Tim Keller on a fishy story

Oct 4, 2018 by

by Matt Smethurst, The Gospel Coalition.

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 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.

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