A while back, I knew someone who'd been chaplain at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland – where he saw Irish Republican Army terrorists come to faith in Jesus. And in response, he got bags of hate mail from people telling him that terrorists didn't deserve any opportunity for turning back to God, and saying things like, 'they've done too much evil', 'they're beyond forgiveness', and 'let them go to hell'. And, shockingly, that's just how Jonah, the Old Testament prophet, felt about the people God sent him to speak to. And so, as you'll know if you've been here for this series on Jonah, he refused to go. So to set the scene for this week, let me remind you of Jonah chapters 1 and 2 – where Jonah says 'No' to God, and God refuses to take 'No' for an answer. And let's begin at chapter 1 and verses 1-3:
"Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD."
So Nineveh was one of the main cities of the Assyrian empire. And the Assyrians were known for their cruelty and brutality – you could almost say their terrorism. And God knew that – like he says in verse 2:
"their evil has come up before me."
And yet he still wanted to warn them that he was against what they were doing – and that they'd face his judgement if they carried on. Although verse 2 doesn't say so explicitly, that meant God wanted them to have the chance to turn back to him. But that's just what Jonah didn't want them to have, because he was thinking like the people who wrote those letters about the IRA terrorists: 'they've done too much evil', 'they're beyond forgiveness', 'let them go to hell'. And so he fled, by ship, in the opposite direction. But God engineered a storm to put the ship in peril. So Jonah told his shipmates to chuck him overboard, knowing that God was after him, not them, and with Jonah moments from drowning, God organised a big fish – possibly a whale – to swallow him, save him and then spew him back up on dry land. That brings us to chapter 3 and verses 1-2:
"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.""
Those verses teach lesson number one of this chapter which is that:
1. God Still Wants to Use us to Speak for Him – Despite our Failures and Attitude Problems (vv1-2)
Jonah proves that, because in chapter 1, he's just been a total failure at speaking for God, and as we'll see in chapter 4, his attitude is actually no better in the second half of the story – because he doesn't go to Nineveh willingly or because he suddenly has a heart for these people. He goes because he's told to. And yet despite Jonah's failure and attitude problems, God still wants to use him to speak for him. That should be a big encouragement to all of us who are Christians, because in the New Testament, in Acts 2, we're told that all Christians are prophets – in other words, spokesmen and women for Jesus. We're not prophets like Jonah or Isaiah – who received messages direct from God, but we are prophets in the sense that we've received the gospel – the message about Jesus in the New Testament – and part of being a Christian is to help other people hear that message, too.
So if you're still just sorting out where you stand with Jesus, you need to know that. You need to know that if you come to trust in Jesus, that can't just be a private thing. Because Jesus said that part of following him is helping others hear about him. Which is a privilege, but it can also make life harder – because people by nature don't want to hear about him. But for those of us who are following Jesus, these first two verses should be a big encouragement. Just put your hand up if you can think of no times when you've missed an opportunity to speak about Jesus, no times when you've bottled out of inviting someone to a Christian event, or answering a question about your faith… You see, we're all failures at this. And, again, put your hand up if you've always been 100% on fire in sharing the gospel – never reluctant, never hesitant, never avoiding certain people because you think they're unlikely to respond… So we all have our attitude problems as well. But the first lesson here is that God still wants to use us to speak for him – despite our failures and attitude problems. Verse 1:
"Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time..."
And there's God's grace – which means that failure as a Christian is never final. I wonder if you feel you've blown it in this area of the Christian life. I remember a guy in his twenties over at Jesmond saying he had. He'd been sharing a house with these other non-Christian blokes and he'd told himself he'd get to know them better first, before inviting them to church. But he'd always found a reason to put it off, and now it was nearly the end of their year together in the house, and he hadn't done anything, and he was completely down on himself. So I said, 'Look, God still wants to use you there.' And he said, 'But what do I do?' So I said, 'Well, why not just say, 'Look, you know I go to church, but I've been completely rubbish in not inviting you along, but there's an event coming up – would you come?' And do you know what they said? They said, 'Well, we did wonder why you hadn't invited us, because we know other Christians who've invited mates of ours. But yes, we'll come – why not?' And there's God's grace: he still wants to use us to speak for him – despite our failures and attitude problems. So don't give up on yourself – because God hasn't given up on you. Onto lesson two, which is that:
2. We Must Pass on Exactly the Message God has Given Us (vv3-4)
Look at chapter 3, verses 2-4, again – where God says:
""Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you [in other words, exactly what I give you to pass on]." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!""
Now the original word for 'overthrown' can actually mean two things. It can mean 'overturned by God's judgement – in other words, 'overthrown'. Or it can mean 'turned around' – as in, people turning back to God. And we know what Jonah wanted: he wanted to see Nineveh overturned by some judgement – like an earthquake, perhaps. But God wanted to see Nineveh turned around. He wanted to see people responding to the warning of judgement by turning back to him. So it's really important to understand God's message in verse 4: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" is not a prediction. God is not saying, 'I will definitely bring judgement on you and there's nothing you can do to avoid that.' It's a warning and, by implication, an invitation. God is saying, 'If you carry on the way you are, I'll bring judgement on you. But I'm telling you now so that you can avoid that – by turning back to me.' That's the message Jonah was given to pass on, and the gospel message that God has now given us to pass on is very similar.
