How understanding the context of a verse reveals the true heart of God for us.
I HAVE LOVED YOU WITH AN EVERLASTING LOVE; I HAVE DRAWN YOU WITH UNFAILING KINDNESS. — JEREMIAH 31:3b
“Only God can judge me.”
I remember the first time I saw that tattoo. It was on the neck of a giant, somewhat scary looking man. And I thought to myself, “Well, he’s not wrong. Only God can judge people.” As I gave it some thought though, I realized he wasn’t really making a theological assertion, his neck tattoo was more of a personal billboard and a challenge to any who would question his life choices. He probably hadn’t given much thought to the true weightiness of God’s judgment. I do remember saying a little prayer for that man, that one day he would come to understand the full truth of his tattoo—that the same God who alone is Judge is also our only hope of salvation from the dire consequences of our sins (James 4:12). Without the broader context of the Bible, his understanding of his own neck-tattoo would only ever be a partial. But before I judge him (truly, only God can), let me confess something.
I’m just like him.
Ok. I don’t have a neck-tattoo, that’s not really my style. But when it comes to believing Biblical half-truths, I’m a real champ. I read a verse somewhere, I like it, I might even think I know it, and then I go and write it on the chalkboard in my kitchen. Nothing wrong with that. But here’s the problem: if I don’t go read it in its context, my understanding is shallow at best and could be off entirely. To give you an example, in October, we memorized John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” It’s a great verse—one I thought I knew and had already memorized. But until I started really studying it, I would have told you a half-truth about it. Here’s a hint: the thief isn’t Satan. Did I just blow your mind right now?! I think it’s a pretty common misconception (Listen to this podcast episode to discover who the thief really is.). The point is: context really does matter. And before we go around just speaking our beautiful verse about God’s love towards us, I want you to see it inside the bigger story of God’s people in the book of Jeremiah. And let me tell you, it’s a grim and gritty reality, but one that I hope will only help you cherish this verse even more.
Only God can judge me - part 2.
The people of God back in Jeremiah’s time were way off track. In fact, if they had neck-tattoos, they’d probably have said, “Only God can judge me” too. And they’d have meant it in the same half-truth, back-off-judgers kind of way. Though they were God’s own people, they acted like anything but. And though they had God’s revealed Word, they were professionals at manipulating it, misapplying it, or just plain ignoring it. On top of that, they’d run after other gods, so much so that God says of them, “like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me” (Jeremiah 3:20). They had forsaken their first love, and gone after others. And though God had warned them of his coming judgment repetitively through Jeremiah (and Isaiah before him), they wouldn't listen. So, finally, after all the warnings, God’s promised judgment comes. He sends them away to the land of the gods they worshiped for seventy years of servitude. Only God can judge, and judge he did.
Smack-dab in the middle of all this mess, we get our verse.
In the midst of faithlessness and rebellion, in the midst of their estrangement from God, sitting under the heavy hand of his judgment, God says this to his people, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness (Jeremiah 31:3b). This is the gritty context of our verse, and I think it is absolutely beautiful. This is not a verse about God loving his people because they were loveable, but loving them even when they were not. He doesn’t love them because they are faithful, but he loves them in spite of their faithlessness. He doesn’t love them for getting it all right, but in spite of all their wrongs. His love is an everlasting love—a love that will not fail them even when they’ve failed their God. His kindness is an unfailing kindness—a kindness that expresses itself in the promise of restoration and renewal. And this is exactly what they needed to hear.
The everlasting love of God is still everlasting.
The same God in this passage is still God today. His everlasting love and unfailing kindness are the same as they always were and will be. And while we might be tempted to read our verse in our own cultural context, which tells us we are awesome and good and lovable, when we read this verse in its biblical context, we see something far more beautiful that we desperately need to grasp: God loves us with an everlasting love because of who he is, not because of who we are. His love is not dependent on us. And when the cultural message of our perfect awesomeness makes us feel like frauds and failures, we have somewhere to go. We have a God who loves us in the midst of all our failing. We have a God who demonstrated his eternally dependable love by dying for us while we were steeped in sin and shaking our fists at him (Romans 5:8). And when we go to him, giving him all our sins, he exchanges them for his righteousness (read the Great Exchange for more on this). Who is like him? He is better than any God we could ever dream up. This is GOOD NEWS! Now I want you to hear these words for you, in your own context, in the midst of your honest need and mess. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jer 31:3b). Now, that’s a neck tattoo worth getting.
Thanks for reading,
Meet Natalie,Dwell co-founder
Hi there, I'm Natalie. I'm so glad you're here. I'd love to connect with you and hear more about what God is doing in your life!
ON THE PODCAST
Good News in the Midst of Our Mess // Natalie Abbott
What should we do when we feel unlovable? Join Natalie Abbott, co-founder of Dwell Differently, as she digs into the context of the book of Jeremiah, helping us to see the richness of God’s unfailing love for people like us who just keep messing up. In the midst of the drumbeat of impending judgement throughout Jeremiah, there is also the heartbeat of God’s love for his people—calling them to return to him, showing his faithfulness in the face of their faithlessness. And this is still our God today, calling out to us in the middle of our wandering and wavering and offering us instead a secure, safe place with him in his steadfast love. Who can you share this love with this month?