Do you really think "church membership" impresses God?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 7:1-15
In this week's startling confrontation, Jeremiah stands at the gate of the temple to tell the worshipers that they have misunderstood God's covenant, God's expectations, and God's judgment. There were no excuses for their ungodly behavior, and there were no sacrifices to appease God's wrath. If we say we are right with God, our behavior should be righteous.
Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? (7:11)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Your (Supposed) Get out of Jail Free Card
I originally thought of this as a satire, but then I found out that it's a thing (here's a link to a NY Times article with the details). New York police officers used to give their relatives special cards that could let them get out of traffic stops. So, maybe not "get out of jail free" but "get out of a minor violation free".
Anyway, just about everybody has thought at least once they could get away with something. Maybe based on their job. Or their dad. Or their connections. (Or maybe nobody was looking.) How many movies have a character saying to the police, "Do you know who I am?" When you were growing up, what did you think you could get away with? I rarely tested it, but I believe that being a teacher's pet had its perks. I worked with somebody who didn't care about traffic tickets because he would just pay them and move on (he was rather wealthy). And I've always been fascinated with the concept of "diplomatic immunity" (fyi it doesn't mean what people think it means).
The people in this week's passage thought they could get away with any behavior because they had "privileged status" as a child of God. God was obligated to defend them and protect them. Jeremiah was sent on a mission to disavow them of that notion.
Happy Father's Day!
There was a negative connotation about dads in the previous idea, but I think we're better off trying to emphasize the positive, right? What's a time your dad "got in your face" (like Jeremiah does in this week's passage) for the purpose of keeping you off of a bad path? What are ways your dad challenged you? What are lessons your dad taught you?
It's tough to be a good dad! We want to encourage them to keep doing the best they can to lead their families to follow the Lord.
What Would Really Get Your Attention?
If you've talked to enough preachers, you've probably heard about their struggle to keep everyone's attention. What are stories you've heard of "stunts" preachers have used to get their congregation's attention?
When I was in Texas, Ed Young brought his bedroom furniture onto his platform and preached about the importance of biblical sex in marriage. He later put the bed on top of his church building and sat in it with his wife for 24 hours. That got everyone's attention!
What would it take to "get your attention" in a church service (in a way that you wouldn't expect)?
(Let me show my cards: I don't want my preacher spending time coming up with creative gimmicks. I want him studying the Bible. But I also want him to preach with passion and conviction.)
Your Favorite Kind of Bible Study/Sermon (aka Learning Styles)
You could go a different direction with this and talk about what really connects with you. Some people prefer a lecture-style sermon/lesson. Some people prefer something dramatic (a soliloquy or a movie). Some people prefer humor, others prefer hellfire and brimstone. Some people prefer to focus on doctrine, and others on application. How about you?
There would be two things to gather from this topic: (1) make everybody in your group aware that everyone is different, which is why it can be challenging to be a Bible study leader or preacher; (2) give the group leader a refresher on how the group learns.
God gave Jeremiah an extremely in-your-face preaching method in this week's passage.
Where We Are in Jeremiah
Depending on which outline you follow, we may (or may not) be starting a new major section in Jeremiah 7. So, let's catch up on where we are, and please allow me to rehash a few things I would have covered in last week's post (if I had been in the country to do it).
The first few chapters of Jeremiah establish the situation, and I think last week's passage in particular tells us what we need to know:
2:13 For my people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves—cracked cisterns that cannot hold water.
2:8 The priests quit asking, “Where is the Lord?” The experts in the law no longer knew me, and the rulers rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal and followed useless idols.
These establish the conflict between Jeremiah and, well, everyone -- especially the leaders. But leaders are really only giving the people what they want:
5:30 “An appalling, horrible thing has taken place in the land. 31 The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own authority. My people love it like this. But what will you do at the end of it?
6:14 [The priests] have treated my people’s brokenness superficially, claiming, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. 15 Were they ashamed when they acted so detestably? They weren’t at all ashamed. They can no longer feel humiliation. Therefore, they will fall among the fallen. When I punish them, they will collapse, says the Lord.
But it's the nature of the sin that brings such heartache to God: it's not just that the people turned away from God, but they created for themselves broken, meaningless gods.
Sound a bit like the world around us?
The other big thing Jeremiah's first few chapters establish is a right understanding of the covenant God made with the people. Sin will have consequences.
