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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Holiness: The Fourth Mark of the Ideal Church (Revelation 2:18-29)


The fourth mark of the church is holiness (Rev. 2:18-29).

At the church of Thyatira, there was a woman whom Jesus refers to as “Jezebel.” The name is aptly chosen, for just as the Jezebel of the Old Testament had done (1 Kings 16:29–34), this woman led God’s people astray. Specifically, she convinced some of the Thyatiran Christians “to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”

We readily understand Jesus’ condemnation of sexual immorality. Although the Old Testament often uses the language of adultery as a catchword for idolatry (e.g., Hos. 9:1), in the church of Thyatira, the sexual immorality was real. For Christians, the marriage bed alone is undefiled (Heb. 13:4).

But what about the eating of food sacrificed to idols? In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul argues that a Christian may eat such food unless doing so violates another person’s weaker conscience. In 1 Corinthians 10, however, he seems to reverse course, laying down an absolute prohibition: “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (verse 21). The key to interpreting these two chapters correctly is the context of the eating. Is the food eaten at a pagan temple or a private home (8:10, 10:25–27)? And who else is at the table: a person with a weak conscience or a strong one (8:7, 9, 12–13; 10:28–30)?

At Thyatira, evidently, some Christians ate food sacrificed to idols at a pagan temple or in the context of a pagan feast. Thus, their eating was not a matter of Christian freedom but of religious infidelity. Their sexual immorality also was a matter of religious infidelity, for pagan idolatry typically included temple prostitution and other sexual rituals. No wonder, then, that Jesus refers to the prominent Thyatiran woman as Jezebel, for she influenced Israel to worship foreign gods (1 Kings 16:31–33).

Why would the Thyatiran Christians be tempted by such idolatry? Possibly for reasons of economic survival. According to Robert H. Mounce, “In a city whose economic life was dominated by trade guilds in which pagan religious practices had become the criteria for membership, Christian converts would be faced with the problems of compromising their stand at least enough to allow participation in a common meal dedicated to some pagan deity.”[i]

The antidote to religious compromise is holiness. We usually interpret holiness as a synonym of moral behavior, which it is, at least in a secondary sense. Its primary sense is “set apart,” however. In Leviticus 20:26, for example, God says to Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” Holiness means, first of all, that we are wholly the Lord’s and owe ultimate allegiance to him alone. Only then—as a consequence of such consecration—does holiness mean moral behavior.

Not all the Thyatirans had compromised themselves. Jesus speaks of their works, love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Such virtues are the fruit of setting ourselves apart for God.

 

[i] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 86.

Participation in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14–16)


In 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, Paul writes:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Whenever you see the word therefore in Scripture, you should ask what it’s there for.

In verse 16, the word therefore signals the conclusion of the argument about eating food sacrificed to idols that Paul began in 8:1. In light of the relationship between theological knowledge and ethical love (8:1–13), between personal rights and spiritual responsibilities (9:1–27), and between idolatry and divine judgment (10:1–13), Paul prohibits the Corinthians to eat food sacrificed to idols at religious feasts in pagan temples (10:14–22), although he permits them to it at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis (10:23–11:1).

Like the Corinthians, Paul believes that idols are objectively unreal and idol-food is objectively insignificant (8:4–6). Unlike them, however, he takes into account the fact that idols and idol-food exercise a powerful hold on the “conscience” of some, whom he describes as “weak” (8:7–13). This is why he permits eating idol-food at dinner parties in private homes if—and only if—no one raises “questions of conscience” (10:25–30). The Christian duty to love fellow believers (8:9–13) and to evangelize unbelievers (9:19–23) trumps the Christian’s freedom to eat idol-food.

On this logic, though, the Corinthians might argue that eating idol-food at religious feasts in pagan temples is also permissible for Christians. After all, if idols are unreal, if idol-food is insignificant, and if idolaters have no scruples about the food they’re eating, why not eat alongside them? Christians are free to eat idol-food whenever and wherever they want.

Paul refutes the Corinthian application of their theology to their practice by reminding them what Christian communion is (10:14–17) and what pagan religious feasts are (10:18–22). Christian communion is “participation” in the “blood of Christ” and the “body of Christ.” By contrast, eating at pagan religious feasts makes the eaters “participants with demons.”

In the next two devotionals, I will comment further on the nature of Christian communion. I will also try to explain the paradox of how idols can be nothing but idolaters “participants with demons.” But in this devotional, I simply wanted to lay bare for you the logic of Paul’s overall argument and specific conclusions in 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1. I hope I have realized my intention.

Four Sinful Behaviors (1 Corinthians 9:6–10)


The Daily Word for 1 Corinthians 9:6-10 will begin after the following book review blurb.

