Commonly misunderstood Bible passages: Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah 29:11 reads (NRSV): ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope’.

Other translations render ‘plans for your welfare’ as ‘plans to prosper you’.

This text is very popular among evangelical Christians, who take it as a promise that God’s plan is for them individually to be safe, financially prosperous, and to have a great future ahead of them. Unsurprisingly, it appears on merchandise aimed at Christians, such as decals for office walls, bracelets, and even pillow cases, presumably to reinforce the motivational message first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Here’s a typical Internet graphic referencing the text:

I’m not going to get into questions regarding how compatible such a statement is with the kind of promises Jesus made to his followers about their future (e.g. Matthew 10:22 and Matthew 24:9), but will look at whether or not Christians are justified in taking this quote to refer to them.

First, here is how Jeremiah 29 opens:

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among 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 court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

– Jeremiah 29:1-3 (NRSV)

And here’s Jeremiah 29:11 in context:

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

– Jeremiah 29:10-14 (NRSV)

The promises made in Jeremiah 29:11, then, do not stand alone as universal promises, and are certainly not promises aimed at Christians. Instead, these promises are part of a very specific message delivered at a specific time to a specific people – the Israelites who were being held captive in Babylon.

The full list of promises made by the God of Israel to these Israelites in Babylon is that:

    • After 70 years in captivity they will be released and returned from their exile.
    • God has a plan for these captives’ futures, which will improve their lives.
    • If the captive Israelites seek the God of Israel, he will undo their misfortunes and return them from the diaspora.

These promises are all given to a particular group of people in a particular place and time, and they stand together. There is no logical justification for ripping one of these promises out of its textual and historical context and claiming that it applies to modern Christians. This is not a message aimed in any sense at modern Christians. It is not even aimed at the modern descendants of the Israelites (Jews).

Contemporary Christians have every right to believe that God wants them to prosper and has a great future planned for them, but Jeremiah 29:11 simply doesn’t say that or refer to that in any way.

Commonly misunderstood Bible passages: Joshua 24:15

Joshua 24:15 reads, in part: ‘but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (NRSV), or ‘but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’.

This truncated Bible verse is very popular among evangelical Christians, and can be found on numerous products marketed at Christians, including fence post art to display outside one’s house, door matswall decals, decorative wall crosses, decorative wooden signs, framed posters, mugs, ceramic platters, and so on.

From all this, it’s clear that the quote is being taken to mean something along the lines of: ‘This is a Christian household’, ‘Our family are Christians’, ‘Our family believes in God’, and perhaps, ‘You can believe what you want, but in this family we believe in [the Christian] God’.

While Christians have every right to declare that they and their family are proud to be Christians, does the quote in question actually have any relevance to that?

It’s hard to see how it could.

The (partial) quote is taken from a section of the Book of Joshua in which the Israelites were gathered together and chided for reverting back to the religion of their forefathers instead of the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Joshua reminds the people of the pagan religion followed by their ancestors and then goes on to demand that those who have returned to the old religion must abandon it once more. The tribes agree to this and renew their covenant with their God.

Joshua 24:1-2:

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.’

Joshua 24:14-15:

14 ‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

Joshua 24:24-28:

24 The people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’ 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. 26 Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’ 28 So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

The passage in question occurs in the midst of a purportedly historical account of goings on in the ancient world related solely to a specific people – the Israelites – and related to their covenant with the God of Israel – a covenant that Christians specifically believe they are not bound by as it is ‘obsolete’ (Hebrews 8:13) and replaced by a new convenant:

But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.

– Hebrews 8:6 (NRSV)

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

– 1 Corinthians 11:25

Given the very specific historical context of the book in question, given it was delivered as part of a speech to a specific people (the Israelites, not Christians), and given it refers to a covenant which Christians do not believe they are a party to, there is no logical justification for ripping a single quote from it out of its context and then claiming that somehow it can stand alone as a Christian affirmation of faith. The fact that a string of words which sound appealing to modern Christians – ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ – can be found within a book in the Bible does not justify taking those words completely out of context. While the inclusion of a Bible reference beneath a quote may seem to lend that quote a greater air of authority and importance, if the quote is being used in a way that bears no relation to its original meaning, then the inclusion of that reference is ultimately inauthentic and reduces biblical texts to little more than random soundbites that can effectively mean anything you want them to.

Commonly misunderstood Bible passages: Philippians 4:13

Philippians 4:13 reads: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’.

The ‘him’ is, of course, Christ, and the quote is often rendered: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’.

This quote is incredibly popular among evangelical Christians (and others), who usually interpret it as meaning: With Jesus’ help, I can overcome obstacles and achieve my personal goals.

That this is a common interpretation of, or use of, this biblical quote is evident from its ubiquity in products aimed at a Christian audience. Products emblazoned with the Philippians 4:13 text include necklaces for players of American football and baseball, vinyl wall decals for gyms, running shirts, and iPhone cases. Here’s a typical poster aimed at young people:

Lifeposters, an e-commerce site selling Christian posters, says of this product:

This is a very popular Christian poster for youth. It speaks to them in a language they understand. “If God helps me and gives me strength in all things, then He also helps me in my favorite sport.”

A nice message, but does it actually bear any relation to the meaning of the biblical quote?

Absolutely not.

Here’s the Philippians quote in its wider context:

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

– Philippians 4:10-14 (NRSV)

Philippians is a letter written by Paul to the church at Philippi, while he was in prison. In the section in question, Paul, who has received a gift from the Philippians, assures them that it is their concern for him that is of paramount importance, and that he is not ‘referring to being in need’ of their financial support. Rather, he is grateful for their ‘sharing his distress’. Paul goes on to tell his readers that he has ‘learned to be content with whatever I have’, whether that is comfort and plentiful food, or the hunger, need, and distress of places such as the prison. The ‘secret’ of being content in all circumstances, Paul says, is to rely on Christ, through whom he ‘can do all things’ (remain faithful in all things) and who gives him strength – the strength to be faithful and content in times of plenty and to remain faithful even while enduring suffering, as he was when he wrote the letter.

This text is not, therefore, about overcoming obstacles and achieving personal goals but rather about being content through one’s faith, come what may. Applying this text to a modern scenario, it’s not, “Through Christ, I can get a promotion,” but rather, “Through Christ, I will be content if I get a promotion, but I will also remain content even if I lose my job.” The difference is significant.

For more on this text, see Matthew Henry’s and John Darby’s classic commentaries.