Yesterday’s post looked at the parallel between the church and the people of God in the Old Testament, specifically as it relates to Jeremiah 29 and the call of God to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Timothy Keller’s work in Center Church is the best I could find on applying this text in context to God’s people then and now.
“From Genesis 11 all the way through Revelation, Babylon is represented as the epitome of a civilization built on selfishness, pride, and violence–the ultimate city of man. The values of the city contrast absolutely with those of the city of God; yet here the citizens of the city of God are called to be the very best residents of this particular city of man. God commands the Jewish exiles not to attack, despise, or flee the city–but to seek its peace, to love the city as they grow in numbers.”
One thing I love about Keller’s work is that he leaves no stone unturned. It would be easy to bring out the parallels between the OT context and the NT people of God without also recognizing the subtle differences between the two. Keller doesn’t turn a blind eye to those differences, but brings out 3 ways that the church and OT Israel differ as it relates to Jeremiah 29. I think these are important to keep in mind.
1) How God’s people increase in the city where they are exiles.
The Jews in the OT were told to “have babies” to increase in Babylon. The NT church increases through new birth as well, but that new birth primary happens through evangelism and discipleship. Obviously, some of this discipleship includes leading the children we have to Christ, but the NT church is no longer a nationalistic entity, as the OT people of God were.
2) How God’s people reveal God to the nations around them.
Keller brings up the point that in the OT, God’s people were commanded to build a nation that served God and was obedient to God, and as a result the nations would “come in” and worship God. In the NT church this reality shifted. In following Jesus, God’s people are now “sent out” to spread the gospel. At LifePoint we emphasize it this way: “It’s not ‘if we build it they will come,’ but ‘as God builds us we will go’.”
3) The practical separation of God’s people from the culture.
In the original Jeremiah 29 context the Jews would have remained separate from the culture of Babylon in certain distinct ways. The Mosaic code, ceremonial cleanliness laws, and food laws all would have necessitated a certain level of distance between the Jews and the Babylonians. When Jesus comes on the scene we begin to see a shift in redemptive history. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, and doesn’t maintain the stark separation from culture (to the ire of the religious elite of his day). I’m not implying that Jesus broke the OT law, but that in the way he lived we see the fulfillment of the law incarnate. Obviously, as we see the rest of the NT unfold, we learn that in his death and resurrection a number of the OT laws were fulfilled and no longer apply to God’s people post-Jesus in the way they did pre-Jesus. As Keller says in Generous Justice:
The coming of Christ fulfilled many of the Old Testament laws in such a way that they no longer bear on believers directly…the numerous ‘clean laws’ of Israel touching on diet, dress, and other forms of ceremonial purity, as well as the entire sacrificial system and temple worship ordinances, are no longer considered binding on Christians, because Christ came and fulfilled them.
This new reality changes the way the NT church interacts with the culture. We don’t follow some religious code that demands we remain separate in dress, ceremony, or food. Obviously, the danger in this is that the church can compromise or blindly assimilate into culture, losing our distinct identity as God’s people. This is certainly not the design, and it is why we remain accountable to one another and submitted to God’s word.
 Timothy Keller, Center Church, 142.
 Matthew 28, Acts 1-2.
 Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, 20.