The Bible teaches that we Christians are “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Peter 2:11). Christians have lived through the centuries and around the world under all sorts of governments, but the ultimate loyalty and identity of Christians is not defined in terms of geography or nationality but in terms of commitment to Jesus. Whether you were a Christian living under Emperor Nero in first century Rome or a Christian living under President Obama/Trump in 21st century America, you are a Christian in exile, a citizen of heaven living in a foreign world (Philippians 3:20).
That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the blessing that citizenship can be. Citizenship in a civil society is a great tool to be used for God’s kingdom, but if it becomes the be-all and end-all of our identity, it becomes an idol. Or, more subtly, we can claim to be Christian but let politics consume us.
A few weeks ago I pulled out behind a pickup truck that had two bumper stickers. The one on the left contained a profanity about how tough this person thought they were. And the one on the right said: “Straight. Conservative. Christian. Gun Owner.”
Two things stood out to me. First, this person claims to be a Christian on one bumper sticker, but says very un-Christian things on another. The hypocrisy was blinding. But the other thing that stood out to me were the priorities of this driver. “Christian” came in at number three on the list, after sexual orientation and political ideology (and just before gun ownership).
Does that sound like someone who understands that they are a stranger and exile?
My primary identity is as a Christian and not an American. This was true before the election, and it is true after the election. The Great Commission was the task of Christians in the first century, and it is the task of Christians in the twenty-first century. Jesus Christ was Lord long before the United States became a nation, and he will be Lord long after the United States goes the way of other worldly powers. Christians were strangers and exiles in the first century, and we are strangers and exiles in the 21st century.
Now, if this kind of talk makes you nervous – if it sounds unpatriotic – you are not alone. In the days of Israel’s exile, in the time of Jeremiah, there were false prophets who did not want to accept the fact that the Jewish nation would be in exile for 70 years. They were furious with Jeremiah for preaching that the exile was a reality, and sent letters rebuking him for such an unpatriotic message (see Jeremiah 29:27-28). But this was a lie, and it infuriated God (Jeremiah 29:30-32).
So we are exiles. But what does this mean practically? How do we live faithful lives in God’s service and meaningful lives in man’s service as exiles? Perhaps the place to find answers for us spiritual exiles is the message God’s prophet gave to Israel’s national exiles. Jeremiah 29 contains a letter that Jeremiah wrote to those ancient sojourners, and it contains some lessons that are just as relevant to us. Here’s the first:
- God is in control of history.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4).
Israel’s exile was not simply the result of Nebuchadnezzar’s military prowess. He was the human authority the Lord used to achieve His purposes, but it was God’s plan and God’s purpose that Nebuchadnezzar served. This was important for Judah to remember. If God put them in captivity, God can get them out!
God is in control of our history, too. And that means that however the winds of political fortune may blow, we must be faithful to our task because God will still accomplish His purpose. In the Book of Acts the church grew in Jerusalem when times were peaceful, and it grew when persecution started. When the Jewish religious establishment began its violent persecution, did that mean the gospel was finished? No! Christians went elsewhere and preached and converted people all over the world (Acts 8:1-4). God still rules, Jesus is still Lord, and the King says our marching orders are for us to go out to tell people to follow Him. And we can have absolute confidence that God will open doors of faith for the gospel (Acts 14:27).
Our trust in God should not be so other-worldy that we ignore our practical commitments, though. Here’s Jeremiah’s second instruction to exiles:
2. Take care of things at home.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 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 (Jeremiah 29:5-6).
Part of this instruction to ancient Israel has to do with contentment. They were not to fall for the false promises of phony prophets who were telling the people they would be heading home soon (see Jeremiah 28:10-11 for an example). And part of this instruction has to do with the promise to Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars of the sky (Genesis 15:5). But the practical import to the people was that even though they were in exile, they could still have good homes. So Jeremiah tells them to take care of their domestic responsibilities.
We contemporary spiritual exiles can rail against the direction our culture is headed all we want, but if our own family is a mess, nothing the Court or Congress or President does really matters. On the other hand, if you love your spouse in Christ-centered commitment, and if you raise children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, you can maintain an island of peace and order in the midst of a chaotic and degraded society. And since the family is the bedrock of society, taking care of business on the home front is the primary way you can make your country a better place.
That concern is Jeremiah’s next lesson.
3. Seek the welfare of your country.
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 (Jeremiah 29:7).
Think about who it is these exiles were told to pray for. Not just an opposing political party – a foreign country that just invaded and took them prisoners! And you can’t pray for President Obama or President-Elect Trump? You think Jeremiah would buy that?
Just as Jeremiah told ancient Israel to pray for the Babylonians, the apostles told their readers to pray for the governing authorities as well (1 Timothy 2:1-2). In fact, Paul says it is “good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Timothy 2:3). This means that we should pray for our leaders and respect the government because Jesus Christ said so. The civil government in America may be changing, but the spiritual government of God is not and does not. Whoever our leaders are, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, we owe them the same respect, the same prayerful consideration under the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ.
There is one final instruction that Jeremiah gives his exiles that is important for us as well…
4. Trust God’s promise that exile won’t last forever.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jeremiah 29:11-14).
I’ve often seen verse 11 used as a generic promise for all believers without any regard its context. The Babylon Bee once did a spoof of this: “Man With Jeremiah 29:11 Tattoo Recounts His Time In Babylonian Captivity.” Here’s part of the spoof: “Samuel Levenson’s life verse—and only tattoo—is Jeremiah 29:11, and with good reason. Levenson first encountered the biblical promise when his spiritual life was in a lull, his career was in a slump, and he was enduring a harsh and brutal exile in the pagan kingdom of Babylon. His only sustenance during this time of doubt, depression, and being a captive of King Nebuchadnezzar, was the clear promise in Jeremiah Chapter 29 that God had plans laid out for him—plans for a future and hope—despite his people’s obstinate rebelliousness.”
So let’s make sure we understand the context. Back in Jeremiah 25 the Lord promised that His people would endure seventy years of captivity in Babylon, but that it would end after the seventy years were finished. THAT future deliverance is the plan God has for Israel in Jeremiah 29:11.
They were not going to be exiles forever, and neither are we. We are going home, and the reminder that we are going home helps us remember not to be at home here, consumed with worldly concerns. Because our citizenship is in heaven, Paul says, “from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).
Trust in God – take care of your family – pray for your country – and look forward to the future. These were Jeremiah’s instructions for his fellow exiles, and they are great instructions for us today. They provide the perfect balance for living “in the world but not of the world.”