"God's Promises in the Circle of Refinement"
(Delivered Sunday, February 10, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, I ask you to turn with me to the twenty-ninth chapter of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. I'd like to share with you from verses 10-14; where God speaks the following words of encouragement and promise from Jerusalem to the Jewish people who were in exile in the land of Babylon:
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I don't know if you've ever read the book of Jeremiah before; but I hope one day you will. It's one of the most neglected books of the Bible; and yet, I believe that it's also one of the most powerful.
Jeremiah was a prophet who was called by God to preach a very unwanted message to God's chosen people at a very critical time. God sent him to tell the Jewish people that, because they had persisted in disobedience to His commands, and because they clung to their false gods and false prophets, He was going to permit them to be removed from their land and be taken into captivity for a time.
God had been sending repeated warnings to His people through Jeremiah and through others of His prophets; but the people wouldn't listen. They deeply resented the message and kept resisting it until, at long last, the greatest "three-strikes-and-your-out" story in all of history occurred.
Strike one occurred in the year 605 B.C., after Jeremiah had been warning the people for twenty-three years. It was then that God announced that the people of Judah would be taken into captivity to Babylon for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:1-14). Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, had resisted God's message through Jeremiah. He even cut up God's written message through Jeremiah with a knife and threw it in the fire (36:23). A short time later, in 598 B.C., the king of Babylon came, took Jehoiakim away in chains to Babylon, and put him to a very dishonorable death (22:19; 36:30-31). The king of Babylon took many of the articles of the temple away with him, and put them in his temple in Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:7).
Strike two occurred in the year 597 B.C. Jehoiakim's son Jehoiakin only reigned for a few months. But he was a disobedient king; and he too wouldn't heed the warnings. So the king of Babylon came again and took him and his mother away into captivity to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-13). Jehoiachin lived for many years in Babylonian captivity; but during this second strike, the city of Jerusalem was brought under siege; and all the treasures of the house of the Lord and of the king were taken away. The articles of gold that Solomon had built for the temple were cut up and hauled away; and all but the poorest of people were taken into captivity to Babylon (2 Kings 24:13-14). God's disciplining hand was becoming firmer.
Finally, strike three occurred eleven years later. The king of Babylon had placed Jehoiachin's brother Zedekiah on the throne. Zedekiah was a weak king; and he vacillated throughout his reign between heeding and rejecting God's word through Jeremiah. Finally, against God's clear warnings, he sought to make an alliance with Egypt and to rebel against the king of Babylon. And finally, in the dreadful year of 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar broke into the city, burned down the temple, and destroyed the city walls.
Three strikes—and God's chosen people were out!
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Our passage this morning comes at the time of 'strike two'. It's a part of a letter that Jeremiah was led by God to write to the exiles who were carried away with Jehoiakin into Babylon. And in it, God tells the captives to submit to their time of discipline. This letter says,
Many of the Jewish people were resisting the Babylonian king. They had determined to stay in Jerusalem. But God had warned that those who stayed would die. Only those who would submit to Babylon and go into exile would be in His care. Many false prophets had risen up to tell the people of Jerusalem that the captivity would not last for seventy years—that it would only be for a short while; and that the people of Jerusalem would be victorious. But God warns that they were lying:
But then—to the Jewish remnant that was carried away to Babylon—God offers the words of promise that we looked at earlier, in verses 10-14.
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The situation that the people of God were in at that time reminds me of a situation I believe we—as believers—face often. It may even be a situation that some of us here are facing today.
There are occasions when God calls us, as His people, to enter into a time of discipline or testing. I'm careful not to say that it's a time of punishment; because I am convicted that all of our punishment went on His Son Jesus on our behalf on the cross. But though God doesn't "punish" His beloved people, He most certainly does “refine” them so that they will be turned away from their sins and will follow Him more devotedly.
It may be that He brings us into such a time because of some sin in our lives that He is calling us to repent of. It may be because of some sinful habit that we are rebelliously clinging to and refusing to depart from. It may be because of something from our past that God has called us repeatedly to allow Him to heal, but that we're unwilling to face. It may be because there are some important changes in life that God is calling us to make; or because He is calling us into some area of ministry or service that we don't feel prepared for. It may even be because of something completely outside of our own control—something that someone else is bringing upon us that God is using to teach us about Himself.
