I cannot imagine anything being more stressful for you than being hurled into the middle of a difficult situation without a plan — unless, of course, a plan had been devised for that difficult situation ahead of time, but you neglected to prepare yourself for that difficult situation in advance.
Often, when God’s people find themselves in difficult situations, it is not because God has abandoned them there without a plan. Instead, they may feel abandoned in those situations because they have not followed the instructions given by God, which were intended to help them in the day of the difficult situation.
God does indeed have a comprehensive plan for us. We can find His plan in the book of Jeremiah. There the prophet says, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
The term plans pictures a series of steps to be carried out or goals to be accomplished. God’s plans are comprehensive, they are wide-ranging, and His plans are complete. These plans are to be carried out in concert. Furthermore, God spelled His plans out in three ways. In this article, we will explore God’s short-term plan, His intermediate plan, and His long-term plan for us.
God’s Short-Term Plan
God’s short-term plan is His present, or immediate plan for us. The term plan can also be defined as a pattern. A pattern is something intended to be a guide for making something else.
For example, Cheryl and Angela were friends of mine from high school. The sisters were seamstresses who regularly brought dress patterns to school. The girls would flock around them to choose just the right pattern for the upcoming occasion. Cheryl and Angela would take the girls shopping for the appropriate material. Before we knew it, Cheryl and Angela had brought to reality the dress that only existed as an idea or pattern.
The Ark that Noah labored to build over a span of 120 years was based on a pattern, which God showed him, of an indestructible shelter that had the ability to float on water and was designed not only to endure a flood, but to protect Noah and his family during the time of the deluge that God warned would destroy the earth.
In the same way, the close-knit unit that God told Israel to build during the time the nation was captive in Babylon, in Jeremiah’s day, was a pattern. In this case, the nuclear family was to serve as a model of God’s heavenly family. In Jeremiah 29:5–6, we learn God’s instruction for this pattern or short-term plan: “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease.”
The primary reason for God’s expectation of these slaves to follow this pattern is the same reason He expected Israel to follow the strict dietary laws in Leviticus 11. Israel is called to obey God because they owed Him their allegiance. God had rescued the people from bondage to slavery in Egypt, and now He stood in authority over them. Because He is holy, they must be holy too. Holiness is not moral purity alone. Holiness is the state of being “set apart.” These dietary laws, just as the building up of the family unit during slavery, did just that. They set God’s people apart as different from the nations around them.
Imagine how revolutionary the words of Jesus were: “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man” (Matthew 15:18–20). The contaminant was not outside a person’s body; it was lodged deep within the heart. We would each need a heart transformation.
While we live in a country that is free from the physical bonds of slavery, we are not free from the influences of horrific contaminants such as sexism, classism and, most of all, racism. Racism not only threatens to fit us in the bonds of fear and hatred, but also to put our country in jeopardy of being torn into a fragmented mess. Racism is especially dangerous in the church, because it seeks to normalize dysfunctional behavior — the kind we see in many nuclear families in the world — into behavior that is acceptable in the family of God. But it is not enough to merely assimilate into a church building and claim that you belong to the family of God. There must also be an attitudinal transformation, which occurs from within.
Here is what Jesus says about those who belong to His family. The members of His true family were those who joined Him in the kingdom community. They left their nuclear families, ethnic heritage and national heritage behind. Their new family was to become the heart of their lives now and in the kingdom to come.
If the church today is to complete the pattern and be a demonstration of what God’s family is like on earth, we must commit to being reconciled to Christ, and therefore, with each other (2 Corinthians 5:20). We owe the Lord our allegiance and obedience. He requires of His family that we be set apart as a holy example to all the families of the earth. Are you willing to be reconciled to Christ?
I believe that God truly does have a comprehensive plan for us today. He not only has a short-term plan; God has an intermediate plan for us as well.
God’s Intermediate Plan
The intermediate plan God has for us is twofold. It not only encompasses an immediate element, but it also possesses a future aspect as well. As I mentioned previously, the term plan has multiple definitions. As it pertains to the text of Jeremiah 29:11, the author describes it in three ways. We have already examined how the prophet defined God’s plan as a pattern. Now we will see how Jeremiah identifies the plan as a scheme, which Princeton University’s WordNet defines as “an elaborate and systematic plan of action.”
As we consider what God intended for Israel to accomplish through executing His elaborate and systematic scheme, on the surface at least, we will observe that the plan would not appear to make much sense to the intended audience in Jeremiah’s day, nor does it initially make sense to readers today. Listen to the instructions the prophet gave to Israel on behalf of the Lord — specifically those instructions found in Jeremiah 29:7, “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 have welfare.”
