outcast, the defenseless, the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed. As a people who gives, rather than takes, Christians must make space for these people in their lives, budgets, and homes, remembering that while we were strangers, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Because Christ commands His followers, Christ is in His followers, and Christ is glorified by His followers. Life is not meant to be inwardly focused or to be lived for self. The life that terminates on the self is a life that truly fails to live at all because it is a life that only deeply knows one very small sampling of the many billions of beautiful creations and experiences God has made for His children’s concern and wonder.
Christ followers should live from a position of awe, beholding God’s beauty and His goodness. In Jeremiah 29:11-14 God has told the Israelites He is for their good. God makes similar promises, specifically relevant to Christ followers, in Romans 8:28-32. Living in light of God’s promises and His gifts—as kingdom heirs—God’s people will rediscover their humanity and who God has created them to be. The Christian who finds joy in the will of God will have their fortunes restored in flourishing in their own personal shalom.
What does it look like to live in the awe of God and to steward one’s life and gifts for the glory of Christ and the life of others? Gerard Manley Hopkins, who as a young man struggled with homoerotic thoughts, and suffered a lifelong affliction with what is today called bipolar disorder , paints a glorious picture. “What I do is me: for that I came. I say more, the just man justices; keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; acts what in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His; to the Father through features of men’s faces.” This is the personified and active beauty of the Christian sojourner’s work, empowered by the grace of Christ. As Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” This is by no means to say, “Be selfish,” or “Follow your heart” (Jer 17:9); but it is to say that each of God’s children is endowed, nay embedded, with unique and certain gifts for stewarding back to God in service of the Father and concern for fellow man. A Christian is to recognize their gift and honor the stewardship of that gift. Hopkins gave his life and his sin to God, and in turn was led to the priesthood and to celibacy. By God’s grace he came to understand his gift was in keeping a literary treasury of the Creator’s majesty—communicating the beauty of God in an aesthetic theology he observed in all things seen, and in the awesomeness of relationship with the Unseeable. This was his gift and his calling. Using his calling he has summed up the calling of every Christian.
Every Christian should do what the Father has gifted them to do, and they should do it with all their might, for the welfare of the city of man to the glory of God. As the Body of Christ, Christians are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Christian lives are for His service and to His glory. If Christ be in a person, their desire to actively engage the calling to steward their God-given gifts should be no less natural than breathing.
Like the Judean exiles in Jeremiah 29:11-14, “we are called to abide in God and say, ‘Let it be to His plan for our part in His divine and wondrous mystery.’ We can be assured that God’s desire for our work is a mighty collaboration, not only with our Creator, but the entire world. In this broken world we have a responsibility to bring healing and harmony to our most immediate surroundings, and work outward. By these actions we too are healed.” Let us not deny our exile, accepting this place as home. Let us not live for the now. Let us not resist the plow. Let us not allow the potential work of our gifts to go unrealized, or our lives to terminate on self. Let us follow God where He leads us, settle there, and give every ounce of our lives. Let us be like Christ, and be poured out as a gift in the city of man – for the love of our neighbor, for the welfare of the city, and for the life of the world; so that in this all the glory may be God’s; forever. Amen.
* References are cited in the print format available for download above.
Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.