I decided, in light of some things I have been reading and in light of the election, to talk tonight about the Christian’s relationship to the world, specifically to his earthly country. How should we think about our country, our place of residence, as both citizens of America, and citizens of heaven?
The more I’ve thought about this the more I’ve come to see that the church is something of a paradox. The people of God are both in the world, but not of it. The people of God are both for the world, and also against the world. This observation is not new to me; in fact, I’ve been reading from Augustine’s City of God recently and he was wrestling with this same fact. I also read a sermon by Andrew Fuller, a Baptist pastor from England in the 1800s, and he was thinking through the same issues as well. How should God’s people, who are citizens of the City of God, relate to the fallen, sinful world, or the City of Man.
Tonight, we will begin to scratch the surface on a complex issue. I’ll be moving back and forth throughout the bible, both old and new testaments, and tie together a lot of threads from biblical theology to try and put together a comprehensive picture of the Christian’s relationship to the world. I’ll try to lay out some guiding principles for us, while also giving some practical wisdom, without wading too far into that dreaded realm into which Angels fear to tread, that’s politics.
Let’s read Jeremiah 29:1-7, and we’ll focus especially on verse 7:
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.
Before I get to my first observation, let me begin tonight by saying a few words about the context of our passage. For many of us, later Old Testament history is a little fuzzy. We’re familiar with the creation story, with Abraham and the patriarchs, with the enslavement of God’s people in Egypt, with the Exodus and the journey to the promised land, and with the kingdoms of David and Solomon. But after Solomon, the kingdom is split in two, and things get a little confusing. The land is split into two parts: The upper kingdom, called Israel, and the lower kingdom, called Judah.
Where we find ourselves tonight is in a period of judgment on God’s people. In keeping with the promises and curses of the covenant that God had made with his people, God was lovingly chastising his child. The people of God had been unfaithful, they had sinned. They were a mess, they were guilty of not merely tolerating but worshipping false Gods. They had set up idols all across the land, and the word of God was left in the dusty bins of distant memory.
And so God raises up foreign leaders, like the king of Assyria first, and now the king of Babylon, who was named Nebuchadnezzar, to come in and discipline the people of God. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen, and now the Southern kingdom of Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem, had also fallen. This was the year 587 BC, and now the elders, the prophets, the priests, and skilled laborers of Jerusalem were chained up and marched back to Babylon.
And this is the occasion for Jeremiah to write his letter. He is writing to the people of God that were taken as exiles to Babylon, to encourage them, and to tell them how they should act.
They were surely wondering: “How should we live, in exile? How should we think about this?”
They had seen their city sieged, burned down, pillaged and ransacked, their family and friends either killed, or driven off in chains to a foreign land with a pagan ruler. That had to have been heartbreaking and confusing. Surely, they were tempted to doubt the wisdom and goodness of God. What is he thinking? How could he let such a sinful pagan take us over and drive us from the worship of God in his temple?
And these questions are ever-relevant for us, as we will see. We’re called to be exiles and aliens in this life, and we can be unsure of how to act in exile. We can question God’s providence, and wonder why, under any administration and in any earthly kingdom, why God has us here and what we should do. What is our relationship to the country in which we reside? Do we owe allegiance to earthly kings? Do we serve them? Or do we fight back and seek to undermine pagan rulers?
Jeremiah’s letter here helps us. He helps us know how to act when in exile. I have for us 2 observations, and three exhortations from Jeremiah’s letter. 2 observations and three exhortations.
Let’s begin with our first observation: we must recognize our status. Recognize our status. The people of God today, just like the people of God here in our text, have been exiles and strangers ever since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden for sin.
Regardless of what geographical position we hold, or where we find ourselves, as long as we are in this world, we will be strangers, sojourners, foreigners, and exiles.
Abraham knew this. In Genesis 17:8 God promises to give to his offspring the “land of your sojournings,” and in Genesis 23:4, when Abraham is trying to buy some land to bury his wife, he says to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and a foreigner among you.” He knew that he was not in his homeland.
At the end of the book of Genesis, when Joseph is about to die, having fulfilled his role as savior of his people, and he says to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Gen 50:24). He knew they were foreigners in a strange land.
