The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy by Timothy Keller. Viking. 272 pages. 2018
The Prodigal Prophet is quite simply the best book I’ve read this year. It offers many insights that I never considered about the small (four chapter) book of Jonah, and makes helpful applications to our current culture. Depending on your political persuasion, and stance on the current immigration debate, chances are you may not agree with everything he writes.
Keller tells us “The book of Jonah yields many insights about God’s love for societies and people beyond the community of believers; about his opposition to toxic nationalism and disdain for other races; and about how to be “in mission” in the world despite the subtle and unavoidable power of idolatry in our own lives and hearts. Grasping these insights can make us bridge builders, peacemakers, and agents of reconciliation in the world. Such people are the need of the hour”.
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BOOK REVIEWS ~ More of this review… and a review of Christ’s Call to Reform the Church: Timeless Demands from The Lord to His People by John MacArthur
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BOOK CLUB ~ How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman
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An insight that I appreciated early in the book was the author’s comparison of Jonah’s story with Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. He tells us that the parallel between the two stories, which Jesus himself may have had in mind, is the reason that he chose The Prodigal Prophet as the title. Interestingly, both the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Book of Jonah, each have a cliff-hanger ending. Keller offers his speculation on Jonah, which I found to be helpful.
Keller tells us “Jonah takes turns acting as both the “younger brother” and the “older brother.” 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”.
The book of Jonah is divided into two parts – the records of Jonah’s flight from God and then of his mission to Nineveh. Each part has three sections—God’s word to Jonah, then his encounter with the Gentile pagans, and finally Jonah talking to God. One of the main messages of the book is that God cares how believers relate to and treat people who are deeply different from us. God wants us to treat people of different races and faiths in a way that is respectful, loving, generous, and just. Grace is another key theme of the book.
Keller takes us through the well-known story of Jonah and then applies it for us.
As I read the book I highlighted a number of excellent quotes. Below are 20 of these quotes:
- When the real God—not Jonah’s counterfeit—keeps showing up, Jonah is thrown into fury or despair. Jonah finds the real God to be an enigma because he cannot reconcile the mercy of God with his justice.
- Jonah concluded that because he could not see any good reasons for God’s command, there couldn’t be any. Jonah doubted the goodness, wisdom, and justice of God.
- And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. Unless Jonah can see his own sin, and see himself as living wholly by the mercy of God, he will never understand how God can be merciful to evil people and still be just and faithful.
- The dismaying news is that every act of disobedience to God has a storm attached to it.
- 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.
- If we build our lives and meaning on anything more than God, we are acting against the grain of the universe and of our own design and therefore of our own being.
- Sin is a suicidal action of the will upon itself. It is like taking an addicting drug. At first it may feel wonderful, but every time it gets harder to not do it again.
- When storms come into our lives, whether as a consequence of our wrongdoing or not, Christians have the promise that God will use them for their good (Romans 8:28).
- You may sincerely believe that Jesus died for your sins, and yet your significance and security can be far more grounded in your career and financial worth than in the love of God through Christ.
- Shallow Christian identities explain why professing Christians can be racists and greedy materialists, addicted to beauty and pleasure, or filled with anxiety and prone to overwork. All this comes because it is not Christ’s love but the world’s power, approval, comfort, and control that are the real roots of our self-identity.
- Any identity based on your own achievement and performance is an insecure one. You are never sure you have done enough. That means, on the one hand, that you cannot be honest with yourself about your own flaws. But it also means that you always need to reinforce it by contrasting yourself with—and being hostile to—those who are different.
- Often the first step in coming to one’s senses spiritually is when we finally start thinking of somebody—anybody—other than ourselves.
- True love meets the needs of the loved one no matter the cost to oneself. All life-changing love is some kind of substitutionary sacrifice.
- To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.
- A God who substitutes himself for us and suffers so that we may go free is a God you can trust.
- With 20/20 hindsight, we can see that the most important lessons we have learned in life are the result of God’s severe mercies. They are events that were difficult or even excruciating at the time but later came to yield more good in our lives than we could have foreseen.
- It is only when you reach the very bottom, when everything falls apart, when all your schemes and resources are broken and exhausted, that you are finally open to learning how to completely depend on God.
- God’s grace becomes wondrous, endlessly consoling, beautiful, and humbling only when we fully believe, grasp, and remind ourselves of all three of these background truths—that we deserve nothing but condemnation, that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves, and that God has saved us, despite our sin, at infinite cost to himself.
- No human heart will learn its sinfulness and impotence by being told it is sinful. It will have to be shown—often in brutal experience. No human heart will dare to believe in such free, costly grace unless it is the only hope.
- 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 saving you partly and you saving yourself partly. No. God saves us. We do not and cannot save ourselves. That’s the gospel.
