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Home Church Planting/Missional Changing the way we are on Mission - Lessons from Jonah

Changing the way we are on Mission - Lessons from Jonah

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Changing the way we are on Mission

Lessons from Jonah


Tim Keller


Editors Note: This sermon first appeared as a transcribed article of the 2006 Supremecy of God and Postmodernism Conference. We have edited it slightly as it has great implictions for how we do missions and Church plant in a Western culture.




Mark 9 , where Jesus comes off the mountain of transfiguration and discovers his disciples trying unsuccessfully to exorcise a demon from a boy. After he rids the youth of the demonic presence, the disciples ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus answers, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:28–29). Jesus was teaching his disciples that their ordinary methods did not work for “this kind.” Put simply, Jesus is saying, the demon is in too deep for your ordinary way of doing ministry


So how do we get the gospel across in the postmodern world? The gospel and the

fact that we are now a church on a mission field will dictate that almost everything

the church does will have to be changed. But that is too broad a statement to be of

any help, so I will lay out six ways in which the church will have to change. Each of

these factors has parallels in the account of Jonah and his mission to the great pagan

metropolis of Nineveh.


How are we to change the way we are on mission as a church?


Six ways we need to change as a Church


1. God’s story comes that we may go


Jonah 1:1 –2: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah . . . saying, ‘Go to . . . Nineveh and

preach’” (niv). For a long time I understood the “gospel” as being just elementary

truths, the doctrinal minimum requirement for entering the faith. “Theology,” I

thought, was the advanced, meatier, deeper, biblical stuff. How wrong I was! All

theology must be an exposition of the gospel, especially in the postmodern age.


A good example of this is found in Mark Thompson’s book, A Clear and Present

Thompson concludes: The [gospel is that the] right and proper judgment of God against our rebellion has not been overturned; it has been exhausted, embraced in full by the

eternal Son of God himself. . . .


God uses words in the service of his intention to rescue men and women,

drawing them into fellowship with him and preparing a new creation as an

appropriate venue for the enjoyment of that fellowship. In other words, the

knowledge of God that is the goal of God’s speaking ought never to be

separated from the centerpiece of Christian theology; namely, the salvation of



This is certainly not elementary theologizing, but a grounding of even the very

philosophy and understanding of human language in the gospel. The Word of the Lord

(as we see in Jonah 1:1 ) is never abstract theologizing, but is a life-changing message

about the severity and mercy of God.


Why is this so important? First, in a time in which there is so much ignorance of the

basic Christian worldview, we have to get to the core of things, the gospel, every time

we speak. Second, the gospel of salvation doesn’t really relate to theology like the

first steps relate to the rest of the stairway but more like the hub relates through the

spokes to the rest of the wheel. The gospel of a glorious, other-oriented triune God

giving himself in love to his people in creation and redemption and re-creation is the

core of every doctrine—of the Bible, of God, of humanity, of salvation, of ecclesiology,

of eschatology. However, third, we must recognize that in a postmodern society where

everyone is against abstract speculation, we will be ignored unless we ground all we

say in the gospel. Why? The postmodern era has produced in its citizens a hunger for

beauty and justice.


This is not an abstract culture, but a culture of story and image. The gospel is not

less than a set of revealed propositions (God, sin, Christ, faith), but it is more. It is

also a narrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration.) Unfortunately, there are

people under the influence of postmodernism who are so obsessed with narrative

rather than propositions that they are rejecting inerrancy, are moving toward open

theism, and so on. But to some extent they are reacting to abstract theologizing that

was not grounded in the gospel and real history. They want to put more emphasis on

the actual history of salvation, on the coming of the kingdom, on the importance of

community, and on the renewal of the material creation.


2. We must be apprehend by God’s story


When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh the first time, Jonah ran in the other

direction. Why? The reader assumes it was just fear, but chapter 4 reveals that there

was also a lot of hostility in Jonah toward the Assyrians and Ninevites. I believe the

reason he did not have pity on them was that he did not sufficiently realize that he

was nothing but a sinner saved by sheer grace. So he ran away from God—and you

know the rest of the story. He was cast into the deep and saved by God from drowning

by being swallowed by a great fish. In the second chapter we see Jonah praying, and

his prayer ends with the phrase “Salvation is of the Lord !” (2:9). My teacher Ed

Clowney used to say that this was the central verse of the Bible. It is an expression of

the gospel. Salvation is from and of the Lord and no one else. Period.


