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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Review of ‘Center Church’ by Timothy Keller


Center-Church

This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012). Hardcover | Kindle

Although the majority of Americans continues to self-identify as Christian, American culture is increasingly post-Christian. Evangelical Christians could once assume the broader culture agreed with them about the existence of God, the shape of moral living, and the usefulness of religious organizations. They can no longer do so. The urgent question evangelicals need to ask and answer is how to minister the gospel in this new cultural environment.

Timothy Keller outlines an answer to that question in Center Church. Keller is founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a New York Times bestselling author. Through Redeemer City to City, he mentors young urban church planters and pastors. Keller is also cofounder of The Gospel Coalition, a movement associated with the New Calvinism and the resurgence of a complementarian understanding of gender roles. As a Pentecostal, I disagree with both his Calvinism and complementarianism, though I hasten to add he doesn’t make them points of contentions in his book. Regardless, I believe that Center Church offers a theological vision of gospel ministry that repays careful consideration by ministers across the evangelical spectrum.

Books about church tend to fall into two categories: what to believe (doctrine) and what to do (ministry). Center Church brings the two together in fruitful dialogue, resulting in “theological vision.” Keller writes: “a theological vision is a vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” It develops “from deep reflection on the Bible itself, but it also depends a great deal on what you think of the culture around you.”

Keller organizes his theological vision for ministry around three commitments: gospel, city, and movement. “Both the Bible and church history show us that it is possible to hold all the correct individual biblical doctrines and yet functionally lose our grasp on the gospel,” he writes. “It is critical, therefore, in every new generation and setting to find ways to communicate the gospel clearly and strikingly, distinguishing it from its opposites and counterfeits” (emphasis in original). Keller takes up this task in Parts 1 and 2, which focus on “Gospel Theology” and “Gospel Renewal” (or “Revival”), respectively.

Parts 3, 4, and 5 focus on “Gospel Contextualization,” “City Vision,” and “Cultural Engagement,” respectively. Keller writes: “All churches must understand, love, and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it.” These chapters are, in my opinion, the best in a very good book. We often think of missiology as the study of missions internationally—across national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. What Keller demonstrates is that missiological thinking is relevant intranationally—within our own culture. Evangelicals should not assume, as we have done for so long, that America is a Christian nation. We should rather approach it as a mission field and think of ourselves as missionaries to it.

Finally, Parts 6, 7, and 8 focus on “Missional Community,” “Integrative Ministry,” and “Movement Dynamics,” respectively. This last topic “has to do with your church’s relationships” (emphasis in original). “Some churches are highly institutional,” Keller writes, “with a strong emphasis on their own past, while others are anti-institutional, fluid, and marked by constant innovation and change.” Keller advocates a balanced position between tradition and innovation, drawing on the best of both.

Indeed, balanced is a useful way to describe Keller’s theological vision throughout the book. Keller speaks of “the balance of three axes.” On the gospel axis, the Church must balance between legalism and antinomianism. “We are saved by faith and grace alone, but not by a faith that remains alone,” he writes. “True grace always results in changed lives of holiness and justice.” On the city axis, the Church must balance between only challenging the culture and only appreciating it. “This is based on the biblical teaching that all cultures have God’s grace and natural revelation in them, yet they are also in rebellious idolatry.” On the movement axis, the Church must balance between being an organization (focused on tradition and authority) and an organism (focused on cooperation and unity). “[A] church at either extreme will stifle the development of leadership and strangle the health of the church as a corporate body, as a community,” Keller writes. “The more that ministry comes ‘from the center’ of all the axes, the more dynamism and fruitfulness it will have.”

Center Church is not a quick read. It is a 400-page, two-columned textbook. If you’re looking for easy answers or quick fixes, this is not the book to read. On the other hand, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, reading this book will change the way you think about gospel ministry in a post-Christian era.

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Review of ‘Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism’ by Timothy Keller


PreachingTimothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

All Christians have a spiritual responsibility to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). Some Christians have a further responsibility to teach the word of God more formally, whether in a Sunday School class or from the pulpit. While all Christians can read Tim Keller’s Preaching profitably, it is intended specifically for those with more formal responsibilities to communicate the faith. (Because most readers of this book will be pastors looking for sermon help, however, I’m going to refer throughout this review to preachers and preaching, instead of using broader terms like teaching or communication.)

Keller divides his material into three parts.

Part One, “Serving the Word,” argues that preachers should preach the Bible (Chapter 1), which means preaching the gospel (Chapter 2), which means preaching Jesus Christ (Chapter 3), about whom all Scripture is written (Luke 24:27). Keller recognizes that there are times when preachers should deliver topical sermons, but their bread-and-butter sermons should be expositional. Because Scripture tells the unified story of what God has done in Christ through the Spirit to accomplish our salvation, sermons should be gospel-centered. Two dangers need to be avoided: (1) “preaching a text, even about Jesus, without really preaching the gospel,” which is typical of moralistic preaching; and (2) “preaching ‘Christ’ without really preaching the text,” which is typical of proof-texting. To help avoid these dangers, Keller outlines six ways to preach Jesus from all of Scripture that are adequate to both the gospel and the context of a particular passage.

Part Two, “Reaching the People,” opens with the recognition that preachers must contextualize their messages to their audiences (Chapter 4). Such contextualization has biblical precedent. For example, compare and contrast how Paul preached to Jews meeting in a synagogue (Acts 13:14–47) with how he preached to Gentiles meeting on Mars Hill (17:22–31). Contextualized preaching consists of a two-fold movement whereby sermons “adapt to the culture” as well as “confront the culture.” Because God created the world and humanity in his image, he has left traces of himself in all cultures. This makes adaptation possible. But humanity has sinned against God and distorted the goodness of his creation at all levels—individual and social, intellectual and emotional, spiritual and material. This makes confrontation necessary.

