Most of us have heard that question before—it lurks inside countless Bible studies and Sunday-school classes. It is a postmodern mindset that has become pervasive in the church.
When reading a book, an article, or a blog post, we implicitly understand that its meaning is bound to the author’s intent. The same ought to be true for Scripture—God alone is the arbiter of what He means through what He has revealed in His Word. Yet Scripture is now subject to the whims of the reader, who is prone to read personal experience into the text instead of discovering—and coming under—its objective truth. The worst forms of this are when people think they’re helping God—improving upon His perfection, sanitizing His story, and smoothing out the sharp edges of His truth.
Life is not as subjective as we might like to think. We don’t get to decide what a red light means when we approach a traffic signal. Bank managers can’t arbitrarily determine your account balance. And, thankfully, airlines don’t hire pilots who take the liberty to decide what “runway” means to them. It is absurd to think that we can approach God’s Word with lower standards. God says what He means and means what He says, always speaks without error, and has been kind enough to speak to us with simplicity and clarity.
The tsunami of topical preaching we see today has scarred the evangelical landscape. A topical message is not wrong in and of itself, but problems are inevitable when that becomes the main diet of a congregation. Pastors who preach texts divorced from their context invariably beget congregations who interpret texts divorced from the Author’s intent. The result is that too many believers today have a propensity to treat God’s Word as their own private smorgasbord of theology.
Another place you see this trend—interpreting verses out of context—in action is in choosing of a “life verse.” Many Christians like to pick a verse that speaks to them and try to make it the theme for their lives. It’s no surprise that none of the passages concerning God’s judgment make the cut. Instead, the spectacular promises of blessing and success reign supreme.
And sitting on top of the mountain of verses evangelicals frequently misappropriate and misapply is Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”
It’s All About You
Unsurprisingly, Jeremiah 29:11 is a go-to verse for celebrity pastor, Joel Osteen. His takeaway is that “God desires to see you flourish in this life. He wants to see you come out of setbacks stronger, wiser, increased and promoted. He wants to give you hope in your final outcome and see you come to a flourishing finish.”  Joel Osteen, Today’s Word with Joel Osteen—May 29, 2012 (Devotional).
Andy Stanley, pastor of America’s largest congregation, says “We may not know for certain everything our future holds, but we know that God thinks good thoughts toward us, to give us a future and a hope.”  https://thekingdomcorner.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/andy-stanley-life-may-be-uncertain-but-god-isnt/
Rick Warren also typifies that me-centric approach in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life:
If you have felt hopeless, hold on! Wonderful changes are going to happen in your life as you begin to live it on purpose. God says, “I know what I am planning for you. . . . I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future.”  Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) 35.
One has to wonder if Osteen, Stanley, or Warren understand how badly they have misconstrued and misapplied God’s Word—and how they’ve misled their followers. They give zero acknowledgement to the Author’s original intent or His original audience when they rip this verse from its biblical setting. Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in context paints a starkly different picture and delivers a far more profound truth.
It’s Not About You
The nation of Israel had been taken by the Babylonians into captivity. The Temple, as well as the entire city of Jerusalem, was in ruins. Their king was in chains with his eyes gouged out. The glory of Israel as a nation was finished. But in the midst of that terrible situation, God spoke through His prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
For thus says the Lord, “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.”
Because you have said, “The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon”—for thus says the Lord concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your brothers who did not go with you into exile—thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine and pestilence, and I will make them like split-open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness. I will pursue them with the sword, with famine and with pestilence; and I will make them a terror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse and a horror and a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, because they have not listened to My words,” declares the Lord, “which I sent to them again and again by My servants the prophets; but you did not listen,” declares the Lord. You, therefore, hear the word of the Lord, all you exiles, whom I have sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon. (Jeremiah 29:4–20)
In context, verse 11 is clearly not meant as a love letter or a promise of blessing to individual believers in the twenty-first century.
And here are a few other points to consider: How do Joel Osteen, Andy Stanley, and Rick Warren know that God is directly speaking to their congregants in verse 11 but not in Jeremiah 29:17–19, where God promises to send “the sword, famine and pestilence”? Have they considered that God’s soothing promises in verse 11 are delivered to Israel while He has His foot on their neck in judgment (Jeremiah 29:4)? What about the fact that those who received the promise in verse 11 would likely not live to experience its fulfillment seventy years later (Jeremiah 29:10). And in their egotistical exegesis, can they grasp the irony that Israel was in Babylonian slavery because they listened to prophets who tickled their ears (Jeremiah 29:8–9)?
There is something far greater and eternally significant that we learn from this story in its true context. God does not abandon His people! In spite of their sin, God was relentlessly faithful to His covenants regarding Israel’s future and His promised Messiah. Not even Babylonian captivity could prevent His promises from coming to pass.
Likewise His promises to us as New Testament believers concerning our calling and election are also unshakeable (John 10:27–29). And they provide far more lasting comfort than Old Testament verses plucked out of context and misappropriated for modern audiences.