But as a prophet, doesn’t Jonah know this? He knows it—and yet he doesn’t know it.

For eighteen years I lived in apartment buildings with vending machines. Very often

you put the coins in but nothing comes out. You have to shake or hit the machine on

the side till the coins finally drop down and then out comes the soda. My wife, Kathy,

believes this is a basic parable for all ministry. Martin Luther said that the purpose of

ministry was not only to make the gospel clear, but to beat it into your people’s heads

(and your own!) continually.11


You might be able to get an A on your justification-by-faith test, but if there is not radical,

concrete growth in humble love toward everyone (even your enemies), you don’t

really know you are a sinner saved by grace. And if there is not radical, concrete

growth in confidence and joy (even in difficulties), you don’t really know you are a

sinner saved by grace.


What must you do if you lack the humility, love, joy, and confidence you need to

face the life issues before you? You should not try to move on past the gospel to “more

advanced” principles. Rather, you should shake yourself until more of the gospel

“coins” drop and more of the fruit of the Spirit comes out. Until you do that, despite

your sound doctrine you will be as selfish, scared, oversensitive, insensitive, and

undisciplined as everyone else. Those were the attributes characterizing Jonah. If he

had known the gospel as deeply as he should have, he wouldn’t have reacted with such

hostility and superiority toward Nineveh. But the experience in the storm and in the

fish brings him back to the foundations, and he rediscovers the wonder of the gospel.

When he says, “Salvation is really from the Lord!” he wasn’t learning something brand

new but was rediscovering and realizing more deeply the truth and wonder of the



If you think you really understand the gospel—you don’t. If you think you haven’t

even begun to truly understand the gospel—you do. As important as our “gospel

theologizing” is, it alone will not reach our world. People today are incredibly

sensitive to inconsistency and phoniness. They hear what the gospel teaches and then

look at our lives and see the gap. Why should they believe? We have to recognize that

the gospel is a transforming thing, and we simply are not very transformed by it. It’s

not enough to say to postmodern people: “You don’t like absolute truth? Well, then,

we’re going to give you even more of it!” But people who balk so much at absolute

truth will need to see greater holiness of life, practical grace, gospel character, and

virtue, if they are going to believe.


In his sermon on Mark 9 Lloyd-Jones was calling the church to

revival as its only hope. This is not a new program or something you can implement

through a series of steps. It is a matter of wonder. Peter says that the angels always

long to look into the gospel; they never tire of it (1 Pet. 1:12 ). The gospel is amazing

love. Amazing grace.


3. God’s story is for people


Three times Jonah is called to go to Nineveh, which God keeps calling “that great

city” (1:1; 3:2; 4:11). God puts in front of Jonah the size of it. In Jonah 4:11 he says,

“Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000

persons who do not know their right hand from their left . . . ?” God’s reasoning is

pretty transparent. Big cities are huge stockpiles of spiritually lost people. How can

you not find yourself drawn to them? I had a friend once who used this ironclad

theological argument on me: “The cities are places where there are more people than

plants, and the countryside is the place where there are more plants than people.

Since God loves people far more than plants, he must love the city more than the

countryside.” That’s exactly the kind of logic God is using on Jonah here.

Christians and churches, of course, need to be wherever there are people! And

there is not a Bible verse that says Christians must live in the cities.


4. We must communicate God’s Story


As I mentioned above, evangelism in a postmodern context must be much more

thorough, progressive, and process-oriented. There are many stages to bring people

through who know nothing at all about the gospel and Christianity. Again, we see

something of this in the book of Jonah. In Jonah 3:4 we read, “Jonah began to go into

the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall

be overthrown!’” Notice how little is in that message. Jonah is establishing the reality

of divine justice and judgment, of human sin and responsibility. But that’s all he

speaks of. Later, when the Ninevites repent, the king says: “Who knows? God may turn

and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (3:9). The king

isn’t even sure if


God offers grace and forgiveness. It is clear that the Ninevites have very little spiritual

understanding here. And though some expositors like to talk about the “revival” in

Nineveh in response to Jonah’s preaching, it seems obvious that they are not yet in

any covenant relationship with God. They have not yet been converted. And yet God

responds to that: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way,

God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do

it” (3:10). He doesn’t say to them “You are my people; I am your God.” There’s no

saving relationship here—but there is progress!


