The Prodigal Prophet | Book Review


If people know anything about the prophet Jonah, they know he was swallowed by a big fish. Consequently, because we live in an anti-miraculous age, people tend to dismiss Jonah’s story as just another fish story, the product of an ancient, credulous imagination. That dismissal is a shame, for the Book of Jonah tells a story with a timely message for people who live, as we do, in a moment of resurging nationalism.

The timeliness of that message is evident throughout The Prodigal Prophet by Timothy Keller. The book grew out of a series of expository sermons Keller preached at various times in his ministry. It reflects evangelicalism at its best: a biblical, Christ-centered, relevant call for conversion, not just in our spiritual lives, but in the totality of our lives.

We first meet Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25, which says that Jeroboam II, ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, “restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” Although Jeroboam II “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (verse 24), God kept covenant with His people (verses 26–27) and the territorial promises He had made to them. Jonah was the prophet of God’s promise-keeping.

Jeroboam II reigned from 792–751 B.C., a period during which the Assyrian Empire, which had earlier threatened Israel, had stagnated. After his death, however, it resurged and began to threaten Israel once again. In 722 B.C., it conquered Israel, brutalized its victims, and deported the population. Israel never recovered as a political entity. When we read the Book of Jonah, we need to keep the tension between Jonah’s prophecy of territorial expansion and the subsequent history of Israel’s destruction in mind, for it is key to understanding the book’s message.

It explains Jonah’s reluctance to take “the word of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1) to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Though God instructed Jonah to “preach against” that “great city” (verse 2), Jonah knew that God’s judgment implicitly carried a promise of mercy to the repentant. “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2). As a patriot, the prophet didn’t want to see good come to his nation’s enemies. But God did, and so He asks Jonah (verse 11): “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?”

The tension between Jonah’s prophecy and Israel’s destruction also explains the book’s continuing relevance to us. The book ends without an answer from Jonah to God’s question. “The main purpose of God is to get Jonah to understand grace,” Keller writes. “The main purpose of the book of Jonah is to get us to understand grace.” Grace is God’s kindness and compassion to all people, not just our kindof people. Its ultimate embodiment was the incarnation of the Son of God, who died as the substitute for our sins and rose as the harbinger of our eternal life. When we understand this, it not only changes our hearts, but it changes the ways we relate to others. That is why God’s question at the end of Jonah is left unanswered. It is a question those who claim to follow God must answer anew in every generation.

The Prodigal Prophet makes for compelling reading. It explains the meaning of the Book of Jonah in its original context, but it draws out the implications of that meaning for our context. It shows the baleful ways Christians can worship ideological idols, misuse Scripture, and fail to love their neighbors as they should. But it also shows what a gospel-centered mission looks like, as well as how the gospel shapes our relationship with neighbors in our everyday lives. I’ll close this review with Keller’s penultimate paragraph, which itself ends with a question:

We live in a world fragmented into various “media bubbles,” in which you hear only news that confirms what you already believe. Anyone whose uses the internet and social media or who even watches most news channels today is being daily encouraged in a dozen ways to become like Jonah with regard to “those people over there.” Groups demonize and mock other groups. Each region of the country and political party finds reasons to despise the others. Christian believers today are being sucked into this maelstrom as much as, if not more than, anyone else. The Book of Jonah is a shot across the bow. God asks, how can we look at anyone — even those with deeply opposing beliefs and practices — with no compassion?

How you answer that question reveals what’s in your heart.

Book Reviewed
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (New York: Viking, 2018).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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The Hardest Part | Luke 2:21-40


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:21–40

Several years ago, I was working at a church in Costa Mesa, California. For Pastor Appreciation Day, the church gave each staff member a generous gift card to a nearby restaurant. Two or three weeks later, most of the staff still had their cards. Not me. I used it the day I got it. In fact, immediately after the chairman of the board of elders handed me the card in the service, as I was walking down the aisle, I looked at a friend and signaled that we were having lunch together that day. I have a problem with delayed gratification, it seems. The lyrics to a Tom Petty song could be my motto: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Luke 2:21–40 tells the story of a man who waited to see “the consolation of Israel” (verse 25). His name was Simeon. Let’s take a quick look at his story.

