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Never Punch Right, Jonah
Why prophets get humiliated.
Today I have a short piece about Tim Keller for World Magazine. In it, I quote from an underappreciated Keller book: The Prodigal Prophet. Keller’s teaching on the book of Jonah is sneakily relevant for us evangelicals. In fact, as I say in the World piece, it’s not hard to see Jonah as the quintessential evangelical: a genuine prophet of the true God who disobeys, repents, preaches with power…and still somehow misses what God wants to teach him.
Here’s an interesting question. Why is Jonah in the Bible? Why is he included as a prophet of the Lord? He doesn’t flatter his people or his office. He makes both look bad. For one thing, he’s disobedient immediately. Barely has the command to preach to Nineveh come and Jonah says, “Nope.” Even more embarrassingly, Jonah buys a one-way ticket on the logic that he can flee “from the presence of the Lord.” The prophet of the only nation with an invisible, omnipresent God, images of whom are strictly forbidden, suddenly thinks he can duck out of this God’s eyesight, as if God were a statue he can tiptoe around. Jonah isn’t just rebellious, he’s ridiculous.
So on and so forth. Jonah is not the kind of employee you feature on your homepage. And Scripture knows this. Why talk about him? Why should the people of God embarrass and implicate themselves through him? Do they not understand how optics work? Do they want to be laughed at?
Well, perhaps the Holy Spirit has higher priorities than optics. Perhaps “never punch right” is what people who have lost touch with truth say. Perhaps never being transparent and humble about our own failings and the failings of our people is not a wise strategic move, but a self-deceptive one. The book of Jonah is not just a story about a “bad” prophet. It’s a story about God’s people fleeing from their mission, and then God himself pulling them by the scruff of their neck back to his presence. Because that’s what God cares about: not winning the reputation war, not gaming the algorithm, not owning the libs. He cares about being worshiped. He cares about being obeyed. And he cares about his people knowing that he is sufficient over all things.
If we find ourselves in an evangelical moment that pressures us to downplay or even deny our own sinfulness, and to always put the spotlight on Nineveh, then we should take a lesson from Jonah. God will throw his prophets overboard in a raging storm, because they are not invaluable. But he will also go out and save them, in a fish if need be. He will embarrass them, make them look and feel weak as they are literally vomitted to shore, if it means they know him better.
Because the nations are waiting. They’re waiting not for a “Christian prince” who can trample the woke enemies, but for a prophet whose own life is a promise and a warning of the Prince to come.
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