It’s encouraging that the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce’s part in it is being commemorated this weekend. Do go and see the new film ‘Amazing Grace’ if you can. It’s a reminder to us that we are to be salt and light and therefore, like Wilberforce, willing, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to persevere in helping to change Britain and indeed the world for Jesus Christ, whatever the cost at a time when Christian freedoms are being eroded and when society is breaking down and in desperate need of the gospel. We are to obey God’s call on our lives to speak God’s message even to our enemies.
Another Briton from the same period who should also be better known is William Carey. He is known as the father of modern missions. He gave the last forty years of his life to the people of India. It is said that when he originally offered himself to go to India, he was told that: if God wanted to reach the heathen he would do it without Carey's help. He was dismissed, but not deterred, and went anyway. But those who told him otherwise believed in the God of sovereign grace, who freely and of his own will shows mercy to sinners whom he chooses, out of his own kindness and love. They believed in the God of Jonah. But it does raise a question: If salvation is God's business, won't he do it all, without our help, as William Carey was told. Do we need to try and speak to people about Christ or will God somehow do it if he wants to? It’s a question which is answered for us in Jonah 3.
Here he shows us how God goes about his business of saving people. He has a method which we do well to ponder. As we do, we'll discover that it's how we've been saved [if we are]. It's also how our friends will be saved if they're going to be - and our family, our colleagues, our neighbours. Jonah knew what God's method was. Jesus knew it. The apostles knew it. William Carey knew it. Let's make sure that we know it too. God usually saves people by sending a preacher to warn them of judgment and bring them to repentance.
But before we look at chapter 3 in more detail let’s very briefly turn back to chapters 1 & 2 and remind ourselves of what’s happened so far. Jonah had been called by God to go and preach against Nineveh. V1-2 of chapter 1:
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness [or more precisely ‘trouble’] has come up before me."
But did Jonah obey God’s call? No (v3):
3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish [in completely the opposite direction] to flee from the LORD.
He ran away from God. He disobeyed God. He fled from God. Why? Well in chapter 4 we’re told that he didn’t want God to show mercy on the Ninevites. He wanted God to judge them for their wicked deeds. Look at what happened after Jonah had run away. V4 of chapter 1:
4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
12 "Pick me up and throw me into the sea," Jonah replied, "and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you." 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.
Was that the end of Jonah? No (v17):
17 But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
As Jonah declared in v9 of chapter 2:
“Salvation comes from the LORD." 10 And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Jonah, in all likelihood, was back in his home land. His plan to evade the Lord had simply not worked. The sovereign Lord had seen to that.
Jonah deserved death, not deliverance. And yet the Lord graciously delivered him by means of a large fish so that Jonah could not but recognize the greatness of God’s compassion, praise him for it, and recognize his reliance on God alone. Nineveh also deserves death, not deliverance. Yet as we’ll see in chapter 3 Nineveh was also graciously delivered by God’s special intervention. Indeed the Ninevites took the Word of the Lord to heart as soon as they heard it whereas Jonah had resisted it. Because of God’s mercy shown Jonah in spite of his direct disobedience, Jonah has no right to resent the same mercy being shown the disobedient Assyrians.
You see one of the main purposes of the book of Jonah was to teach Israelites that God loves other nations and to teach us that he loves other nations than our own. This is a missionary book! So Jonah partly stands for many of us, representing the attitude we can have towards those for whom we have no love. Yet you and I deserved death, not deliverance. But God so loved the world, he loved you and me so much that he gave his one and only Son – God graciously intervened – that whoever believes and trusts in Jesus Christ will not perish but have eternal life. Unlike us the Lord “is patient…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), which brings us to chapter 3 and my next heading:
A SECOND BEGINNING 3:1-3
Look at verses 1-3:
1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.
Notice the graciousness of God's call in v1.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time.
