Sunday, May 19, 2013

Caution! Well-known Verses Ahead!

     I had an epiphany of context today... an insight on a familiar verse.  Any sound bible teacher will
I wonder if they mean works-righteousness?
tell you those verses are the most dangerous:  the ones you know by heart, that you've heard quoted over and over again in a variety of settings.  Every Christian knows them, if not by reference, then by content.  And thus they're often the most misunderstood... this danger is likely the reason America's professing Christians are:
  1.  by majority Arminian ("...that WHO-SO-EVER (!) believeth in Him...";  Jn 3:16), 
  2.  non-confrontational ("Judge not, lest ye be judged.";  Mt 7:1),
  3.  and are beginning to doubt if hell even exists ("...because God is love.";  1 Jn 4:10).  
So obviously, the best way to approach these potential pitfalls is with one eye on the text and the other on our own misconceptions.  I've been reading in Jeremiah and came across the best known verse in the book.  No, it's not 17:9 ("the heart is deceitful above all things..."), or 6:14 ("Peace, peace when there is no peace"), or even 31:31ff ("Behold the days are coming... when I will make a new covenant...").  I am utterly confident that the most famous verse in Jer. is 29:11:
"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."
     And taking my own advice, I paused and studied the immediate context.   Backing up one verse, I was devastated by the implications of 29:10:
"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."
This beautiful scenery looks little different from behind bars...
     This has happened to me before (like when one reads the 2nd verse after Jn 3:16, or the 5th verse after Mt 7:1);  and in the grand scheme of things, with a "big picture" perspective, vs. 10 fits perfectly with vs. 11:  it's great news that the exiles would return to the Promised Land and the enjoyment of God's favor.  But look at it again, highlighting one little detail:  this would happen after 70 years.  Put yourself in their shoes...  29:1 says Jeremiah is writing to those exiled with King Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) which occurred around 597 B.C.  Jerusalem was destroyed in 586, so these expatriates could have been in Babylon a couple years, but not more than 10.  It's safe to say the Jews were not enjoying the warm hospitality of Babylon (Ps. 137:3) or the benefits package of slavery (not exactly that of a CEO).  So a rough paraphrase of Jeremiah's message could be understood like this:
"You're not liking Babylon?  You wanna go back home to your own land?  Too bad!!!  You and your families will be here 60 more years!  You'll probably be cold and dead by the time God has mercy on Israel and restores your people to Canaan (Ezr 3:12)!  Only after decades of toil and heartache and misery will your children return to the homeland... and God is letting you off easy!"
     So do you see how the context of 29:11 should shape our understanding of it today?  Instead of a magic wand waved over our problems to make them disappear instantly, often God's promises have wonderful and beautiful fulfillments that we will not see in our physical lifetimes.  We must apprehend (one of my favorite words... "to grab hold of") these truths and God's hope by faith and trust Him in the dark, depressing (yet temporary) times of our lives.  Only then will we know the power of "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).

Photos courtesy of williamcho, Fernando Silveira

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