Christianity 201

March 7, 2015

Seek the Welfare of the City

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This appeared several days ago at The Augustine Collective, a student-led movement of Christian journals on college campuses. The verse emphasized here is one that I’ve often skipped over so I appreciated the author taking some time to focus on it.  Click the title below to read at source.

Strangers in a Strange Land

by Lisa Ann Yu

I left home on August 17, 2012, and haven’t been home since. Sure, I’ve returned to the place where I grew up, but I no longer call it home because I know I can’t stay there forever. Visits back to my former home are by definition, temporary, and always involve a return trip back to school. Berkeley is not my home either though, but rather just a resting place on a long journey. I live as though I have a future after Berkeley, and refrain from becoming too attached to specific people, cafes, libraries, and classes, knowing that I will soon no longer have those things in my life. I am essentially an exile, a stranger living in a land that is not my home.

Yet my life on earth is temporary too. It is a mere drop compared to the ocean of time I will have after I die. How then should I live, both as a college student, residing in Berkeley for four years, and as a human, residing on earth for a mere snippet of eternity?

The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to Israelites exiled in Babylon, a group of people much more similar to me than I initially realized. The Israelites were taken from their home, a centuries-old nation built on a promise God made to Abraham[i], and brought to Babylon, a rising nation bursting with both intellectual opportunities and pagan idols. God’s command to these exiles as recorded by Jeremiah sheds light on how I should live.

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.[ii]

Later in the letter, Jeremiah tells the Israelites they will be exiled in Babylon for seventy years[iii]; therefore they should spend that time (essentially the rest of their lives) building houses, multiplying, and more broadly, seeking the welfare of the city.

What exactly does it mean to “seek the welfare of the city”? In Hebrew, “welfare” is translated shalom, a word Jews still use to greet one another and one which “covers all aspects of peace and plenty.”[iv] At that time, “the city” was an individual’s whole world and all that they knew, so seeking the welfare of the city is analogous to seeking the welfare of this world.

One of the recipients of this letter was Daniel, a Hebrew selected to serve in the Babylonian court – the same Daniel who left the lion’s den completely unharmed. Daniel took Jeremiah’s letter seriously and exemplified what it means to live faithfully as an exile. Through Jeremiah’s letter, God tells the exiles that he sent them into exile. Therefore, Daniel knew Babylon was where God deliberately placed him and faithfully did his work with excellence, even though it directly benefitted Babylon, not Israel. He used the resources God gave him, “learning and skill,”[v] to eventually become the third highest ruler of Babylon. Even his enemies could find “no error or fault in him.”[vi]

I too can seek the welfare of this world by doing my work with excellence. Unlike Daniel, I am primarily a student right now, and with each semester, I seem to have more texts to read, papers to write, and problem sets to complete. Yet as Paul commanded the Colossian slaves, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”[vii] As a Christian, I am asked to put my heart into my work, doing it for the glory of God. Rather than just plowing through tasks to complete them, I can do them with excellence, knowing that God sees the effort I put in.

Another aspect of seeking a city’s welfare is investing in the people around me. Rather than asking the Israelites to keep themselves pure by gathering as one community and limiting contact with the Babylonians, God tells them to intermarry with the Babylonians, becoming fully integrated into that society. I do not intend to literally “take wives and have sons and daughters,” but the point nevertheless is clear. Invest in the people around me – roommates, classmates, coworkers, and random people I happen to meet. Be willing to enter others’ lives, Christian or non-Christian, and listen to their stories, encourage them, and bless them with my time, talents, and treasures. Though time on earth may seem short compared to all of eternity, it is definitely long enough to make a difference in someone else’s life. An investment implies a pay-off, and God promises that when I seek the welfare of those around me, I will find my own welfare.

A final—and related—part of seeking a city’s welfare is bringing shalom to it. According to Paul, for Christians, true shalom—completeness, peace, contentment—is found not just in knowing Christ, but is Christ himself[viii]. The greatest way to seek the welfare of others in my life is by telling them about the source of all shalom, Jesus.

Bringing shalom to others necessarily involves sharing my beliefs with others, which begins with being open about my faith. Because Daniel worshiped God freely, contrary to the law, he was thrown into a lion’s den. However, God delivered Daniel by shutting the lions’ mouths, leading King Darius to praise God and decree that all Babylonians “tremble and fear before [God] for he is the living God, enduring forever.”[ix] Because Daniel was open about his faith, the whole kingdom heard about God.

Jeremiah’s letter finishes with an amazing promise from the Creator of the universe:

When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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.[x]

God promised the exiles that after seventy years, he would bring them home. Many would not live to see that day, but they would be able to fully invest themselves in Babylon knowing that they could trust in God’s promise. They were part of a larger story, one that would extend far beyond their lives. Israel would not be exiled forever, but would return home soon. However, this home would be even better than the one they left, since they would know God intimately there. Though the present looked grim, God promised the future was bright.

As much as I would like to call my post-graduation residence my home, it will be neither my final home nor my truest home. Yes, eternal life began when I received salvation, but as long as sin and pain remain a part of my life, and I can labor to tell others about my faith, I am not truly home yet. I am awaiting heaven but am able to invest in the place where I reside for now, knowing that my truest home awaits me. To quote the author of Hebrews:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.[xi]


[i] Genesis 17:4
[ii] Jeremiah 29:5-7 (ESV, emphasis added)
[iii] Jeremiah 29:10
[iv] ESV Study Bible
[v] Daniel 1:17
[vi] Daniel 6:4 (ESV)
[vii] Colossians 3:23 (ESV, emphasis added)
[viii] Ephesians 2:14
[ix] Daniel 6:26 (ESV)
[x] Jeremiah 29:10-13 (ESV)

February 14, 2015

Letters to the Exiles

This is actually the second of four blog posts (two are not written yet) by Alex Koo under the title Are You Reading the Bible Biblically. If you have the time, click here to read part one. Otherwise, we’ll jump right into the middle with part two. Click the title below to read at source.