The word of the Lord came to him just as it did at the beginning of the book. God doesn't chastise Jonah or rub his nose in the dirt, he has been forgiven and his rebellion has been forgotten. God has brought Jonah through the depths of the sea and the fish not to pay him back but to bring him back, and he is reinstated as God's servant. You see, God is far more willing to leave the past behind than we are. You know there are many Christians who do not allow themselves to be used effectively by God in the present because they are still nursing failures of the past. But if we are called to proclaim a message of forgiveness and hope like Jonah, then we must embrace such a message and apply it to ourselves first of all. It is those who have tasted God's mercy who are best placed to proclaim God's mercy.
But then notice the clarity of God's call (v2)
Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.
Jonah must obediently preach exactly what he’s given to say. God's servant's task is really quite simple. He is a messenger. He doesn't have to work out the message to give; he is called to deliver it without addition or subtraction. And of course the church's task today is exactly the same. We have a gospel message contained here between these pages. We don't have to be creative in producing a new message for a new millennium – it’s the same message about God rescuing people who cannot rescue themselves from a judgment which is on its way. Sure, we have to be enterprising in how we communicate that message, but what we tell people is a given.
Jonah can’t escape God’s call to Nineveh. Now he’s reminded that he can’t adjust the message. He must resign himself to the fact that God is concerned for Nineveh. He has no option but to obey. We can’t escape God’s call on our lives. We are to obey Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations whether we want to or not. Some have called that command the eleventh commandment. And we are to obey it. However scary the assignment. However wicked or unlovely the people. Whatever they may have done to you or to your nation. Whatever their status. God will give us the words to say (Mt 10:19).
Jonah did obey this time. He wasn’t going back inside that fish again! V3
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.
Whether he liked it or not he went. In fact in the original v 3 says Jonah 'walked to Nineveh'. That was a 900 mile hike through desert routes. And here the writer is making a theological point, not just a geographical one. As we have seen Jonah is an Israelite of the old school. Israel was God's chosen people, the Ninevites were not. So let them come to Israel and worship, why should he go to them? But this way he had to cross several boundaries of non-Jewish territory before he got to Nineveh. That is the calling of God's people. They are called to move out of their comfort zones, and perhaps beyond the people they feel at ease with in order to reach those who culturally and religiously are as far from them as they could possibly be. Sometimes we have to cross those boundaries. Jesus said to the apostles:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Paul sums up this missionary calling in 1 Corinthians 9 by saying that, 'He has become all things to all men in order to win some.' If it means eating kosher food to win Jews he will eat it. If it means eating pigs trotters to win Gentiles, he will eat them. What does it matter so long as that person can hear the saving news of God's love in Jesus? Personal preferences on such matters must be put to one side if it means reaching out with the gospel. And when we have the courage and the will to do that, by God's grace we shall see a human response as we see here in v3-9, and which brings us to my final heading.
PREACHING AND REPENTANCE AT NINEVEH 3:3-10
Just look at vv 3 and 4,
Now Nineveh was a very important city - a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city.
This was no backwater. Throughout this book we are told that Nineveh is a great city and just how important it is underscored by this little phrase that it 'required a visit of three days.' Jonah was only on day one of this, he was just making contact and yet the response he received was electric, it was both immediate - v5
The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
and it was impressive - v6
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
And to see why this is so we need to understand the nature of the message and the background to the message.
We saw earlier from chapter 1 that the message Jonah was given to proclaim should be translated: 'Preach to Nineveh because its trouble is of concern to me.' The same message of grace is being proclaimed here: ' Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.' The Ninevites would have recognised this as a common way of giving a warning. If there had been no chance of repentance then no time period would have been specified. Then we have the phrase that Nineveh will be 'overturned'. And that is deliberately ambiguous. It is a term used to describe the 'overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah' in judgment. But it’s also used to describe a complete reversal, a turning upside down, as in Deuteronomy 23: 5. So this message to Nineveh could be referring to a change of heart that God will bring about through his message. The choice is theirs. If they ignore the warning then they will be overturned like Sodom. However, if they heed the warning they will be turned from evil to good. And that is exactly the same message for the world today. To ignore God's plea to turn from going our own way is to sign our own eternal death warrant.