Why would people who are in captivity in a foreign land against their will seek the welfare of the city belonging to their captors? The answer is that on their own, they would not have chosen to seek anything that would benefit their captors. This is apparent based on what we read about the disposition of God’s people: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How can we sing the Lord’S song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1–4).
In an ironic way, God was using the spiritual strength of His people who were in chains to spiritually liberate their physical oppressors who were shackled by the manacles of sin. Yet, in an even more ironic way, God was also using Israel’s physical captivity as an indictment against their own spiritual darkness, which was clearly responsible for leading them into servitude in the first place.
In Chapter 17, Jeremiah points out about the sins of God’s people: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (v.9–10).
Since Israel had sought protection from foreign powers, it proved to be more than willing to make unholy allegiances, that heavily relied on the military strength and might of those whom they perceived to be unbeatable. The Israelites’ true challenge was that they were walking in the bondage of spiritual idolatry and adultery. Slavery proved to be the tool that allowed God to demonstrate the poverty of His people. Perhaps, in a similar way, COVID-19 has inconveniently shown up to expose God’s people to our spiritual sin of racism.
Just as the people of Israel were walking in the darkness of their sin, some of God’s people today seem too comfortable seeking the perceived safety, privilege and protection they enjoy from a nationalistic affinity to being born in whiteness. Of course, being white is not the sin, but it is sin to place the privilege and wield the power of being white by excluding people of color from enjoying either privilege or power— especially when these things are done systemically to the advantage of those who enjoy being white.
How deeply ingrained is this philosophy in Western culture? Racism remains at the base of a culture and society with a core of colonialism, which seeks to control and conquer everything and everyone not like those who steer control of their system. Being born into this system and philosophy, in my estimation, is what allows so many white people to live in the deception that they have no culpability for what happened in the past or the way things are today. The sadder deception is white brothers and sisters who claim to belong to the “family of God” yet more openly identify themselves by political party and sometimes by white nationalistic views of the extreme radical right wing that is repulsed by anything that is not white.
I could sight many examples here, but the real issue in the text begs that we remain focused on the fact that God sees the wicked intent of our hearts. Moreover, just as the purpose of Israel’s captivity was a transformation of their hearts, I believe God is using COVID-19 today as a wakeup call to all who belong to the family of God to stamp out racism in the church. The church is the fulfillment of the pattern that God started with Noah. It is the only indestructible institution that can endure every earthly storm.
Before we address God’s remedy for Israel’s condition in Babylon and, what I perceive to be the remedy for the church today, hear what God said to Jeremiah when he was summoned to the potter’s house: “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you” (18:2).
Jeremiah adds, “Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel’” (18:3–6).
God’s peace abiding among all the people was and still is God’s remedy for slavery to sin. It is also the dominant concept the writer has in mind. The term “welfare” in 29:7 can also be defined as peace. In the Old Testament, God’s presence among His people was believed to create an environment of peace, total well-being, prosperity, and security among His people. The presence of peace, as God’s gift, was conditional upon Israel’s obedience. In prophetic material, true peace is part of the end-time hope of God’s salvation.
To effectively bring God’s elaborate and systematic scheme to fruition, the people of God must place two pursuits atop the priority list of family prayers and practice. First, they are to develop a corporate family structure that cultivates a longing for God to be present in their current location. They are not to pray that God would remove them from their existing conditions, as miserable as they might be. Instead, God calls for His people to obediently labor before Him in corporate prayer, invoking His presence to come and create an environment of peace, total well-being, prosperity, and security among all people.
This instruction was not only God’s intermediate instruction for His people in Jeremiah’s day. It is still His transitional plan for His people today. We are reminded why this is the case when Peter says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But we get an ever better sense of God’s desire for His people to participate in this prayerful labor, in Jesus’ instruction to the disciples: “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest’” (Matthew 9:35–38).
God’s scheme — the plan of action for His people both then and now — is for us to engage in the daily activity of corporately praying for the Spirit of God to reign down His peace, which is salvation upon the entire land. Can you imagine what could happen if, during this time of social distancing and mask wearing, God’s people obeyed this command?
The largest hole in the Arctic ozone recently closed. (Visit fmchr.ch/ozone to learn more.) Wow, if God can mend the hole in the ozone, couldn’t He also heal the racial divide that exists among the brothers and sisters with the family of God? Remember their prayers for the city were not only to be a benefit for others, but because of their obedience to pray to the Lord, they were also to prosper in this way.