Christ’s Call to Reform the Church: Timeless Demands from The Lord to His People by John MacArthur. Moody Publishers. 208 pages. 2018
In this important new book by respected pastor and author John MacArthur, he looks at the risen Christ’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation and applies the message to today’s church. He states that they were not written to City Hall, but to churches. He tells us that there has never been any Christian nation, just Christians. Political and social justice efforts are at best short-term external solutions for society’s moral ills. Morality is not the solution on its own. Pushing for cultural morality or even social justice is a distraction from the work of the church. Instead, the world needs the Gospel. They need to know that their sins can be forgiven.
The author tells us that calling the church to repent and reform can be dangerous. He states that the Puritans called the Church of England to repent and tells of the resulting Great Ejection of 1662. He also discusses the Protestant Reformation, which he refers back to near the end of the book.
He reviews the traits of an apostate church, and critiques the current view of some that we need to go back to living like the first century church, using house churches as a model. He tells us that first century churches were engaged in various forms of sinful behavior.
Jesus’ message to the church through John was to repent. There were consequences if they failed to reform. The author takes each letter and explains them in detail. He gives historical background on the cities and churches, and also the biblical background of the churches. He applies what was written to each church to the today’s church. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.
Below are a few items I want to highlight about each of the seven churches:
The Loveless Church – Ephesus
- Ephesus may have had the strongest lineage of leaders as any church. But even they could not keep them from falling into sin.
- They had lost their first love and turned into mechanical piety. They had not yet compromised with the world however. They still had time to repent.
- Were told to turn back and not abandon God.
- Sadly, today there is no church in Ephesus. Their lampstand was removed.
The Persecuted Church – Smyrna
- They were purified by persecution.
- Christians should expect persecution, but we don’t suffer in vain.
- Persecution makes the church stronger. More persecution was coming. Polycarp’s martyrdom.
- They were poor but were spiritually rich.
- No rebukes or condemnation from the Lord in this letter. They are an example to all churches.
- God will preserve the believer so that we can overcome.
The Compromised Church – Pergamum
- The Lord demands pure worship. But today some of our most influential and largest megachurches tend toward pragmatism, relevance, sinner-friendliness and worldliness. Rather than the word of God, they emphasize culture (movies, music).
- A church that’s just like the world has nothing to offer the world.
- The letter starts out with a threat.
- Pergamum had emperor worship and the preeminence of Satan, but the church did not deny their faith.
- Persecution resulted in the death of Antipas who was faithful. But some compromised and led believers back to sin.
- Paul’s warning to separate and not to be joined with unbelievers.
- The church had stayed true on doctrine, but not on holiness. They had become friends with the world.
The Corrupt Church – Thyatira
- Today, many churches ignore sin in the name of tolerance, unity and love. But we cannot tolerate sin in our midst.
- Thyatira had not kept the church pure. False believers dominated the church. The precious few believers in the church remained faithful.
- It was a church spiraling to Hell. Jezebel was leading God’s people into idolatry (Gnosticism, antinomianism).
- There was adultery in the church.
- God will kill those who bring a corrupting influence into the church.
- God was giving his judgement of Thyatira as an example to the church.
- Gave comfort to the few faithful believers. Told them to hold fast.
The Dead Church – Sardis
- From a distance Sardis, like many churches today, looked fine. But inside it was dead. It was only going through the spiritual motions.
- There was spiritual decay, the church was a spiritual graveyard.
- Churches need the Holy Spirit and faithful shepherds. Sardis had neither.
- They tolerated sin, and had no desire for holiness.
- Were told to repent and reform, or face judgment.
- The letter ends with hope for the saints.
- There is some evidence that the church did wake up and revival came.
The Faithful Church – Philadelphia
- What matters to God is faithfulness
- Was a letter of commendation and praise. There were no words of rebuke from the Lord.
- They displayed signs of a faithful church – true worshippers, kept His word, loyalty to Christ and endurance despite persecution.
- There was a call to persevere.
- A list of blessings and promises the Lord will grant them.
The Lukewarm Church – Laodicea
- Was the only one of the seven churches that Christ did not say something positive to.
- Were self-deceived, pious hypocrites. They had a warped view of Christ.
- Were non-believers called to repent and reform.
- Still, the Lord had a tender affection for the people of Laodicea. Come to Him and avoid His wrath. He shows them the path to a right relationship with Him.
- Reminds them of the cost of heresy and hypocrisy.
The author ends the book stating that there is a need for a new Reformation, using the five Sola’s of the Protestant Reformation:
- Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
- Sola Fide – Faith alone
- Sola Gratia – Grace alone
- Solus Christus – Christ alone
- Soli Deo Gloria – To the glory of God alone
- Why We Can’t Unhitch from the Old Testament. Michael Kruger writes “According to (Andy) Stanley, virtually everyone in the history of the church has been wrong about the role of the Old Testament—until now. It’s truly a jaw-dropping claim.”
