I have been thinking about the prophet, Jeremiah.
Jeremiah ministered in the decades before Babylon exiled Judah. When the Lord called Jeremiah, He commanded him to preach repentance to Judah, but promised that Judah would not repent; to preach judgment, and that Judah would suffer judgment. God’s people had crossed the Rubicon, passed the point of no return, jumped the shark. However you wish to say it, judgment was, at that point, inevitable. Still, the Lord called Jeremiah to preach.
The Lord declared in Jeremiah 7:27-28, “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you.” So alsoJeremiah 11:14;17, in which the Lord commanded, “Do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble . . . . The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you.” No less does Jeremiah 14:11-12 foretell doom. “The Lord said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.’” The Lord likewise proclaims in Jeremiah 15:1-3, “‘Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go! And when they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord: Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine,and those who are for captivity, to captivity.’ I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers, declares the Lord: the sword to kill, the dogs to tear, and the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy.” Judah’s opportunity for repentance had passed, and their judgment was inevitable.
What did that mean for Jeremiah? He preached the Word of God, which God used—not to bring repentance and salvation—but to harden hearts and bring destruction. Despite his terrible sorrow, and the personal price he paid for his fidelity to the Lord, Jeremiah obeyed God’s call and preached judgment to a generation that would not listen.
Interpreting Jeremiah in light of the New Testament, I am drawn to Romans 1, in which Paul describes how the Lord gives over to their sin an unrepentant people, hardening them so that they more and more desire sin, and more and more are deaf to the Lord’s summons to repentance. It begins as men and women willingly suppress the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in nature, preferring instead their sin. Paul writes in Romans 1:18-23:
"The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. "
In this cycle of sin, men suppress the truth, which leads God to give them over to their desires, which leads to further sin, which leads to divine hardening, which leads to further sinning. The people in view in Romans 1 therefore move from suppression of the truth to idolatry to sexual immorality to homosexuality to “all manner of unrighteousness,” and eventually to the normalization of all such practices, which Paul refers to as “approval.” It is this normalization that we are seeing in vast segments of the church today.
The evangelical, Bible-believing church in America is therefore fracturing, much as it did one hundred years ago. Then, it fractured over biblical miracles—the “fundamentalists” affirmed the Virgin Birth, the substitutionary atonement, and the physical resurrection, among other supernatural events, while the “liberals” rejected the same—and today the Church is fracturing over biblical morality, namely in reference to the normalization of homosexuality. Over the course of the next ten to fifteen years, many evangelical denominations and churches will likely divide into one of two camps: some will affirm the Bible’s morality, and therefore endure the scorn of a culture whose moral compass has broken, while others will repudiate biblical morality in order to match the broken compass of the culture, thus offering the very “approval” that Romans 1 describes. There will be no middle ground.
Are the signs now clear that the church in America is fully immersed in the cycle of idolatry that Paul describes in Romans 1? Have we crossed the Rubicon? If so, have we come full circle to Jeremiah?
While the visible church in America is not Old Testament Israel, the ministry of Jeremiah nevertheless offers two insights that address our contemporary churches:
First, judgment always begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Jeremiah preached to a people who were in covenant with God—they were the visible Church on earth—and he called them to account. He did not primarily preach to the world—he preached to the church, addressing her corruption, calling her to repentance, and promising her that judgment would fall upon her sins (Deuteronomy 28-29).
The church in America—which is part of the visible church on earth—is just as fat and lazy and apathetic and unbelieving and caught up in the sins of our culture as was the Judah of Jeremiah’s day. Studies in the moral laxity of evangelical Christians abound. Why is it acceptable for a Christian to drive a $70,000 luxury automobile while brothers within the same congregation struggle to make rent? Why is it okay for our covenant children to play on “select” sports teams, which require that they sacrifice the corporate worship of God’s people on the altar of athletic success? Gluttony, gossip, divorce, and materialism are rampant in our pews. Why are these sins silently accepted? These “acceptable” sins are gutting the church’s strength and emptying her witness of its saltiness. Judgment must begin within the household of God, for if we have no passion for holiness, we cannot claim to possess a passion for Christ, who died to make us holy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Second, we must define “success” biblically. Was Jeremiah a success? He preached for forty years; repentance did not sweep the land, his “church” did not grow, and his people were exiled. Was he successful? Absolutely. Why? He faithfully fulfilled his calling. Thatmust become our measure of success (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Not church growth, not book sales, not a bigger church or a radio show or a peaceful life or a good paycheck or popularity or affluence. Just fidelity to Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:3). Only by that measure will contemporary pastors embrace the ministry of Jeremiah, preaching pointedly against corruption within the church, possibly watching our respective churches shrink rather than grow, and garnering jeers rather than respect (2 Timothy 3:1-5; 4:3-5).
It will get no easier outside the church. Insofar as pastors desire to appear respectable in the eyes of the world, we will fail. The Gospel is not respectable; it is an offense (Romans 9:33), a stumbling stone (1 Peter 2:4-8), and the savor of death to those that are dying (2 Corinthians 2:14-17). It is a spiritual Word spoken to an unspiritual people (1 Corinthians 2:14). It requires a miracle to hear and to receive (John 3:1-8). It incites rebellion in the hearts of men who are at enmity with God (Acts 14:19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). It builds up, but it also tears down. Even as Jeremiah learned when God called him to preach, “The Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (Jeremiah 1:9-10).
If pastors today begin to embrace the ministry of Jeremiah—faithfully preaching against sin within the church far more often than we address prominent sins outside the church—we will neither make friends nor influence people. We surely will not live our best lives now. But we will be faithful. Is that enough?
What does it mean to speak with a prophetic voice? Are we—or should we as pastors—be moving toward the ministry of Jeremiah?
Russell St. John is the Senior Pastor of Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church. You can read more at Russ' Blog, TOPC TOPics.