I often think of such a situation as a circle. You recognize that circle of refinement because you know without a doubt that God is calling you to step over the line and into it—whatever it may be. But you also know that you don't want to do so. Everything in you recoils from it. You know that it will most likely be hard. You know that it involves a lot of unknowns. You know that means leaving the familiar behind. You know that suffering might be involve in stepping over the line and into that circle. But you know—without a doubt—that God is calling you to do so.
I often think of how we try to avoid that circle. We try to step back from it. We see ourselves approaching it, and we turn the other direction. We try to go over it, or under it, or around it—any way but through it. And yet, every time we try to avoid it, we don't really save ourselves from anything. Rather, we make our situation more difficult. God is calling us to enter that circle of refinement—whatever it may involve; and there's no other way but through it to the other side.
But I also often think of where our Lord Jesus is in relation to that circle. He is in the midst of it. He is holding His hand out to us—in the midst of that time of discipline or testing, whatever it may be—and promising that He will be with us in it. If we will enter it with Him, He will be faithful to take us all the way through to the other side of it and accomplish His good purpose in us by it. And when we finally put our hand in His, and walk through that time with Him, He causes us to come out of the other side like gold!
The people of Israel were called upon to enter into the circle of God's refinement. They were told not to resist. They were to surrender themselves to Babylonian captivity, go into exile, and allow God to do what He wanted to do in them through it. And I believe that the promises God gave to His people then are promises we can claim today in our own times of "Babylonian exile".
By leaning on God's promises, we can safely enter into the difficult times of His refining work in our lives.
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Let's consider these promises from God one by one. The first one we see is that . . .
1. THE TIME OF REFINEMENT IS UNDER HIS SOVEREIGN CONTROL (v. 10).
God promises His people, "For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place" (v. 10)—that is, to Jerusalem.
And did you know that that's exactly what happened? One of the greatest of the Jewish captives in Babylon was Daniel. And one of the greatest prayers that Daniel ever prayed is recorded for us in Daniel 9. Daniel prayed this great prayer after the Babylonian empire had been defeated by the Medes and the Persians; and it begins with these words:
Daniel prayed the great prayer of repentance that follows. And it was soon afterwards that Cyrus, the Medio-Persian king, in 536 B.C., gave orders that the Jewish people be permitted to return to their land after seventy years in Babylon.
God said that, after seventy years, He would fulfill His "good word". In chapter 30, God describes that "good word" in detail when He says;
And when it comes time to enter into our own time of "exile"—our own time of entering into that circle of refinement from God—we can safely do so; knowing that every aspect of it is under God's sovereign control. Just as He fixed the time for the Jewish people at seventy years, our own time is fixed by Him. He knows how long it should be. He knows what should happen in it. And He knows how much we can take in it. His word promises that
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Another promise from God that we see in this passage is that . . .
2. HE HAS A GOOD PLAN FOR US THROUGH THE TIME OF REFINEMENT (v. 11).
When He spoke through Jeremiah to the people in exile, He told them, "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope" (v. 11).
In the original language of this verse, the word "thoughts" can also be understood to mean "devices" or "plans" or "purposes". God isn't simply thinking thoughts about us during the time of refinement. Rather, He is fulfilling a plan for us. It may not be a plan we know or understand—which is why we're hesitant to enter into that circle in the first place! But we can know that He knows.
He says that His thoughts or plans for His exiled people were plans "of peace and not of evil". God never executes a plan of "evil" toward those on whom He places His eternal love. His plans are never designed by Him to harm them. Rather, they are always for their "peace" or "welfare". It is never to tear them down; but always to build them up. His people may not always see things that way; but He lets us know, here, that they always ARE that way.
Furthermore, He says that His plans are to give them "a future and a hope". Just think of what must have been in the minds of those poor Jewish people who left their homeland to go into captivity. They knew that seventy years of exile meant that they would not come back into their land in their lifetime. Perhaps as many as two or three generations would reach their last days in Babylon. And ordinarily, a people group would expect to have become absorbed into some other culture by that time. But earlier, God told them to go into Babylon, and take wives and begot children among themselves. They were to be sure to give their sons over to marry their daughters, and their daughters over to marry their sons. He said to do this, "that you may be increased there, and not diminish" (v. 6). And the reason is because they would one day come back. There would be for them, "a future"—that is, a happy end; and there would be for them "a hope"—that is, a longed-for outcome".
