The Preaching Prophet and the Saving God
Have you ever had one of those experiences where you’re expecting something to go really well, and instead it goes way worse than you could have imagined?
That was kind of like the first chapter of Jonah. Jonah thinks he’s going to take a trip to Tarshish to get away from God, and instead he ends up in a whale heading back to dry land.
But have you ever had one of those experiences where you’re expecting something to go really poorly, and instead it goes way better than you would have thought?
That’s what happens to us in Jonah chapter 3. Knowing that the Assyrians were Israel’s mortal enemies, we’re not expecting a Hebrew prophet to have much success preaching a message of doom and repentance in their capital city.
But this book is full of surprises, and Jonah chapter 3 doesn’t unfold how we might expect. And what we’re going to discover today is that the surprising way the Ninevites responded to Jonah’s message was itself an important message to God’s people Israel.
In other words, Jonah’s trip to Nineveh wasn’t just for the Ninevites. God had something to say to Israel, back home. The Ninevites response invites Israel to respond to God in a similar way.
And, beyond this, we’re going to find today that Jonah chapter 3 has a lot to say to us today about repentance and what repentance is and what place repentance should have in our lives.
1. A Fresh Commission
But let’s begin at the beginning. Chapter 3 begins with a fresh commission. “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’” (Jonah 3:1–2).
Notice how kind God is to Jonah here. God does not have to give Jonah a second commission like that. The first one was good enough. Jonah should have been able to hit the dry land and get moving to Nineveh because God had already spoken.
But in kindness, God treats this like a fresh start and he tells Jonah again.
This challenged me this week because I am a father, and like most fathers I find myself having to repeat things far more often than I think I need to.
And one of the things we see many times in the Bible is God’s willingness to say it again. The whole book of Jonah itself, as we’ll see today, is God saying one more time to His people Israel that He will forgive them if they would only repent.
How many times had He given them that message? And yet here it is again.
I love how God does not just stand back and wait for him to get it Himself. He tells him again, in almost identical words, to go and call out against Nineveh.
2. Jonah’s Obedience
And verses 3 to 4 tell us that, having been to the bottom of the sea and back, Jonah does this time what he should have done all the way back at the beginning of the story: “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord” (Jonah 3:3).
I wish we heard more about his journey to Nineveh. To get there on foot would have taken him days, maybe weeks. What was going through his head that whole time? Did he toss and turn at night and try arguing with God some more? Was he just so thankful to be back on dry land that it didn’t matter?
We don’t know. All we know is that according to God’s word, he got up and went to Nineveh.
Verse 4 tells us what happened when Jonah got to Nineveh. But before we get there, the rest of verse 3 gives us some really important information about the city. “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three day’s journey in breadth” (Jonah 3:3b).
At first this sounds this city was so big it would take you a literal three days to just walk from one end of Nineveh to the other. And that is possible, if the whole district surrounding Nineveh is taken into account.
But the original Hebrew here could also be saying that it took you three days to visit Nineveh. If you have an ESV Bible with you, you’ll see the note there at the end of verse 3, which says “a visit was a three day’s journey.” The NIV translates this, “it took three days to go through it” (Jonah 3:3, NIV).
That’s probably the idea here. Most cities at that time were small and you could see everything there was to see in a few hours. But Nineveh took three days to really visit the whole city.
This is important because it gives us a sense of Jonah’s task. He wasn’t just going to stroll in to the town square, say his part, and leave. Preaching to Nineveh was going to take some time—at least three days.
And with that in mind, we’re ready for the surprise of verse 4 where we read that “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (Jonah 3:4).
Jonah has only made it 1/3 of the way into the city. This could mean that he’s only visited 1/3 of the major spots where you’d find people and preach to them.
And the message he calls out, the message that God gave him, was that Nineveh had 40 days before they were going to be overthrown for their wickedness.
That’s a simple message, right? Some prophets preached long and elaborate messages, like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Jonah’s message could have been printed on a business card.
3. The Ninevite’s Response
And I don’t know about you, but if I were reading this for the first time I wouldn’t be expecting what comes next. I would be expecting something like, “Then Jonah continued another day into Nineveh and continued to call out.” Or, “Then the Ninevites seized Jonah and commanded him to stop.” Or, if this was written nowadays, “Then the Ninevites complained that Jonah was really hurting their feelings and they had his Twitter and Facebook accounts suspended.”
