(Jer 29:1-7 ESV) These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said:
4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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.”
The background of this letter is well explained by John Calvin —
Here the Israelites, plundered of all their property, torn from their homes, driven into exile, thrown into miserable bondage, are ordered to pray for the prosperity of the victor, not as we are elsewhere ordered to pray for our persecutors, but that his kingdom may be preserved in safety and tranquillity, that they too may live prosperously under him.
John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 3:550.
Interestingly, the commentators tend to focus on the final command: “pray to the LORD on its behalf” but not on the penultimate command, the broader command: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Yes, we should pray for our cities, but to seek their welfare is much more than prayer. The Hebrew word for “seek” (darash) implies an earnest or careful seeking. Pray, but then roll up your sleeves and get about helping it happen.
The NET Bible translation captures the thought well:
(Jer 29:7 NET) Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the LORD for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.’
The contemporary church is increasingly realizing that it is no longer sitting on the throne of the country or the city. Rather, the church lives in exile. At times in the past, the church so compromised its principles that it was allowed to serve as the lapdog of kingdoms, dictatorships, and democracies, but it’s never truly been in power — in the worldly sense of power. The church has only enjoyed associating with those who have earthly power — and it’s tempting to seek safety and comfort by selling one’s principles to the powerful. No, the church is at its best when it realizes that it exists in exile.
Israel went into exile under Nebuchadnezzar. The prophets promised an end of exile and the coming of a new kingdom — the kingdom of God, sometimes called the kingdom of heaven.
Ezra and Nehemiah brought a minority of the Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem, but the exile did not end. The majority of the Jews remained dispersed throughout Persia, and when the temple was rebuilt, God’s Shekinah — his Glory — did not return. The gift of prophecy appeared briefly and then left.
When Jesus came, only then did the exile truly begin to end. The temple was rebuilt — this time in the form of the Messiah’s church — and God’s glory filled it with as the presence of the indwelling Spirit. The gift of prophecy was outpoured, and both men and women prophesied.
But as we learn in Isa 54:1, Eze 40:1-48, Gal 4:25-26, Heb 12:22, and Rev 3:12; 21:2, 10, the New Jerusalem promised to Israel is kept in heaven for us until Jesus returns. If “exile” is separation from the land, the city of God, and the Temple, then exile won’t fully end until the New Jerusalem comes down, heaven and earth are merged, and God walks among men, as promised in Rev 21-22. But with the resurrection of Jesus, we have seen the beginning of the end, and the Kingdom — the church! — is itself a temple, a city of God, and God’s territory — the part of the world where God’s will is done as in heaven. The church is freedom from exile in the midst of exile. That is, for God’s children, the punishment of exile is ended. They have repented and been restored, and placed in God’s kingdom and in his temple, where they serve as royal priests. And yet they are surrounded by a world in rebellion, distant from God, and under a curse.
Earthly power remains with Caesar and Rome. The exile is ending, the Kingdom has come, is coming, and but has not yet come — not in its fullness. In a very real sense, the Gentiles who were added to the Kingdom went into exile along with the Jews. They abandoned their worldly loyalties and became citizens of heaven — citizens of a kingdom that had not yet been fully realized but one that would come in its fullness with the return of Jesus. But now they live in the House of God, separated from the world — as resident aliens, strangers in a strange land.
As a result, the apostles borrowed much of their teachings from the exilic prophets —
(1Ti 2:1-4 ESV) First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Even pagan kings — even pagan kings who claim to be gods and persecute the church — deserve our prayers.
But we who are in a diminishing exile are also called to seek the welfare of the pagan city where we live while we await the New Jerusalem. Not just the Christian quarter. Not just our Christian friends. The city. After all, Jeremiah implies, we’re going to be here for a while, and we shouldn’t try to form an alternative society that withdraws from the larger society. Rather, we should work for the good of all. The goal isn’t to find a comfortable life isolated from the wicked world that surrounds us. The goal is join with Jesus in expanding the Kingdom so that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
I think the argument is best stated by James Davison Hunter in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Here’s a quote to remember —
The proof of [fundamentalism’s] nihilism is its failure to offer any creative achievements or constructive proposals for the everyday problems that trouble most people.
(Describe any churches you’re familiar with?) Hunter’s proposed assault on worldliness
a bursting out of new creation from within it. To the extent that Christians have any influence and exercise leadership in whatever sphere of life they inhabit, to that extent Christians have a covenantal obligation to actively and concretely realize faith, hope, and love in all that these ideals mean.
In the workplace, we must ask,
What do employers owe to their employees besides a payment for services? What do businesses owe customers besides a product or service for a fee? …
Further, in the visual arts, literature, and music, the first challenge is to simply demonstrate a commitment to excellence in aesthetics (the theory of art) and in the production of artifacts [works] of art generally. … The obligation among artists who are Christians is, among other things, to demonstrate in ways that are imaginative and compelling that materiality is not enough for a proper understanding of human experience; that there is a durability and permanence as well as eternal qualities that exist beyond what we see on the surface of life. … In the news media and academia, the challenge begins by creating resources and space for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that are protected from the enormous pressure of partisan politics (which makes knowledge a tool in the quest for power) and commercial interest (in which the worth of knowledge is gauged by its market value).
Hunter wraps up with Jeremiah 29:4-7. We are to live as resident aliens — strangers and sojourners — in America and the world, but not in ghettos. Rather, we work for the benefit of the land where we live — as aliens but aliens who love “the strange land” where we now live because God put us here. We long to live with Jesus, but in the meantime, we serve Jesus by serving others where we are.
But, of course, we don’t become Babylonians! We are both together with the Babylonians and apart from them. We serve, but we serve as God’s people. We are royal priests serving God in his temple in the midst of an ocean of paganism.
Hunter concludes asking,
Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world?
This, I believe, is the wrong question. the question is wrong in part because it is based on the dubious assumption that the world, and thus history, can be controlled and managed.
You just have to do the right thing and leave the results to God.
In terms of the future of the progressive Churches of Christ — and, for that matter, for the Christian church as a whole — hopefully we will no longer find it sufficient to hide in our churches performing acts of worship and damning those who have a different list of acts of worship and rather work hand in hand, side by side, with all other Christians to seek the welfare of the city in the name of Jesus, proudly wearing our Lord’s name and giving him the credit.
Such a strategy may well make us more evangelistically effective. Maybe. It might help unite the church around a common mission. It might even make our cities better places to live. But we should do it because there’s no other way to act if we love those who live around us. And by serving for the sake of the joy of serving those we love, the rest will come.