God wants to save the world. That’s his plan.
I teach college students the story of the Bible from beginning to end at least twice a year. The presentation is fairly simple—God made a good world, but his people rejected him, estranging themselves from him, ruining themselves. God has been working through the centuries, using groups and individuals in various ways, to redeem fallen humanity, always working to set things right.
To read the Bible outside of this context is to misread the Bible.
It is not God’s love letter to humanity. Love letters tend to have less genealogies and genocide. It is not some timeless treasury of promises and encouragements. Usually those kinds of treasuries have a lot less death threats.
Sure, God can use the Bible to speak to individuals, but we should not approach it like some kind of sanctified Ouija Board. It is a complicated and fascinating story about how God works to fulfill his plan despite the free actions of a persistently rebellious world.
Back to Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
I believe that a close look at the context and background of this verse can help us not only to understand what Jeremiah meant by it, but also to figure out whether or not God makes plans for his people, and, if he does, how we should respond to those plans.
You’re about to get a short history lesson. Don’t skip it. I’ll try to keep you awake.
Jeremiah 29:11 was part of a letter of encouragement sent from the prophet to a group of people that had been carried off to Babylon for their sins. Obviously, the “you” of this letter cannot be applied to any individual. It is specifically applied to the people of Israel, bound to the promises and purposes that had been established in their history.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse. And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Gen. 12:1-3
The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors. Deut. 7:6-8
When your [David’s] days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. II Sam. 7:12-13
These three verses help to give us a glimpse of the Jewish worldview. God chose a single man to start a new redemptive program after the Flood. He promised to bless that man’s descendants, and to preserve them so that they might ultimately bless all the other nations of the world.
In the first 12 chapters of Genesis we see five major plot points. 1: The paradise of Eden 2: The tragedy of the Fall. 3: The purging of the Flood. 4: The re-emergence of evil. 5: The choosing of a holy nation to create a point of contact between heaven and earth, establishing the hope of a new Eden.
This fifth plot point is still in effect today.
At Sinai, God established a system for Israel to maintain their relationship with him—a set of rules and rituals that would give them a sense of distinction, no matter how bizarre. He also established a way for outsiders to join the community, opening the door for a more global redemption.
God blessed Israel with physical blessings so that the surrounding nations would see their prosperity and recognize the reality of their unique, solitary god. When Israel was unfaithful, acting like the other nations, God retracted his blessing, allowing enemies to invade, prompting Israel to get back with the program.
Despite the warnings of the prophets, the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel was eventually wiped out by the Assyrians (722 BC), and Judah, the southern kingdom, was taken into Babylon in exile (586 BC).
While they were there, God sent an encouraging message through Jeremiah, telling the Jews that he wasn’t done with them. He still wanted to prosper them, just like he promised Abraham. He still wanted to provide a future for them, just like he promised David.
But unfortunately for those of us who want to hold on to Jeremiah 29:11 like a four-leaf clover, God’s plans for the Jews came to a tragic end:
“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parable, they knew he was talking about them. Matt. 21:43 & 45
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship, theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. Rom. 9:2-5
They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Rom. 11:20-21
Jesus identified himself as a new, biological tabernacle, a place where humans could come in contact with God, and be reconciled to him. He chose 12 disciples to replace the 12 tribes, then he sent them out to the Gentiles, putting new wine into new wineskins, as he put it.
The Church that emerged was called the new Israel. But instead of being a physical entity bound to a physical place, the mission had become spiritual and global, and the blessings followed suit.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in heavenly places with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Eph. 1:3
So here we are, over 2,000 years later, still going into all the world and making disciples, still waiting for Jesus to return and bringing his epic, historic purpose to an end.
But what does all of this have to do with individuals? Does God have any concern for our personal lives beyond the grand scheme?
Of course he does. God wants to save the world. That includes you—your mind and body, your family and friends, your city, state and country—nothing falls outside of God’s redemptive plan.
However, in my opinion, we should stop thinking about God as our own personal master weaver, tying all of the mundane activities of our lives into some grand purpose. We didn’t see Jesus walking around in the first century, looking at each person with a knowing smile, acknowledging the comic significance of every broken leg or burnt loaf of bread.
I think we tend to hold on to verses like Jeremiah 29:11 the way others hold to their rosary beads or rabbit’s feet. It’s a natural instinct to try to secure an insecure future.
But don’t feel dislodged or defensive. When God brings people into relationship with him, he doesn’t just assign them a serial number and send them off to do his dirty work. He puts his own Spirit inside of them, and starts his rehabilitation program in their hearts and minds. From there, it spills into their families, and then out to the rest of the world.
Do we see God making plans for individuals in the Bible? Of course we do.
Some plans are imposed. Jeremiah was called to be a prophet from the womb. Moses, Isaiah and Paul were all called to God’s service in a dramatic fashion. Some are invited, like the disciples. Some seek it out, like Rahab, Ruth, Nicodemus or Zacchaeus. Some inherit the plan, like Isaac and Jacob, and all the other Israelites.
No matter what door we enter, God’s plan of redemption is always and absolutely personal, but his interaction with us can never be divorced from the rest of his people or his ultimate purpose.
Like any good parent, God wants us to be happy. Never forget that. God’s first and last goal is Eden—a paradise of lasting peace and genuine joy, where all relationships are as they should be. But that kind of paradise is not possible while sin and selfishness put us as odds with ourselves, our fellow human beings, and God himself. In order for God to save the world, he has to save each of us. Not just from hell, but from sin itself.
God’s plan for you may involve marriage, but it may not. It may involve living around family and friends, but it may not. It may involve having money in the bank, but it may not. Whatever the case, God is busy saving the world. Which means he’s busy saving you.
That’s his plan. And it’s worth taking up our crosses to get on board with.