Reflections on the prophet Jeremiah
If the great Christian classics agree on one thing, it’s that true disciples will be hated, persecuted, and slandered. To seek glory in heaven is to accept ridicule on earth. Here’s how one 17th century writer, William Gurnall in The Christian in Complete Armor, puts it: “Did saints walk on earth in those robes which they shall wear in heaven, then they would be feared and admired by those who now scorn and despise them.” We live by two constant truths: the promise of heavenly glory and the certainty of earthly scorn.
Billy Graham has been voted the most admired man in the United States more often than anyone else, but the days when a Christian evangelist holds such high social standing are long gone. Whether they ever come back, only God knows.
Which means as we disciple the younger generation, we need to teach and value toughness. We need strong women and men who so dream of those “heavenly robes” that they will not turn back when people “scorn and despise them.”
PAIN UNENDING … GRIEVOUS AND INCURABLE
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah is a classic case study of toughness. What Jeremiah had to endure during a public ministry that lasted for about 40 years is enough to frighten the bravest saint. He’s become one of the Old Testament figures who inspires me most.
Early in his life, the call to become a prophet looked like a relatively convenient one: Jeremiah began his prophetic work under the reign of Josiah, a God-fearing leader who turned an entire nation back to God. But twelve years later, Josiah died and his replacement, King Jehoiakim, cowered under Babylon’s rule and turned to idols. Jeremiah soon found himself at odds with the entire leadership of Israel. Even his own family betrayed him (12:6). Standing up for God and against idolatry—two things that previously won him fame—now resulted in Jeremiah being called a traitor. The persecution was so intense and painful that Jeremiah described it as “my pain unending … my wound grievous and incurable” (15:18).
Ponder that thought for a minute: faithfulness to God resulted in unending pain as well as a grievous and incurable wound.
The chief priest had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks (20:1–2). All the religious leaders gathered and told the political leaders and citizens of Israel, “This man should be sentenced to death” (26:11).
Jeremiah lived to see another day, but he certainly never became a popular and revered religious leader, the equivalent of a bestselling author or a popular speaker on the religious circuit today. In fact, on one occasion, as Jeremiah wrote down prophetic words from God and had them delivered to the king, Jehoiakim simply burned the words of the scroll as they were read. Jeremiah’s masterpiece went straight into the furnace!
Jehoiakim died, as did his son after a very short reign, and then Jeremiah had to prophesy under one of the most pathetic, weak-willed leaders you could ever imagine—King Zedekiah. Zedekiah asked Jeremiah to pray for him, but after Jeremiah prophesied, the king had him arrested on a trumped-up political charge. Jeremiah’s dungeon was disgusting—filthy, smelly, inhumane—but he was kept there, in the words of Scripture, “a long time” (37:16). When Zedekiah finally brought Jeremiah back out, Jeremiah made a special plea: “Do not send me back … or I will die there” (37:20).
Think about it: called to a public ministry, betrayed by your own family and the religious rulers, considered a traitor by your government, truly standing alone, persecuted for your faithfulness. Who among us wouldn’t grow bitter at such treatment? Who among us, indeed, would ever think of developing a prosperity gospel out of such a life?
Yet Jeremiah’s struggles had just begun.
Some local officials pleaded with Zedekiah to put Jeremiah to death. The weak-willed king couldn’t say no to anyone: “He is in your hands … The king can do nothing to oppose you” (38:5). They lowered Jeremiah into a cistern, a narrow well that is dark at the bottom with no fresh air. This particular cistern had no water in it, but the bottom was covered in muck. Jeremiah stood waist-deep in a stinking bog, surrounded by darkness, insects, his own filth and a merciless, unceasing stench.
When the king eventually had pity for Jeremiah, it took thirty men to tug him off the muddy floor and raise him onto dry ground, but Jeremiah was still held in captivity.
In the end, Jeremiah’s warnings failed. He and his fellow Israelites were carted off into exile. If you measured Jeremiah’s anointing and stature by any standard used for Christian celebrities today—fame, twitter followers, book sales, large attendance, popular embrace—he would be considered an absolute, total failure.
Yet he stands tall in Scripture as a model of tough faith, persevering faithfulness, and tenacious commitment to the will of God.
Jeremiah needs to be celebrated by today’s teachers. This is not a generation in which weak Christians will do well. Popular media is increasingly hostile to Christian ethics (especially sexual ethics) and fond of ridiculing Christian beliefs in general, to the extent that if people don’t become tough, they may not remain confessing believers.
THROUGH MANY TRIBULATIONS
It is the church’s duty and calling to raise men and women with the strength of Jeremiah who will not wilt in the face of the fiercest persecution imaginable—whether it’s being strong in facing down their own temptations, or being tough in not seeking to please popular opinion above the approval of God. Scripture and Christian history both teach us that God allows the church to go through seasons of persecution, and while North America isn’t physically torturing believers, it is vocationally threatening them. I don’t want to provide any details that would get anyone in trouble, but I know of committed believers in high-profile companies who have told me how at best, promotion is impossible if they don’t personally celebrate certain social values, and more likely, they know they will be laid off or fired sooner rather than later. “You can hide only for so long” one surprisingly sympathetic boss told a committed believer who reports to him. “It’s just a matter of time.” For more and more companies, it’s not about the work you do at the office; it’s about what you believe during the weekends.
If we aren’t prepared for this as Jeremiah was and as the authors of the Christian classics seemed to be—and if we don’t prepare others—we’ll either “adjust” our message accordingly, or collapse into bitterness, thinking that God hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain.
According to the book of Acts, one of the apostle Paul’s great ministries was “strengthening the souls of the disciples” by “encouraging” them with the words, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The early church expected persecution and so was strengthened and encouraged by it, as opposed to being cast into a season of doubt and despair.
The days of leading people in the “sinner’s prayer” and leaving them alone to grow with little fear that their faith will be picked at and assaulted are gone. Teaching people about securing your place in heaven without also talking about how to remain steadfast on earth is sub-par discipleship and spiritual malpractice.
We serve a God of many kindnesses and mercies who treats us far better than we ever deserve. But we live in a world increasingly hostile to His reign. We need tough Christians in the days ahead.
To read more about Jeremiah and becoming a “tougher” Christian, check out Gary’s book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, from which this post was adapted, as well as his Gold-Medallion winning book, Authentic Faith: What if Life Isn’t Meant to Be Perfect But We Are Meant to Trust the One Who Is? which addresses some of these same issues.
This article originally appeared on Thinke.org and is reposted here by permission.