When you have to stand alone

“Wrap up your garment for action. Get up and tell them everything that I myself command you. Don’t be scared of them … Today I myself have established you like a fortified city, an iron pillar or a bronze wall against the entire land—against the kings of Judah, its leaders, its priests and the land’s people. They’ll fight you but won’t overpower you, for I myself am with you to keep you safe” (Jer 1:17-19)

Have you ever felt like you had only a few allies in sharing Christ with others, or in standing for something that is true? We hear a lot about “community” these days, and community is a wonderful blessing. But what happens when you are in a setting where most people disagree with your faith or ignore a clear message from God?

Jeremiah’s situation was worse than that. He was nearly alone in proclaiming God’s message. The other prophets of his day were encouraging the people that because God was their God he wouldn’t judge them. Jeremiah thus had to stand alone with the unpopular message of impending judgment, while all the other prophets told everyone what they wanted to hear. Jeremiah had to let God’s people know that they were breaking God’s covenant, and that God would judge them—though someday God promised a new covenant that they wouldn’t break. Jeremiah did have a few allies—Baruch the scribe, who wrote his prophecies, and a foreigner, Ebed-melech from Africa.

But he was mostly alone, and most people didn’t like him. He also couldn’t feel comfortable simply taking life easy like many around him. “Because your hand was on me, I had to keep to myself, for you filled me with your fury of judgment,” Jeremiah complained (Jer 15:17).

God had been patient with his people for a long time, but finally he was getting ready to discipline them. In fact, once they were exiled and had to learn to live in a pagan environment, they would learn to value the true God who was their only hope for the future. But why did Israel deserve punishment so much?

Scripture told them that they were supposed to love God wholly—and thus abstain from other gods (Deut 6:4-5). Because of this whole-hearted devotion to God, they were to meditate on his Word always. They were supposed to talk about his commands at home and when outside (a nice Hebrew way of saying, wherever they were), and when they lay down and when they got up (a nice Hebrew way of saying, all the time; 6:6-9). God warned them not to forget, when he blessed them in the land, that he had liberated them from slavery (6:10-12). But now his people had done just that—abandoning him, the source of flowing water, and digging broken water tanks for themselves that couldn’t even hold any water (Jer 2:13).

For the most part, only the priests and especially scribes were literate. Only they could teach God’s law to the people. Yet the literate people themselves neglected the law (Jer 5:4-5; cf. Isa 29:11-12), and the people followed their traditional customs without even realizing that they had forsaken the teaching of God’s Word. The entire nation had become corrupt (Jer 5:1-5), and someone needed to call the people back to the truths of Scripture.

This meant that history was at a very serious juncture. Israel was called to be a light to the nations (Isa 42:6); if they were blind (42:18-20), God’s light could be extinguished in the world. Jeremiah thus stood as a lone voice in a pivotal moment of history, like Noah or Abraham before him. Later, Jesus similarly called people prophetically to truth; in his day, the religious leaders knew the Bible but interpreted it through traditions that missed God’s heart (Mark 7:6-8, 13). In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s own disciples continually fail to understand his mission, appearing spiritually half-blind (8:17-18), even falling asleep just before his arrest. Jesus had to stand alone for the truth of his mission, while planting and nurturing the seeds of the future.

Paul was not quite so alone—he usually had a circle of colleagues who helped him—but sometimes Paul also had to go against others’ convictions to stand for the truth. That’s why Gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised today! Near the time of his death, Paul laments that the Roman province of Asia, where he had expended his labors most successfully, had turned away from him (2 Tim 1:15), though even there some were not embarrassed by his arrest (1:16). Paul entrusts the future there especially to Timothy, who must pass the message on to others (2:1-2). In antiquity men often married in hopes of having a male heir. Timothy was the son that Paul had never had (1:2; 2:1); Paul said he had no one like him, totally devoted to Christ’s concerns (Phil 2:20-22).

Like Jeremiah, Paul never lived to see all the fruit of his labors. Yet his letters survived him as a source of renewal to the church ever since. Likewise, although even the remnant of Judah disobeyed God’s message and dragged Jeremiah with them to Egypt, the next generation recognized Jeremiah as a true prophet of the Lord. Generations after him recognized that God fulfilled his promises given through Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Dan 9:2). From Jeremiah’s day onward, Israel never again turned to physical idols.

When Jeremiah was young, Judah experienced revival. In the ancient world, peoples often preserved foundation documents in the masonry of temples, and that’s where workers found the neglected book of the law (2 Kgs 22:8). When King Josiah, now twenty-six years old, heard the law read by the court scribe, he didn’t make excuses for the people or try to explain away the message in light of how God’s people had long been living. He didn’t turn it into a daily devotional reading as if merely reading it fulfilled its purpose. No, he ripped his royal cloak in mourning, recognizing that God’s people were headed for certain judgment. Then he sent to the prophetess Huldah to hear God’s message for his generation (22:11-13). God blessed his moral reform and delayed judgment, but by this point Israel was too enmeshed in sin for judgment to be turned back permanently (22:15-20).

Josiah died young, and his successors were not committed enough to God to continue his devotion to God’s book. It fell to Jeremiah to summon his generation back from the brink of destruction. Though by the end of his life it looked like Jeremiah had failed, his message was vindicated and ultimately it prevailed; God’s word did not return empty. Eventually Jeremiah’s book even made it into the Bible; he was the only prophet of his time and place who told the truth.

Today we have Bibles but we often interpret them by how the rest of the church is living, instead of interpreting how people are living in light of the Bible. Will you stand firm to make a difference for God in your generation? Even if you have to stand virtually alone? You can succeed if you walk with God and know, as God told Jeremiah, “I’m with you to help you” (Jer 1:19).

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