According to Luke, Simeon was “righteous and devout” (verse 25). Moreover, “the Holy Spirit was on him.” Luke goes on to say, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (verse 26). From this statement, most interpreters reasonably infer that Simeon was old or near death when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for ritual consecration. Taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon prophesied about the boy’s future.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and the glory of your people Israel (verses 29–32).

This Christmas song goes by the Latin title, “Nunc Dimittis,” meaning “you now dismiss.” In it, Simeon praises God for bringing salvation not only to “your people Israel,” but also to “the Gentiles.” For Simeon, salvation was an accomplished fact, even though Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lay 30-odd years in the future. He was certain that God would accomplish His purposes through Jesus Christ.

Simeon was not as certain about how individuals would respond to Jesus. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (verses 34–35). In other words, God’s grace is certain, but our faith is an open question. Will we follow Jesus or not?

Simeon also says something to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I think this statement refers to the maternal anguish Mary felt as she watched her firstborn son being crucified. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It always takes us to the cross.

Simeon’s message is an important one for instant gratificationists such as me to hear. Our culture wants microwave-dinner spirituality: quick and easy. But salvation requires “a long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche — just like Simeon’s patience. And when we receive God’s grace, we find that the waiting wasn’t so hard after all.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

What Christ Redeems Us From and To | Luke 1:67-80


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:67–80.

 

Whether the songs are sacred or secular, Christmas is a singing season. In the Gospel of Luke, we read the original four Christmas songs: Mary’s “Magnficat” (1:46–56), Zechariah’s “Benedictus” (1:67–80), the angels’ “Gloria” (2:8–14), and Simeon’s “Nunc Dimittis” (2:25–33). We have already looked at Mary’s “Magnficat”; today and tomorrow, I want to look at Zechariah’s “Benedictus.” It tells us something important about Christ and something important about ourselves.

Here’s the first half of the song:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us —
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (verses 68–75).

Notice the past tense of the verbs in the second line: “has come” and “redeemed.” When Zechariah offers this prayer, Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lie 30 years in the future. Yet so certain is the victory God will accomplish through Christ that Zechariah can speak of it as an already accomplished action.

What redemption does Jesus’ coming into the world purchase? Zechariah uses two prepositions: from and to. Through Christ, Zechariah says, God has redeemed us “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah is no doubt thinking in national and religious terms. As a good Jew living in the hill country of Judea, he interprets the birth of Jesus as deliverance of Israel from the oppressive power of the Romans. And in a sense, he’s right. The work of Jesus Christ ultimately undoes the oppressive power of any government that disobeys God’s law and violates the human rights of its citizens. Jesus does this as His Church earnestly follows Him and applies truly Christlike principles to the society in which it lives. But more immediately, the work of Jesus Christ delivers people from the original Axis of Evil: sin, death and the devil. Compared to that Axis, human governments are mere pikers.

So, deliverance is deliverance from. But it is also deliverance to. Pay attention to verses 74–75: Through Christ, God redeemed his people “to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Zechariah says “without fear” because “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4.18). When we receive God’s love and return it to Him, our fear of divine judgment gives way to joy in divine grace. And out of that grace, our spiritual and moral character changes. God replaces our sin with his “holiness and righteousness.”

What has Christ redeemed you from? What has Christ redeemed you to? Let your life in Christ become your personal Christmas song today!

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Grace, Faith and Obedience | Luke 1:57-66


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:57–66.

 

In this passage, Zechariah emerges from nine months of silence with an important message. We will see what that important message is in a moment, but it might be helpful first to remember why Zechariah had been silent so long. His silence was divinely imposed because he had doubted the angel’s message regarding the miraculous conception of his son.

Don’t you wish God worked promptly with you, like he did with Zechariah? Don’t you wish that every time you obeyed God you would receive an instantaneous blessing? Or that every time you disobeyed God you would get an immediate slap on the wrist? Wouldn’t it be easier to obey God (and harder to disobey) if you experienced the consequences of your actions immediately?

Psychologists refer to this kind of dynamic as behavioral programming. In my college psychology class, my lab partner and I tested this dynamic on a rat. We put him in a contraption known as a Skinner box. (It was named after B. F. Skinner, a pioneer in behavioral programming.) If the mouse lowered a switch on the wall of the box, it received a pellet of food or a drink of water. The mouse quickly learned how to lower the switch. But the Skinner box also allowed us to shock the mouse with a small electrical current if it performed a behavior we didn’t desire. The mouse quickly learned to do what we wanted it to do.