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Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (New York: Doubleday, 2010). $19.99, 240 pages.

American Christians live in a transitional age. Christian America is dead. American society is increasingly pluralistic, postmodern, and post-Christian. How should American Christians respond to this new cultural reality?

To read my complete review of The Next Christians, go here. If you’d like to subscribe to receive my book reviews via email, go here. The subscription will go live when you respond to the confirmation email.

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Four Sinful Behaviors (1 Corinthians 9:6–10)

In 1 Corinthians 9:6–10, Paul writes:

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did — and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did — and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did — and were killed by the destroying angel.

Paul refers to four sinful behaviors in this passage: idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the Lord, and grumbling. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, idolatry, which is religion without truth: 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1 examines the practice of eating food sacrificed to idols. Paul agrees with the Corinthians that idols are objectively unreal and that idol-food is therefore objectively insignificant. Whereas the Corinthians go on to eat idol-food at religious feasts in pagan temples, Paul absolutely prohibits the practice (10:14–22), although he allows eating idol-food at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis (10:23–11:1). Why the distinction? Because eating idol-food at religious feasts in pagan temples involves the eater in a web of religious practices that are based on lies. Paul cites the example of Israelites worshiping the golden calf instead of God as proof (Exodus 32:6). Aaron told a theological lie—“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (32:4)—thus misleading Israel about the identity of their liberating God. His lie shaped Israel’s unethical behavior: “The people…indulge[d] in pagan revelry.” A religion that begins with bad theology ends with bad ethics.

Second, sexual immorality, which is pleasure without fidelity: The phrase, “commit sexual immorality,” translate the Greek word porneuomen, which is cognate to the Greek word for prostitute. In the ancient world, idolatry and sexual immorality are often, though not always, closely linked. Some prostitutes plied their trade at pagan temples, sexual intercourse being part of the religious ritual. This connection between idolatry and sexual immorality lies in the background of the Old Testament example Paul cites (Numbers 25:1–9). For Paul, the prohibition of sexual immorality extends beyond idolatry, however, to sex outside the confines of marriage (compare 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and 7:1–7). God intends sexual pleasure to be experienced by a couple who vow to remain faithful to one another throughout life.

Third, testing the Lord, which is questioning God’s good intention for us: Paul refers to the Old Testament example of the Israelites complaining about the lack of water at Rephidim (Exodus 17:1–7). There, the Israelites ask a rhetorical question—“Is the Lord among us or not?”—whose answer they presume to be, “No!” But God has just led them through the Red Sea (Exodus 14–15) and given them food (Exodus 16), so the answer to their question is obviously, “Yes!” The Israelites have plenty of evidence about God’s intention for them. As constant skeptics, however, they continually ask for more.

Fourth, grumbling, which is questioning the truth of God’s revelation: Paul refers to the Old Testament example of the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16). Korah and his followers doubted the truth of God’s command that Aaron and his descendents alone serve as priests before God. They wanted to serve as priests. God settled the matter by judging between Korah and Aaron in Aaron’s favor. Despite this evidence, “the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron” (16:41). The sin of the people is presumption against God, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Israelites committed each of these sins on its journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. In our journey from slavery to salvation, we should be careful to avoid committing these sins ourselves. If God judged them, Paul reasons, why should we expect a different outcome for similar behavior?

Good Theology Rightly Applied (1 Corinthians 8:9–13)


In 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Paul answers the question of whether Christians can eat food sacrificed to idols. For modern American Christians, this question is not relevant, since our culture does not sacrifice to idols. The way Paul answers this question is relevant today, however, for it addresses how we educate people out of their ignorance. Paul identifies two crucial issues: what we know and how we use that knowledge.

For Paul, knowledge liberates. Idols are objectively unreal, so eating food sacrificed to idols is objectively insignificant. Knowledgeable Corinthian Christians therefore eat such food freely.

On the other hand, ignorance oppresses. Idols are subjectively real to some people, so eating food sacrificed to them violates their conscience. Ignorant Corinthian Christians refuse to eat what they are free to eat, or if they do eat, their “conscience” becomes “weak” and “defiled.”

Ironically, instead of criticizing the ignorant Corinthians for their bad theology and weak consciences, Paul criticizes the knowledgeable Corinthians. Consider what he writes in 1 Corinthians 8:9–13:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

The theology of the knowledgeable Corinthians is incomplete and therefore wrongly applied. Idols are objectively unreal. Eating food sacrificed to them is therefore objectively insignificant. This theology is two-thirds correct. The missing third is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the ignorant Corinthians. They were people “for whom Christ died.” When the knowledgeable Corinthians flaunt their freedom, they become a “stumbling block” to the ignorant Corinthians. Their knowledge “destroyed” them. Their actions “wound their weak conscience.” This “sin against your brothers” becomes a “sin against Christ.”