We can trust this promise from God too when it comes to our time of entering into the circle of His refining discipline. He makes a wonderful promise to us in Romans 8:28-30;
He has a "purpose" in mind for His people—a "thought" that He "thinks" toward them. It is that they be conformed to the image of His wonderful Son Jesus Christ. It's a plan so sure and certain that He speaks of it as if it has already been fulfilled; that those whom He predestined and called and justified are the same ones that—as far as He is concerned—He has already glorified.
That's His good plan for us in Christ. And He lets us know that He works all things together for the good of those who love Him—even His times of discipline.
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A third promise from God that we should claim when we go into His appointed seasons of refinement is that . . .
3. HE TRAINS US THROUGH THE TIME OF REFINEMENT TO LEAN ON HIM (v. 12-13).
The people of Israel were being punished because they had turned away from Him and had trusted in false gods. They had accumulated idols to themselves, and were adopting the sinful customs and pagan practices of the peoples around them. They were no longer depending on God with a pure heart. They were no longer devoted to Him; and had broken the covenant He had made with them.
But God makes this promise to those He sends away in exile: "Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (vv. 12-13).
In verse 12, the process is described from the standpoint of God's sovereign purpose for His people. He says that they would call upon the God they had forsaken. First, they would remember Him and cry out to Him. Then they would "go"; or as it is in the original language, they would "come"—the idea being that they engage in an active pursuit of God; a retracing the steps of their sinful wandering from Him, a recognition of their abandonment of Him, and a returning to Him in repentance. Then, they would pray to Him and lay their petitions before Him—making Him to once again be their trust. God doesn't simply say that they may perhaps do these things while they are in exile. He says that they will do them. And when they do, He will listen to their cries in such a way as to attend favorably to them.
In verse 13, God further describes the process from the standpoint of the sincerity of His people. He says, "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart." So many people, in times of trouble, claim that they have sought God but couldn't find Him. And yet, if the truth be told, they didn't seek Him "with all their heart". They often seek Him in accordance with their own agenda and purposes. They often seek Him in the way that they desire Him to be. They often seek Him on the condition that He be different than He truly is. They often seek Him in places that they would prefer to find Him. But God doesn't hide Himself from those who genuinely seek Him with all their being. He is glad to be found by those who sincerely long to know Him as He is, and are willing to yield themselves fully to Him in order to enter into fellowship with Him.
It was the trial of exile that brought out this sort of longing for God in His people. It weaned them of the false gods they had been trusting in. It forced them to stop ignoring the one true God. It moved them to examine themselves before Him and become genuinely sorry for their sins. It motivated them cry out to Him for mercy.
As the apostle James writes;
Anything that causes you and me to cry out to God is a great gift of His grace! And He loves us enough to put us into those times of discipline or trial, or testing, so that we'll learn to put Him in first place in our lives, and to lean on Him as we should.
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A final promise from God that carries us through the difficult times of stepping into that circle is that . . .
4. HE PROVES HIMSELF FAITHFUL WHEN THE TIME OF REFINEMENT IS OVER (v. 14).
God doesn't send His chosen people into exile in order to abandon them there. We read that, when the seventy years are completed, "I will be found by you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you to the place from which I caused you to be carried away captive" (v. 14).
Of that “refined” remnant of people who would returned from Babylon, God made this promise:
As a result of the captivity of His people, God proved Himself to be their Redeemer. He demonstrated that they truly were His; and that He loved them as He said—"with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3).
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Dear brother or sister; are you facing your own time of Babylonian captivity? Do you hear God's call to step step into the circle of refinement? Do you see His hand extending to you from the midst of that unwanted place of trial or discipline or testing? Do you see that there is no other way but through it with Him?
Let's remember the words of the writer of Hebrews, who wrote to Jewish Christians who were suffering under a time of persecution. He wrote;
God is there in that circle—in that time of refinement. Trusting in His promises, let's take His hand and enter in.
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