I am not prepared for verse 5: “And the people of Nineveh believed God.”
It’s so simple and powerful. They heard God’s message and they believed God.
They basically respond the opposite of who? Jonah himself, who heard God’s word and ran. Once again, the pagan Gentiles are acting better than him.
And—something we’ll come back to at the end—they are also acting way better than God’s own people Israel, who had been sent prophet after prophet and basically ignored them all.
These pagans here one prophet, from another country, with a short little message, and they respond instantly.
Notice the language here—it says that they believed God. Not Jonah. They understood that he was a prophet and the message coming to them was not Jonah’s but came from God Himself.
And they believed it! What does the rest of verse 5 tell us? “They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
Sackcloth is kind of like burlap. It’s rough and uncomfortable and it’s what people wore when they were grieving something. And here it shows that they really believe this message Jonah is bringing to them. They really believe that destruction is coming, and they are in grief. All of them.
But it goes even further. 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” (Jonah 3:6). It’s one thing for the common people to act this way, but the king stepping off his throne, dressing in sackcloth, and sitting in ashes was one of the most dramatically humble things he could do. The king is saying that this business of repentance is way more important than all of his royal majesty.
And if you think that’s remarkable enough, listen to the first part of his speech in verses 7-9: “And he 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.’” (Jonah 3:7–8a).
The king uses his royal authority to make sure that everybody in the city joins in this act of repentance. In other words, the king has taken over from Jonah. From what we know, Jonah may have only made it 1/3 of the way through the city. But the king has taken it to the whole city, commanding that not just the people but the animals should fast from food and water, and call out “mightily” to God.
The second half of verse 8 shows that this is more than just a show of emotion. The king is calling for a total change of life: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”
This is true repentance. Not just feeling sorry for our sin, but actually turning away form our sin itself.
It can be easy to feel bad about your sin, especially when they are caught. But just feeling sorry, by itself, is not repentance. Repentance moves beyond just feeling sorry to actually walking away from the sin itself.
And that’s what the king of Nineveh is commanding here. It’s incredible! And what’s his hope? What’s his desire here? Verse 9: “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:9).
“Who knows?” he asks aloud. Don’t be too critical of this. They don’t know much about God. God hasn’t given them promises, like He did with Israel, that if they humbled themselves and turned from their wicked ways he would forgive them and heal their land.
So all they had was the hope that maybe God would turn and forgive.
4. God’s Response
Little did the king of Nineveh know who He was dealing with as he spoke about this God of heaven. Yes, a God capable of fierce anger, but also “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6) as God spoke to Moses in Exodus 34 as He revealed His glory to him.
Through Jeremiah, God promised that “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:7–8).
That’s who God is. A God of unfathomable mercy. And so we come to the final verse in chapter 3 and what is, in my mind, the most thrilling part of the story so far: “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” (Jonah 3:10).
Jonah’s message was a warning. And the people heeded the warning. They turned from the sin that was begging for God’s wrath. And so God relented and held back His wrath and did not bring upon them what He promised.
And once again, I want us to make sure we don’t get too used to this. God’s mercy should take our breath away.
Psalm 145 says “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3). And what is chief among those great acts of God? “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:8–9).
I was dialoguing with some people this week who are really struggling with the Bible. As they read the Bible all they see is God’s judgement and it shocks them. It’s challenging their faith, or in the case of one person, confirming their lack of faith.
And I want so bad to help them understand that when we understand how great God is, how brilliantly holy He is, how seriously offensive our sin is, and how much we actually deserve from God, it is not the judgement of God that should shock us. It’s His mercy.
God judging the Ninevites would not be surprising. It’s exactly what they deserved. God relenting from His judgement is astounding. Never get bored with this.
Jonah preaches, the people respond, and God relents. And the city and it’s people are allowed to continue and to live.
The Message within the Message
Now having walked through this chapter, marvelling at the mercy of God is certainly an appropriate reaction to all we’ve seen here.
But there’s even more than that. There’s perhaps an even sharper point within the book of Jonah here. And we find this point when we remember that Jonah is a book within the Hebrew Bible written for the nation of Israel, a nation who was mere decades away from being destroyed by Assyria for their sin which they refused to repent of.
