Life In A Pagan CityErwin W. Lutzer | May 18, 2014
Selected highlights from this sermon
As our country’s culture continues to drift away from biblical moorings, how should we react? How should we live in an increasingly hostile society?
The nation of Judah was once in a similar situation. Under the judgment of God, thousands were taken into Babylonian exile, where they dwelled in the midst of a pagan society. The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to exiles to instruct them on how to live in such an environment—lessons we could do well to live by in today’s culture.
Today I hope that you are going to be as excited about this message as I am as it progresses, because at last we are going to be taught what to do as a minority in a majority culture. By that I mean that we as Christians are a minority within the United States of America. It used to be that Christianity was the dominant religion. Christian values permeated our country even though not all, of course, were Christian, but there was a general acceptance of Christian values.
Today all that you have to do is to express your convictions regarding biblical marriage and sexuality and then you find out what happens in our culture. Or if you suggest that Jesus is the only way to the Father, you get the same kind of reaction. And at last, in this series of messages, we’re going to talk about living as a Christian minority in a country that is largely non-Christian in its values and outlook.
You know, the Bible tells us that Israel was in the land, of course, and then what happened is it went to Babylon, specifically Judah. And at last we’re going to talk about the Church in Babylon. I do not mean to say that Israel is the Church. We make that distinction and it is important to us. But as I look at the Bible in the Old Testament and ask myself, what’s the best example of how to live in a pagan culture, I think of the people of Judah living in Babylon.
Now in order to remember the context of these messages, six messages were given about all of the judgments that Jeremiah was putting upon the people. He said, “God is going to judge you. A nation is going to come from the north. You are going to experience a great deal of devastation,” and the people absolutely refused to repent, and Babylon came. In fact in the year 605, Babylon swept down, and many of the Jews were carried off to the country of Babylon. They came to Jerusalem, that is, Babylon did, and took people back to Babylon. Among them were Daniel and some of his friends.
And then a few years later in 597 the Babylonians came again to Jerusalem and took about 10,000 people or more all the way to Babylon, and after that in 587 they came and they totally destroyed the Temple, and everything that was Israel. Now that’s where we left this series of messages. The last message was on the lamentations of Jeremiah as he walked through the rubble of the destroyed city. And he is the weeping prophet, and he has reason to weep.
But now the Israelites are in Babylon. They have walked about 600 miles. Babylon is where Iraq is today and the city of Babylon itself is about 60 miles from Baghdad. But imagine! People died on the way. Back in Jerusalem they left all of their families. Many of those were put to death or they died of starvation. These are the survivors, and they make it into the land.
I think it’s time for us to take a deep breath and remember what they were facing. These people were coming into a culture that was totally foreign to them, an entirely different culture. When they were back in the land, when they were there in Jerusalem, the Temple was the center of their worship. They brought sacrifices to the Temple. Now there is no Temple. There will be no sacrifices. And furthermore, they worshiped Yahweh. They worshiped Jehovah. Oh I know that there was idolatry, but Jehovah was the God that was generally accepted.
Now they are going to be in Babylon and the Babylonians worship all kinds of gods, including Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. The gods of Babylon know nothing about the Ten Commandments. The gods of Babylon are filled with license for immorality, and the people are going to be in that environment. And no wonder the people are so beleaguered.
This is Psalm 137. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors (that’s the Babylonians), mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Sarcastically they asked for that.) How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”
So there they were in Babylon without a song. Now Jeremiah doesn’t go to Babylon. He actually is there [in Jerusalem]. He survives all of these invasions. He ends up going to Egypt, and so far as we know, that’s where he died. But before he died God gave him a revelation, a letter that was to be sent to these exiles in order to teach them how to live in the midst of this pagan culture.
I hope that you have your Bibles because the text today is from Jeremiah 29. Jeremiah 29 contains the instructions given by God for how these people are to live in Babylon, and it is surprising what God has to say, and I believe that it has relevance for us today. God says, “These are the instructions. I’m going to give you five instructions.”
Instruction number one, you’ll notice, says in verse 4, “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.”
Surprise! Wow! God says, “Instruction number one is build houses. Don’t try to live in your tents because you are going to be there for 70 long years.” The false prophets were saying, “Oh, we’re not going to be here long. God is going to get us out of here real fast because God wouldn’t put up with us here in Babylon with all of these pagans.” Jeremiah is saying, “Don’t accept cheap promises.”
