Jeremiah: Successful Ministry
Surely, it is special to be called by God for a specific purpose and work. Jeremiah is one such person who is set by apart by God to be a prophetic messenger. Before he was even born, the Lord saw and appointed this mission for Jeremiah:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
What an honor this would be, to be chosen out of many to be a prophet to God’s people in the world. To be picked and called by the creator of the universe himself would be glorious, wouldn’t it? Yet, young Jeremiah’s message and ministry is no easy task. God does not send him out with a popular message. In fact, the Lord commissions him to proclaim truths that are deeply disturbing and upsetting to the people. Throughout his life, Jeremiah’s mission is to warn of imminent judgment coming from Babylon. Judah, God’s own people, have become woefully wicked and evil; justice is coming soon in the form of conquering Nebuchadnezzar. Unless the rulers and people repent and turn to God, utter desolation and destruction will surely ensue.
Even as Jeremiah brings these warnings of condemnation and judgment, he must combat a whole hosts of false prophets, priests, and leaders who are peddling a message that is the exact opposite of the Lord’s truth. Consider Jeremiah 6:13-14:
“For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
Throughout the book, Jeremiah encounters many who are teaching a message of peace and prosperity. Essentially, everything is fine, no judgment is coming, and everyone is free to keep doing whatever they want. False prophets like Hananiah and Shemaiah lead the people to “trust in lies” and provide them with a false sense of security. Unsurprisingly, it is this message that nearly all of the people listen to.
Kings, leaders, and the people almost constantly reject Jeremiah and his prophesies of doom and future hope. Not only that, but he is intensely persecuted throughout his decades-long ministry. He is imprisoned, mocked, ridiculed, thrown into a muddy cistern, kidnapped, maligned, beaten, and mistreated. One of his only friends in all of this is the scribe Baruch; Jeremiah hardly wins any other converts that we know of in the book. Perhaps what is even more frustrating for Jeremiah is that his prophesies do in fact come true. No one listens to his pleas and warnings and surely enough, mighty Babylon swoops in with thunderous judgment and disaster, wiping out many of the people, desecrating the temple, capturing exiles, and causing immense suffering. Taking a close look at the life of Jeremiah makes being set apart by God seem a lot less glamorous and honorable than it might appear at first. Measured by human wisdom and calculated by most metrics, Jeremiah’s ministry was an utter failure; he lived a miserable and unfruitful life. His message was rejected, converts and friends were essentially nonexistent, and life was painful.
Would it have been better for Jeremiah to have refused the Lord’s appointment? It seems that Jeremiah often felt like it probably would have been. In Jeremiah 20, he cries out to the Lord and offers raw and honest reflection on his life and ministry:
“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed, I have become a laughingstock all the day everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” (20:7-8)
“Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” (20:14)
“Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (20:18)
For Jeremiah, it would have been better to not have been born at all. In this moment at least, God’s word and God’s mission had only brought upon him pain and derision. Within the same chapter, however, he also reveals what continues to drive him to press on in his prophetic work:
“If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (20:9)
He cannot help but teach what has been given to him. He cannot unsee what he has seen. It’s a fire within his bones. He must proclaim the difficult truths of the Lord even if no one is listening. He must continue on because he cannot deny what is right and true.
Certainly, however, the book of Jeremiah is not all gloom and despair. Even as exile in Babylon is on the horizon, God has a plan to preserve his people and restore them and give them a new king from the line of David who will reign in righteousness and holiness. Jeremiah preaches sobering warnings but also profoundly hopeful descriptions of the future of a new king and a new people and a new covenant. Consider these beautiful words from the Lord:
“For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord, because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’.” (Jeremiah 30:17)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
As we see in so many other places in Scripture, God refuses to give up on his people. He punishes, but he also binds up and heals. He is devoted and committed in his steadfast love to his covenant people, and he is determined to make them new and to write his law on their hearts.
One promise of hope comes in one of the most well-known passages in the book and in the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11:
“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.”
In the context of the preceding verses, the Lord has promised to send his people into exile for seventy years in Babylon, but he will not forget them. He has a plan to bring good for his people. Truly, this is a wonderful reminder of God’s enduring compassion toward Judah. However, considering what we know about the life of Jeremiah, it is somewhat ironic that this verse is often used by many in our day to say that God has a specific purpose for each person to provide them with a happy and successful future. What Jeremiah demonstrates to us, though, is that being faithful to God doesn’t always result in physical wellbeing and success for each individual. Some future and hope Jeremiah had!
By all normal standards, Jeremiah died unsuccessful, lonely, and worthless. His ministry didn’t attract thousands of people or change any minds. He saw the destruction of the holy city and of God’s people. Prosperity and welfare were not the defining terms of Jeremiah’s life and work. He never experienced those things in this life, but God never promised those to him. God never promises us earthly success, comfort, ease, wealth, prosperity, or even a future in this life. God doesn’t have a perfect spouse prepared for everyone, and he doesn’t have a fun and meaningful career lined up for those who trust in him. In fact, suffering is promised to the people of God today: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). What God did promise was a future hope for his people through the Messiah and
through the new covenant. While that may have seemed like cold comfort at times to the exiles in Babylon, that’s actually a much better and more enduring eternal promise. God’s plans to bless and give us a future in Jesus may never be evident to the outside world in this life, but it is a sure hope to hold on to for eternity. And even as Jeremiah died thinking his words made scarcely any impact, for thousands of years his words have been read and treasured as a way of giving people hope in the Messiah. God used his suffering and his faithfulness to the truth in ways beyond what Jeremiah could have ever dreamed.
Embracing the difficult truths of following Jesus or proclaiming the harsh realities of judgment may very well cause us pain and persecution in this life. We may find no earthly success, but faithfulness will have its eternal reward by the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s plan for Paul was that he would suffer for the name of Christ. God’s plan for Stephen was a brutal death. God’s plan for his own son was bloody Calvary. Yet, all of those suffered knowing that they were pursuing a plan that was much better than the success, safety, and security that the world offered. God provides a future, a hope, and welfare through his magnificent plan of redemption that he worked Jesus. The Lord has set apart each of us for a purpose and a ministry that can impact eternity for the name of Christ. Let us embrace that mission knowing that God will give the increase and he will gain the glory even in our apparent failures and suffering.