5. God’s story must humbled us


I know this heading sounds pretty strong, but I want to get your attention. In Jonah

3:1–2 we read, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying,

‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell

you.’” In Sinclair Ferguson’s little book on Jonah he comments on the broken,

humbled prophet who hears the second call to Nineveh and answers it. He says:

God intends to bring life out of death. We may well think of this as the

principle behind all evangelism. Indeed we may even call it the Jonah principle,

as Jesus seems to have done. . . . [I]t is out of Christ’s weakness that the

sufficiency of his saving power will be born. . . . [So] fruitful evangelism is a

result of this death-producing principle. It is when we come to share

spiritually—and on occasions physically—in Christ’s death (cf. Phil. 3:10 ) that

his power is demonstrated in our weakness and others are drawn to him. This is

exactly what was happening to Jonah.18


unless something comes into your life that breaks you of your self-righteousness and

pride, you may say you believe the gospel of grace but, as we said above, the penny

hasn’t dropped. You aren’t a sign of the gospel yourself. You don’t

have the Jonah principle working in you. You aren’t a strength-out-of-weakness person.

God will have to bring you low if he is going to use you in evangelism.

At the end of the book of Jonah, God gives Jonah a “gourd” (kjv) that grows a vine

and gives him shade, but then a desert wind blasts the vine and ruins it. Jonah

becomes disconsolate.



6. We must live out God’s story


I believe Jonah is a setup for the amazing letter from God to the exiles of Babylon in

Jeremiah 29 . The Jews had been living in their nation-state in which everyone was a

believer, but when they arrive in Babylon God tells them to move into that pagan city,

filled with unbelievers and uncleanness, and work for its peace and prosperity—its

shalom. He challenges them to use their resources to make the city a great place for

everyone—believers and unbelievers—to live. This is not just supposed to be a

calculated thing or a thing of mere duty. He calls them to pray for it, which is to love

it. This was the city that had destroyed their homeland! Yet that is the call. God

outlines a relationship to pagan culture. His people are neither to withdraw from it

nor assimilate to it. They are to remain distinct but engaged. They are to be different,

but out of that difference they are to sacrificially serve and love the city where they

are exiles. And if their city prospers, then they too will prosper.


This is really astonishing, but the book of Jonah gets us ready for all this. Jonah is

called to go to a pagan city to help it avoid destruction, but he is too hostile toward

them to want to go. He runs away, but God puts him on a boat filled with pagans

anyway. There Jonah is asleep in the boat during the storm. He is awakened by the

sailors, who tell him to call on his God to ask him to keep the boat from sinking. They

ask him to use his relationship to God to benefit the public good. The Scottish writer

Hugh Martin wrote a commentary on this text and called this chapter “The World

Rebuking the Church.”20 Eventually Jonah goes to Nineveh—but when God turns away

from destroying them, Jonah is furious. This time God rebukes him for not caring

about the whole city and its welfare. Jonah 4:10 –11: “You pity the plant. . . . Should

not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who

do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”


Why can we change the way we are on mission as a Church?


Because Jesus lived a life on mission for us


Centuries after Jonah, there was another sleeper in a storm—Jesus Christ (Mark 4 ). And he was surrounded by his disciples who, like the sailors, were terrified. And in exactly the same way they woke him up and said, “Don’t you care? Do something or we will

drown!” So Jesus waved his hand, calmed the sea, and everyone was saved. So for all

the similarities, the stories of Jonah and Jesus are very different at the end. Whereas

Jonah was sacrificed and thrown into the storm of wrath so the sailors could be saved,

Jesus wasn’t sacrificed. But wait. On the cross, Jesus was thrown into the real storm,

the ultimate storm. He went under the wrath of God and was drowned in order that

we could be saved.


Do you see that? If you do, then you have both the strength and the weakness, the

power and the pattern, to pour yourself out for your city. Ultimately, the gospel is not

a set of principles but is Jesus Christ himself. See the supremacy of Christ in the

gospel. Look at him, and if you see him bowing his head into that ultimate storm, for

us, then we can be what we should be.




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