And by the way, the false prophets today, oftentimes seen on television, are giving out a lot of cheap promises that we had better avoid. God says, “It is going to be difficult and what I want you to do is to plant crops and build houses because you are going to be there, and I will take care of you in the midst of a pagan culture.” Number one, God says, “Plant crops, live among the Babylonians, build houses.”
Number two, He says, “Have strong families.” Were you surprised, when I read the text a moment ago, that it says, “Take wives, and have sons and daughters and give your daughters in marriage that they may bear sons and daughters and multiply there, and do not decrease?” God says, “What you ought to do when you are there in Babylon is to have some singles parties so that young women can meet young men, and so that you can get them married off so that you can have huge families.” That comes as a surprise, doesn’t it, because you may say to yourself, “How can you raise children in a pagan environment?” Now they didn’t attend school in Babylon, but I’m sure that what their children heard out on the street made up for it. And so God says, “I want you to have lots of children.”
You see the reason that the Lord knew that these families would be able to survive paganism was because in Judaism there were always strong fathers who had the responsibility of the home. And of course, it was the father, you know, who was the head of the Passover; that is to say, he was the one who was in charge of the Passover. And God knew that with strong fathers, taught in the Word of God that had been revealed at that time, these families could survive paganism, and two things would happen.
Number one, God would have seed and the message of Jesus Christ (eventually of course, through the prophets and so forth), the message of Judaism, the truth of Judaism would be preserved in the lives of children. Furthermore, God needed children so that a future generation 70 years later would be able to return to the land. So God said, “Have families in the midst of this culture.”
Just this past week I was again with my friend, Tony Evans. I happened to be in Dallas for a day for a meeting with pastors, and Tony was there. But I recall him saying one time that when his children were in school, when they came home in the evening, they [he and his wife] would spend some time to deprogram them, asking them what happened in school, what they were taught, and what values were communicated. And they were very vigilant in allowing their children the opportunity to go to a school like that, but they knew that they had to step in as parents with incredible vigilance. I can imagine that the very same thing happened here in Babylon. God said, “I’m going to entrust large families to you, and I’m going to be with you in your homes. You don’t have a temple anymore and no more sacrifices, but I will be with you in your homes. And if you adhere to Me and seek My face, I’ll give you the wisdom that you need to rear your children for the glory of God.”
Have large families! That’s instruction number two. Let’s go on to number three. You’ll notice God says, “Be good neighbors.” I’m in verse 7. “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.” The Hebrew word for welfare is shalom. So God says, “Seek the shalom of the city.”
You know that word shalom is often translated welfare or peace but it actually means something more than that. It is sort of a holistic view of what peace is all about. It can refer to prosperity, wholeness, blessing or favor. God says, “Be good neighbors.” He’s saying, “Shovel the snow off your sidewalk in winter.” “Mow your lawn.” “When the neighbor across the street has a need, you meet that need.” “Invite your neighbor over.” “Build relationships.” “Pay your taxes.” In Chicago, “Seek election. Try to become an alderman.” Do all that you possibly can to invest in the city because notice what God says. “In its shalom you will find shalom.”
You know there’s that old line that when the tide comes in all boats float, so as you permeate the city with righteousness, with your families, with a sense of determination to bless the city, blessing will come back upon you. Seek its welfare because in the process you also shall be blessed, and your welfare will be connected with its blessing.
That’s number three. Number four he says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” Again, we are going a little too fast here for us to understand how this must have just blown apart the minds of the Jewish people. You’re supposed to pray for Babylon? Remember it’s the soldiers of Babylon who came and destroyed your family. They killed your parents perhaps, or your relatives. It is the Babylonians who came and totally destroyed your Temple, and now God says, “Pray for their blessing. Pray for their shalom.”
We here at The Moody Church have days of prayer and fasting. We have concerts of prayer. At our next concert of prayer that will take place in just a few weeks, and you’ll be hearing about it, I am very glad to announce to you that we now have access to a booklet that has been published by Dr. John Fuder (Moody Press) that highlights the 74 different neighborhoods of Chicago. It gives basically each neighborhood’s boundaries and its characteristics. And one of the things that we are going to do is to pray for every single neighborhood of this city, and we are going to pray for its shalom, for the blessing of God on this great city. And when we pray for the shalom of the city, what do we pray for? We’re going to pray for the city economically. There are areas of this city where the need economically is so great – the need for jobs and what have you. We’re going to pray for the safety of the city. Most assuredly that’s wrapped up in that word shalom. We’ll pray for the shalom of the city.
