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Tim Keller on a Fishy Story

Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash
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 to see you there.

Jonah is fascinating. It’s considered a prophetic book despite containing only one preaching sentence. (Out of its 48 verses, 47 are narrative.) Jonah is also the Bible’s only prophet sent to the Gentiles. Others speak about the Gentiles, but only Jonah is deployed to them.

And, of course, he gets gulped down by a fish. And lives to tell about it.

Reflecting on the book of Jonah, G. Campbell Morgan once quipped: “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.” In his newest volume, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (Viking), Tim Keller unfolds Jonah’s classic story with characteristic insight. From beginning to end, Keller draws our attention to the great God—full of justice and mercy—who pursues prodigals and Pharisees alike.

I asked Keller—TGC vice president and former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan—about parallels in Jonah with Luke 10 and Luke 15, as well as lessons from Jonah regarding racism, evangelism and social justice, and more.


How do Jonah’s actions reflect both the younger brother and also the older brother in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal sons (Luke 15)?

Many commentators have noticed this. In the first half of the book, Jonah plays the prodigal (Luke 15:11–24)—he runs away from God in disobedience to his will. Then in the second half of the book, Jonah obeys God’s command and goes to Nineveh. But when God has mercy on the wicked pagans, he acts like the elder brother (Luke 15:25–32), scolding God for being forgiving to repentant sinners. On top of this, the book of Jonah ends with a question from God to the Pharisaical prophet, just like the parable ends with a question to the Pharisaical son. And in both cases the narrative ends without us hearing the answer. They are both “cliffhangers.” I’ve read some who thought Jesus had the book of Jonah in mind when he formulated his parable. I think that’s highly speculative, but the similarity between the two accounts is why I named the book The Prodigal Prophet.

You remark that preachers and teachers tend to overlook Jonah’s interactions with the pagans (chs. 1 and 3), “except perhaps to observe that we should be willing to take the gospel to foreign lands.” What’s a key lesson we should learn from these episodes?

Jonah is called to go to people of a different race and religion and preach the will and wrath of God to them. He refuses to go; and even after he goes, he is quick to show his hostility to them. Yet first in chapter 1 and then again in chapter 3, when Jonah is brought into close contact with pagans, they in every way act more admirably than he does. This repeated theme is too prominent to ignore.

The author of the book is showing us that the “wicked pagans” can show more moral virtue than a prophet, a bearer of divine revelation, called by the living God. What are the implications? To start with, it’s a theme the New Testament will bring out even more clearly, namely that all of us, pagan and religious, Jew and Gentile, are sinful and lost, and we can only be saved by grace. Another implication is pretty clear—Jonah’s attitude toward the religiously and racially different is being sharply criticized.

How is Jonah the opposite of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)?

The Good Samaritan and Jonah are both brought into contact with someone who is of a different race and religion. The Samaritan risks his life to help the man in the road. (It was brave of him to stop in such a remote place with robbers about.) On the contrary, Jonah refuses to help one set of pagans (the Ninevites) and runs away, putting another set of pagans (the sailors in the boat) in danger. Jonah had no excuse. He had the book of Genesis. He knew all humans are made by God in his image.

Calvin in his Institutes says that the beauty of God’s image should move us to help any human being, regardless of race, status, or moral desert. The image of God means we should treat other human beings as God deserves: “Each [Christian] will so consider himself . . . a debtor to his neighbors [that] he ought in exercising kindness toward them to set no other limit than the end of his resources” (Institutes 3.7.7). That is how the Samaritan responded, but not Jonah.

“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,” you observe. “On the other hand, those who publicly preach repentance most forcefully are not usually known for demanding justice for the oppressed.” How does the book of Jonah challenge this common dichotomy?

This was my conclusion after studying chapter 3 for a long time. Many preachers say that Jonah probably said more than, “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” They assume he preached a message of grace as well. But the text doesn’t say that (and his temper in chapter 4 doesn’t lead us to believe he did). Also, we tend to think that the Ninevites’ repentance was a mass conversion. But there’s no mention at all of the covenant name YHWH, nor any statement that they put away their idols or got circumcised. What the text says is that they stopped doing violence to each other—they stopped exploiting, abusing, and killing each other. And if you look at the prophets’ words to Gentile nations in Isaiah, Amos, and Ezekiel, they also spoke mainly to them about their cruelty and injustice to the weak.

What happened in Nineveh, then, was what we call social reform—and God was pleased enough with it to spare the city. I conclude that Jonah preached God’s wrath, and that the response was social reform. That made me ask, Do those who I know who work in cities for social reform talk much about the wrath of God? And do those who preach the wrath of God publicly also concern themselves with social justice? I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, but in my experience these things aren’t kept together.