Jonah was from the northern kingdom of Israel, where not a single king in their history was good. Not a single king responded to God’s prophets which he sent them again and again and again. And that’s why, just a few decades after Jonah, the northern kingdom of Israel came to the end of their line.
Listen to this important bit of history from 2 Kings 17:6-18:
“In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
“And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the Lord their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the Lord to anger, and they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, ‘You shall not do this.’ Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.’
“But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.” (2 Kings 17:6–18).
So the book of Jonah had a message to Israel. The message was that if Nineveh repented so quickly, how much sooner should they repent? And if God had mercy on Nineveh, how much more would He have mercy on His own people?
We know that we’re on the right track here because this was how Jesus interpreted the book of Jonah as He preached to the religious but still rebellious Israelites several hundred years later. “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).
Jesus was greater than Jonah because, like he said the verse before, “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
Jonah came near death and returned to preach to Nineveh. Jesus actually died and rose again, proving that He was so much more worthy of being listened to than Jonah.
And yet most of His own people continued to refuse to listen, just as they had for centuries.
What About Us?
So that’s what Jonah had to say to it’s original audience, all those centuries ago. What about you and I today? What should we learn from this part of God’s word this morning?
1: Respond Quickly and Fully to God’s Word
I can see at least three lessons for us to take home from this chapter. The first one is essentially the same message that Israel should have heard back then. Look at how quickly the Ninevites responded to God’s message through Jonah. What about us?
Let’s put it like a question: when you hear God’s word, do you respond like the Ninevites, or like the ancient Israelites? When God’s word pokes your conscience, or bumps up against your lifestyle, or challenges you in some way or another, do you repent like a Ninevite or yawn like an Israelite?
Will the men of Nineveh rise up at the judgement and condemn you, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and you have not just Jonah but all of the law and the prophets and the full message of Jesus and His apostles all in one volume and you know what it says but you choose to ignore it and still just keep on doing whatever you want to do?
I’ve been astounded over and over throughout the years by Evangelical Christians who know what the Bible says and yet pick and choose which parts they’ll follow and which parts they just won’t.
I’ve sat across coffee tables with people who have gone to church their whole life who have said “I know that’s what God says I should do, but if I do that it will make things really awkward in my lifestyle or family relationships, so I’m going to do my own thing.”
Meanwhile there’s the king of Nineveh, sitting in the ashes, making even their animals join them, begging God to have mercy on them.
God forbid that any of us should be like ancient Israel, hearing His word and yet turning aside to follow our own desires or wisdom instead. God grant us the humility to be like the Ninevites, who hear God’s word and respond fully and instantly. No dragging of the feet. No negotiations. Just full surrender to the God who speaks.
2: Respond in Action and Emotion
The second lesson for us today has to do with the nature of repentance. This chapter tells us a lot about true repentance. It shows us that repentance has an emotional component—it involves feeling sorrow and grief for our sin. But repentance also involves a behavioural component. We turn aside and stop doing the sin that we were doing.
I’ve met many Christians who have the idea that feeling guilty about something is a good enough response. That if we can just feel convicted enough, and say to each other “Wow, that was a convicting sermon,” then we’ve done what we need to do. And we can walk about and basically keep living the way we did.
And that’s not the case. God is interested in far more than our guilty feelings. God is interested in helping us change.
So the next time the Holy Spirit convicts you of sin, whether that happens this morning or in the future, don’t be content to just feel bad about it. Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help to turn from your sin, like the king of Nineveh described in verse 8, and to begin to live as if you actually believed what God describes and promises in His word.
Real repentance leads to obedience. And that’s the second lesson we learn today from Jonah chapter 3.
3: Don’t Stop Repenting
There’s a final lesson for us from Jonah 3 today. And it has to do with the effects of this repentance. Nineveh turned from their sin. But within decades—as little as 30 years—they were back to their violent ways and, in fact, had completely destroyed Israel itself from the map.
That causes some people to say, “This never could have happened. If they had a genuine change, it would have stuck.”
And to that I say, “No, this is sadly a common pattern. It is sadly common to see people feel sorry for their sin, and even turn from their sin to God, but only for a season. And before long, they are back to their old patterns.”