I haven’t heard any news this morning but if it’s like other mornings I am sure that there were some murders in the city of Chicago this past week, and if not, last night. But I need to say that that is really just the tip of the iceberg. We hear about these things on the news, but that does not mean that we know anything about the kind of violence that is taking place in homes, the kind of alienation that is being experienced by the children of the city. God says, “Pray for the city. Uplift it in prayer. Pray for it economically. Pray for its safety. Pray for the politics of the city.”
The Scripture is very clear that we should pray for kings and for those who have authority over us. We should be praying regularly for the mayor and for those who advise him in the city council. That is our God-given privilege to pray for the city. But you and I also know that when we pray those prayers, we have to also pray for the real shalom of the city, that is to say that men and women might come to the peace, the shalom that God is able to give them through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Let it be said of this church that we pray for the city, that we seek its welfare, because in its welfare we also are blessed. (applause)
Let me go on now to a fifth instruction, and that is to say that what we should be doing is looking beyond the present to the future, or let me put it this way – looking beyond the present to the promises of God. Your Bibles are open. Notice it says beginning in verse 10, “For thus says the Lord: 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.”
There are many of you who long ago memorized the 11th verse of Jeremiah 29. I know the plans, God says, that I have for you, plans of wholeness, to give you a future and a hope. And I understand why we take that verse of Scripture sometimes from its context and we use it for ourselves, but did you notice that in its context it is a reference specifically to Israel and their restoration? God says, “After 70 years, I am going to come to you and you are going to be going back, and I have for you a future and a hope.”
Now just think for a moment. Let’s suppose that you were 40 years old in Babylon. You survived all these difficult journeys and these difficult times, and there you are, and you receive this promise that in 70 years you’ll all go back. What would you be thinking? Well you’d be thinking, “I’m thankful for the promise but it’s not going to apply to me because I’m going to die here.” And most of the people did die there, and their children learned the language of Acadian, and when they went back 70 years later, they had basically forgotten their Hebrew. This is indicated in the book of Ezra and the book of Nehemiah. But does that mean that there was no hope for that generation that would die in Babylon? Those who understood the promises of God knew that despite the fact that they would not be going back, they would still inherit all of the promises of God given to those who believe.
Abraham, for example, died in faith, not having received what was promised, it says in the book of Hebrews. God had promised him all kinds of things, the land, the blessing, etc. etc. He died in faith. And you and I sometimes don’t see the fulfillment of certain promises, but we die in faith, looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. And we live in that hope.
And the Bible says also that someday our bodies will be transformed into the likeness of His glorious body. So we die without seeing all of the promises fulfilled but we, too, die in hope because we know that God’s promises are true. And in a time of hopelessness we look to Him and we are reminded of what He has promised us. And God says that to Israel.
Now having given the five instructions what I’d like to do is to nail this down for us with three important lessons that grow out of this text that should help us here in the city of Chicago as missionaries. Wherever we find ourselves, we should be encouraged.
Lesson number one is this: God cares for His people. God cares for His people even when they are under judgment. Now I believe that obviously the people were there in judgment. It’s because they had disobeyed, and the righteous suffer with the wicked.
By the way, whatever you do, don’t miss the next message in this series because it’s going to be entitled Conflicts of Conscience. And we’ll talk about how we should live as members of the City of God in the City of Man when we are asked to do some things that violate our consciences. That’s going to be the next message in this series.
But what God is saying here is, “I’m going to take care of you.” Look at what it says in the text. It says, for example, in the middle of verse 4, “to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem.” You can see also now in verse 7 it says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” God sent the people to Babylon, and even though they were there because of judgment God said, “I’m not going to forsake you because I take care of you where I send you.” And you may find yourself in a predicament that is very difficult, but God has sent you there and God will care for you there.
Now you say, well, what happened to George Knoop? You know, there he was in the will of God in Haiti and he was murdered. Well, when we ask the question, “Where was God when George Knoop was killed?” we have to answer it by asking this question: “Where was God when His own Son was killed?” The fact that God takes care of His people does not exempt them from the vicissitudes of life, from the difficulties of life, or even death. But this much we do know. When we trust the care of God there is no combination of angels and demons that can kill us if God thinks we still have work to do. (applause)
Let us rejoice today that we are in God’s hands. No matter the circumstances to which we’ve been brought this moment, no matter the difficulties, if you know Christ as Savior, and you belong to God, we are ultimately in His sovereign hand. God is sovereign over His own people.