12 They have contradicted the Lord and insisted, “It won’t happen. Harm won’t come to us; we won’t see sword or famine.”
But God will maintain His end of the covenant:
18 “But even in those days”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“I will not finish you off."
This leads to something we will focus on in our study of Jeremiah -- the idea of a new covenant. So take heart! We've got some doom-and-gloom lessons at the beginning of this quarter, but that's the nature of the gospel. Why did Jesus die? Because we had separated ourselves from God by our sin. Until we realize that we need a savior, we will never accept the good news. And in Jeremiah's day, God's people didn't acknowledge that they needed a savior. Consider this just another step toward the coming of the true Messiah.
This Week's Big Idea: Faith vs. Works
This topic has been turned into a debate that never needed to happen. On the one side, you have people who take James out of context:
James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?
2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
And on the other hand, you have people who take Paul out of context:
Eph 2:8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast.
On one side, you have people who say that works is what matters, and one the other are those who say that works cannot matter at all.
How have you understood and reconciled those in the past?
Guess what -- we've studied both of those passages, and we've addressed this:
I'm going to let those posts do the heavy lifting for me. Here's a summary: salvation begins and ends in grace alone. We can do nothing to earn or keep our salvation. But the evidence of salvation is our changed life. If we exhibit zero evidence of salvation, then we should be concerned that we are perhaps not saved.
Salvation is by faith alone. Salvation is demonstrated by works. Those works will be different for every Christian; that's why we are not to get caught up in comparing works to "judge" salvation.
In this week's passage, when Jeremiah tells the people that being right with God will happen
"if you really correct your ways and your actions", (Jer 7:5)
he is not preaching a works-based salvation. Really, it is no different than Jesus telling His disciples:
"if you love Me, you will keep My commands" (John 14:15)
(which we just studied a few weeks ago in John 14).
This is where looking at the entire context of the two passages noted above is important. To James, the argument comes down to this:
Jam 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works.
To Paul, the result of faith is this:
Eph 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.
What's happening in Jeremiah's day is an extreme distortion of the heresy of "saved by works". The people were so far gone that they believed they were saved in spite of their works. They could live utterly contrary to God's law, and it wouldn't matter because they were God's children, and God was stuck with them.
(This might get you to think about the confrontation between John the Baptist and the Jewish leaders: Matt 3:9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.)
The long and short is this: God's people have been fighting over what it means to be a child of God since there were children of God.
Part 1: Sermon All Up in Your Face (Jeremiah 7:1-2)
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord and there call out this word: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord.
Jeremiah was of a priestly family, but he has already been put at odds with the priestly establishment. Preaching at the entrance to the temple symbolized his status as an outsider, but this was really for dramatic effect. Here's how this might work at FBC Thomson -- most of our people park on the Post Office side of the building and enter through the Fellowship Hall doors and head to the Atrium for donuts and coffee. Now, imagine that David is standing on the steps of the Atrium preaching his morning message. And he's particularly feisty. What would you do with that? Would be confusedly walk by him on your way to Sunday School? Would you awkwardly stop and listen?
Remember that we're talking about "Solomon's Temple", not "Herod's Temple", so the complex is much smaller than what we had in mind when we studied the Gospel of John. But the Temple was still built on the highest point in Jerusalem, so to get to it, the people had to climb a number of steps. As they were doing so, many of them would have been reciting the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134).
Jeremiah seems to have been placed just outside one of the main gates that the pilgrims passed through to get into what we might think of as the Courtyard of the Gentiles (the main courtyard surrounding the temple proper). As the people were climbing the steps, they would have been chanting the psalms, and they would have passed directly by Jeremiah. Here are some of the lines they might have been saying:
Ps 122:6 Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure; 7 may there be peace within your walls, security within your fortresses.”
Ps 125:1 Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion. It cannot be shaken; it remains forever. 2 The mountains surround Jerusalem and the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever.
Jeremiah is going to "interrupt" those ritual preparations with a dose of hard reality.
We can put ourselves in a kinda equivalent situation: when you are "coming to church", what's going through your mind? Are you just going through the motions? Are you coming with expectations? What kind of expectations do you have? If David were preaching in the Atrium while you were getting donuts and coffee, what are the sorts of things he might say that would really throw you off?
Part 2: Sermon Getting in Your Business (Jeremiah 7:3-8)
3 “‘This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: Correct your ways and your actions, and I will allow you to live in this place. 4 Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5 Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, 6 if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, 7 I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever. 8 But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help.
