Seek the Welfare of the City
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people of God in a time of deep despair and confusion. The people of God had been driven from their homes in the Promised Land because of their sinful and unrepentant hearts. Many had already been taken into exile in Babylon with many more soon to follow. Would God still keep his promises to Israel despite their sin? Was any hope left for a sinful people in exile? In the midst of this dark reality and doubt Jeremiah reveals the Lord’s will for his people living in exile.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. – Jeremiah 29:4-7
The False Hope of Escape
Exile is going to last a while. This is the reality that the Lord proclaims. There is no quick fix to Israel’s sin problem. False prophets were feeding the people false hope. They were feeding the people comfort without repentance and telling God’s people that the exile would not last long. In Jeremiah 28:10-11 Hananiah prophesied that the Lord would break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar in two short years. Jeremiah warns the people not to give in to this false hope of escape from suffering and the consequences of their sin (Jeremiah 28:12-17; 29:8-9).
Escapism was not simply a temptation for Israel in their exile, but it is a temptation for the church in exile today. This world is not our home, and so it is tempting to put all of our hope in escaping from the harsh reality of living in a fallen world. It is tempting to form Christian bubbles to avoid being tainted with sin. It is tempting to stay in our comfort zones waiting for Jesus to return while the city goes to hell all around us. It is this false hope of escape and a desire to remain comfortable that often lead us to lose sight of the mission that God has given to his church. We often do not love the city and seek its welfare. We do not go out of our way to serve the people God has put into our lives. Rather than going out into the sinful world to proclaim good news we stay isolated and comfortable.
The truth is that God fulfills his mission through the opposite of being comfortable. In Acts 8:1-4 the church is scattered because of persecution and this is the means God uses to spread the gospel. The Holy Spirit pushes us out of our comfort zones to proclaim Jesus to a world that desperately needs him.
The Bible also makes clear that we do not avoid sin by avoiding sinners but by staying close to Jesus. In the movie, The Village, a group of people who had all suffered greatly as a result of peoples’ sin had sought to isolate themselves and form a utopian community in order to avoid sin completely. However, they end up finding sin in their midst. Sin cannot be avoided in a Christian bubble because sin is amongst us, in our very own hearts.
We do need Christian community in order to fight sin. As a forgiven people believing the gospel, we point each other back to this good news in order to fight sin amongst us. Christ dwells in the midst of his people by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who brings conviction and faith. However, that Christian community does not then remain isolated from the world but goes out into the world as a family formed by the gospel sent on mission. Jesus came to save sinners and the church goes out amongst sinners to proclaim this good news.
The False Hope of Assimilation
Few Christians will openly say that the church needs to assimilate into the dominant non-Christian culture and sinful world. However, the reality is that this is an ever-present danger. Assimilation to the nations around them is what got Israel into trouble to begin with. They failed to maintain their unique relationship to their covenant Lord and so mediate his presence to the world as a nation of priests. They ended up worshipping the same idols as everyone else.
Assimilation becomes a danger when we no longer see ourselves as exiles. We begin to put our hope in the city and culture. If only we could get the right laws passed, the right people elected, the right movies made, the right education for our children, etc. We put our hope in programs and methods. We find ourselves fighting to make this world our Promised Land rather than recognizing we are simply sojourners passing through.
Jeremiah does not call upon the exiles to assimilate. Rather, as a distinct and believing community they are to seek the welfare of the city in which they find themselves. Our hope is not in the city. In fact, we are freed to love and serve the city precisely because our hope is not in it. It is no surprise that politics on both the right and left have become increasingly hostile and angry. If your hope is in the city you must defend your view of utopia at all costs no matter which end of the political spectrum you find yourself. Instead, Christians are freed to love and serve the city without losing our hope when to no surprise the city does not end up looking like the Promised Land for which we long.
True Hope in God and his Restoration
The gospel offers true hope that far surpasses the false hopes of this world.
…the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile
The Lord reminds his people that there is hope because he was the one who sent them into exile. He is the Lord of hosts. Nothing is outside of his control. Yet, he is not only in control but is working all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
Jesus could end our exile whenever he wants. He could take us home to be with him or come again and make all things new. However, at least for the present moment he has us in exile. Do you really believe that God is sovereign and good no matter what circumstance you find yourself in? Even when he disciplines? Even when he leads you into discomfort, sacrifice, and possibly even suffering for the sake of the gospel?
God’s primary purpose in working all things for our good is to conform us into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). He will use the discomfort of mission in exile to do this. Babylon is not the first time that the people of God had been exiled. In fact, the first exile of the Bible happened to Adam and Eve. They had already been given the promises of God, forgiven of their sin, and restored to relationship with God prior to their exile from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15, 20-21). They were exiled as the people of God in mercy to keep them from living in their sin (Genesis 3:22-24). They could have eaten from the tree of life and lived forever separated from God in their sin, but God in his goodness disciplined them in order to conform them into his image trusting his promises even in exile.
Likewise, the Israelites in exile may have been tempted to believe that the story of God’s people had ended, but Jeremiah gives them comfort in God’s sovereignty and goodness and hope of restoration. God had not let them continue to live in their sin. Their exile was evidence of God’s love for them! God had not given up on his promises to his people.
Seek the Shalom of the City
Because it was God who had placed Israel in exile they could trust in his goodness and grace in the midst of it. They were not left to random chance. Therefore, in exile he called them to seek the welfare of the city. The word translated welfare in this verse is the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of abundant blessing. It is a vision of completeness/fullness – safety, welfare, health, peace, prosperity.
The false prophets’ cry is peace but their peace is not real. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). It is a false hope and a false peace.
A good doctor who truly seeks to bring healing will not simply tell a sick patient that they are ok. They will bring the bad news of illness. However, a good doctor would also not simply bring the hard truth without doing all in his/her power to bring healing restoration. Just as a good doctor may be called upon to perform painful surgery in order to save a patient so God will do the painful work to root out our deadly sin and bring restoration. He calls us to do the same for our city by bringing both truth and love – by seeking the shalom of the city.
Seeking shalom means bringing both truth and love, a love that is not just felt but is active. Seeking shalom means proclaiming the gospel that saves and also demonstrating the love and care that makes the gospel look attractive. As the church, we seek the welfare of the city and pray for God to do something amazing.
Hope for the end of exile and everlasting shalom frees us to love our city here and now (Jeremiah 29:11, 14). But you may say…I don’t even know how! I’ve failed so many times. I have avoided uncomfortable conversations with unbelievers. I have put my hope in the things of this world. I can’t even get my own sin under control let alone love and serve people and speak the gospel into their lives! And so, we too must be driven back to our good God and his promises for we too are sinners in need of Savior. We must put our hope once again in the One Man who perfectly sought the welfare of the city. He wept over its sinfulness. He loved the outcast and in order to save a people from exile he let himself be cast out by his own creation and treated like an exile. He was hung upon a cross like a criminal outside the city gates so that we who are sinful could be brought back from exile into the eternal city that is to come! Jesus, our only hope, is the hope we offer to our city.
Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. – Hebrews 13:12-16