A while back, I knew someone who'd been chaplain at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland – where he saw Irish Republican Army men come to faith in Jesus. And he got hate letters telling him that terrorists didn't deserve the chance to turn back to God. They said things like, 'they've done too much evil', 'they're beyond forgiveness', and 'let them go to hell'. And, shockingly, that's 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, he refused. So to set the scene for this week, let me remind you of chapters 1 and 2 – where Jonah said 'No' to God, and God refused to take 'No' for an answer. Let's turn to Jonah 1.1-3:
"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 Assyrians – who were known for their cruelty and brutality – you could say, terrorism. And God knew that: in verse 2 he says,
"their evil has come up before me."
And yet he still wanted to warn them that they'd face his judgement if they carried on that way. And although verse 2 doesn't say it explicitly, that means he wanted them to have the chance to turn back to him. But that's just what Jonah didn't want – because he was thinking like 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 other direction. But God engineered a storm, which 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 about to drown, God organised this big fish – possibly a whale – to swallow him, save him and spew him back up on dry land. That brings us to Jonah 3.1-2:
"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.""
And what happens to Nineveh teaches the big lesson of chapter 3 – which is that:
1. It's God who brings People to Believe and turn to Him – and He can do so When He Wants, and with Whoever He Wants (Jonah 3)
Now the main point of chapter 3 is how God has mercy on Nineveh. But just notice in verse 1 how God is gracious to Jonah:
"Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time…"
So here's someone who's just been a complete failure in speaking for the Lord. And yet the Lord still wants to use him, which should be a big encouragement to those of us who follow Jesus as Lord, because Jesus said that involves helping others hear about him. But there's no-one here who hasn't missed opportunities for that in conversation, or hasn't bottled out of inviting someone to an event. We've all done a Jonah to some extent. So just see God's grace in verse 1:
"Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time…"
That is an example of how failure as a Christian is never final – in any department of our lives. And in this department, the Lord still wants to use us to speak for him – for example, using the 'One Life' events coming up this October – despite our failures so far. So don't give up on yourself – because God hasn't. But the main point of chapter 3 is how God has mercy on Nineveh. So, look on to verses 2-4, where God says:
"Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you." 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 translated 'overthrown' can mean two things – it's a kind of wordplay. It can mean 'overturned' –as in, by God's judgement. Or it can mean 'turned around' – as in, people turning back to God. And no prizes for guessing which of those Jonah wanted: Jonah wanted Nineveh overturned – by some judgement like an earthquake, whereas God wanted Nineveh turned around. He wanted people responding to the warning of judgement by turning back to him. So we need 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 no avoiding that.' It's not a prediction; it's a warning and, by implication, an invitation: God is saying, 'If you carry on this way, I'll bring judgement on you. But I'm telling you so you can avoid that – by turning back to me.'
And the gospel message we've been given to pass on is very similar. Because the gospel says: that Jesus died – to pay for our forgiveness, so that we can turn back to God; that Jesus rose from the dead and is now back in heaven (so I can't show him to you and 'prove' him to you, in that sense); that one day Jesus will judge everyone who's ever lived. And it says that those who've not turned back to him, he won't be able to have in his heaven – because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King; but that whoever has turned back to him, he'll welcome into heaven forever.
So, 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 forever. And the invitation is: to turn back to him and be forgiven, so it doesn't come to that. (And he certainly doesn't want it to come to that.) Look on to verse 5. It's only day one of Jonah's visit. And he's only begun to speak. 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 – our course for looking into Christianity – he'd have said, 'Hold on, we've only done session 1… There are six more to go before we get to 'How do you become a Christian?'' But they're responding to God already – he's not tied to our plans and programs. And if you know you need to respond to God for the first time, what they did is exactly what you'd need to do. So let's follow it through. 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."
And that was the cultural way of saying to God, 'I realise I'm in the wrong with you, and need your forgiveness.' You need to admit that. Then, 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 admit that 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 ask his forgiveness for living without reference to him. You turn from living that way and say to God, 'With your help, I'll live your way from now on.' And, in verse 9, the king says:
"Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish."
That is exactly what God wants to do – for them; maybe for you this morning; and for all the people 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 if you're not sure where you stand with God, why not take a copy of this booklet 'Why Jesus?' from one of the racks – which explains more of how to respond to him?
Now some people say, 'But isn't God being inconsistent here? Doesn't he say he'll do something but then go back on it?' 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 judgement.
Then other people say, 'But isn't this just unbelievable? And arguably more unbelievable than the big fish in chapter 2? I mean, are we really being asked to believe that Jonah went to these godless people, who'd heard nothing of the God of the Bible before, and that as soon as he started speaking, they believed in God and turned to him? Is that really likely?' And the answer is: for people to believe and turn to God is never likely – it's always impossible, because the Bible says that by nature we don't want God in our lives, telling us how to live; and that when anyone does believe the gospel and turn to him, it's only because God has worked in their hearts to overcome their natural resistance to him. So let's not think of some people as 'likely' to respond and others as 'unlikely'. Because, as Nineveh showed, God can create response when he wants and in whoever he wants.
God also uses circumstances to do that – and almost certainly had done here. Because we know from outside the Bible that in Jonah's time, the Assyrian empire was shaky; there were famines leading to riots (which may be part of the violence the king mentions in verse 8); there'd been a devastating earthquake – and to cap it all, a full solar eclipse, which they saw as the ultimate bad omen from heaven. And for many, those circumstances would have undermined their confidence in what they believed and their sense that, 'I can handle life without God.' And God does take and use hard and sad circumstances to do that – and maybe he's doing that with you right now – in which case you need to know that's not to hurt you, but to reach you.
