In all likelihood, you are probably familiar with these words from Scripture: “For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” You’ve probably seen them on graduation cards, encouragement cards, posters and plaques in Christian bookstores, or other Christian merchandise such as coffee mugs. They are beautiful, nice, comforting, strengthening words, but we need to ask, What are they really all about? What is their meaning for us?
The way this verse is sometimes used seems to imply God has plans to give individuals a prosperous career, good health, or even money in the bank. I’ve seen it used in the spirit of patriotism for our nation – God has plans for America. I’ve heard people use it while pursuing their personal dream – God is backing me up on my dream.
The truth is, this is not a good use of this verse. At the same time, it holds some good news for us. If we look at it carefully and try to understand the author’s original intention, then we can apply it meaningfully.
When we are studying Bible passages, it is wise to look at them in context so we can learn their true meaning and not twist them into something we want them to say. We need to ask:
• Where is this verse found?
• Where is the book, which contains the verse, in context of the salvation story?
• What kind of literature is this? Is it a narrative? Is it from a poem? Is it some wisdom literature? Is it a letter?
• Where do we find this verse within the context of the narrative? Is it at the beginning? Is it in the middle? Is it at the end of the story?
It is also important, before we even tackle a book of the Bible, to look at the introduction in order to get a feel for the lay of the land. All of this matters when attempting to correctly understand the text.
Today’s verse is found in a letter from Jeremiah the prophet to the surviving elders of the exiles, priests, and those who had been dragged off from Jerusalem to Babylon as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God. The situation was this: the covenant relationship the people of Israel had with God had been broken by them. They were disobedient and did not follow the commands and statutes God gave them to operate by as a community. God finally reached His boiling point, and so now the Israelites found themselves deported. They were refugees living in a strange, new land.
Back in those days, when world countries like Babylon conquered a nation, they would disperse a good share of the population so they would be less likely to cause trouble later on. This dispersion was tough on these people. They didn’t know the language or the customs. They must have felt far from God in His Temple, and they were homesick. We get a feel for their sorrow in Psalm 13:7: “By the rivers of Babylon we wept.”
As they experienced this painful new reality, some false preachers tried to put a positive spin on their exile. God told us in our dreams that this exile won’t last very long. Don’t sweat it. Jeremiah is writing a response to these false prophesies. His response is spoken on behalf of God, and it says basically says this: Those preachers are wrong. You better get settled in. Build houses. Plant your gardens. Eat from those gardens. Start families. Seek the welfare of the city you’re in and pray for its welfare, for therein you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:5).
Their exile was not an imprisonment. The people were not behind bars or barbed wire, but were free to make a life in this foreign land. According to God’s plans, it would be a seventy-year stay.
Jeremiah tells the people that God has a promise for them. After seventy years, God will bring you back just as He promised (Jer. 25:12). Our verse in chapter 29 is part of that promise. God says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare, not your harm, to give you a future and a hope.” He finishes off this promise by saying, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me. If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me,” says the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you and bring you back.”
So, did God keep His promise? Yes, He did! He always keeps His promises. The exiles were set free seventy years later when Babylon as a world power fell to the Persians. Ezra 1:1 tells us God stirred the spirit of Cyrus, the King of Persia to issue an edict to let His people return home and rebuild the homeland, just as God had said to them through Jeremiah.
So, does this verse hold any meaning for us as followers of Jesus Christ in 2018? Does it apply to my life or should I throw away my Jeremiah 29 coffee mug? Don’t throw it away yet because it does have a meaning for us. Though Jeremiah 29:11 is not written to you and me personally but to some disobedient Jews in captivity, it has a meaning for us within the context of the whole salvation story, the big story of God. It gives us some truths to keep in mind and live by.
We learn about the holiness, the bigness, and the faithfulness of God in the story. God takes sin very seriously. He punishes sin. He disciplined the people. As we look at the cross, we see how seriously God takes sin. We are reminded in this passage that God is in control. He says, “I know the plans I have for you. I am in charge.”
We also see the faithfulness of God. In spite of their sin, He still considers them His people and has a plan for them. He promises to restore them as a nation.
God has a plan that will also impact us, though the people of Israel perhaps did not know it at the time. His plan began in a garden as a disobedient Adam and Eve and a treacherous serpent stand before God. God says to the serpent, “. . . and his heel will crush your head” (Gen. 3:15). Victory will be mine. Evil will be overtaken.