God is not a behavioral programmer. Life is not a Skinner box. You and I are not mice. Usually, God does not respond to our behavior with immediate carrots or instantaneous sticks. He wants us to put our faith in Him and do the right thing because those are the right things to do, not because we are looking for the spiritual equivalent of food pellets and sips of water.

But on occasion, He does respond to our behaviors with immediate consequences. He did so with Zechariah. And when God does this, He wants to teach us a very important lesson.

In Zechariah’s case, that lesson was not just faith and obedience, although I’m sure Zechariah learned them both as he watched his aged wife grow big with their son through her months of pregnancy. Instead, the primary lesson Zechariah learned was this: The Lord is gracious.

According to Luke 1.57–66, Zechariah regained his speech the moment he named his son. Elizabeth wanted to call her baby boy John, but the friends and family wouldn’t let her. John was not a family name. Shouldn’t he be named after Zechariah or after one of his grandfathers? So the friends and family went to Zechariah and asked his opinion.

“He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God” (verses 63–64).

In Hebrew, the name John means “the Lord is gracious.” God was gracious to Zechariah, giving him a second chance after a long period of discipline. God offers grace to us too. The only question is whether we’ll respond like Zechariah, with faith and obedience.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Antidote to Shame | Luke 1:23-25


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:23–25

“You should be ashamed of yourself” is one of the most powerful combinations of words in the English language, both for good and for evil.

At best, those six words shake people out of their moral stupor, show them how their deeds or words fall far short of God’s standards, and cause them to act and speak in more honorable ways. For example, if a father with a secret drug habit gets caught shooting up in the bathroom by his young son, he should feel ashamed of himself. But rather than wallow in that shame, he should get clean and sober and give his son a reason to be proud of him.

At worst, however, those words imprison us in a cage of other people’s opinions and arbitrary standards. Some time ago, Dr. Phil aired the story of a mother who despised her older daughter because she was stocky, but lavished love, attention and affection on her younger daughter, who was petite. Through her words and actions, this mother created a deep feeling of shame in her older daughter. Did I mention that both girls were under 10 years of age? There was nothing wrong with the older daughter. The problem was the mother and her arbitrary standards and loveless criticisms. She was the one who should have been ashamed of herself.

When Elizabeth became pregnant, she said God had taken away her “disgrace among the people” (verse 25). Which kind of shame had Elizabeth felt up to this point: the better kind or the worst kind? Obviously, it cannot be the better kind. Luke 1:6 says Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Elizabeth’s feelings of shame (or disgrace) did not arise from anything she had done wrong. She did not need to change her ways.

Rather, her shame arose from what her community expected of her as a wife, namely, that she would also be a mother. Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, Elizabeth was “not able to conceive” (Luke 1.7). And this childlessness lowered her several notches in her neighbor’s estimation of her, and, consequently, in her estimation of herself. She had no reason to be ashamed, but she was ashamed nonetheless.

God is in the business of taking shame away from people. He does so in several ways. First, He removes our shame when we repent of the deeds and words that are shameful. Second, He removes our shame when He exposes the arbitrary social standards and expectations that society unfairly imposes on us. And third, He gives us grace, in both spiritual and material ways. In Elizabeth’s case, that grace was a baby boy named John, Yohanan, “The Lord is gracious.”

Grace, you see, is always the antidote to shame.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Lord Is Gracious | Luke 1:13-17


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:13–17

In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, silence precedes singing. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home was silent because they were childless. Zechariah’s mouth became silent because he doubted the angel’s good news. And Israel’s prophets were silent too.

Malachi is the last prophet of the Old Testament. He ministered in the fifth century B.C. Speaking on behalf of God, Malachi’s final words are these: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:5–6).

In this prophecy, Malachi promises three things: righteousness, revelation and reconciliation. The day of the Lord is the day on which God right-sizes the world. It is currently under the grip of the Axis of Evil (sin, death and the devil). So it is awash in unrighteousness. What should be isn’t, and what shouldn’t be is. But on the day of the Lord, God will make all things right.

A prophet’s ministry has to do with revelation. He sees a vision of God, or hears the Word of God, and communicates it to the people so that the people might hear and obey God’s will. Elijah was a great prophet in an age of great prophecies, and Malachi promises a fresh outpouring of divine revelation as the day of the Lord draws near.

