”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.” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV)
This verse is often taken by modern Christians and applied to themselves. However, there are some very serious issues with that. When people pick out a single verse without reading the surrounding passage, they open up to problems that an out of context verse can bring and they miss the entire point.
Hosea 1:2 (ESV) says, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” I see nobody taking that verse as a command, and rightly so. If one were to take this sentence alone, they would both be open to the theological error that it is sinful to not marry a loose woman and miss the entire meaning of Hosea taking on an unfaithful wife. This can be done again with Joshua 6, where the people are commanded to march around Jericho. From it, one could make the case that each believer is supposed to spend a week marching around Jericho. We could do this with almost any Bible passage.
We can see this with Jeremiah 29:11. The promise for welfare could make it into a proof text for the Prosperity Gospel. Also, when people apply this verse to themselves, they entirely miss a good example of a promise God kept. God made this promise to a certain group of people, and He fulfilled that promise.
To properly read a passage, we must look at a few factors: writer, audience, purpose, setting, and surrounding verses. What is interesting with Jeremiah 29:11 is that when we view just the surrounding verses, specifically verse 1 (ESV), it tells us the rest of them. “These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” When we read this verse, we know the author (Jeremiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), the audience (elders of the exiles), setting (Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity), and purpose (to relay what God has spoken, as evidenced by the fact that the letter was sent by the prophet Jeremiah).
This verse is not written to all Christians, but to those who lived in that time and that situation. What people miss when they misapply this to themselves is much greater than the prosperity Gospel. God kept this promise to those Israelites. God is a God who does not lie, who keeps every promise He makes. What he has promised to the Church isn’t financial prosperity, but eternal life through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
[Contributed by Brandon Hines]