I tried to set the stage for what it means to follow Jesus in Babylon with a prior post: God’s Ways: a Primer for What It Means to Follow Jesus in Babylon. It is a kind of running start – a view from 40,000 feet. The purposes of God establish the context for understanding how we follow Jesus in Babylon.
Jesus, of course, did not live in Babylon during the 30-some years he walked the earth. I am speaking figuratively here. Jesus urged people to follow him, to live as he did and to “walk” as he walked – to be imitators of Jesus as he was an imitator of God the Father. We follow Jesus wherever we are.
Most people reading this blog don’t live in Babylon either, as in the ancient city. Rather, Babylon is symbolic of our lives in this world. Just as the exiles found themselves living as foreign people in a foreign land filled with foreign gods, followers of Jesus today are aliens and strangers in this world living among people who do not bow down to our God.
When Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon right after they were taken captive, right after they lost everything (their homes, their lives as they knew them, the Temple around which their community was organized), his words would have difficult, perhaps, to receive.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….” (Jer. 29:4)
That God “sent” them into exile would have been a painful reminder of all the warnings of the prophets leading up to the final siege of Jerusalem, captivity, and long march to Babylon. Jeremiah had their attention, though. The unthinkable, that Jeremiah had long been predicting, actually happened.
In that context, this is what he said:
“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 29:5-10)
I don’t think we can emphasize enough the timing of these words: this was the very beginning of the exile. They just lost everything. They just got there. Their future was uncertain, though they had hope to return to their homes because the prophets who warned them of the exile also predicted their return.
We are not “of this world” if we belong to God in Christ. We are exiles in this world. This world is our Babylon. In the rest of this blog,
I will relate those words Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Jews to our lives in “Babylon” today, and I will add in the warning, and the encouragement, that Jeremiah gave in the letter that are also instructive to us today. I believe Jeremiah’s words of instruction are how we should follow Jesus in Babylon.
Interestingly, the exile lasted about 70 years, which is just about the average lifespan of human beings. Perhaps, that duration is meant to call our own lives to mind.
We might be tempted to think in terms of being saved from this world so that we can live in the next world with God. There is some truth to that notion, but it’s only partly true. Jesus introduced his followers to the kingdom of God, now, in this world. Living in God’s kingdom, which is not of this world, starts now, and how we live in it is supremely important.
Jesus bids us to be salt and light in this world, even though we are not of this world. He introduced God’s kingdom into this world, and he would have us follow him by the way we live and reflect God’s attributes and love for mankind in this world.
Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it, and following Jesus means having the same mindset. Jeremiah’s instruction suggests that we need to go on living our lives in this world, not that we should withdraw and detach from it. Even more to the point, we should be actively involved in it and affirmatively working for the welfare of the city (the world) in which we have been exiled.
Though we are now citizens of heaven, and no longer citizens of this world, the welfare of this world is somehow linked to our own welfare (“in [Babylon’s] welfare is your welfare”). God does not want us detached; He wants us engaged in the world around us.
How we involve ourselves, however, is also important. Jeremiah did not tell the exiles to fight. He did not tell them to overthrow the Babylonian government and make everyone follow the Law of Moses. Jeremiah told them simply to go on living their lives, increase and multiply, and seek the welfare of the city.
Babylon was a completely foreign city. The exiled Jews did not feel at home in Babylon. They longed to return to Judah. The Jews had no aspirations for political office or great influence, yet God raised up people like Daniel who held high political office and had great influence. Again, detachment is not the right attitude.
On the other hand, his rise to that position wasn’t due to his aspirations, but due to his faithfulness to God, his character and integrity, his relationship with God and willingness to be true to it Daniel won favor with the king. His faithfulness earned the favor of the king, but it also earned him the condemnation of the king when push came to shove over bowing down to idols.
Daniel remained faithful to God. Importantly, though, Daniel did not set himself against the King. Daniel didn’t lead the opposing political party or stump for imposition of Jewish Law in Babylon. Daniel simply led his life in faithful devotion to God and sought the welfare of the city.
As I think of these things, I recall the turmoil of one year ago leading up to and following the presidential election in the US. The modern prophets were predicting a Trump victory. When the election results came up short, they doubled-down on the predictions, and geared up for a battle to maintain the White House that suggested military operations.
With those images playing in my head, Jeremiah’s warning to the exiles in Babylon takes on a timely poignancy
“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 29:8-9)
For many years before the exile, Jeremiah was warning the people and predicting disaster, but the other prophets – the ones the people wanted to believe – were saying that everything was fine. Jeremiah was telling them it wasn’t fine, but the people refused to listen.