God’s plan continued when God tapped Abraham on the shoulder said I have plans to give you land and many descendants, to make you a blessing to the nations and all the peoples of the world (Gen. 13:14-16). God has a plan, we learn in this story.
This is a judgment/grace story. The Israelites have been sinful and unfaithful, yet God is keeping them as His people. He still has plans for them. There is a big story that still needs to happen, even though the people must have wondered if God was done with them. I wouldn’t blame Him; we have been anything but obedient. Still He wasn’t done with them, in spite of their sin.
We are thankful God wasn’t done with them. Otherwise there would be no blessing to the nations, the peoples of the world. There would be no Savior, no Messiah, no Christ who said to a Samaritan woman at a well, “Salvation is from the Jews!”
Jeremiah 29:11 is more of an announcement, a reminder for people like you and me who have put their trust in Jesus Christ. The plan was fully carried out! God would rescue His people and bring them back home to the promised land. He would reestablish them in the promised land. He would eventually send His Son into this world to carry out His plans for our welfare, which literally means shalom, peace. For your well-being, He will go to a cross and suffer God’s wrath for humanity’s sin. He will be raised on the third day to rescue you and me from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He will free us from captivity.
He did all this to make us rich in Christ, to make known the riches of His glory to those of us who believe in Jesus. If you trust in Jesus Christ, God has already seen to your welfare. You are the recipient of unsearchable riches, fortune, and an imperishable inheritance prepared for you in heaven, forgiveness, a restored relationship with your heavenly Father, freedom, a heavenly promise, a place prepared for you.
We are told not to set our hopes on health, finances, careers, and possessions. God doesn’t make promises about these things. Name-it-and-claim-it preachers, health-and-wealth, prosperity gospel preachers would have you believe otherwise. But what they are telling you just isn’t found in Scripture. In fact, they are doing the very thing Jeremiah was condemning in this letter – they are putting words in God’s mouth. They are telling lies. If you buy into that kind of garbage, you will be sadly disappointed and your faith will be shaken again and again. However, if you know what you have in Christ and the riches that are yours, then His grace will be sufficient, even in times of poverty and trials.
In Christ you have a hope and a future. God wants to conform you to the image of His Son. His plan for your life is to make you more loving and kind, patient and self-controlled, generous – the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately He wants to welcome you into His heaven, to a place which has been prepared for you. He wants to give you a relationship with Himself so you can experience His presence each moment of your life. Through the Promised One of Israel, Jesus Christ, we know a new day is coming. God has a plan of a new heaven and a new earth. Soon and very soon we are going to see the King. All will be well, and there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more sorrow, and no more tears.
God has a plan so forget about that health and wealth stuff. “Set your mind on things above” (Col. 3:2), the Scriptures say. God is looking out for your welfare. He wants you to prosper in the sense that you have been given access to His riches in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Enjoy that promise and remember this:
When our sin has overcome us and everything is hopeless on the human scene,
When things are looking like it’s seventeen to zero and the game is a laugher,
God still has a plan for the future.
When it seems like evils wins over good,
When everything lovely and gracious and pure in our world seems to fall victim to corruption and evil,
God still has a plan for your future.
When we stand beside the grave of a loved one and all the pain floods over us,
When we realize we can’t say what we wanted to say, and we can never more do what we wanted to do for your loved one,
God still has a plan.
When the meek and the peacemakers and the pure in heart of God’s kingdom get trampled into the dirt,
When the weak are constantly sacrificed on the altars of power, and the proud and the mighty strut around the earth like they own the place and have the last word,
God still has His plan.
When it seems like nothing is ahead of us but a crucifixion,
When the Gethsemane of prayer is darkened by the shadow of a looming Golgotha,
God still has a plan.
It is a plan of love and grace, to save us and our world. Despite the fact that we deserve nothing but God’s condemnation of death, He has a plan. Oh, what grace we have been given, my friends!
The bottom line is this verse is a call to faith for each and every believer in Jesus Christ. Trust in the plan. Trust in the promises this faithful God has given you in Christ. Walk with Him all your days. Follow Jesus. Serve Him, obey Him, and trust Him in everything. Call upon Him in times of trouble and in times of joy. Seek Him with all your heart and be assured of this: absolutely nothing – and I mean NOTHING – can separate you from His love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer