When Giants Graduate to Glory: Reflections on the life and ministry of Timothy Keller

This morning, like many Christians around the world, I woke to the news that Dr Timothy Keller had passed from this earth into paradise and the presence of God. Tim was known globally as the long-time pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, co-founder of Redeemer City to City church planting network and author of books that have impacted the lives of many, including mine.

With a huge amount of respect for Tim and a sense of gratitude for the impact his ministry has had on my life, I have found myself reflecting again and again today on what made Tim such a powerful ‘giant of the faith’. There is no need for my voice to be heard among the many tributes, articles, blogs and books that have been and will be written about Tim. Rather, these reflections are a small way of honouring a godly leader who has meant much to me.

1. Sharp Intellect

One of Tim’s attributes that became apparent as I began to listen to his sermons and read his books was his sharp intellect. Writers always say that to be a good writer you must be a good reader, and Tim was very well read. He had a gift for recalling relevant writings by other authors, be they works of philosophy, poetry, cultural commentary or fiction. Whether quoting Lesslie Newbigin, pulling in poetry from George Herbert or linking his message to the plight of J.R.R. Tolkein’s characters in The Lord of the Rings, Tim had a masterful way of drawing on other sources to illustrate his sermons and books without muddying the message. Somehow, he always seemed to have the right piece for the puzzle, to help crystallise his key points in the minds of his hearers or readers. I loved this about him, and I think it is just one of the many attributes that made his ministry so compelling, to believers and also to curious unbelievers.

2. Faithful Witness

Importantly, Tim’s witness was not tainted by any scandals. He was a faithful witness for Jesus to the end, in a context that is continually pushing in a post-Christian direction. Despite ministering in New York City, an almost unfathomably broad melting pot of cultures, religions, philosophies and ideas, Tim faithfully led his church over many years and successfully grew not only Redeemer Presbyterian but the spread of the gospel through the Redeemer City to City church planting network. Tim was committed to preaching Christ and to doing so in a way that was accessible to his hearers and yet tethered to the Bible, keeping the word of God central and allowing himself to be the mouthpiece for its message, not his own.

It’s important to note here that Tim was also a highly effective apologist. I remember reading The Reason for God and later leading a small group Bible study series based on this book and being struck by the robust arguments he presented. His presentation of the truth was thoughtful and compelling. His careful and clear thinking on the big questions that arise when people are exploring the Christian faith could not be accused of being ‘blind faith’. Instead, the answers he presented had an intellectual rigour that taught the unbeliever and the Christian alike to employ their reasoning rightly, and in so doing to see the truth of the gospel not just as true, but also as beautiful.

3. Clear Preacher

Tim’s preaching was clear and pointed people consistently to Jesus. On a personal level, I will always be grateful for the way he preached the word of God to engage the mind, but also to stir the heart.

It was around 2012 or 2013 when I first came across Tim Keller. Although I had much to be thankful for in life, my career had taken a different tack and I went through a period in which I struggled with a very real sense of anxiety. I remember one morning feeling particularly hopeless and helpless. Reaching for my phone, I found a podcast of a sermon by Tim titled ‘Peace – Overcoming Anxiety’, which he preached at Redeemer in February 1990.

I knew the verses about not worrying, but it was Tim’s preaching, as well as the wise godly counsel of someone close to me, that helped me understand more about true peace than I had before. His preaching opened up the scriptures in a way that hit home for me, and I am grateful for the part this played in helping me navigate what was a difficult period in my life.

I have also found it interesting, today, to see how many of my friends from denominations outside of the Reformed world have been positively impacted by Tim’s preaching and teaching. Tim was one of the people, alongside John Piper and a couple of others, that God used in 2014 to open my mind and heart to the truth that God is truly sovereign in all things, including salvation – that our default position is that we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-10) and cannot come to Jesus unless the Father draws us (John 6:44) and that it is the Spirit that regenerates hearts, not human decision or spiritual wisdom or an altar call or a ‘sinner’s prayer’ (Titus 3:5-6). Reformed theology has caused me to see God as more glorious than I saw Him before and to read the Bible in a God-centred way. Tim had a way of presenting these truths that connected with people, even across traditional denominational boundaries.

4. Wisdom-saturated Writer

There’s a reason Tim’s books have sold so well, and I think it’s clear it goes beyond aesthetically pleasing cover designs and catchy titles. There is real wisdom in his words, wisdom that stretches your mind, feeds your soul and makes you love God more as a result.