Back in the 1970’s a revival began at a church in Saskatoon and its effects were soon felt throughout much of western Canada. The pastor of that church actually came to speak at EBC and, according to one of our history documents, “God did a work of restoration and spiritual renewal among many in our church and community.”
And I don’t doubt that. But the untold story of many revival experiences is how quickly things go back to normal afterwards. I know people who attended that church in Saskatoon, where it all started, and they told how in just a few short years, that church was in complete turmoil. Pastors resigning in tears, angry phone calls in the middle of the night, all of the ugly church fighting stuff. At ground zero of the revival!
And even EBC, which was touched by the revival, has had some tough times of our own in the years since. Does that mean that what happened in the 70’s wasn’t genuine?
Or does it just mean that we need to re-think repentance, understanding it to be not just an event, but also a continuing lifestyle?
You might be familiar with Martin Luther’s 95 theses, the document which sparked the Protestant Reformation almost 504 years ago. The very first of those 95 theses says this: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
The Christian life begins with repentance, and the Christian life continues with repentance.
Now please understand, this doesn’t mean that the Christian life is all about wallowing in our sin. It’s the opposite. Repentance is all about turning from our sin to God by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And also, by saying that the Christian life is a life of repentance, we don’t mean that we never ever experience any victory over our sin. Rather, what Christians find is that as they grow in maturity and holiness, and the Holy Spirit helps them gain victory over the sin in their life, He will also convict them of sins which they didn’t even notice before.
Many of you know exactly what this is like. There’s this sinful pattern in your life that’s just all-consuming, and God helps you put it to death, and before you know it you’re struggling with something else which may have been there all along, but you just didn’t notice it because the other sin was blinding your vision in one way or another.
As we grow in our own holiness, our awareness of God’s holiness will grow, and our conscience will poke us over things which wouldn’t have bothered you before. Or, perhaps, as you grow you will find yourself in new situations with new temptations that didn’t exist before.
All of this is why Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
Don’t get lazy. Don’t get casual with your sin.
Or, as Hebrews 12:14-15 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”
Sin is like weeds in a garden. Repentance is like pulling the weeds out of that garden. And those of you who garden know that it’s not something you can ever get lazy with. It’s an ongoing work.
So here’s how we can put it: we must be like the Ninevites, who responded to God’s word with instant and complete obedience, and experienced genuine repentance in emotion and action.
But we must not be like the Ninevites, who experienced this genuine repentance as a one-time event, and soon after slid right back to where they had been before.
We must repent and then heed the call to repent again and again and again as God continues His work of changing us to be more like Him.
So just one more word as we close here. I want us just to reflect on how this truth of ongoing repentance is a big part of my God-given job description as a preacher. A big part of my job is to lead us to the word which leads us to repentance.
Paul tells Timothy in his second letter to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2).
“Reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” Notice how two of those words are negative, corrective words?
So in other words, it’s not my job to help you feel good about yourself. If that’s what you’re interested in, there’s lot of guys on TV who will tell you whatever you want to hear. But I’m going to stand before God some day and give an account for your souls, according to Hebrews 13:17.
So I can’t stand up here and tell you that you’re okay the way you are. Because there was only one person who ever lived who was okay just the way he was, and His name was Jesus. And the amazing news is that this one perfect Man loves you so much that He came to live the life that you should have lived, but haven’t. And He died the death that you deserved, taking God’s judgement in your place. He rose from the dead, and He sent His Holy Spirit to change and transform you, and one day He’s returning to make all things—including you—new.
This gospel message tells us that we are far, far worse than we could have ever imagined. And we are far, far more loved than we could have ever imagined by a saviour who is far, far greater than we could have ever imagined.
And so my goal each week isn’t to help us feel good about ourselves. My goal is to help us get our eyes off of ourselves and onto Jesus who alone is worthy of our worship and who alone is able to save us and transform us and who alone is able to satisfy us with his steadfast love.
So as we end here today, let’s seek God’s face, asking Him to help us respond to His word appropriately, to not just feel bad for our sin but to turn away from it, and then to not just do this once but to live a lifestyle of repentance, a lifestyle of being vigilant and vicious with our sin as we continually turn from it to God our saviour, with whom we will always find more than enough mercy, more than enough grace, more than enough love for us.