June 23, 2009

Exile (part 2)

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper and not to harm you." God spoke these words to his people, Israel, about a half of a millennium before Christ. Jeremiah was the prophet who delivered this message to a broken people who were falling apart.

I have heard a lot people lately with questions, deep questions, about the nature of the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. How does the God of Israel line up with the God revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth? And their questions are legitimate. I don't blame them because I myself struggle through those questions. Also, I think that for the most part Christian leaders and teachers today do not understand how the two work together.

I say that to focus on the above passage out of the book of Jeremiah (29:11), the oft quoted verse for life plans. Having recently graduated, I heard that verse quoted numerous times. I think one thing we can know about it for sure is that when God spoke to Israel at this time, we can see that God is one who plans. He thinks things through and has hope for humanity.

However, I ran into a problem as I read beyond Chapter 29 of Jeremiah today. The problem centers around this verse when Jeremiah speaks to the people of Israel on God's behalf: "Behold, I am watching over them for disaster and not for good. All the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt hall be consumed by the sword and by famine, until there is an end of them" (ESV 44:27). That's quite a change from Chapter 29 when God promised plans for prosperity and for good, not harm.

This goes to show the distortion that is prevalent in many church leaders and theological authorities today. They have not read the whole book. They didn't hear the argument, so to speak, before speaking. The sign of a prophet is that he has been with the LORD personally and has a message to bring, but I think some of our "prophets" today are only half listening. I can succumb to that. N.T. Wright in a lecture called "Jesus and the Kingdom" said that the sign of Christian maturity today is when someone listens to an argument all the way through. I think N.T. is wright.

The crux of the interpretation of Jeremiah as a whole and verse 29:11 and 44:27 in particular comes at the point God's voice touches their ears. What happened to change the mind and actions of God from plans for prosperity to plans for disaster? First of all, that was before Christ and New Covenant of the Spirit. Secondly, it was their hard-heartedness. They did not listen to the voice of God: "It is because you made offerings ad because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey the voice of the LORD or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his testimonies that this disaster has happened to you, as at this day" (44:23).

God is good and makes plans. But when we don't listen to his general will of obeying and not worshiping other gods, he is not able to go through with those plans. His promises are conditional. We can see that clearly and indisputably here. The question is what are the conditional upon? Is it our effort? No. Is it our abilities? No. It is listening to the voice of the LORD when he clearly speaks and responding with obedience. I'm not addressing that mysterious and specific will of God for vocation or location; I am talking about simple and single-minded obedience.