I recently visited the home of a retired missionary couple that had faithfully served in Kenya for forty years. Upon entering the door of their home, I could not help but notice the nicely framed well-known verse on their wall:
“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.” Jeremiah 29:11
Matthew 28:20 aside, this verse is probably the most comforting and reassuring expression of God’s providential care in all of Scripture. But yes, it is also the most misapplied when divorced from its original intent. There are numerous hermeneutical purists who bewail the fact that this frequently quoted verse is uncritically claimed by present-day believers. It was a promise, they insist, that God gave solely to the deported Jews whom Jeremiah was addressing in his letter.
Strictly speaking, this is indeed God’s wonderful promise to the captive Jews, assuring them that he would be with them throughout the trials and hardships of their captivity and eventual return them to their homeland. He promised them “welfare” (Hebrew: Shalom). This is the same Shalom, mentioned in verse 7, that they were to wish upon the foreign cities to which they were taken. The rich derivative meanings of Shalom pertain to everything good: safety, happiness, friendliness, health, prosperity, and peace. These are all parts of the “plans” God had for them while they lived far from their native land.
A “future and a hope” speaks of God’s reassurance of good things yet to come, which includes the promise of their return to their country within seventy years (verse 10). God had not permanently abandoned them. God had not discarded them forever. Their descendants would once again enjoy his presence and blessing back in their country.
So the question arises: can cross-cultural message bearers working in distant lands today apply this promise to their lives and ministries as well? Yes, I believe they can. Although the specific promise was given to the Jews, the general promise of God’s providential care holds true for God’s obedient people in all ages. Let me explain why I believe missionaries, like the retired couple from Kenya, can claim this promise.
The God who sent captive Israel into a foreign country because of disobedience is the same God who sends workers, in obedience to his call, into distant nations today. Since he is the God of shalom, his peace and welfare goes with his emissaries. Jesus verbalized that peace in his first post-resurrection commissioning statement to the disciples, when he said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:21). Reassurance was so important that Jesus makes it a point to bestow peace on the disciples at the very front of his commissioning process.
These words of calm and peace are as heartening to missionaries in this age as they were to the disciples when given back then. In a world full of uncertainty, messengers of Christ are to possess the peace of Christ, for their very task is to present to the world the Prince of Peace. Those who have experienced peace with God also have peace within themselves. Inner peace of a pardoned sinner grounds the heart for service and witness even in the midst of disconcerting circumstances.
Additionally, the assurances found in this verse from Jeremiah are the essence of what Jesus meant when as he continues his commissioning of his disciples three weeks later on a mountain in Galilee. It is reiterated in the final sentence of that commission found in Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Now that would have been a hollow promise on Jesus’ part if it did not include the essence of shalom promised to Israel years before through Jeremiah.
So yes, by extension and as a general rule, this promise of Shalom can fortify and reassure cross-cultural workers today who obediently follow God’s guidance. Granted, it does not guarantee to each a blessed, smooth-sailing experience at all times. Tragic situations do arise. Harm does befall some who go. Bad things can and do happen. This verse is not a blank check of guaranteed perpetual safely. But the overriding promise is something all message bearers can cling to as they venture out on mission. God’s presence goes with them in difficulty and danger, through difficulty and danger, and at times will even keep them out of difficulties and dangers. God knows the plans he has for them – and that is reassuring enough.
 For the chronological order of Jesus’ five Great Commission statements refer to chapter one of my book, Commissioned: What Jesus Wants You To Know As Your Go, ChurchSmart Resources, 2010.