Jonah Sermon 4. The Sign of Jonah Part 2 – When the Wicked Repent
You can watch the video of this sermon here.
Last week we looked in some detail at how Jonah points to Jesus. Jonah is, in a very real sense, a type of Christ. That is, he points to Jesus in a very clear and powerful way. This is not true with his whole life of course, because he was not perfect, but there are aspects of his life which point clearly to Jesus. For example, we saw how powerfully his own experience in the bowels of hell points to Jesus, because just as Jonah was in the fish for three days, so too was Jesus in the grave for three days. We also saw that even more than this Jonah’s own Psalm about his experience in the belly of the fish, points to Jesus. Almost every point in his Psalm finds a correlation to Jesus’ experience in his suffering and death. Which is remarkable.
Note, this teaches us something too, doesn’t it: when you are in distress cry out to God, and when you are still in the midst of that distress glorify God. Cry out to him and praise him, the words of that great Casting Crown songs capture this sentiment really well, “And I'll praise You in this storm, And I will lift my hands, For You are who You are, No matter where I am.”[i] Both Jonah and Jesus teach us this very well.
We also saw that in essence all of the prophets point to Jesus, some more explicitly than others. But the way in which they all consistently point to Jesus is that they all tell people to repent and trust in the Lord, and Jesus is the Lord that people should trust in. All of the prophets have the same message at the end of the day. They might have different situations, but whether the flood is coming, or the plagues are coming, or the Nephilim are coming, or the Assyrians are coming, or the end days is coming, as God’s people, what should you do? Repent and trust in God. As pagans who have no history of belief in Jesus, what should you do? Repent and turn to God. It is a pretty simple and consistent message. From the days of Noah till today the message has not really changed all that much.
And this leads us to our sermon today, The Sign of Jonah Part Two – When the wicked repent. I want to show you one other way in which the book of Jonah points to Jesus, and this is actually every bit as important as the sign of the three days and the three nights. And it is a vital message that we need to be continually reminded of. So, let’s begin where Jonah picks up his ministry,
Jonah Goes To Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-5) – After rejecting the call of the Lord, after his ordeal in the storm, then in the belly of a big fish, Jonah finally does what he should have done all along, he goes to Nineveh,
“1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 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. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And 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.”
This is what a prophet is meant to do. We see way back in chapter 1, that God said, “2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” And we know that Jonah rejected the call of the Lord, completely, and did the absolute opposite of what God wanted him to do. But now he does what he is told. “3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.”
I remember when I was back in Bible College, and the lecturer was reading through one of the gospels, and Jesus did a miracle and then something interesting happened. Jesus told those there to tell no one. It was a passage like this, Mark 7:35-36, “35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” I remember asking my lecturer, “What would have happened to those who disobeyed a command of Jesus so openly?” He responded, “Haven’t you just as openly ignored the commands of God?” I was like, “Good point.” And ouch.
Don’t just skip over what happened with Jonah here. God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh and he was going to get him there. It was just a matter of how. If you have the Holy Spirit in your heart, then you know that when you are going against the word of the Lord, that he is not going to make it easy for you. He is going to prompt you, he is going to bring you back around to his will. He may even bring hardship upon you, till you take heed of him. That is part of the role of the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit, in different measure, was still active in the lives of believers in the Old Testament.
But also note this, God used Jonah’s rebellion, not just for good, but also to forge him into a great witness and testimony to Ninevehites, the Israelites, and to us. Without Jonah running from the Lord, we would not have this wonderful Psalm from Jonah, this image pointing to Christ, and so much more. God does this a lot in the Scriptures. He turns what man meant for evil into good, again and again. This does not mean man’s evil is ok, it just shows how far above it all God is.
God uses the sinfulness of his people in the Scriptures as great lessons for us, but also he uses our sinfulness as great lessons for us, if we will humbly listen to him. God is in the business of refining us, but he is patient, and he works with us, despite all our flaws. What he is looking for is repentant people who know how to overcome their faults, as we covered several weeks ago. This is evident in God’s heart for the Ninevehites as well. So let’s look at that now.
The Great City (vv.2-3) – There is something incredible here in God’s perspective of this Ninevehites, and this will help us eventually see how this book points to Jesus, so, let’s look at it again, “2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 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.” In verse two, God described Nineveh as “that great city” and then again in verse 3, it is described as an “exceedingly great city”. How should we read this?
