Jeremiah 29:11, NIV – "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
I’ve heard this scripture quoted in numerous church services ranging from youth groups, to small groups, to larger church services. I’ve even seen it placarded all throughout people's homes,on trinkets, in church sanctuaries, foyers, etc. Point is: this verse is quite popular among American Christianity. It ranks up there with John 3:16.
Intentions are good: the desire is for this verse to be normative for everyone who is a Christian. On the surface, it sounds great. Unfortunately, what many Christians think it means is not necessarily so when read in context. The text is not normative at all. This statement was made in a particular time and place. It’s a promise to the exiles in Babylon, not to Christians for all time.
Let me give a brief description of the context of this verse. During the time of Jeremiah there were many false prophets saying that Babylon isn't going to take over and take them captive, and that God was going to deliver them immediately. Jeremiah calls the people out for their sin, calls out the false prophets, and tells the people that they are going to be captives in Babylon for 70 years. In the passage above you can see that he tells them to build houses, marry, have kids, etc. because they're going to be there for awhile. The promise of Jeremiah 29 is to tell the people that their descendants will be returned to Judah in 70 years, not those people in Jeremiah's presence, those at the present time. The text is a promise, just not directly for those whom received it but instead to their grandchildren. And, certainly not for Christians for all time.
So why am I making this such a big deal? Well, this idea of God prospering us in the here and now doesn't mesh with the history of the apostles and many other Christians throughout Church history. Men anointed to set the foundation of Christianity, in almost all cases, were martyred. So much for not harming them! And don’t let anyone tell you that “God wants you to be rich” using this verse—at least five other translations render the words “plans to prosper you” as “plans for welfare” or “plans for good”. “Prosperity”, in the sense used here, was about welfare, not money.
Another resource I would like to recommend is the following clip from Pastor Voddie Baucham. He does a very good job teaching from the text, describing a bit about what the text means, and what it doesn't.