Ken's full question was: "I often see Jer. 29:11 quoted with the implication that it's a promise for all people. However, since the context is God's promise to the exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon, is this really applicable to you and me?"
What a thoughtful question! It reveals that you are looking at context when considering how to interpret or apply a given passage. Context is very important! It is good to see people thinking about what they are reading the Bereans in Acts 17:11. You are right that Jeremiah 29:11 is frequently quoted as a promise for all people and that it was a specific prophetic promise to those who were going into the Babylonian exile. For those unfamiliar with this passage, here it is …
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (ESV)
Is it any wonder that we would want to apply such an awesome promise to people today? But can we do it with integrity? First we step back and look as you did at the larger context of the paragraph that contains this verse…
10"For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
The context can be expanded even wider and we see that the problem for the Jews was that they hadn’t believed God warning of judgment and now that they have been judged they seem to have given in to despair. God here speaks encouragement to them so that they might repent and be eventually restored. To determine if this applies to us today we need to consider what is the same and what is different in our situations. Let’s start with …
What is not the same: We are not ancient Jews in Babylon with a 70 year horizon for returning the land of Israel. Yet Christians have often seen both the bondage of Israel in Egypt and the Babylonian exile of the Jews as typical (a “type” is a precursor, a foreshadowing of something yet to come) of our personal bondage to sin before we have been set free by faith in Christ’s sacrifice.
What is the same? First, God’s character never changes. The OT declares repeatedly that His loving-kindness/steadfast love never fails (e.g., Psalm 136), while the NT affirms the same (e.g., John 3:16-17; Hebrews 13:8). So we can accurately conclude that the beneficent attitude God had towards his OT people is still present in his attitude towards his NT people. Second, man’s need never changes. We all are sinners and need God’ gracious involvement in our lives. Have we mourned over our failures and the sinful things we have done and wondered if God still can use me? We may not be physically deported to modern-day Iraq, but we live in the midst of a very anti-God culture that in many ways is Babylonian…and yes, God still has plans for us! Finally, there are conditions (v.12-13) that were attached to the Jews being able to experience God’s plans for their welfare. Those same conditions would seem to apply to all people today as well. If we are to experience God’s plan for us we must first call on Him (acknowledge our need), coming and praying, seeking God with all our heart and there is the assurance that He will hear us and be found by us (e.g., Matthew 6:31-33; Luke 11:8-10; John 6:35-40; Acts 2:21).
What is better? W e have to ask, “If this was how God dealt with his people under the old covenant, then how much better is his dealing with his people under the new covenant?” Hebrews 8:6 says that we now have a better covenant, mediated by Christ, which is “enacted on better promises.”
In conclusion, the promise found in Jeremiah, may be applied to our lives (because of what is the same and what is better) though we are outside of its immediate context. However, it doesn’t guarantee us a life free from sorrows and hardships. Jesus told us we would have a tough go in this world if we desire to live a godly life (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:12). But though it all we will experience the glory of God’s intimate involvement in our lives… even in the midst of Babylon… if we call to Him, seeking Him and His kingdom with all our hearts! Not only will re experience Christ’s love, peace, and joy in this life, one day He will restore us completely and welcome us into his eternal kingdom thus proving that his ultimate will for us is good.