One person might think well, it is just talking about its size. After all, it is the most prominent city in the world after all. And it would take about three days for Jonah to reach everyone with his message, and he only get’s a third of the way through the city.
Another might mention, well it’s the dominant city in the world, so God is just referring to its reputation as the great city. But is God swayed by the reputation of men, let alone pagan men who do not know him? Remember how God mocks the Tower of Babel, the great tower meant to reach the heavens, by saying that he has to come down from heaven to come see it? We don’t see God recognizing the greatness of human cities like man does. I think Jonah is saying something else.
What is fascinating about what Jonah says here is that the Hebrew word behind “exceedingly” is actually “elohim.” What does “elohim” mean? It is the plural for God, it can mean gods in some contexts, but in this context it means “mighty God.” So, it means something like this: this city was “a great city to God.” In fact, if you read the NASB, you will see it has a footnote, which translates it precisely this way.
The reason some commentators translate it “exceedingly great” is because this can be also be a Hebrew idiom meaning as such. But we already know from the context that God has great regard for this city. Not because he thinks it is so big and awesome, he is far bigger than it. Not because he cares about its reputation, because God is no respecter of man, and regards no man’s reputation. No, it is because God cares about this city.
Greatly Considered - This city is great in God’s eyes, because it is filled with people, he tells us this directly, Jonah 4:10-11,
“10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 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?”
God is concerned with this city not because it is the most powerful city in the world, not because it has a great reputation, but because there are so many men and beasts in this city which face destruction if they do not repent. He cares about this pagan city. He has concern for it, compassion for it. Enough so that he sends one of his top men to go and warn them.
The Warning (3:4) – Hence the warning, God told Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevehites whatever he told him to preach, now that Jonah is repentant and ready to obey, this is exactly what he does, finally. And this is what he proclaims: “4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The shortest and most effective sermon ever. Really simple isn’t it. It is almost as succinct and means much the same thing as the old movie sidewalk prophets sign, “Repent, for the end is nigh!”
What a message, a short message. Jonah warns the Ninevehites that destruction is coming. No big illustrations, no meandering, no side-issues, no pleading with them. Just a straight up warning about the coming wrath.
This is also how we know that God loved the Ninevehites: he really wanted to warn them about their coming destruction. This is the key linchpin to understanding this whole passage, this whole book. In reality, this is the key linchpin to understanding the word of God: God cares. God does not want people to perish, he does not want people to be destroyed. As God tells us in Ezekiel 18:32, “32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” The fact that God wants to warn the sinner shows that he cares.
Why do you warn someone about the danger that is coming? So that disaster will not happen. So that they can be rescued from it. Warning someone of danger can sometimes be the most obnoxious thing they experience from you, and it is often a necessary act of love. One that might even make them hate you.
This allows me to address a serious issue that many Christians face in the world today. Some Christians, and this is terrible, think that when you have a non-Christian friend who chooses a destructive way of life, or a dangerous path of life, that the best thing to do is just be nice to them and love them no matter what, and affirm them, no matter what. These Christians think this is loving.
The reason they think this is loving, is because the world’s definition of love is affirmation no matter what. In fact, the world will say that if you do not affirm their way of life, their every decision, their sexuality, their greed, their gluttony, their arrogance, their narcissism, their gender identity, or whatever, you are hateful, bigoted, or evil.
But the truth is to affirm destructive behaviours is hateful. Because it helps move the person towards destruction. Would it have been loving for God to affirm the evil ways of the Ninevehites? No, because this would have guaranteed their destruction would come sooner. So, we can see how clearly God cared about this city, so much so that he warned it. This is how God acts, this is how God even extends mercy to the most wicked of cities, before he is going to judge a city he will warn them again, Amos 3:6-7, “6 Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? 7 “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”
God did the same for Sodom, Lot was there to warn people. God did the same for Egypt. God did the same for Moabite and Edomite cities. God even warned Babylon in many ways before it was judged. He did this a lot for Jerusalem.
You could even argue, that such is the mercy of God, that the more wicked a city is, the more concerned he is to warn it. Imagine how he feels about our transgender affirming, abortion promoting, war-mongering Australian cities? God will continue to send people to warn this nation until he decides it is time to judge it.
When The Wicked Repent (vv.5-10) – And as we all know these wicked, evil and powerful people actually repent,
“5 And 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. 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. 7 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, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 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.”
It is hard to get across, just how monumental an event this conversion was. And we know it is a genuine conversion, because Jesus affirms that the people of Nineveh will be vindicated on the day of judgement. Perhaps helping you to understand some of their evil might help.