Later the people of God experience a great episode of exile in Egypt, where they are enslaved for hundreds of years. But God saves them with his mighty arm, and brings them out to wander in the desert for forty years. After their time of wandering, they finally enter into the promised land. It would seem that they are no longer exiles and foreigners. They are home.
But although they were in the land, there were still glimpses that this wasn’t final. For example, when David is praying to God right before anointing his son Solomon King in 1 Chronicles 29, David says, “for we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were.” He speaks of the people of God in very fleeting terms, temporary even.
This theme is not just in the Old Testament either. In 1 Peter, the people of God are referred to as elect exiles, and as sojourners. Christians, in whatever nation they reside, are not in their homeland. We’re in exile.
Our citizenship in somewhere else. In a different place, a better place. Paul says in Philippians 3:20 that our citizenship is in heaven. That’s the first step in discussing what our relationship should be to our country: where is our true and final citizenship. For the Christian, it’s not here in America, or in Canada, or Mexico, or any other worldly nation. Our passport is a heavenly passport, and our status is heavenly.
The saints of God have recognized this throughout church history. In Hebrews 11, after having discussed Abel, Enoch, Moses, and Abraham and Sarah, the author makes clear that all of these died having not received the things promised to them, but having seen them from afar, “having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” They knew they were not home. They were seeking a home, but it was not the earthly land where they were born. No. The author goes on, “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
Their hearts and their hope were not set on whatever land they were in. Their hearts were set on a heavenly city. They could live as exiles and strangers in Egypt, or Chaldea, or Canaan, or Babylon, because they knew that this was just a short sojourn. No matter how bad things were here, no matter how lonely the felt, no matter how out of place they seemed, they could endure because God was preparing a place for them.
And this is certainly true for us. We believers are strangers and exiles in this land, regardless of who is in the Whitehouse, or who controls the senate, or who sits on the throne; we are exiles. The same is true for when a pagan is in office, or when a blood-bought believer is in control. Christians have their ultimate citizenship not in any earthly realm, but in heaven. We are sojourners and strangers, and that knowledge will dramatically inform how we live in this life, which leads to my second observation:
Not only must we recognize our status as exiles, but we must also Recognize God’s providence. Recognize God’s providence. The people of God to whom Jeremiah wrote assuredly felt helpless. They were in a strange new place, with strange customs, with strange foods, without the ability to worship as they wanted, without the warmth of the familiar and the things they held dear. Many of them were likely mistreated, and even separated from their families, perhaps never to see them again. They were looking at the world around them and wondering, “what is going on? Who is in control? Because from my vantage point, it sure seems like Nebuchadnezzar.”
Do you ever feel that way? When you watch the news, when you look at the world, and you see the familiar things around you being torn down and burned. When you see the ideas you think are important being trampled upon, and the ideas you think are foolish being elevated and worshipped? When paganism is on the rise and true religion being oppressed?
We can be tempted to wonder, just like the Babylonian exiles, “What on earth is going on? who is in control?”
Well Jeremiah twice in our text reminds the people of God who is in control. Look again at verse 4: “thus says the Lord of Host, the God is Israel, to all the exiles WHOM I HAVE SENT INTO EXILE,” and again in verse 7, “Seek the welfare of the city where I HAVE SENT YOU INTO EXILE.” Two times God reminds them that it is HE who has sent them into exile. Nebuchadnezzar isn’t in control, regardless if he is the most powerful man in the world. God is in control. God raises up kings and topples rulers. He’s merely using Nebuchadnezzar to do his bidding.
And the same is true for the people of God in every age. God is in control. He is in control over God-fearing rulers and over persecuting pagans: over Constantines and over Neros; over Atilla the Huns and over Napoleans and Pol Pots and Castros and Trumps and Bidens. He places each in their position of power and for His own good purposes. God hasn’t fallen asleep or taken his hand off the wheel; he is dutifully watching over his people and bringing about his ends, and we can trust him in that.
But why? Why would God do this? Why would God allow the exile of his people in Babylon, and why does he lead us into exile?
