May 2022

May 2022

Lessons from the Ministry of Jeremiah

I recently had the opportunity to get into the prophecy of Jeremiah again. As so often happens, though I have read Jeremiah many times before, a number of passages struck me as if I were reading them for the first time. Some passages, however, have really seared themselves into my consciousness over the years. These passages in particular impact me as a pastor, but they impact you as well, as the recipient of pastoral care. The two major themes from Jeremiah that I wish to highlight this month are the false peace proclaimed by the faithless prophets, and the encouragement to Jeremiah to stand up to opposition among those to whom he preaches.

We all want peace. That’s part of the appeal of the Gospel: Jesus gives us peace—and not as the world gives (John 14:27). He gives us the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). This peace comes to us through the remission of our sins and our consequent reconciliation with Him, with His Father, and with His Church.

There is, however, a false peace that feels good for a while but ultimately proves to have been an illusion. This is the peace peddled by the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day. Due to the repeated, intentional sins of the previous kings of Judah, especially Manasseh, and their people, the inevitable decree of the LORD was the defeat and destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by their enemies, followed by seventy years of exile in Babylon. This was not a welcome message, to say the least. Many false prophets arose to assure the people of Judah that such a fate would never befall them. Their message is summed up in the following striking expression: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

What is the “wound” of God’s people? Their sin. For their wound to be healed is for their sin to be forgiven, and thus for them to be at peace with God. The false prophets are assuring the people of Judah that their sin is forgiven and they are at peace with God—no disaster will befall them. But the people have not repented of their sin. Thus they are not actually at peace with God. To preach forgiveness without repentance is to heal the wound of God’s people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. That is why Jesus sent His disciples not only to forgive sins, but also to retain them (John 20:23), i.e., to withhold forgiveness. As Luther sums it up in the Small Catechism, pastors are called to “retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” The goal of retaining sins and warning of wrath and judgment is to awaken sinners to their plight and bring about repentance and faith in the Gospel of forgiveness. Only thus is the underlying wound fully healed. The false prophets have put a band-aid over a festering sore. A true preacher of righteousness lances the sore and drains the noxious fluids (a painful process!), and only when true healing sets in does he cover up the wound and proclaim peace.

This means that the preacher will inevitably encounter opposition as he confronts God’s people with their sin. This is an intimidating prospect for anyone, especially a young man like Jeremiah. Thus, God fortifies him for the task: “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth.’ … Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 1:7–8). God supplements this encouragement with a striking image: “Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land” (Jeremiah 1:17–18). This encouragement uses a carrot and stick approach: The stick is God’s warning to Jeremiah that He will “dismay” him if he fails to speak the painful truth to God’s people. The carrot is that God will be with Jeremiah to strengthen him for the task, making him “bronze walls.”

New Testament pastors have similar warnings and encouragements. We are told that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). We will be called to account for the souls over which we are keeping watch (Hebrews 13:17). But we also have the promise that Jesus will be with us even when those who hear us are hostile: “Have no fear of them” (Matthew 10:26). Furthermore, New Testament pastors share in the love of Jesus for His people. In fact, all of us Christians love our enemies, as Jesus commands, even those who persecute us. It is this love, more than anything else, that leads us to faithfulness in refusing to preach, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, and to preach the true peace that comes only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

What lesson can non-pastors draw from this? Support your pastor in his ministry of true peace through forgiveness and reconciliation with God! If your pastor has to share something with you that is uncomfortable for you to hear, give thanks to God that you have a faithful shepherd. If your pastor encounters unjust opposition to his ministry, stick up for and support him. If your pastor is tempted to preach false peace in order to avoid conflict, admonish him with the Word of God.

Most of all, let us all give thanks that through Jesus Christ we do have true, lasting, eternal peace with God. Jesus has not healed our wound lightly, but has cleansed it with His own blood and has led us to repentance and faith. May the Lord Jesus keep us in His true peace now and unto life everlasting.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf