“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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. 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 29:4-7, ESV).
Many of my Christian friends ask me what they should do in a nation that increasingly rejects God as either a) non-existent or b) on the wrong side of history - an ironic concept given He is the maker of history, but I digress.
The instructions the Lord gave Jeremiah to pass on to the Israelites as they were dragged into exile in Babylon tell us what we must do. Rather than hunkering down in our enclaves out of fear or despair, waiting for the Lord to return and take us from this world, we are called to live our lives fully and "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…"
Instead of cursing the nation and its inhabitants, pray and show compassion and care. The early Christians in Rome cared about and for Roman women and children, the sick, the elderly and the downtrodden who needed God's touch, so much so that the Roman emperor Julian complained about their effect on the culture:
These impious Galileans not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes…Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods.
Christians were a minority under a pagan king, but they sought the welfare of the city, and in time, they prevailed.
You see, over time Christianity had taken a prominent role in the Roman Empire’s elite circles, and Julian railed against the "Galileans," seeking to restore the traditional Roman gods at Christianity's expense - thus the church's name for him, "Julian the Apostate." For his troubles, he is reflected in history as the last non-Christian emperor of Rome.
It’s important to note that Christians had gained prominence in Rome by that time not because of their numbers, or the use of force, or the persuasiveness of their ideas. Even when they were persecuted harshly, at risk of seizure of property, suppression of their rights as Roman citizens, imprisonment, torture or death, they cared for the least of Roman society.
In addition to ministering to the needs of the sick and the poor, they stood against social ills like abortion, infanticide, human sacrifice, the brutality of the gladiator games, and the degradation of women. Imagine the impact their charity must have had on the Roman people during the plagues, when they would care for sick Romans who had been abandoned by their own families, even though such actions could, and often did, result in their own deaths from contracting the disease.
Theologian T. M. Moore reminds us that God loves all people, and he expects us to be the tangible manifestation of His love, even to those who reject Him:
Even while they endured the hardships of exile in Babylon, the people of Israel needed to remember that God intended them to be a blessing to the world. People may rage against God, turn away from His Law, cast doubts on His existence, and pursue lives deliberately calculated to give offense to His holiness. Yet the love of God perseveres, even for such as these.
The Roman Empire was overcome by the power of Jesus Christ, not through the ways of the world, but the ways of God. The early Christians:
- Held steadfast to their faith even though it cost them everything, even their lives.
- Loved and cared for each other.
- Loved and cared for others.
- Prayed for the well-being of the nation in which they lived.
It was these extraordinary acts of obedience which led Romans to inquire about what manner of God the early Christians worshipped, and over time, they came to know and worship Him, too.
In imploring us to remember how we are to conduct ourselves in a nation without God, and, in light of what we observe, we must conclude that is where we find ourselves, I am not suggesting that we “shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). There is nothing in the Bible that tells us not to speak the truth of the Word into a darkened world.
We are not promised that we will be loved for doing so, either. In fact, Jesus guarantees we will be hated (John 15:18), and a glaring weakness of Christians, especially those who have grown comfortable in relative prosperity, is the presumption that if they compromise a little, they will be loved, or at least tolerated, by the world. That is a lie straight from the depths of hell, and it has rendered far too many of us timid and useless to God.
Just as we are not to hide or obfuscate the truth of God’s Word, however, neither are we to create a cloistered subculture where we can hunker down until the Rapture. God’s desire is that all should come to Him, and none should perish (2 Peter 3:9), and He expects us to be the guides who point the people to Him.
No one wants to follow someone, however, who is angry or anxious about the current state of society, or doubtful of its redemption, and therefore chooses to wall themselves off from the world, hurling curses over the partition. History and God’s Word tell us how human hearts are won to Him, and we need to shake off whatever behavior is inhibiting us from seeking the welfare of the city.
Even in that act of sacrifice and other-centeredness, God makes us a promise – “in its welfare, you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).