Well our text gives us little hints to some of the reasons God works through exile. Let me give you a few reasons I think God would be leading his people into exile in Babylon.
First, I think that God is punishing the nation of Israel for their violating the covenant made with God. I won’t read it now, but you can read Deuteronomy 28 and 29 and see what curses Israel would earn if they were unfaithful to the covenant. God is justly punishing the Israelites for breaking the covenant.
Second, God is keeping his covenantal promises by sending his people into exile. For example, God promised in his covenant with Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring, and I think that is partially fulfilled by God’s people being a blessing when they are seeking the good of Babylon during their exile. Further, God will keep his word to send the promised seed of the woman, the true offspring of Abraham, the messiah, and he can’t provide that Messiah if God’s people are destroyed. So by preserving a group, a remnant, he preserves a line through whom the promised messiah would come, and Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat of Jerusalem and exile of the people, actually protected them from the encroaching Egyptians who were threatening to destroy Jerusalem entirely right before Nebuchadnezzar showed up. God is keeping his covenantal promises, even if Israel failed to keep theirs.
Third reason why God might be leading them into exile, was actually to mercifully call his people back to him. God permits times of exile in this life so that we might be drawn back to him. Look down at verse 12: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
God works, even through terrible pain and exile, to bring his people’s hearts back to him, rather than letting them drift distant from him. And in reality, distance from God is the greatest exile any person can suffer. You see, ever since Adam sinned in the garden, mankind has been thrust from the presence of God. Our sin keeps us from God, it prevents us from being with God, making us exiles in the world.
But God, in the riches of his mercy, has promised something greater. Just two chapters later in Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah tells of a coming covenant, a new covenant, that God will make with his people. This covenant will take the law of God, the breaking of which resulted in the exile of Adam from the Garden and exile of Israel from the land, and God promises to write that law in our hearts, and he will give His very own spirit, and he will forgive their iniquities and will remember their sin no more.
Even more than that, in 31:38-40, He promises that Jerusalem shall be rebuilt, and it will be bigger than before, and It shall never be plucked up or overthrown anymore. We know from history that he’s not talking about earthly Jerusalem; which has been overthrown multiple times by different earthly kings. He’s ultimately prophesying about a heavenly city. He’s talking about the heavenly Jerusalem, which is our homeland, our native land, our father land, the land that has been promised to us because of the work of Jesus Christ, who’s blood is the binding pledge of this new covenant.
He is the faithful son who upheld the covenant conditions in the place of sinners like me and you who never could. He bore the curses of the covenant that you and I had earned, and was the substitute that we needed. He is the faithful God, working to bring us back to himself so that we might find him and be brought home from our sojournings, and made to be at peace with him in the heavenly city forever.
That’s the good news of the gospel: regardless of where we find ourselves, or where we live, or what ruler is in power, we have a God who has dealt with our greatest need, which is exile from HIM, and because he has done that, we need not fear what earthly kings can do. No earthly ruler can revoke our citizenship, no economic depression, no religious persecution, no pagan idolatry can undermine our celestial citizenship because it has been given to us by God.
If you haven’t trusted in this Jesus and your hope is in earthly rulers to bring you the peace and acceptance that you desire, know that you will never be satisfied. No human leader can ever provide for you the desires that swirl in your heart. God alone can give you the sense of peace and rest that you desperately crave, and he can do that regardless of where you are and what you’ve done. Come to him and believe, and have your soul made to have peace, even in the midst of exile, because our souls will be restless until they rest in him.
Next, recognizing that we are sojourners and exiles, and recognizing that God is in control through his good providence, we can look at more specific and practical exhortations that God gives us through this letter of Jeremiah.
I’ll spend the rest of the evening looking at three exhortations for us while we are in exile. Three exhortations for sojourners to spend their exile well.
First exhortation: Seek the welfare of the city. Seek the welfare of the city. This is Jeremiah’s exhortation to the people in verse 7: “Seek the welfare of the city into which I have sent you into exile.”