When our second son was diagnosed and subsequently born with severe hydrocephalus as a result of a Grade IV intraventricular hemorrhage (brain bleed), I remember sitting in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital cafeteria reading a copy of Tim’s book Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. There were a number of books that helped me through the many questions, concerns and fears for the future that I had at this time, and this book was certainly one of them. In this and other books by Tim, I have been grateful for his wisdom.

5. Winsome Pastor

Another thing I love and admire about Tim is that although he became a ‘celebrity pastor’, he never came across as a celebrity pastor. When he spoke, you wanted to listen, not because he was loud or brash or wore a nice suit or stood on a big stage, but because he was worth listening to. He was winsome, he could speak in a conversational way and yet cut to the heart of a matter. He rightly divided the word of truth, but without boxing his hearers around the ears with his Bible. He was honest and genuine, helpful and gentle without compromising the truth he proclaimed. Another well-known pastor wrote today of Tim,

“He kept the main thing the main thing. He wasn’t a jerk. He wasn’t a Prima Donna. He was enjoyable to be around. He was full of the fruit of the Spirit.”

Source: https://tinyurl.com/22hcm39f

This is how he lived, this is how he led, this is how he preached, this is how he pastored – ‘full of the fruit of the Spirit’.

6. Culturally Minded

Tim wasn’t just culturally aware, he was culturally minded. He knew what was presented to his hearers in the New Yorker, he knew what it took to grow a church in a mega city, he knew how to reach unsaved people in his neighbourhood, he knew how to mobilise his church for local mission, he knew how to make the message of the gospel come alive to those outside the church without changing or compromising it.

Tim did not modernise his theology to meet the changing moral landscape of 21st Century America. He did, however, use the gifts and platform God gave him to reach 21st Century America – and indeed to reach people around the world.

Tim has been hailed as a church planting master – an expert on the subject, and probably rightly so, but I think the thing that stands out to me is that he loved his neighbourhood. He loved the people he served. He knew he had a global audience, but it never seemed to become the ‘main thing’ for him. He wanted to reach people in his city, to advance the cause of the gospel where God had called him to minister.

I’m thankful that his ministry reached much further than his local context, but I have a huge admiration for the way in which his focus never really shifted from being a pastor first and foremost, to a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. He spent his life for this cause, and he did it well.

7. Love-focused

Finally, and I think fittingly as a summary of the above, Tim was focused on the love of God for sinners. Many times today I have seen people share this quote from Tim,

“The gospel says you are simultaneously more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe, yet more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.”

It seems clear to me that this is what drove his ministry. God’s love for sinners led Tim to love sinners too and to spend the time God gave him sharing the good news of Jesus with as many people as he could.

For Tim, love was what gave life meaning. Today’s special episode of the Ask Pastor John podcast from Desiring God contained an audio excerpt that is worth a listen, of Tim talking on this topic. Specifically, Tim was talking about how the love of God gives us joy in the face of even the most difficult trials, such as his cancer. It is comforting to know that Tim’s love for God and his understanding of God’s love meant his final moments on this earth were full of anticipation and hope for what was to come for him when he entered the welcoming arms of God. Here is another quote from Tim,

When some people say ‘Well, when you die, it’s just over, there’s nothing to be afraid of’, my response is ‘What you’re saying is that death means the end of love. And you’re telling me not to dread that? Give me a break. If I know there’s love on the other side of death, I can face it. If I know there’s infinitely greater love, then I can really face it.’

Tim died with the love of God in his mind and heart. His son Michael noted in a social media post sharing the news of Tim’s passing that some of his last words were, “There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.”

May we all learn to love the God who first loves us more than we love life itself. This is the example Tim set for us, an example worth following to the very end, just like Tim did.

So what are we to do when giants of the faith graduate to glory? It is sad for us that Tim is no longer here, but Tim is not sad about this at all – he is happier now than he has ever been. This is the hope of the gospel, that sin has been defeated and death is not the end. There is life beyond the grave. Tim is enjoying this life right now, and while we can mourn the fact that he is no longer here with us, we can be comforted by the fact that Tim is now rejoicing in the presence of the Saviour he served.

Paul instructed the Corinthian church (see 1 Corinthians 11:1) to imitate him as he imitated Christ. May we look at godly leaders or ‘giants of the faith’ not as ultimate, but as servants of King Jesus whose example we can follow, so far as they imitate Christ.

I look forward to meeting Tim one day and thanking him for his ministry in person. Until then, I want to place my hope and my joy in the same place he did. His ministry pointed me and many others to Jesus. He will be missed, but our loss is Tim’s gain.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.