This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 2 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in perilous times. Known as the “weeping prophet,” he wrote some of the most somber literature in the Bible, including the book aptly titled Lamentations. Indeed, his name has been borrowed to create the word jeremiad, which means a list of woes. One would hardly suppose that words of the Bible’s most mournful prophet would become a theme verse for the prosperity of Christian believers. However, Jeremiah 29:11 has become precisely that in the hands of a number of Christian teachers, especially those who are part of the Word of Faith movement. Is this a valid use of Jeremiah’s words? Or are Word of Faith teachers engaging in exegetical sleight of hand?
Original Intent. Jeremiah was born in approximately 655 BC. During his tenure as prophet, in 587 BC, the kingdom of Judah was invaded by the Babylonian Empire. Judah lost the war, and prominent citizens of Judah were taken into exile to live in the Babylonian kingdom. In the midst of this crisis, Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, explaining that God had instructed them to settle into exile in Babylon for the time being (Jer. 29:4–7). Jeremiah then warned the exiles to ignore false prophets (29:8), who presumably were claiming that God has told them they should return to Jerusalem. Rather, Jeremiah said, in seventy years they would return to Jerusalem (29:10). It is in this context that Jeremiah delivered God’s promise that He had plans for the people of Judah to make them prosper (29:11).
Jeremiah’s words were a needed reassurance for the exiles from Judah that God had not abandoned them to their Babylonian oppressors. Today, however, Jeremiah 29:11 has become a banner verse for Christians seeking divine promises of future prosperity. The way Jeremiah 29:11 is used today raises significant questions not only about the interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11 but also about the propriety of using Scripture in ways that diverge from the original intention of the text.
Modern Misuse. There are several pastoral authors who extract Jeremiah 29:11 from its original context and claim that the verse is thematic for how God wishes to have good things happen to the Christian. Popular pastor and devotional author Rick Warren is not aligned with the Word of Faith movement, but he typifies the general trend as he uses Jeremiah 29:11 to illustrate that “wonderful changes are going to happen in your life as you begin to live it on purpose.”1
Within the Word of Faith movement, popular teacher Joyce Meyer says that Jeremiah 29:11 “is a very familiar passage of Scripture that speaks about the plan God has in store for you.”2 Lynette Hagin, the wife of Kenneth Hagin, writes in Word of Faith magazine, “Do you have certain scriptures that you review continually? One that I read all the time is Jeremiah 29:11….I read this verse continually for two reasons: First, to remind myself to fulfill God’s plans for my life; and second, to realize that, however challenging they may seem, God’s plans will always turn out for good and not be disastrous.”3 Joel Osteen, whose teachings have significant leanings toward Word of Faith theology, uses Jeremiah 29:11 as a thematic verse for this lesson: “Surround yourself with the right people and you can fulfill the dreams God gives you. Put yourself in relationships with people who are not only like-minded, but are also seeking to honor God in their own lives.”4
The popularity of Jeremiah 29:11, used in this fashion, has expanded to the point that it has become a thematic verse for notebooks and prayer journals, where Christians are encouraged to record their reflections on how God has prospered them. Are Christians justified in using Jeremiah 29:11 in this way?
Does Context Matter? Initially, it may be objected that this popular use of Jeremiah 29:11 is completely foreign to its original context in Jeremiah’s prophetic oracle. Jeremiah was self-evidently directing a message to the exiles in Judah. He was not addressing modern Christians such as Meyer, Osteen, and Hagin. Nor was he intending to provide inspiration to modern Christians to encourage them to believe that God had special plans for their lives, much less to instruct them concerning the sort of friends they should choose. Indeed, it verges on the obscene to suggest that we ought to co-opt Jeremiah’s words for the purpose of such garden-variety inspiration. Jeremiah’s audience had lost a war and been deported in exile to a foreign land. In a genocidal frenzy, their friends and families had been annihilated. They faced the threat of total assimilation into Babylonian culture and the loss of their cultural identity. By comparison, modern “disasters” of the sort encountered by Word of Faith authors are trivial and mundane.
This objection, however, is likely to fall on deaf ears with those using the verse as a basis for Christian encouragement. Word of Faith teachers almost certainly would acknowledge they are using Jeremiah 29:11 in a way that is foreign to its original context. However, Word of Faith teachers also have said that they can “claim” a Bible verse for their own and institute an entirely new meaning or application for the passage. Typical of this approach is Waylon B. Moore, who writes, “The Word of God must be in us, so that God’s promises are being personalized and claimed. This is a largely untapped secret to answered prayers.”5 Moore then refers to two men who “read Jeremiah 33:3 and wanted to see the promises fulfilled before their eyes.”