When a foreign king takes over and burns the things you love, separates you from what is familiar, and persecutes you, you will be tempted to fight back. You’ll be tempted to plot his demise, to undermine his leadership, and to generally not be a good citizen. OR, if you’re not tempted to actively buck the system and undermine the reign of the invading king, you might be tempted in the opposite direction: withdraw and disengage. To do your own thing, and to have as little involvement with the Babylonians as possible. Let’s just ride out our time, and wait for this exile to end.
But Jeremiah’s words exclude either options. They were to actively seek out the peace of the city, not merely to hope that it happens. They were to be intentional, and energetic in their pursuit of the city’s welfare.
Further, to seek the welfare, or to seek the SHALOM, which is the Hebrew word used, denotes a holistic sense of wellbeing, goodwill, and peace.
- God’s people are called to promote the peace of their society, rather than engaging in unnecessarily divisive activity. Promoting unity, rather than unrest.
- We’re called to honor the leadership that is over us, even pagan leadership. That’s what this verse is really about, fulfilling the 5th commandment while in exile. How I can honor the leadership over me, knowing that God has placed that leadership over me, even pagan leadership, for my good and for his good ends. That prohibits me from using disrespectful language, or engaging in demeaning activity. They weren’t to be mocking Nebuchadnezzar or make fun of the pagan religion in Babylon. They were called to honor those in positions of authority in whatever biblically-permissible ways they could, and by doing so honor the Lord who had sovereignly placed them there.
- Further, to seek the good of the city means to seek just dealings, to promote righteousness, to care for those in need. Basically, they should be great neighbors and outstanding citizens.
- For us, that means we should seek to promote those policies and office holders that rule according to righteousness and justice, and promote the good of society in general. That will usually mean, in our society, voting for those candidates that rule according to righteousness.
- Side note: here is where charity and Christian liberty ought to be observed among believers. While we live in Babylon, we may disagree on which Babylonian would make the best ruler. We lovingly and charitably discuss and even disagree on who is the ideal candidate, and yet still both recognize that the LORD is God, and love each other through our disagreement.
- Now, back to our duty to seek the welfare of the city. If you’re listening closely about the duties I’m mentioned about being a good citizen in Babylon, nothing I’ve said so far is necessarily Christian. Pagans will affirm that it is a good thing for everyone to seek to be a good neighbor. They agree that rulers should rule according to justice and righteousness. But what makes our heavenly citizenship different, is that while we are exiles in Babylon, we’re called to seek the SHALOM, the holistic good of the Babylonians, and we could not do that without ministering to them spiritually.
- To seek the good of the city without giving them the message of eternal goodness, is to fail to try and meet their deepest need. Verse 6 tells the Jews to take wives for their children and multiply while in exile. While we certainly have the liberty to take a Christian spouse in this world, we don’t have liberty to ignore the bible’s clear commands to seek spiritual progeny in this life. We’re called to spread the message of the gospel to any Babylonian that would hear it; to tell them of the good news that Jesus died for sinners, even Babylonian sinners, and that he will return soon to take us home to our eternal city.
- This message is the greatest good that we could ever seek for our city. Without seeking to address spiritual needs, it doesn’t matter what temporal good we’ve done. It doesn’t matter who we’ve put in office, what the stock market is doing, what the benefits are, or what the educational system is like, if everyone is going to hell.
- Speaking on a similar topic in his book on the Atonement, George Smeaton says that, “To convert one sinner from his way is of greater importance than the deliverance of a whole kingdom from temporal evil.” And he is surely right.
- Yes we should seek the temporal good of the people around us, but if we fail to engage them on the level of their deepest need, the spiritual status as an exile from God’s presence, then we have utterly failed to seek their genuine SHALOM, their genuine welfare. That’s what makes Christian exile different. We have the one message that can change the status of our captors from Babylonian to brother, and by doing so, we change the nature of our exile into joyous anticipation of our returning king.
- We’re called to seek the good of the city while in exile.
Second exhortation for God’s people in exile: we’re called to PRAY to the Lord for the city. Pray for the city. Again verse 7: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” Here is a significant command, in fact, as far as I could find, this is the only place in the Old Testament where God specifically calls his people to Pray for their enemies.