But there is another lesson that grows out of this, and that is that God is sovereign over the nations. You’ll notice it says in verse 10, “When the 70 years are over I’m going to bring you back.”
Have you ever wondered how we know that the Bible is a dual authorship? The Bible is written by men; it’s also written by God.
Deep strike Thy roots, oh heavenly vine,
Within our earthly sod
Most human and yet most divine,
The flower of man and God!
One of the reasons we know is because of the predictions. I wish I had time to explain it more carefully, but did you know that in Isaiah 44 God makes a prediction that after the Babylonians are finished, the Mede Persian Empire is going to capture Babylon? And we’re going to be talking about that.
It’s the handwriting on the wall. It’s that night. And a man by the name of Cyrus is going to let the Jews go back into Jerusalem. This is in Isaiah 44. God says of Jerusalem, “She shall be inhabited, and the cities of Judah shall be built and I will raise up their ruins.” It is God who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
Now you have to take this by faith because I don’t have the time to delineate the timeline, but just know this. Isaiah wrote these words about 100 years before Cyrus was born, and a 150 years before he [Cyrus] made the decree to allow the Jews to come back after 70 years. Do you realize what that means? It would be equivalent to you predicting who is going to be the president of the United States of America 100 years from now and then accurately predicting his most important foreign policy decision, and naming him by name.
God says, “Cyrus, you are my servant. You are the one who is going to be used to allow the Jews to go back,” and Cyrus is not yet born. The Bible says that God calls those things that are not, and God is the one who knows the end from the beginning.
You may be going through your own personal trial today. We’re not in Babylon, but could I just encourage you by saying this? God knows the intensity of the trial that you are going through, but God also knows its duration. God says to Israel, “You’ll be in Babylon for 70 years,” and 70 years it was.
Finally, and this is important, God’s promises to us are fulfilled also in the future. Even as we talk about the shalom of the city, we know that in the New Testament it becomes abundantly clear that shalom actually resides in a person and it is His shalom that we should give to the world, and that is the peace of Jesus Christ. Those Jews, you know, who were faithful, began to see this, but not with the clarity with which we see it, that ultimately our good – our final shalom – is the message that we have for the city of Chicago.
You see what God said to the inhabitants of Judah that were there in Babylon is, “You have to be missionaries of shalom. You have to recognize that I have you there not only because I am refining you (I’m not going to destroy you there but I am going to refine you there.), but to represent me to those Babylonians whose hearts may be opened so that they would be able to accept my true shalom that is going to come in the person of the Messiah.
And today our true shalom has come to this world. Think for a moment about the words of Jesus. I’ve often pondered this. Jesus is speaking to His disciples, and He says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let now your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Could you imagine those words in the mouth of anyone else? We’d haul that person away. Men in uniforms would come and gently lead them, and we might not see them again. Think of that.
Think of this. You are sitting on the couch and Freud is talking to you, and he is trying to find out why you are not at peace. You know you’ve got this problem and that problem, and finally he says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Wow! Wouldn’t that ever bless you? Could you even imagine that?
Or what if your friend were to say those words? The only reason that Jesus Christ can say that He is the true shalom is because our hearts are not at peace because of sin. There are some of you here today and your heart is not at peace, and you don’t know why. What Jesus does is He breaks the barrier between God and us by reconciling us with God. We have peace with God. But Jesus also brings peace within our own hearts. The civil war that some of you are experiencing within is brought to peace when Jesus comes to take over.
So I ask you. Do you want shalom – the shalom that Chicago needs, the shalom that our homes need? It is found in Jesus, the Prince of Shalom.
Let’s bow together in prayer.
Our Father, we ask that you will help us to live in this great and wonderful city. Its needs are huge. Oh God, we pray that you might enable us to represent You well, that people might know that there is a Savior, and that peace is available through Jesus Christ our Lord, and may His mind be in us. For those who have listened to this message today, who have never believed on Christ and their hearts are restless, help them to know that peace is found in Jesus Christ. May they come to know Him, and may we all bless this city for your glory and Your honor. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.