A New Testament Model? To justify the use of Jeremiah 29:11 and other passages in this fashion, it may be argued that the authors of the New Testament allegedly used the Old Testament in the same way. An example of such usage might be argued to be found in Acts 1:20. There, Peter draws from Psalm 69:25 (“May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it”) and 109:8 (“May another take his place of leadership”) as part of an appeal to fill Judas Iscariot’s place among Jesus’ twelve apostles with another disciple. The original Psalms had nothing to do with Judas Iscariot. Therefore, it may be argued, all that Word of Faith teachers are doing is imitating New Testament figures such as Peter, who was led by the Holy Spirit to apply an Old Testament teaching in a new way.6
Although this may well explain the methods of Word of Faith teachers when it comes to their co-opting of Old Testament teachings, it also exposes the madness of their technique. The avid student of apologetics will be familiar with a grimly similar example. In 1835, Mormon founder Joseph Smith allegedly was trying to decide what church to join when he read James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” On the basis of this verse, Smith says he went out and prayed for divine counsel and allegedly met both the Father and Jesus Christ, who gave him instructions that eventually led to the founding of the Mormon Church.7
In much the same way, Word of Faith exegetes, when confronted with their usage of Jeremiah 29:11, will simply respond that God has led them to this and other verses and in some way told them that they are free to contrive a new and modern application. In this way, those who misuse Jeremiah 29:11 are at least appealing to the correct process: it was by the authority of Christ, and through their inspired preaching, that the early Christian evangelists applied texts of the Old Testament to events in New Testament times. Osteen, Warren, and Meyer simply are claiming for themselves the same divine inspiration and prerogative that moved the apostles.
However, there are serious problems with such claims. Despite the surface appearance of similarity, Word of Faith teachers are not following the same exegetical methods used by Peter and the other New Testament authors. Word of Faith teachers brandish Jeremiah 29:11 as a way to enact alleged divine promises of future prosperity. In contrast, New Testament authors selected events in the recent past that already had taken place (or in some cases, events that were imminent in the present) and sought out Old Testament passages that in some way mirrored that recent event. The purpose of this technique was to validate the recent event as verifiable by past experience.8 Thus, Peter appealed to the two passages in Psalms after Judas has died and after he had declared that Judas’ former place among the Twelve ought to be filled again.
For the parallel to hold, Word of Faith teachers ought to first prosper and display in their lives and behavior the fact God had a plan for them. Only then can they legitimately bring Jeremiah 29:11 into play as an illustration of how God has acted in their lives. The passage cannot be used to predict or call into existence with a “word of faith” future experiences of prosperity.
Divine Catch-22? Of course, even apart from these considerations, Word of Faith teachers would not need the precedent of the New Testament to create new applications for Jeremiah 29:11. The central fact of their exegetical epistemology is not what sort of precedent they have for their teaching methods. Rather, at the heart of their exegesis is an assumption that God has spoken to them in new ways and granted them new authority to interpret the text. In the end, the example is no different than that of Joseph Smith. Their answer is not a rational one but a case of “God did it” that admits to no possible rational refutation. —James Patrick Holding
James Patrick Holding is president of Apologetics Afield, a ministry dedicated to bringing apologetics to the mission field.
- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 2012), 35.
- Joyce Meyer, You Can Begin Again: No Matter What, It’s Never Too Late (Nashville: FaithWords: 2015), 168.
- Lynette Hagin, “Seed Thoughts January 2014,” Kenneth Hagin Ministries, http://www.rhema.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2215:seed-thoughts-january-2014&catid=234&Itemid=787.
- Joel Osteen, “Work on Your Dream,” Joel Osteen Ministries, https://www.joelosteen.com/Pages/MessageViewer.aspx?date=2015-02-10.
- Waylon B. Moore, “Claiming the Promises of God,” http://www.mentoring-disciples.org/claiming.html. Accessed November 20, 2017.
- Peter’s use of the Old Testament in this passage reflected legitimate exegetical models used in the New Testament period. See Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1999).
- Joseph Smith, History 1:11–18.
- See Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: John Knox, 1996), 89–90.