Apparently, the people coming to the temple had developed the idea that "because the temple is in Jerusalem, Jerusalem is eternally secure". And they had extrapolated from that "because we are coming to the temple, we are also eternally secure".
This is nothing new to the Jews. You might remember this obscure story from 1 Samuel 4 -- the Israelites were fighting the Philistines and losing. Their bright solution? “Why did the Lord defeat us today before the Philistines? Let’s bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh. Then it will go with us and save us from our enemies.” (1 Sam 4:3) Well, that didn't turn out well. Not only did they lose the battle, but they lost the ark!
Unfortunately, that event had happened a thousand years before, and they had all slept since then.
This is a very common theme in the prophets -- God confronting the people with their false belief that God cared about their rituals, not their hearts. To me, the pinnacle of this declaration comes in Micah 6 (Micah was Isaiah's contemporary, preaching during the fall of Israel/Samaria):
6:6 What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the offspring of my body for my own sin?
8 Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
What an absolutely gorgeous way to say this.
Well, Jeremiah wasn't interested in gorgeous right now. He was trying to get the people's attention. I think that his reference to "The God of Israel" was part of that -- "the people of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, once thought as you do, and look what happened to them!" But more on this below.
Jesus tapped into this more and more as He approached the end of His earthly ministry. Matthew 15 comes to mind:
7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: 8 This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 9 They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands.
Before we studied John's Gospel, we spent a quarter in Amos/Hosea/Micah. Try to remember the terrible things the Israelites were doing in Samaria. The Jews in Jerusalem are now doing those very things.
Here's your exercise: draw two columns on your whiteboard labeled something like
What are the behaviors God is telling the people to stop?
What are the behaviors God is telling the people to embrace?
And then analyze them with questions like
What's the difference?
Why would God be emphasizing these?
[Please remember the "Big Idea" above about faith vs. works!]
The idea of "salvation by works" can be present on either side of Jeremiah's debate. Those people were trusting in their "works of religion". But we also know that people can trust their "good works". In this case, the synthesis is as simple as one of the Psalms of Ascent that the people had evidently ignored:
Ps 125:3 The scepter of the wicked will not remain over the land allotted to the righteous, so that the righteous will not apply their hands to injustice. 4 Do what is good, Lord, to the good, to those whose hearts are upright. 5 But as for those who turn aside to crooked ways, the Lord will banish them with the evildoers. Peace be with Israel.
God is confronting the people with their own words! Who can claim to be upright and yet shed innocent blood? Their hearts were so far from God that they no longer knew right from wrong; they no longer had any shame. By their own words, they should be banished from the land.
Yes -- this sermon just got personal.
This section's emphasis is slightly different from the next, so here are some ideas how you might capture what's going on here:
How do these verses help us reconcile two truths: "God is love" and "God is just"?
When Christians do these things, how does it reflect on Jesus?
What behaviors do you need to eliminate from your life?
Make sure to save something for the next verses.
Part 3: Sermon Stepping on Your Toes (Jeremiah 7:9-11)
9 “‘Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? 10 Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”? 11 Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it. This is the Lord’s declaration.
Here, Jeremiah brings things "into the church house", so to speak. He's not necessarily saying that the people are doing these things in the temple. He's saying that when a group of robbers gather together, wherever they have gathered has become a den of robbers.
[Aside: by Jesus' day, we learn that people were actually committing such sins "in church". We just studied this in John 2.]
But it's a little bit more complex than that, isn't it? The priests have been teaching wrongly all week long. What makes us think that they will all of a sudden teach rightly during the "worship hour"? The people have been living wrongly all week long. What makes us think that they will all of a sudden live rightly during the worship hour?
And then add to this what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) (with respect to personal application to Christians today).
What are the ways that we can bring our sin into our time of worship? My guess is that the initial answers will be along the lines of being distracted, not putting our heart into it, etc. And those are absolutely the residue of sin! But I would love for your group to put more thought into this. How might worldly attitudes or beliefs influence a worship service? How might sin affect how a person internalizes a sermon?
It would be wrong to ignore how entire churches or denominations can fall into this pattern, but before we step down this road, please realize that Jeremiah was focused on individuals. When we start talking about "churches" or "denominations", we can lose the idea of personal responsibility and accountability. "The church needs to do something about that" instead of "I need to do something about that". That said ...
