Many promises in the Bible were made to other people and we cannot legitimately claims those. We can learn from them. They’re profitable for us. All Scripture is.
I recently wrote a mentoring letter about the bad habit Christians have of isolating Bible verses from their appropriate context, and then claiming the verse as a promise God has given to them personally. In many cases, the promise gives tremendous comfort to us in the moment, but it’s been taken out of context so it’s a misuse of the Bible and the promise.
This idea is part of Stand to Reason’s concept of “never read a Bible verse.” You don’t read a Bible verse if you want to know what a Bible verse means. You need to read a paragraph or more to make sure you’re not misunderstanding the point. In the same way, if you’re claiming a promise, you want to be careful that you don’t take someone else’s promise and bank your hopes on something that doesn’t belong to you.
When I teach on this I often experience pushback when it comes to specifics. I get nods of agreement when I explain the principle because it’s hard to argue with the point when clearly put, yet when it gets down to specifics, people get defensive if they have come to depend on a particular purloined passage for comfort and assurance.
Last evening, my wife and I were speaking about a specific purloined promise: Jeremiah 29:11. It’s probably one of the most abused passages used to give comfort to a Christian in a difficult situation. Most of you know this passage because it’s been one that you have held onto in the midst of a difficult and trying circumstance. Or maybe you have passed it on to someone else, or someone else has offered it to you. Maybe the person who shared this verse with you even said, “The Holy Spirit gave me this for you.” If taken at face value, the verse is richly encouraging. That’s not surprising given the words of the verse: “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’” declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.’”
Those are wonderful words when you’re in the midst of a difficult time. When we are beset with trials and difficulties, and we’re wondering where God is. We’re wondering why our prayers are not being answered, and what the future holds. Then someone says to us personally, “Listen, God is telling me for you, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for the calamity’ that you’re experiencing right now, to ‘give you a future and a hope.’” It’s clear to see why one’s hopes might be lifted.
The difficulty with this particular passage, and many others that Christian claim, is that it is addressed to a specific group of people. If you follow the principle “never read a bible verse” then you realize that this passage, when read in the larger context, is actually part of a letter written to a particular group of people. Indeed, at the top of the chapter (Jeremiah 29) we read these words: “Now, these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile: the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”
The content begins with verse 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.” Then He gives them certain instructions. And in the midst of those instructions on how to comport themselves in the state of captivity in Babylon under a foreign ruler, God says, By the way, you’re only going to be there for 70 years.” Only. That’s a long time in terms of an individual life, though not in the life of a nation. “And when 70 years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill my good word to you to bring you back to this place.”
For those bibliophiles who are really interested in the details of the text, you might look in Daniel 9, because it’s 70 years later and Daniel, who was one of the Israelites in captivity in Babylon and a recipient of the letter from Jeremiah, is now an old man. The 70 years have been completed, and he is reflecting on this promise of Jeremiah, and he says, Well, the time is up. It’s time for us to go back. So he prays a prayer in the beginning of Daniel 9, claiming the promise of Jeremiah 29 because the promise was made to the people of Israel going into captivity for 70 years.
Of course, that’s not what happens when we claim that promise because we are not in that historical setting. We are simply claiming verse 11, for ourselves, as if it were given to us. My point is that regardless of how much better you feel from this verse, given the circumstances you find yourself in, this verse is not your promise because when God says, “I know the plans that I have for you,” He is talking about the exiles in Babylon. He is not talking about you personally reading it 2700 years later.
Is there something we can and should learn from this passage? Absolutely. The lesson for us comes from seeing how God dealt with Israel and learning what that says about God that we should know. It doesn’t come from purloining the promise God made to Israel.
My wife made a suggestion in our discussion last evening. “Maybe it would be helpful if you substitute for this inappropriate use of text, a promise that people can claim appropriately.” That is, what promises are there in the New Testament, specifically, that are clearly given to Christians in time of difficulty and consternation?
I began thinking about what passages have been meaningful to me in times of difficulty and stress, and frankly, there are many examples in the New Testament and some in the Old Testament as well. For example, “God is an ever-present help in the time of trouble.” That’s a broad promise for all who trust in Him.