That's the lesson of chapter 3: it's God who brings people to believe and turn to him – and he can do so when he wants and with whoever he wants. So, on to chapter 4, where the lesson is: that to be any use in reaching out to people with the gospel…
2. We Need to See as God Sees
You may remember that Jesus once said,
"I tell you there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15.10)
So what must God have felt over Nineveh responding? Well, here's how Jonah felt – chapter 4, verse 1:
"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry."
That is such a tame translation I need to give you a more literal one. More literally it says: 'But it was an appalling evil to Jonah and he was furious.' It actually uses that word 'evil' – Jonah is saying he thinks that in showing mercy to Nineveh, God has done something wrong – even evil. Because remember: the Assyrians were known for their cruelty and brutality. And Israel had been on the receiving end of it. So Jonah would have been thinking, 'These are people who've hurt us and who hate us.' He'd have been thinking like the people I mentioned at the start, who wrote those letters about the IRA terrorists, saying they didn't deserve the chance to turn back to God – 'they've done too much evil', 'they're beyond forgiveness', 'let them go to hell'. And you see that in what he says next, verse 2:
"And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.""
He's complaining that that's what's wrong with God! I've heard sermons on Jonah chapter 1 speculating about why he refused to go to Nineveh. 'Perhaps he was afraid of what they'd do to him,' people say, 'Or afraid his message would fall on deaf ears.' But those speculations are wrong – because we're given the reason in chapter 4, verse 2. And it's not that he was afraid of what they'd do to him, or afraid that his message would fall on deaf ears. It was that he was afraid it would fall on open ears – ears opened by God – and that God would have mercy on them – when Jonah thought they deserved nothing but judgement.
And it is a problem for our sense of justice, isn't it? When the IRA murderer turns to Jesus and receives mercy; or when the Islamist fighter repents of Islam and turns to Christ. But it should equally be a problem for our sense of justice whenever God forgives any of us any of our wrongdoing. How can a just God do that? And the only place that problem gets resolved is the cross – where Jesus took on himself the justice that you and I and the terrorist and the Islamist and everyone else deserve – so that on the one hand we can be shown mercy, while on the other hand, justice has been done. But Jonah says to the Lord, 'I don't want mercy for these people – only justice.' So verse 4:
"And the LORD said, "Do you do well to be angry?""
That's a challenge to think what he's really saying. You can imagine God making his point like this: 'Jonah, do you really want me to have a policy of 'only justice'? Because if that's my policy to them, it has to be my policy to all – including you, and where would that leave you? Because you, Jonah, are actually the most wilful sinner against me in this whole story. These people in Nineveh knew nothing about me except through the creation around them and through their fallen consciences, whereas you've known me through the Bible your whole life. So whereas there are all sorts of mitigating circumstances for their sin, your disobedience is completely inexcusable. So, Jonah, if I'd been operating a policy of 'only justice', you'd be at the bottom of the sea right now, because you didn't deserve saving, any more than they did.'
So that's the first way we need to see as God sees. Those of us trusting in Christ need to see that we're still fundamentally no different from any other sinner on the planet. We're all sinners – who need mercy, don't deserve it, but are offered it through the cross. And when we see like that, we won't want mercy for ourselves, but not for certain other people – even if those other people have hurt us, or are hostile to us and our faith.
Then let's look at verses 5 to 11, to finish. Verses 5 to 11 are a flashback. Verses 1 to 4 are set after the forty days of God's warning – when it's become clear that judgement hasn't fallen and isn't going to, whereas verses 5 to 11 flash back to early on in the forty days, when Jonah was still hoping for a judgement to fall on Nineveh – like an earthquake or something. So, verse 5:
"Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city."
So he goes far enough that when judgement hits, he'll be safe (that's his thinking) and he settles down to a spot of wild camping: he makes himself something like the dens you make with your kids in the woods – out of fallen sticks and branches. But that's not going to do much to keep off the Middle East sun. Verse 6:
"Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant."
So I take it: the plant is normal, but its growth is miraculous, which just means that God did here what he's usually doing – namely, making plants grow – but to an unusual timescale. Which to us looks miraculous, but to God is no big deal. Verses 7-8:
"But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, "It is better for me to die than to live.""
So I take it there's nothing miraculous about the worm. But in God's sovereignty over everything, this particular worm eats this particular plant at this particular moment, to serve God's purpose. Verses 9-11:
"But God said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" And he said, "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die." [And you can imagine Jonah saying more: 'I'm angry because that plant mattered to me – I valued it.'] And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And 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?""
In other words, 'Jonah, don't you see how infinitely more 120,000 people whom I created matter to me, and have value to me?' But Jonah doesn't see as God sees. All he sees as he looks at the people of Nineveh is their sin. And all he feels is judgemental. And I wonder how many non-Christian people perceive us as being the same. I wonder if that's one of the biggest obstacles to us as a church being useful to God. But God looks at Nineveh and sees people whom he's made for relationship with him. And he feels compassion on them before he feels judgement. And he understands that, morally, they don't know their right hand from their left – because they haven't had his Word, like we have. So he understands that there are all sorts of things that mitigate their responsibility for living the way they have done. And above all, he wants them back – whoever they are, whatever they've done.
And that's the other way we need to see as God sees. We need to see that we're still sinners who are no different from everyone else. But we also need to see that everyone else is still as wanted by God as we are. And if we do see like that, then we will be of use to God in reaching out to others. And, unlike Jonah, it won't take a near-death experience and rescue to get us going.