The gospel message is: that Jesus died – so that people can turn back to God and be forgiven for living without him; and that Jesus has risen and returned to heaven; and that one day Jesus will come again to wrap up history and judge everyone who's ever lived. And those who've not turned back to him, he won't be able to have in his kingdom of heaven – because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King. But whoever has turned back to him, he'll welcome into heaven forever. So – just like Jonah's message – the gospel contains a warning and an invitation. The warning is: that Jesus is our rightful ruler and judge – and that if we get to the end of this life on the wrong side of him, we'll stay on the wrong side of him in the next life. And the invitation is: to turn back to him and be forgiven, so that it doesn't come to that.
And the challenge is to pass on exactly the message God has given us – not just part of it, or something we prefer to say. So for example, I did a seminar on sharing our faith and I asked people to come up with a summary of the gospel. One person said, 'Trust in Jesus and God will forgive you', which is true, but that's only part of the gospel – the part we find easier to say. What it fails to say is: 'And... turn to Jesus as your rightful ruler; because if you don't, you'll be on the wrong side of his judgement.' You see, to pass on exactly the message God's given us, we've got to talk about Jesus as our rightful ruler and judge, and about sin and judgement. It's dead easy to bottle out of that. But we've got to talk about those things – in conversations, in Christianity Explored groups, and in special events like invitation services or curry nights. I know we're worried it'll put people off, but whether people are put off or put on to Jesus is God's department. Our department is to pass on exactly the message he's given us – and to trust that the hard parts of it are essential to people seeing that they need Jesus.
An example of that to me was when I was leading a group at my last church for people just looking into Christianity. In the group was this woman called Stephanie. She was very bright indeed, and at the end of the introductory session, she'd already sussed out the whole message and she said to me point blank, 'So are you saying I'm going to hell?' And she stared at me. And I stared at her. And everyone else stared at the floor. And I finally said, 'Well, what Jesus said – and I believe he's God – is that if you keep rejecting him to the end then, yes, you will go to hell.' And needless to say, that was the end of the group for that week. Everyone left. And I faithlessly said to my co-leader, 'Well, we won't see her again –and I wonder if we'll see any of them again.' But in fact, they all came back. Stephanie was the one member of that group who came to faith. We interviewed her about it a few years later in church and she said, 'I had a very religious background and I'd been told that if I was baptised, and took communion, and tried to live by the Bible, I'd be OK with God. So all my life I'd been lied to. And I just needed someone to tell me the truth.' So, we must pass on exactly the message God has given us. Then the last lesson from chapter 3 is that:
3. It's God who Brings About Belief in Him and Turning to Him – and He can do so when He Wants and in Whoever He Wants (vv5-10)
So look down to verse 5. It's only day one of the planned three-day visit, and Jonah's only begun to tell them, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And verse 5,
"... the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them."
And if Jonah had been using Christianity Explored, he'd have said, 'Hold on, we've only watched the first DVD. There are six more to go yet…! But they're responding already. And if you need to respond to God for the first time, this is an example of what you need to do. Verse 6:
"The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes."
Fasting and sackcloth and ashes were the cultural way of saying, 'I realise I'm in the wrong with God, and need his forgiveness.' Verses 7-8:
"And [the king] issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God."
So you don't just need to realise you're in the wrong with God – you need to ask his forgiveness. And read on:
"Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands."
So you don't just need to ask his forgiveness for living as if he wasn't there. You need to turn from living that way and let him run your life from now on. And verse 9:
"Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish."
That of course is exactly what God wants to do – for them; maybe for you today; and for everyone around us. So, verse 10:
"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."
And the way the people of Nineveh responded is exactly the way anyone needs to respond to be forgiven and put right with God. And if you still need to make that response, why not take a copy of this booklet 'Why Jesus?' from one of the stands – because it explains really clearly how to do that.
Now some people say, 'Isn't God being inconsistent here? Doesn't he say he'll do something but then go back on his word?' But the answer is, 'No. Because remember: when he said, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!", it wasn't a prediction that he would bring judgment, come what may. It was a warning that he would – if they carried on as before. But they didn't, and so he didn't carry through with the judgement he'd warned about.
And then other people say, 'But isn't this just unbelievable? (Maybe even more unbelievable than the big fish in chapter 2?)' I mean, are we really being asked to believe that Jonah went to these completely ungodly people, whom their own king calls 'evil' and 'violent', and who'd heard nothing of the God of the Bible before, and that they believed in God and turned to him as soon as Jonah starts preaching? Is that really likely?' And the answer is: that for people to believe in God and turn to God is never likely. It's impossible for anyone, left to themselves, because the Bible says: by nature we don't want God in our lives, having his rightful place, and telling us how to live. So when anyone does believe in him and turn to him, it's only because God has worked in them to bring them to that point. So let's not think of some people as 'likely' to respond and others as 'unlikely' or 'no-hopers'. Because, as God showed with Nineveh, he can create response when he wants and in whomever he wants. So, those are the three lessons from Jonah 3, as we try to share the gospel this autumn:
When you feel rubbish at this, or that you've blown it, remember:
1. God still wants to use us to speak for him – despite our failures and attitude problems
When you feel tempted to say only the easy things, remember:
2. We must pass on exactly the message God has given us
And when you look at people and think, 'They'll never be open to it', remember that, by nature no-one is. And remember that:
3. It's God who brings about belief in him and turning to him – and that he can do so when he wants and in whoever he wants – just like he showed with Nineveh.