Chapter 5, “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind,” is the best chapter in the book, in my opinion. It exposes the “baseline cultural narratives” that characterize the late-modern mind. (Keller prefers the term late-modern to postmodern because he thinks contemporary culture is “less a reversal of modernity than an intensification of its deepest patterns.”) These narratives include “the sovereign self,” “absolute negative freedom,” “self-authorizing morality,” and “science as the secular hope.”

Chapter 6, “Preaching Christ to the Heart,” is the second best chapter, in my opinion. It recognizes that people are affective beings, not merely intellectual ones. “Preaching cannot simply be accurate and sound,” Keller argues. “It must capture the listeners’ interest and imaginations; it must be compelling and penetrate to their hearts.”

Part Three, “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power” consists of a single chapter about the character of preachers themselves. Keller writes, “your listeners will be convinced by your message only if they are convinced by you as a person.” Preaching, he goes on to say, thus deals with “text” (Bible-gospel-Christ), “context” (culture-heart), and “subtext” (what really motivates the preacher). Though Keller does not point this out himself, these three terms more or less correspond to the threefold division of classical rhetoric: logos (text), pathos (context), and ethos (subtext).

Keller concludes the book with a helpful appendix about “Writing an Expository Message” that focuses on the goal of the biblical text, the theme of the sermon, an outline that develops this theme, and arguments, illustrations, and applications that flesh out this theme. The book concludes with 60+ pages of notes, roughly 20 percent of the entire book. These notes not only identify the source of quotations and books for further reading, they also extend Keller’s analysis. Because they are placed at the end of the book, however, they don’t distract from the development of his main themes. (If you are a fan of Jonathan Edwards, I encourage you to read note 28 on pages 271–275; it shows how Edwards contextualized his preaching to Indians at the Stockbridge Mission.)

Though I found Preaching to be a helpful work, which was especially insightful on late modernity’s “baseline cultural narratives,” I nonetheless found myself asking a few questions.

First, and this is impressionistic, I felt that some of Keller’s examples of how to preach Christ from all of Scripture were not adequate to the text’s context. For example, discussing the horrifying story of the Levite and his concubine (Lev. 19), Keller suggests the following as one of many possible ways to preach Christ from the passage: “When we see a man who sacrifices his wife to save his own skin—a bad husband—how can we not think of a man who sacrificed himself to save his spouse—the true husband?” I see Keller’s point, but is that really a way to find Christ in the text?

Second, Keller defines the gospel in almost exclusively Pauline and Protestant Reformation terms: “we are saved through Christ alone, by faith alone, but not by a faith which remains alone. True salvation always results in good works and a changed life.” This is good and true, of course—see Ephesians 2:8–10, for example—but it fails to take into account other ways of summarizing the gospel, such as that of Jesus himself in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” I can’t help but wonder whether the outline of a kingdom-gospel message fits neatly within Keller’s “metaoutline” for preaching:

  • Here’s what we face.
  • Here’s what we must do.
  • Why we can’t do it.
  • How Jesus did it.
  • How through faith in Jesus you should live now.

Third, Keller’s conversation partners throughout the book are almost exclusively Calvinist. He does mention Protestant mainline preachers, but not evangelical Arminians, Methodists, or Wesleyan-Holiness preachers. (I’m an Arminian Pentecostal.) Given that these non-Calvinist evangelicals have produced quite a few well-known preachers, I can’t help but wonder whether they might have insights to share as well.

In spite of these questions, Preaching is a valuable work by a respected pastor whose judgment on such matters is always worth listening to. I get the feeling I’ll be returning to this book again (and again).

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This summer, the General Council of the Assemblies of God will vote on a proposal to consolidate the three nationally owned schools in Springfield, Missouri: AG Theological Seminary, Central Bible College, and Evangel University. Dr. George O. Wood, who serves as AG general superintendent (and is my dad) outlines the proposal in the video below:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Consolidation Proposal for Springfield Resident…, posted with vodpod

More information on the proposed consolidation is available here.

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In “Anthony Weiner and the National Adultery Ritual,” Kay Hymowitz writes: “Far from a vestige of American prudery, then, the National Adultery Ritual is best understood as a modern protest in behalf of women against the persistence of male infidelity in an age of equality.” Read the whole thing.

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“Nigeria’s violence political, not religious, says Muslim leader.” If you’re on the wrong end of the stick, does it matter what the stick-wielder’s motivation is?

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Make sure to read Scott Yenor on “The Family’s End” and “The Family: What Is To Be Done?” in which he battles against the notion that marriage is merely a contract between two individuals.

Marriage has contractual moments, but it ultimately, as Hegel writes, supersedes the point of view of contract as the individuals lose their identity by becoming members of the family. A healthy culture recognizes this and laws create a fertile space for such mutual self-giving. It is difficult to see how a healthy marriage culture can exist until we recover the language of self-giving to reflect its continuing reality in our lives. The language of contract is not sufficient to that experience.

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“Demonize the opposition, chapter 666”: about how the media portrays opponents of same-sex marriage, of course.

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“Can Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?” Contra Ron Paul, evidently not.

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“I Am Second.” Inspiring videos from people who have decided to live for God and others rather than for themselves.

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“The Perennial Brain-Mind Gap.” In which Raymond Tallis argues that “neuroscience cannot–not just has not yet, but cannot–explain consciousness itself.”

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“Jesus for Jews”: on the resurgence of Jewish interest in Jesus.

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“Too Late for Apologies: Three Steps the U.S. Bishops Should Take to Prevent Another Sexual Abuse Scandal.” Good advice!

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Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper on pastoral succession plans.