- Five Reasons to Obey the Ten Commandments. In this excerpt from his new book The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them, Kevin DeYoung writes “God isn’t impressed by an intellectually careful analysis that puts the Decalogue at the center of Christian discipleship. He expects disciples to actually follow these commands.”
- Do the Ten Commandments Have Authority Over New Testament Christians? Kevin DeYoung writes “The Ten Commandments have been central to God’s people in the Old Testament, central to God’s people in the New Testament, central to God’s people throughout church history, and they should be central for us as well.”
- The Difficult Prophet and Tim Keller’s Legacy. Hannah Anderson writes “But after a decade of published works, we’re in a position to appreciate his lasting contributions to Christian literature, specifically his ability to write timeless religious books that are accessible to the public. And this I believe will be Keller’s legacy.”
- The Pathology of an Apostate Church. In this excerpt adapted from his new book Christ’s Call to Reform the Church, John MacArthur writes “Put simply, the purity of the early church is overblown.”
- Should Christians Build Wealth or Avoid It? In this excerpt adapted from his book The Economics of Neighborly Love, Tom Nelson writes “Our seamless gospel faith tells us that every nook and cranny of our lives matters. The fruitful lives we are called to have profound economic implications for our world. As apprentices of Jesus, the mandate to bear much fruit in every dimension of our lives is at the heart of faithful Christian discipleship.”
- A Statement on I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Josh Harris writes “In light of the flaws I now see in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I think it’s best to discontinue its publication, as well other supplemental resources tied to it (this includes the two books I wrote after it whose content is similar). My publisher, whose encouragement in this process has been deeply meaningful to me, supports this decision and will not reprint the books after the current copies in their inventory are sold.”
- Kevin DeYoung’s Ten Commandments. Tim Challies reviews Kevin DeYoung’s new book The 10 Commandments. He writes “The 10 Commandments is a worthy book on an important topic. No matter your theological background and convictions, I’m convinced you’ll benefit from reading it (and any other of DeYoung’s books).
- Interview with Justin Taylor on the 10-Year Anniversary of the ESV Study Bible. I enjoyed this short interview with Justin Taylor, executive vice president for book publishing and book publisher at Crossway, to discuss the publication of the ESV Study Bible, which first released ten years ago this month.
- When a Good God Encounters a Gay Girl. Kristen Wetherell reviews Jackie Hill Perry’s book Gay Girl, Good God. She writes “What I love most about Gay Girl, Good God is how it unashamedly declares what’s true. Perry centers on and celebrates who God is and what he’s done.”
- Gay Girl, Good God. Tim Challies reviews Jackie Hill Perry’s new book Gay Girl, Good God. He writes “Put it altogether, and this is a powerful book. Perry is a sound theologian who uses the Bible faithfully. She is also a skilled wordsmith with a rare ability to articulate herself well. At a time when there’s too much bland writing, she brings a fresh voice. I don’t want this to get missed—this book is a joy to read simply because of how good a writer she is. She tells her story, but her story is not the main point. She wants to point far beyond herself, and she succeeds admirably.”
BOOK CLUB – Won’t you read along with us?
How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman. This week we look at Chapter 5: Government: Not a Savior, But a Platform Builder
- The Bible teaches churches need good governments in order for them to do their work. Indeed, this is why God gave authority to human beings to establish governments in the first place.
- No governments are all good or all bad. God employs both the best and the worst for his sovereign purposes.
- The Bible says a government’s authority comes from God.
- Government represents God. Governments are his servant, his minister. No governing institution exists outside of the larger institutional realities of God’s law.
- We obey government out of obedience to God. To resist it is to resist him.
- The first and most immediate purpose of government is to render judgment for the sake of justice.
- Governments don’t possess the authority to render judgment and establish justice for their own sake. The goal is to build a platform of peace, order, and even flourishing on which humans can live their lives.
- Order must be established for people to flourish.
- A good government sets the stage for God’s plan of redemption. It clears a way for the people of God to do their work of calling the nations to God.
- Governments possess no authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom, and no ability to coerce true worship.
- The Bible evaluates every historical government according to whether or not it accomplishes the task that God set for civil governments in Genesis 9:5–6.
- The Bible also never says anything about how governments should be formed.
- God’s authorizing words in Genesis 9:5–6 apply to all of us. We are all responsible for fulfilling this basic requirement of justice, each for his or her part, whether through playing a role in government or through supporting the government.
- We don’t want a government that thinks it can offer redemption, but a government that views its work as a prerequisite of redemption for all its citizens.