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20 Quotes from Tim Keller’s New Book on Jonah

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Editors’ note: 

Tim Keller will lead a workshop on “What a Minor Prophet Teaches Us About Nationalism and Race, Grace and Mission” at our 2019 National Conference, April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis. Browse the complete list of 74 speakers and 58 talks. We hope you will join us.

The following quotes caught my attention as I read Tim Keller’s newest book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (Viking, 2018) [interview | excerpt].


To understand all of [Jonah’s] lessons for our social relationships, we have to see that the book’s main teaching is not sociological but theological. . . . When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is continually thrown into fury or despair. (5)

Jonah concluded that because he could not see any good reasons for God’s command, there couldn’t be any. (15)

Jonah takes turns acting as both the “younger brother” and the “older brother” [cf. Jesus’s parable of the prodigal sons in Luke 15]. In the first two chapters of the book, Jonah disobeys and runs away from the Lord and yet ultimately repents and asks for 
God’s grace, just as the younger brother leaves home but returns repentant. In the last two chapters, however, Jonah obeys God’s command to go and preach to Nineveh. In both cases, however, he’s trying to get control of the agenda. When God accepts the repentance of the Ninevites, just like the older brother in Luke 15, Jonah bristles with self-righteous anger at God’s graciousness and mercy to sinners. (20)

The Bible does not say that every difficulty is the result of sin—but it does teach that every sin will bring you into difficulty. . . . All sin has a mighty storm attached to it. (24, 25)

Though the question about race comes last in the sailors’ list [“What is your mission? What is your country? Who are your people?”], Jonah answers it first. “I am a Hebrew,” he says before anything else. In a text so sparing with words, it is significant that he reverses the order and puts his race out front as the most significant part of his identity. . . . Jonah’s relationship with God was not as basic to his significance as his race. That is why, when loyalty to his people and loyalty to the Word of God seemed to be in conflict, he chose to support his nation over taking God’s love and message to a new society. (50, 51)

A God who substitutes himself for us and suffers so that we may go free is a God you can trust. Jonah mistrusted the goodness of God, but he didn’t know about the cross. What is our excuse? (66)

Salvation belongs to God alone, to no one else. If someone is saved, it is wholly God’s doing. It is not a matter of God saves you partly and you save yourself partly. No. God saves us. We do not and cannot save ourselves. That’s the gospel. (80)

It is hard for us to even imagine today the ministry that happened in Nineveh. Usually those who are most concerned about working for social justice do not also stand up and speak clearly about the God of the Bible’s judgment on those who do not do his will. On the other hand, those who publicly preach repentance most forcefully are not usually known for demanding justice for the oppressed. Nevertheless, this text encourages us to do both. In this instance, God seeks social reform through his prophet, a change in the Ninevites’ exploitative and violent behavior. Yet he also directs that the city should be told about a God of wrath who will punish sin. . . . To work against social justice and to call people to repentance before God interlock theologically. (91–92)

There are many people who have no idea what they should be living for, or the meaning of their lives, nor have they any guide to tell right from wrong. God looks down at people in that kind of spiritual fog, that spiritual stupidity, and he doesn’t say, “You idiots.” When we look at people who have brought trouble into their lives by their own foolishness, we say things like “Serves them right” or we mock them on social media: “What kind of imbecile says something like this?” When we see people of the other political party defeated, we just gloat. This is all a way of detaching ourselves from them. We distance ourselves from them partly out of pride and partly because we don’t want their unhappiness to be ours. God doesn’t do that. Real compassion, the voluntary attachment of our heart to others, means the sadness of their condition makes us sad; it affects us. That is deeply uncomfortable, but it is the character of compassion. (121)

Jonah did not weep over the city, but Jesus, the true prophet, did. . . . Here is a perfect heart—perfect in generous love—not excusing, not harshly condemning. He is the weeping God of Jonah 4 in human form. . . . [And] Jesus did not merely weep for us; he died for us. Jonah went outside the city, hoping to witness its condemnation, but Jesus Christ went outside the city to die on a cross to accomplish its salvation. (122, 123, 124)

God is both too holy and too loving to either destroy Jonah or to allow Jonah to remain as he is, and God is also too holy and too loving to allow us to remain as we are. (132)

If you want to understand your own behavior, you must understand that all sin against God is grounded in a refusal to believe that God is more dedicated to our good, and more aware of what that is, than we are. We distrust God because we assume he is not truly for us, that if we give him complete control we will be miserable. Adam and Eve did not say, “Let’s be evil. Let’s ruin our own live and everyone else’s too!” Rather they thought, “We just want to be happy. But his commands don’t look like they will give us the things that we need to thrive. We will have to take things into our own hands—we can’t trust him.” (137–38)

Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. (138)

The mission God gave Jonah meant possible death and suffering. This is a call that many Christians have heard over the years, going to preach and do good in parts of the world where sudden death is possible every day. Jonah, however, refused to go, thinking only of himself. The mission God gave Jesus, however, meant certain death and infinite suffering, and yet he went, thinking not of himself but of us. (141)

The only storm that can really destroy—the storm of divine justice and judgment on sin and evil—will never come upon you. Jesus bowed his head into that ultimate storm, willingly, for you. He died, receiving the punishment for sin we deserve, so we can be pardoned when we trust in him. When you see him doing that for you, it certainly does not answer all the questions you have about your suffering. But it proves that, despite it all, he still loves you. Because he was thrown into that storm for you, you can be sure that there’s love at the heart of this storm for you. (146)

We must not think it really possible to transcend politics and simply preach the gospel. Those Christians who try to avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. Since no human society reflects God’s justice and righteousness perfectly, supposedly apolitical Christians are supporting many things that displease God. So to not be political is to be political. Churches in the U.S. in the early nineteenth century that did not speak out about slavery because that would have been “getting political” were actually supporting the slavery status quo by staying silent. (163–64)

Following both the Bible and the early church, Christians will be committed to racial justice and the poor but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. Christians’ positions on social issues, then, do not fit into contemporary political alignments. (167–68)

Jonah went into the depths of the sea in order to save the sailors, but Jesus went into the depths of death and separation from God—hell itself—in order to save Jonah. Jonah is crushed under the weight of the “waves and breakers” (verse 3) of God’s “waters” (verse 5), but Jesus was buried under the waves and billows of God’s wrath. Jonah said he was in Sheol and driven from God’s sight. The Apostles’ Creed says that, for our sake, Jesus “descended into hell.” (210)

If you were a hundred times worse than you are, your sins would be no match for his mercy. (211)

As long as serving God fit into Jonah’s goals for Israel, he was fine with God. As soon as he had to choose between the true God and the god he actually worshiped, he turned on the true God in anger. Jonah’s particular national identity was more foundational to his self-worth than his role as a servant of the God of all nations. The real God had been just a means to an end. He was using the God to serve his real god. (216)


Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:

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