But you say, 'it really does stretch credulity to the limit to believe that after only one day's preaching you end up with a wholesale revival-the whole city turning to belief.' But who said anything about it being after only one day's preaching? You see, just as God had been working through circumstances to get Jonah to change his mind-through the storm, the fish and so on, God had also been working through circumstances to get the Ninevites to change their mind- which may be behind that word 'troubles ' in chapter 1 and verse 2, 'their troubles have come to me.' What troubles?
Archaeological findings have thrown up some interesting facts about the Assyrians who lived in Nineveh. Apparently there were four things which could move its people and its King to fasting and mourning: the invasion by an enemy, a full solar eclipse, famine and disease and a major flood or earthquake. They took these things as signs that all was not well with the gods. We know that at this time Assyria had been heavily defeated by enemy nations, that they had been subject to a major earthquake and on the 15th June 763 BC a total eclipse had fallen over the land. Given those circumstances God had been carefully preparing the way for Jonah's message. That is what a sovereign God does.
So v5 'They believed God'. They didn't set up a theological commission to look at the problem of why a good God allows evil, they put on sack cloth and ashes and turned to this good God to ask him to avert more evil. And notice everyone was involved - even the animals had to fast - v7. And this was not seen as some way of pulling God's strings, for we have a very telling phrase in v 9,
Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.
Do you remember how time and time again Jesus was often pleasantly surprised by the faith of people from which one normally would not expect to find faith - a Roman centurion, a Greek woman, and was frequently disappointed by the lack of faith amongst his fellow Jews? That is the point here. It is Jonah the Israelite and his fellow Jews who, for all their talk of belief in God, had such a poor track record in showing it, while it is these people who have so little revelation to go on - a day's sermon - who put their trust in God. It may be a wavering trust, a little uncertain – v9 'who knows?' - but it is real faith nonetheless. And we know it is real because it showed itself in action. And maybe you are here this evening and things have not been going terribly well for you. If the truth be known they have been pretty disastrous and you are wondering what God is saying to you. You know a little about him, not much, but still enough for you to respond to his call to trust him. In fact you and I have a lot more reason to trust him than these people ever did because we now have the full revelation of God in Jesus. Will he be compassionate and relent of bringing judgment upon you? Why yes, because he has taken it upon himself at the cross so that you and I might be spared. That is how much he loves you. So turn to him this evening and trust him.
And so we come to a surprising reprieve v10:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion on them and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
Let me ask: what is the real miracle of the book of Jonah? The prophet being swallowed by a giant fish? You find that difficult to believe? A man brought back from the dead? The real miracle is here: that a wicked idolatrous, arrogant people should respond to God's invitation and warning and that God himself should show mercy and spare them. That’s a major miracle. From one point of view God would have had every right to wipe this city off the face of the earth because of what it had done. Justice would demand it. And these people knew it. And one of the words which appears over and over again to describe the reaction of Jesus when he sees people, like this, who are lost in sin and humbled by it, is the word which is so prominent here - the word compassion. He too was called to preach to a city - Jerusalem - and when he came there he simply wept because he knew that unlike Nineveh repentance was not on their agenda - but he died for the people so that those who did believe would be saved. And the same eyes that wept over that city are the very same ones which look upon our great city, and the same heart which was full of compassion and which reached out in mercy, is the same one which yearns for its inhabitants to know him. But he doesn't send a Jonah with a message, he sends people like you and me.
And one way God is using to reach people of this great city with the good news is Christianity Explored. On Tuesday 24 April we have a training session for those who would like to get involved in this ministry and with the follow up course - Discipleship Explored. And we do need more people to help with the upcoming taster session on May 3rd. So do be there on 24 April, 7.30pm, 56 Holly Avenue.
I don’t know about you but I was a Jonah once. I resisted God’s call on my life to go and preach. One of the previous student ministers at JPC said to me either you write to the bishop about applying for ordained ministry or I will. I didn’t. He did and here I am. Perhaps you are resisting God’s call. Well remember you can’t escape God’s call whether it’s through a student minister or a big fish. We are to obey God whatever we might want. We’re not to be like Jonah who readily received God’s mercy himself but was reluctant to see his enemies receive the same. But like Jonah we are to obey God whatever we might want. For as we read in Romans 10:14-15:
How can people call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
As v10 of Jonah 3 shows – the rest is up to God.