At the end of the Gospels, Jesus said, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7), He said, “Look at the lilies of the field. They don’t toil. The birds of the air, they don’t worry. Aren’t you more valuable than they are?” The Father will take care of you. That’s encouraging.
1 Peter 5:5-7 is a passage that I have reflected on a lot of late: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, casting all your anxieties upon Him, because He cares for you.”
Philippians 4:6-7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Hebrews 4:15 & 2:18, speaking of Jesus, “He was tempted in all ways such as we are, but without sin, so He is able to, ‘Come to the aid of those who are tempted.’”
“All disciplines for the moment seem not to be joyful but sorrowful, but afterwards, once we have been trained by it, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Hebrews 12:11
These are all passages that we can lay hold of and claim when we’re in a position of difficulty. Paul frequently found himself in difficult circumstances. In 2 Corinthians 4, he spoke of troubles, trials, and tribulations. He listed them one after another. And then he says, These are small things. “Momentary light affliction” is the way he characterizes his own hardships, which were significant, “is creating for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Paul meant to encourage us during difficult times because something significant is going to come out of it.
Peter writes in 1 Peter 4, “Why should you be surprised at this fiery ordeal that’s come upon you as if something strange were happening to you? But insofar as you suffer for Christ, the spirit of grace and glory rests upon you.”
There are many, many verses that we can draw from legitimately. But, of course, there’s a problem. Frequently, the person looking for a promise in the Bible does not want those verses that talk about going through difficulties. They want the verse that says, “I know the plans that I have for you, for welfare and not calamity.” They want the promise that says God’s going to get me out of this trouble and make things nice and good. They want the promise of future prosperity because that is the promise that God made to the covenant people Israel. We want that for ourselves.
The problem is that there is no such universal promise. There is no such promise for the Christian in the New Testament that the plans God has for you are for welfare and not calamity, and those plans will give you a future and a hope. Yes, we have a future and a hope, but not a hope according to the path of welfare and not calamity. That was a promise for Israel, the nation at a specific time in history. That was not a promise for individual Christians. In fact, the promise for Christians is just the opposite. Indeed, I cited an example just a moment ago: 1 Peter 4. “Why are you surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, as if something strange were happening to you?” Those are Peter’s words. Hard times aren’t strange. They’re normal.
In the next chapter Peter says, “The same sufferings that you are experiencing are being experienced by your brethren who are in the world” (1 Peter 5:9). Jesus promised, “In this world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Paul says all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. And I already cited the reference in 2 Corinthians 4, when Paul says he sees suffering as “momentary light affliction” in light of what will come.
The point that I’m making is, first of all, don’t steal somebody else’s promise, particularly Jeremiah 29:11, even it makes you feel really great. Secondly, if we’re looking for the New Testament promise that says God is going to get us out of difficulty, we’re not going to find it because that is not His promise to us. His promise for Christians is rather to be with us in the midst of difficulty, and make the transformation that He intends in our lives through the difficulty.
What about Romans 8:28? “For we know that God causes all things to work for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” The problem is our understanding of that verse. We often interpret “good” in our own way, according to our own self-interest, in light of what we think is the cessation of calamity.
But Paul doesn’t stop at verse 28, does he? Remember the rule: “never read a Bible verse.” Read the whole paragraph at least. “We know that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” In other words, the way that God is going to use all things for good is to use them to conform you to the image of His Son. His Son who was made perfect by the things which He suffered. The good God will work isn’t good times, it’s the good purpose He has for us to make us like Jesus.
Many promises in the Bible were made to other people and we cannot legitimately claim those. We can learn from them. They’re profitable for us. All Scripture is. There are promises made to us that we can claim. And what we learn from all of these promises is that we can trust God because He is working on behalf of His people for His purposes. The circumstances aren’t always easy, but He will strengthen us through the hard times and comfort us.
So don’t steal somebody else’s promise. Come to terms with the truth in the New Testament that, for the Christian, life will be beset with various trials and turmoil that God has never promised to spare us from. He has promised His presence and His power in the midst of those difficulties to transform us into the image of Christ. And that’s a promise worth claiming.