But neither God’s actions nor prophetic revelation alone determine what happens to you and me as the day of the Lord draws near. We are given a choice: reconciliation with one another and with God, or a curse. What must happen in us is a turn of our hearts.

After Malachi spoke these words, prophecy in Israel went silent for over 400 years. And then, the angel Gabriel spoke good news to childless Zechariah. He would have a son, but not just any son. In the Old Testament, the prophets were filled with the Holy Spirit on occasion, at the moment of divine revelation. But Zechariah’s son “will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

And this son’s ministry will be a ministry of turning: “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16–17).

After Malachi, silence. Beginning with Zechariah’s son, a new voice. And that son’s name encapsulates his message: John (Luke 1:13). In Hebrew, his name is Yohanan. In English, it means “the Lord is gracious.” And God is. To the childless, to the doubting and to us.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

An Unhurried Leader | Book Review


As the father of three children under 9 years of age, I often find myself in a hurry. A few days ago, for example, I got home from work, grabbed a sandwich and headed back out the door to take my son to baseball practice. One of the other dads was envious that I at least got a sandwich — he was too hurried even to eat.

“Life moves pretty fast,” that great theologian Ferris Bueller once said. “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Three hundred years earlier, John Ray wrote something similar: “Haste makes waste, and waste makes want, and want makes strife between the good man and his wife.”

In short, we hurry to get more but end up getting less.

The solution is to slow down. Alan Fadling wrote about following Jesus’ rhythm of work and rest in his 2013 book, An Unhurried Life. Now, he returns with An Unhurried Leader to show what “grace-paced leadership” looks like. Hint: It isn’t hurried. Also, leadership isn’t limited to people with full-time ministry jobs. “We need not have a position of influence to be a person of influence,” he writes.

Fadling defines unhurried leadership as “a process of learning to work in harmony with the purposes of God. It is also the awareness that so much of what God does begins in people’s hearts.” Truly Christian leadership, in other words, is heart-work, and heart-work takes lots of time. This is true whether we’re talking about the hearts of the people we’re leading — or our own hearts.

For this reason, Fadling spends most of the book helping leaders unhurry. If we’re hasty with ourselves, we’ll be hasty with others, and we all know what haste makes. To unhurry us, Fadling turns to Scripture to show us what God’s purposes for us are and how those purposes change the way we lead others.

Chapter 5, “Questions That Unhurry Leaders,” made a deep impression on me, so let me share a bit more about it. Fadling uses the five questions Paul asks in Romans 8:31–35 to illuminate “deep truths” about life and leadership. Here are the questions and the truths about God’s purposes they demonstrate:

  • “If God is for us, who can be against us?” demonstrates God’s “unfailing favor.”
  • “How will he not also, along with Christ, graciously give us all things?” illuminates God’s “unfathomable generosity.”
  • “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” identifies God’s “unending justification.”
  • “Who then is the one who condemns?” illustrates Christ’s “unceasing intercession” for us.
  • “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” reminds us of God’s “unconditional love.”

These “deep truths” resonate with the soul of every Christian. What makes Fadling’s treatment of them unique is that he shows how they change the way we do leadership as Christians.

Take the first question, for example: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Fadling comments: “It’s remarkable how many Christian leaders have found themselves, in some blurry and ill-defined way, trying to earn God’s favor or to prove their worth to him or parents or a spouse, or perhaps to themselves. But God is already for us … If that’s true, then who or what in this world could effectively stand against us?”

Leaders who allow God’s favor, generosity, justification, intercession and love to sink deeply into their hearts lead differently than those who don’t. Their leadership comes to be marked by those same qualities as well. In that sense, unhurried leadership is “overflow leadership.” Citing John 7:37–39, Fadling writes: “What I bring to Jesus as a thirst can be transformed into more refreshment and life than I can possibly hold. That abundance, that excess, that overflow can become manifest in my work, my service, my leadership.”

The key thing, then, is for Christian leaders to let Jesus into their hearts. Does that sound too simple? Perhaps. Then again, I was amazed at how often An Unhurried Leader opened my eyes to things in my heart that are crowding out Jesus and thus misshaping my influence. I hope it will do the same for you.

 

Book Reviewed:
Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Leader: The Lasting Fruit of Daily Influence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.