Paul accounted for Jesus Christ in his theology, so he applied his theology in a Christ-like way. Yes, idols are objectively unreal. Yes, food sacrificed to idols is objectively insignificant. But since Christ died for the weak, my goal as a Christian is to educate them out of their ignorance. If doing so requires that I subordinate my freedoms for their wellbeing, then so be it. Love compels me to observe their scruples as I move them from ignorance and weakness to knowledge, strength, and freedom. “[I]f what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin,” Paul writes, “I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”

Knowledge is power, the power of freedom and the power of love. As Christians, we sometimes subordinate our personal freedom in order to love others. This is good theology rightly applied.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss (1 Corinthians 8:7–8)


People say “Ignorance is bliss” and speak about “the burden of knowledge.” I know what they mean. My two-year-old son doesn’t know that I work to provide him food and clothing. He is happy, well-fed, and stylishly clothed nonetheless—thanks to my wife, his mother. On the other hand, I know that my livelihood provides for his needs, so I take care to remain gainfully employed. He is blissfully ignorant. I am burdened by knowledge.

But in another sense, ignorance makes us unhappy and oppresses us. Consider 1 Corinthians 8:7–8, where Paul writes:

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

“[N]ot everyone knows this,” alludes to verse 4: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” As I pointed out yesterday, what we know influences how we live. If we know that idols are objectively unreal, then we know that food sacrificed to them is objectively insignificant. “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” How and what we eat may affect our physical health, but not our spiritual wellbeing. Knowledge liberates us from superstition about food, not to mention about everything else.

On the other hand, ignorance oppresses. Referring to people who converted to Christianity, Paul writes: “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” To such people, idols are real and food is significant. This reality and significance is subjective rather than objective, however. Idols are real to them, and idol food is significant to their conscience. When they eat food sacrificed to idols, therefore, they feel “defiled,” even though they are not objectively defiled.

Knowledge liberates. Ignorance oppresses. If we want to liberate people from superstition, we must educate them out of their ignorance. Teaching the truth is a vital and necessary component of proper spiritual formation.

But how shall we teach? The Corinthians flaunted their freedom, and in the process of doing so, they offended “the weak” (verse 9). Paul, on the other hand, observed the scruples of the weak even as he patiently taught them why those scruples were superstitious (verse 13).

Our culture does not sacrifice food to idols. We engage in other forms of idolatry and are oppressed by other superstitions. We must educate our culture out of idolatry and into Christ, for “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). But we must do so in a Christ-like way.

More on that tomorrow.

What We Believe about God and Idols (1 Corinthians 8:4–6)


What we know influences how we live.

For example, I know that my father’s side of the family has a history of heart disease. I also know that my weight, diet, and exercise regime will either exacerbate whatever genetic predisposition I have toward heart disease or alleviate it. So, I choose to lose weight, eat healthy, and exercise regularly.

What I know influences how I live.

The interplay between knowledge and behavior takes center stage in 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1, where Paul argues with the Corinthians about food sacrificed to idols. To a significant degree, Paul agrees with the Corinthians’ theology—what they believe about God. He disagrees with their ethics—how they live based on their theology.

We’ll look at theology today and leave ethics for later installments in this series of devotionals.

In 1 Corinthians 8:4–6, Paul writes:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

These verses make three claims that are foundational to Christianity.

First, God exists. He possesses an objective reality that idols lack. He is the origin of the world (“from whom”), the purpose of the world (“for whom”), and the redemption of the world—the means by which the world achieves its purpose (“through whom”).

Second, idolatry is delusional, yet prevalent and powerful. From a Christian perspective, “an idol is nothing at all in the world.” It is objectively unreal. It is merely a subjective reality, a figment of the imagination. Not surprisingly, then, there are as many idols as there are people with imaginations. Unfortunately, however, these people deify and serve their own imaginations.

Third, whether you believe in God or idols matters. Imagine two men dying of thirst in the desert. The first man sees a stand of trees in the west and urges the second man to move in that direction. The second man sees a shining lake in the east and urges his friend to move in that direction. If they have only enough strength to go one way or another, surely it is important for them to know whether they are moving toward an oasis or a mirage.

In recent years, so-called “New Atheists” have criticized religion generally and Christianity particularly. I’m not particularly disturbed by their arguments. After all, as a Christian, I don’t believe in many of the same gods they don’t believe in. Then again, if idolatry is the deification and service of the self and its imaginations, then atheism is simply another form of idolatry. And I don’t believe in that god either.