As I type this, the Southern Baptist Convention is meeting in New Orleans. Yesterday involved a fairly contentious set of events -- a polarizing presidential vote, and a vote to disfellowship certain churches. A lot of people are throwing around accusations of "backstabbing", "backroom deals", "politics", and "compromising our principles". I'll admit that I don't fully understand all of the accusations; I don't know what was said behind closed doors (which seems to be at the heart of a lot of this). But I do know this: the world is watching. The world is going to judge who Southern Baptists are based on what Southern Baptists do.
So let's bring this down to your local church:
What is your church known for in your community?
How do you want your church to be known?
What do you need to do to bring that about?
It's easy for us to read these passages and marvel -- "how could they have missed this?" But sometimes this is harder than we think. I'd love for your group to be honest about that first question. But the problem when we talk about things like that is we tend to blame someone else for why things are the way they are and eschew all personal responsibility.
What are we going to do about our church's reputation in our community?
The Jews in Jeremiah's day had answered that question with a resounding "who cares?"
Part 4: Sermon Drop the Mic (Jeremiah 7:12-15)
12 “‘But return to my place that was at Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first. See what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 Now, because you have done all these things—this is the Lord’s declaration—and because I have spoken to you time and time again but you wouldn’t listen, and I have called to you, but you wouldn’t answer, 14 what I did to Shiloh I will do to the house that bears my name, the house in which you trust, the place that I gave you and your ancestors. 15 I will banish you from my presence, just as I banished all of your brothers, all the descendants of Ephraim.’
This conclusion shouldn't be at all surprising. God offers the town of Shiloh as an object lesson. Shiloh housed the ark from the time of Joshua (Josh 18:1) until Solomon moved it to the temple. And then it just kind of disappears. The Bible doesn't say what happened to it -- it just stops being mentioned. A complete afterthought. According to archeological evidence (and 1 Sam 4 indicates as much), it was destroyed by the Philistines in Samuel/David's day (which is why the ark ended up in Kiriath-Jearim, 1 Chr 13:5). And that's that.
This same thing could happen to Jerusalem. Destroyed. Abandoned. Forgotten.
Unthinkable! Right? Wrong.
If the people continue to abuse their relationship with God, it is indeed what will happen. The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom ("Ephraim" was the largest tribe in the north, and sometimes the prophets called the Northern Kingdom "Ephraim" -- Isa 7:2) certainly didn't think that God would allow them to be conquered and destroyed. But He did.
Again, read back through our study of the minor prophets for more information about what happened to the Northern Kingdom:
It was foolish and shortsighted for the Jews of Jerusalem to be unwilling to consider that God might actually punish them for their sin.
We have one more lesson that focuses on the punishment for sin; the following week, we begin to read how God will work through this punishment to bring about great good.
Your leader guide suggests the topic of "how can God's history of discipline help us understand what He is doing today?" which I like very much.
If anything, I would say to lean into that as much as you can. Churches in America seem to be in a very weird place. I look at some churches and I simply don't understand what they're doing or why. I don't understand how their members are behaving. And sadly, I mainly see a lot of finger-pointing and finger-wagging in response. Based on God's message through Jeremiah this week, what should be our response to the revelation of sin among God's people?
This is a great soul-searching and personal-conviction passage. I hope we all come away with a commitment to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly and to root out whatever sin may be harbored in our hearts.
Closing Thoughts: The Next Verse
16 As for you, do not pray for these people. Do not offer a cry or a prayer on their behalf, and do not beg me, for I will not listen to you.
As you can guess, this verse has created all kinds of confusion (and I imagine that's why Lifeway chose to end their lesson when they did!).
Aren't we to pray at all times for all people? Yes, yes we are.
1 Tim 2:1 First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
So what are we to make of what God told Jeremiah?
Think of this as a line recorded for posterity and impact. Remember how Moses interceded for the rebellious Jews? And Isaiah for Jerusalem? And God "listened" to those requests for forgiveness and mercy.
But this time, the Jews had "sealed their own fate"; they had crossed the point of no return. (The rest of Jeremiah's book will make that astonishingly clear.) Jeremiah could pray, but it was too late for them. If anything, I read this as God sparing Jeremiah the experience of failure, as if he might blame himself for praying incorrectly.
We *are* always to pray for everyone in hopes that God might have mercy on them. But for the people of Jerusalem, there was no stopping the coming judgment.
However! We're going to read a lot in future lessons about hope and grace and mercy. That's why I believe we can read this verse as much "for effect" as anything. There are many people in Jerusalem who would be spared the worst of the destruction, and we know that God always keeps a remnant of faithful worshipers to Himself.