This sounds very much like Jesus in Matthew 5 where he commands us to Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Praying for our enemies is one of the activities of a Christian that really sets him apart from the rest of the world. What other people pray for and seek the genuine good of their enemies? None do. But we are called to, and by doing so, we confirm to the world both our status as exiles and strangers in this foreign land, and we confirm our faith in our message. If God really is in control, and if we really are citizens of a heavenly kindgom by grace and not by birth or merit of our own, then we recognize that even a Babylonian, even a pagan, even a devout atheist, or a radical Muslim, is just one act of God away from being a fellow citizen with us in the heavenly city. God can work in their hearts, just as he has worked in ours, to bring about a new citizenship, and we should pray for the good of our neighbors, that they too would come to possess a heavenly citizenship.
But not only should we pray for the spiritual health of our earthly city, we should pray for our leaders, and for peace. Just like Paul commands in 1 Timothy 2, we should pray for these things that we may live peaceful and quiet lives, dignified in every way. Pray for freedom from religious oppression so that the gospel message may be proclaimed with purity and clarity. Pray for economic progress, so that none must live in crippling poverty. Pray for the orphans and the widows and the immigrants, all of whom the bible mentions as vulnerable groups that are open to exploitation. Pray for the good of our society, for unity, for justice in the courts, for healthy families instead of broken homes, for faithful parents that care well for their children, for crime to be down, for virtue to be promoted, for vices to be suppressed, and for the wicked to be punished. Seek the good of your city by seeking the face of the Father.
But to be honest, do we really do this? Do we really pray for those that persecute us, pray for our enemies? I don’t often, and when I do it is often half-hearted and brief. But praise be to God that Christ didn’t pray for his enemies in the same way. He took enemies like me and you, and spoke his word of truth into our hearts, turned us from Babylonians of heart and into spiritual children of Abraham, sons of God, and continues to pray for our good, even now, interceding for us at the right hand of the father as our heavenly advocate in our heavenly city.
But even more than that, he came down and endured the exile that we deserved. He went to the exile of the grave so that we might be liberated from captivity to sin. He surrendered to chains and punishment so that we might be freed from condemnation. He went into the foreign land of the tomb so that we might be brought from the land of our sojournings and given citizenship in his celestial kingdom. He loved his enemies perfectly, and even went into exile for them, so that they might be saved from their willful exile, and brought back home to the city of God, our heavenly Jerusalem, a city that can never be overthrown.
Praise be to God for our faithful savior.
Finally, I’ll close with one final exhortation: not only are we called to seek the good of the city, and pray to the Lord on their behalf, but we should recognize the rationale. Recognize the rationale. What’s the motivation given by Jeremiah: in seeking the city’s good, we’re seeking our good. Verse 7 again, “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 bible gives us many different motives for obeying the Lord’s commands. We are called to obey God out of thankfulness. We obey out of love, because he loved us first. We obey God out of a proper fear of the Lord. We obey God in order to avoid disciple. We obey God out of love for our neighbor.
Here, Jeremiah points out that seeking the good of the city is not merely good for the Babylonians, but it will also be good for the people of God. What good would it be for the exiles if they made themselves a stench to their captors? What good would it be for us, if we make ourselves repulsive to our city? It wouldn’t be helpful at all.
In their peace, we will have peace. Henry says quite succinctly that “every passenger is concerned for the safety of the ship,” and that makes complete sense. Every citizen of the earthly realm ought be concerned with the welfare of his city, and the same is true for Christians. It is not selfish to seek your good by seeking the good of your city. God has so ordered society that they be linked in this way. In seeking the peace, the shalom of our city, we seek our own peace.
So to wrap up, God has called us to be exiles, strangers and sojourners in this age as we wait for the return of our king. We don’t wait by withdrawing ourselves from society and being unconcerned with our earthly city; rather, we seek the city’s good, both spiritual and temporal, and do so especially in prayer, knowing that any Babylonian, any pagan we meet, could soon be a brother and sister in Christ, and a fellow citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
Praise be to God that he sent his son to experience exile, to take the curses of disobedience from us, so that we might not only be returned from the exile of sin, but adopted into the heavenly household, and made citizens of God’s eternal, celestial city. AMEN.