When it comes to evangelism and doing justice, you reject two common ways to conceive of the relationship: “two wings of an airplane” and “means to an end.” Can you flesh this out?

I spend more time on this in Generous Justice. But in this volume on Jonah, in passing, I point out two common views of the relationship of evangelism to doing justice and compassion. The one is the claim that evangelism and justice are “two wings on an airplane.” The problem with this analogy is that (a) it separates the two, instead of recognizing how integral they are to each other in real-time ministry, and (b) it fails to recognize the difference between the church and individual Christians. While the church is to disciple believers to be salt and light—to be involved in doing justice and often in political processes—the church itself should major in the ministry of Word and Sacrament, in producing new Christians and forming them for ministry in the world. I’ve seen many churches who thought the local church elders could not only shepherd the congregation, but also oversee affordable housing projects and so on. That’s neither theologically nor practically right.

The single most loving thing we can do for anyone is to help them know Christ forever.

On the other hand, the “means to an end” view is that we only help the poor and work for justice as a way to get people to believe the gospel and get converted. Now indeed, good deeds can lead people to glorify God, as Matthew 5:16 and 1 Peter 2:12 indicate. But we should do good deeds to people simply because we love them. We should evangelize people because the single most loving thing we can do for anyone is to help them know Christ forever. But we should give “a cup of cold water” for exactly the same reason. We do it to love them, whether they believe as we do or not. To give aid merely in order to get conversions—and only as long as we think they may convert—is manipulation, not love.

What are some warning signs that a healthy patriotism is morphing into idolatrous nationalism? Where do we see this dynamic in the life of Jonah?

C. S. Lewis has a great passage in The Four Loves, where he argues that love of country can become idolatrous and thus a vehicle for exploitation and evil. He was writing in the aftermath of World War II, when it was even clearer than today that patriotism can become demonic. Two signs indicate this might be happening in one’s life.

One sign is when your race becomes more fundamental to your identity than your faith in God. Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented and received mercy, it might be bad for his nation. So he put his national interests ahead of the Ninevites’ need to hear God’s truth. That is to make your love for and service to your race and nation more important than your love for and service to God. Lewis adds a second sign. He says when you start to whitewash your nation’s history, when you won’t admit the bad things your nation has done, then you are in danger of beginning to feel so superior to other peoples that you can justify cruelty.

Was Jonah a racist? How would you respond to someone who says, “Jonah’s superiority complex was theological, not ethnic, in nature. Unique covenantal and salvation-historical factors were at play in ancient Israel that do not translate to American racial tensions today”?

Certainly we shouldn’t read modern racial tensions right back onto Jonah. I’m not sure we can say that Jonah looked at the Assyrians exactly the way certain white Americans look at black Americans. But to say that Jonah only felt superior theologically—that reading isn’t sufficient. It doesn’t account, first of all, for Jonah’s refusing a direct order to tell the Ninevites about their sins. If he only felt “theologically superior” to the Assyrians, why not jump at the chance to tell them how wrong they were?

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel were all given oracles denouncing pagan nations. None of them refused to deliver them, even though they certainly knew they were theologically superior to the nations. Second, this objection doesn’t account for why the author of the book repeatedly gives a highly sympathetic depiction of the pagans in ways that make Jonah look bad. It’s a strong indication that Jonah’s attitude toward the Gentiles is wrong. John Calvin, no modern liberal, says Jonah’s sin was that he was “very inhuman” in his attitude toward Nineveh. He refused to treat them as human beings in the image of God, and therefore of equal worth with him and his people. I think Calvin is right.

What is “the sign of Jonah” Jesus talks about (Matt. 12:38–42)? In what ways is Jesus the true and better Jonah?

In Matthew 12, Jesus is being asked for a miraculous sign to prove he is who he says he is. The skeptics want more spectacular magic tricks, as it were, so they can be convinced that he’s an authoritative teacher and sage. But Jesus isn’t one more teacher, come to tell you how to save yourself and find God. Rather, he is God himself, come to save and find you. Jesus isn’t another teacher; he’s a Savior.

Jesus isn’t one more teacher, come to tell you how to save yourself and find God. Rather, he is God himself, come to save and find you.

So the miraculous sign of Jonah isn’t so much a display of power as an astonishing display of weakness. Jesus laid aside his divine glory and prerogatives and humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross. Just as Jonah was cast into the water to save the sailors from the wrath of God, so Jesus would be cast into death to bear all the punishment our sins deserve—to save us. And just as Jonah came “back from the dead,” so Jesus was raised for our justification. That’s the sign of Jonah.

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