At the end of the long period of warning, right before the fateful sieges, captivity and exile, Jeremiah was preaching to the people that they should give themselves up to the Babylonians. Imagine how the chosen people of God might have received that message.
We know looking back, of course, that they were so far gone, so given to sin and waywardness, that God had no choice but to do the unthinkable – to exile them. Jeremiah’s words at the time, though would have seemed like defeatism, like cultural suicide, like blasphemy and heresy.
The people only honored God with their lips, however; their hearts were far from Him. (Isaiah 29:13) They were religious. They were patriotic. They were ancestors of Abraham and keepers of the Law of Moses, but they were focused on the wrong things and ignorant of their woeful condition.
God didn’t exile everyone. Many were left behind, but Jeremiah’s words were only for the exiles. Think about that as you read the following blessing from Jeremiah:
“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.” Jeremiah 29:13
These oft-quoted words make up, perhaps, the most famous verse in Jeremiah. Everyone wants to claim these words for themselves, as if believing them might bring about some great blessing, and our focus as we consider those words is often limited to our present lives.
God’s ways are not our ways, however. His thoughts are not our thoughts. God plans and purposes that He is working to accomplish from before “the foundation” of the world are not our plans. These words were spoken in the context of God’s plans and purposes, not the plans of the exiles.
God had a plan for the exiles, specifically, but it wasn’t a plan that was only for their welfare. His promise was for that remnant, but not simply to bless them.
His blessing was for those who would take Jeremiah’s words to heart, the ones who were living out God’s plans and purposes for the world. They were the ones who were in the right place at the right time. They were the ones walking consistent with the will of God and what He was doing in that time and place.
Not that they may have known exactly (or even at all) what God was doing. From their perspective, they had lost everything, and the future looked bleak.
They would have grieved the destruction of the Temple. They would have lamented the loss of covenant relationship with God in the land He delivered them into. They had failed God, and they were deeply wounded by that failure.
I mentioned above that the exile was 70 years – the average lifespan of a person. Thus, when Jeremiah wrote the following words, consider how they might have been received:
“‘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.” (Jeremiah 29:12)
Remember, they received this message right after arriving in Babylon. The promise that God would return them to Jerusalem in 70 years meant that nearly every adult who read those words would not live to see the fulfillment of them.
The promise and the blessing were not be fulfilled in their lifetime.
God’s promise and blessing for those of us who are aliens and strangers in this world is not primarily for us in this life. Yet, God says, “Seek the welfare of this world” and “in the welfare of this world is your welfare”.
Live your lives, Increase and multiply. Seek the welfare of this world, BUT ALWAYS REMEMBER that this world is passing away:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
Jesus would say to his followers many years after Jeremiah that they should be salt and light in this world. I can hear the echo in what Jesus said to Jeremiah’s words, “Seek the welfare of the city”.
Why should we strive to be salt and light? Why seek the welfare of a world that is passing away?
The answer, I believe, is really pretty simple: because God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to die for it and for every person in the world that they might have life.
The Jews who were not exiled were not the people God instructed through Jeremiah. His instructions were for the exiles.
If you are an exile in this world, if you are in the world but not of the world, these instructions are for you. Seek the welfare of the world – not that we might take it over for ourselves, but so that we might be the kind of salt and light that would attract people to the God who saves.
I will close with this. The Jews left behind in Jerusalem with a puppet ruler established by the Babylonians continued to contend with each over allegiance to Babylon and allegiance to Egypt. The two political factions were at odds with each other over loyalty to the two greatest powers in their world.
Meanwhile God was working out His eternal plans and purposes through the exiles in Babylon.
When God returned the exiles to Jerusalem through divinely orchestrated events, the Jews who had remained in that land were out of touch with God. They opposed the efforts to rebuild the city and its walls. They were outsiders to what God was doing.
While the exiles in Babylon were living their lives and simply seeking the welfare of that foreign, ungodly city (as God directed), the Jews remaining in Judah were contending politically for allegiances to worldly kingdoms.
This is how I see the ultra-political efforts of Christians today.They are contending for things that don’t really matter. What matters are God’s plans and purposes that He put in place from before the foundations of the earth.
The culmination of those plans John glimpsed when he saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. (Rev. 7:9)
The political jurisdictions and allegiances of this world are of no ultimate consequence. Christians who are fighting over such things in this life, as if they were fighting the very battles of God, have it backwards. God gave us a Great Commission to reach people who are ripe for the harvest, not a great mission to take over the governments of this world. As CS Lewis says,
“You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”Weight of Glory
The things we think are most important are not the things God is concerned about. Following Jesus in Babylon means living our lives, being true to Him, and seeking the welfare of the world full of people God desires to seek and save. God uses us when we do that.