The second pursuit the people of God were to engage in was strict adherence to His word alone. Listen to the Lord’s instruction to His people through Jeremiah: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord. For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place’” (29:8–10).
The threat of false doctrine posed a danger to the people of God during Jeremiah’s time. For example, in Chapter 28, Hananiah the prophet falsely told the people that God had broken the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, and the people would be free to return home within two years. Jeremiah on the other hand, said to the false prophet, in short, that God had not sent him. Because he was causing the people to believe a lie, which led to their rebellion against Him, Hananiah would die that year.
God is still serious about His people not listening to and being dissuaded from His plans for them by deceptive words. Today, false doctrines of racism and white nationalism are a demonic threat to the family of God. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, the mature leaders, those of color and white alike, must take a stand against any doctrine that lifts itself up against unity in God’s house and, therefore, God’s family. Silence is not an option. Instead, it is the signature of complicity!
God’s intermediate plan calls for vigilance in corporate prayer, which will benefit inhabitants in the entire land including God’s own people with the peace and total well-being that result from salvation, God’s gift to all humanity.
God’s Long-Term Plan
Finally, the word plans is expressed through the term “the way,” which connotes the entire Christian system but especially the manner of salvation by Christ. A way is understood as a procedure or process for obtaining an objective — in this case, specifically, a future and a hope.
“‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile’” (Jeremiah 29:11–14).
When taken in their entirety, these verses hold in view the building up of the nuclear family as that holy family and pattern for the church. The church is like the Ark, that indestructible shelter prepared by God with the ability to endure the destruction to come. God’s people are to be vigilant in prayer and steadfast in carefully following His word by the protective guidance of mature leaders.
With these in place, the system in which God will continuously bring salvation to humanity is ready to be installed firmly in place. The strategy is to drive the ministry of the church. Moreover, this strategy calls for the worldwide expansion of the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to establish local churches globally. This strategy is best carried out through an endeavor I have come to know as “missionary enterprise.” The missionary enterprise can only be accomplished by the local church. There are six distinct steps in this process. Each works or is completely dependent on the others, which serve to ensure the success of this divine endeavor:
1. The continual proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to draw unbelievers to a conviction over their sins.
2. Gathering new converts into new church communities (families) for the purpose of further instruction in the gospel and sound doctrine in order to transform behavior, develop good character and grow in wisdom.
3. Identify and train new leaders in sound doctrine as well as commend them to the responsibility of caring for God’s people.
4. Return to the newly planted churches to shepherd new believers and further establish them in the faith and sound doctrine.
5. Return to the mother church and give a report on the work.
6. Repeat the entire process again and again (Acts 2:42–47, 14:21-23; Ephesians 2:12, 3:8–10, 4:11–14; Titus 2:13).
The hope that God wants to instill within His people comes as a result of God’s family engaging in vigilant prayer and obedient seeking of Him to bring peace in the land. Is that what we desire of our great God today? The Tyndale Bible Dictionary defines hope as “an expectation or belief in the fulfillment of something desired.” Hope keeps in consideration our present hurts and uncertainty over what the future holds. Worldwide poverty, hunger, disease, sexism, fear, hatred and racism all create a longing for something better. People historically have looked to the future with a mixture of longing and fear. Many have concluded that there is no reasonable basis for hope and, therefore, to hope is to live with an illusion.
In a committee meeting via Zoom, I commented that perhaps when all the dust has settled with COVID-19 and we more clearly see what God was doing in the heart of His people, then an action we were considering to address regarding racism may prove to be a moot point. Shortly after I made that comment, a colleague said, “Robert, I wish I could agree with your fanciful outlook about the church in light of COVID-19, but I’m afraid, that after things return to normal, racism will be alive and well.” I did not respond, but I heard every word she said. She is right, of course.
But if God’s people are willing to recognize that God has a plan for us, we can comprehend that the nuclear family is merely a pattern for a higher ideal that He has shown us through His family. If we will recognize that our human fallenness, which is bold enough to show up even in the church, can only be transformed by the power of belonging to God’s family, then God’s plan can still turn things around even in this late hour. We must commit to keeping His word and weeding out all false teachings. Then God will gift us His presence to dwell among us as we look to the future with our hope in Him alone. God does indeed have a plan for us.
Robert Marshall, D.Min., is the lead pastor of the Los Angeles Community Church in Los Angeles, California. He also serves as the director of the African Heritage Network of the Free Methodist Church – USA.
Scriptures in this article are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960–95 by the Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.