Are You Reading the Bible Biblically? Pt. 2

Letters to the Exiles:

This blog post is the second post of the series I’ve been doing titled “Are You Reading the Bible Biblically?” My aim is to speak to the growing trend of individualism when it comes to reading our bibles, a trend that I grew up believing. More specifically, while the natural tendency is to read the bible with the only intent of applying it to the narrative of our lives, I write to encourage us to first understand the narrative of the bible and applying our lives to that story. So what is this story? Last week, I established the four-fold framework of the bible: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. This week, I want to specifically focus on the stage of Redemption (the stage we live in).

redemptionIf you open my bible to the front page, you’ll find scrawled in my handwriting “Letters to the Exiles.” Why? Because it changes how I read the bible. We all flip open our bibles with a particular lens or framework that has been established in our minds. How I approach my bible will be different if instead I wrote “Rules to Be Holy” or “Helpful Tips for Success”, or even “Captions for Instagram Photos”. What I mean is this: The way we read the bible is directly affected by what we think it’s primarily about.

Yes, indeed there are rules on how to live in a way that pleases God. Yes, to an extent, there are proverbs on how to live with wisdom and success. Yet before any of that, the bible is 1) God’s revelation of Himself and His glory and 2) His redemptive plan to restore all things and people back to the enjoyment of Himself. And like I said last week, this story is made up of four stages: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.

When we understand that this is the narrative of the bible, we can begin to ask ourselves, well, how do I fit in? How does the Church fit in? How does my seemingly mundane schedule align with it? How do my relationships, my struggles, my hobbies, and my dreams fit into this narrative? When we start asking ourselves these questions, we’re on the right path. So, keeping in step with the four-fold narrative, it is crucial we realize that we are in the stage of redemption. Or, as Peter would say, we are in exile.

Peter opens his first letter with this greeting:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ. To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…”

The recipients of his letter would surely have begun to draw parallels to their past by his penning of the word “exile.” Hearing the word exile would have rung a bell in the minds of the readers. They would have thought back centuries ago, around 600 BC, when the nation of Israel was taken into captivity by Babylon. This event was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah; that Israel, because of their idolatry and disobedience, would be taken into captivity and live as exiles for 70 years.

The events unfolded just as God had said and Israel found themselves exiled from Jerusalem, under the rule of Babylon. And there in exile, God spoke to them saying:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

So back to Peter.

As Peter writes to his first-century readers, who now are followers of Christ, why does he still mention the exile? He goes on to call them exiles again here saying,

“Beloved, I urge you, as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:11).

He calls them exiles, similarly to how the Israelites were exiles in Babylon, because with the arrival of Christ and the birth of the Church, this story of exile is seen again. However, this is now displayed on a grander scale. The Church, after Creation, after the Fall, and now in Redemption, is now in exile in this world. We, as Christians, are exiles in a foreign land — pilgrims and foreigners. This is our story. In our hearing and believing of the Gospel, we have entered into the Church, saved into a new community of exile, awaiting the return of our Savior when He will make all creation new.

Having that in mind changes how we read the bible. I have scrawled on my bible “Letters to the Exiles” because it reminds me that these 66 books all point to the reality of Christ redeeming people — all the way from Genesis 3 to Revelation. And when I read the Word of God from the perspective of an exile, it changes my perspective. Imagine if you and a couple of friends were visiting an island for vacation. You guys check into the hotel rooms you booked and start to unpack your stuff. You put your needed toiletries in the bathroom, perhaps throw in some clothes into the drawers (if you’re ambitious), and then jump on the bed. Imagine, however, if one of your friends brought some paint and some tools and started redecorating the room. He started working on one wall, explaining how he was planning to add an extension to the room so he could study in the future, and how he wanted to set up a hammock on the balcony. How ridiculous that would sound! It wouldn’t make sense to settle into a hotel that you are temporarily staying at. In the same way, it doesn’t make sense to settle down in a world we are temporarily living in.

One final note. Does that mean we draw back from the world and aspire to live a life of isolation and exiled solitude? Hardly. Remember what God told the exiles through Jeremiah in their time of exile?

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

While the Israelites were called to seek the welfare of the city they were exiled in, we are called to seek the welfare and good of the world we are living as exiles in. That is why we remove from our thinking this idea of a sacred vs. secular divide. That is why, though we are in exile, we still seek to excel in the field of business and politics. That is why we strive to excel in the arena of medicine and construction. One main reason is because we, in God’s image, are wired to do such activities as humans. Think about it, we would have pursued these activities if Adam hadn’t sinned and we will pursue these activities in the New Heavens and New Earth. Yet, a second reason why we still strive to do well in this world as exiles is we seek to bless this dying world.

In conclusion, it is imperative that we establish a framework of the meta-narrative of the bible, namely, the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption, and the Consummation. We understand that all 66 books of the bible were written with this grand story in mind and this whole book points and leads to Christ, who has made redemption possible. Thus, because of Christ in the Gospel, we now live as exiles in a world we do not belong to, yet seek to prosper. And as exiles, we are called to bless this world by first and foremost bringing to them the hope of redemption that is in the Gospel.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at what exactly this message of the Gospel is that we, as exiles, are stewarding and delivering to the world.