The Assyrian empire was the most terrifying force in the ancient world. It was so evil and so brutal, the eventually many of their allies and enemies joined together to turn on them. And they destroyed their cities completely, wiped them from the face of the earth.
When the Assyrians captured a city, if you resisted, they would brutalize the captured people. We read this in Amos 4:2, “2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” This is not metaphorical. This is what the Assyrians actually did to prisoners of war; stripping them down, putting big hooks through their mouths or noses, and then chaining them to their fellow prisoners, to march them into slavery. This happened to Manasseh, the King of Judah at one point,
“10 The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. 11 Therefore the Lord brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon” (2 Chronicles 33:101-11).
No cruelty or humiliation was kept in reserve when they were punishing their captives. Reading the ways the Assyrians tormented their captives is like reading an ‘R’ rated horror movie script. Dismemberment, flaying’s and worse. Think Aztecs or modern day Mexican drug cartels.
The book of Jonah does not ignore this violence, when the King tells everyone to repent, he says this, “Let everyone turn form his evil and from the violence that is in his hands.” It is not like their level of violence was acceptable according to the standards of their day, they went above and beyond. As we noted three weeks ago, they even painted, in detail and carved in detail what they would do to you on their palace walls if you were defeated by them. Can you imagine what living amongst those violence scenes did to their souls? It would be like living in a horror movie.
And yet - And yet they repented. They genuinely turned from their bloody and violent and evil ways, and sought the forgiveness of the Lord,
“5 And 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. 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. 7 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, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
If you ask people what the most remarkable miracle in the word of God is, I am sure they would think of the resurrection, the 10 plagues, Elijah calling fire down from heaven, the feeding of the five thousand. But few would probably list this one, even though it is up there with some of the most remarkable miracles in history.
This is as remarkable as if all of Hollywood repented and destroyed their idols and repented of their evil ways. This is as remarkable as if Stalin had have turned to the Lord, and all of Communist Russia had repented as well. Imagine the celebration of the angels as this wicked city repented. When one lost soul turns we read this, “10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). How much more joy when over 120,000 sinners repent in a couple of days?
God rewarded their repentance – “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.”
Why did the king of Nineveh repent, because he thought, maybe God would change his mind and relent from destroying them. But when you think about it, this is not really God changing his mind, because forgiving the sinner is actually God’s default position. Not destroying us when we deserve it, is his default setting. Not giving us what we deserve is his default setting. Not writing off sinful man, is his default position.
The Sign of Jonah Part 2 (Matthew 12:38-42) – But we have come all this way, and you must be wondering, ok Matt, this is great to see, but how does this point to Jesus. Well turn again to Matthew 12, verse 38 and read with me,
“38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For 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. 41 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. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”
We focused on the first part of this passage last week, showing how the 3 days and 3 nights image points to Jesus, but how else does the sign of Jonah point to Jesus?
Well, who repents in the book of Jonah? The wicked pagans. Don’t miss this. The Israelites at this point were ignoring the word of God and the prophets, but the most wicked pagans in the known world heard it and repented.
The sign of Jonah, therefore, also points to the fact that God’s own people would mostly reject Jesus’ message, and this is exactly what happened. On the final day the Ninevehites will judge the Jews of Jesus day, because they rejected Jesus.
This should be a big warning to us, as believers today, because it is often the case that the people of this world understand the mercy and grace of God, better than those of us in the Church. This was true in Jonah’s day, it was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true today still. We need to be constantly reminded to repent before the Lord, and also to extend his mercy and grace to each other and to the lost. The one who is forgiven much loves much, but the one who forgets what they were forgiven of can start to get a calloused heart.
Application – So, how do we apply what we have learnt today?
- Recognize God’s great heart for the lost.
- Have God’s same heart for seeking to warn the lost. It is not loving to fail to warn the lost, if you have the opportunity. You cannot affirm the sinner in their sin and call it love, biblically that is hate.
- Be careful, you don’t stagnate in your faith and miss the grace of God. God will always move to new wineskins, if the old become dry and useless. Seek the Lord to refresh your Spirit often.
Conclusion – Jonah points us to Jesus in so many ways. And most of all in this passage we see God’s great heart for the lost. Pray that if you first love, your love for sharing Jesus has died off, or quietened down, that you would get it back again. Pray it happens before God decides you need a testimony like Jonah. Let’s pray.
[i] Casting Crowns, I Will Praise You In This Storm