Date: May 19, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Jonah 3:1–3:10
If the book of Jonah were a play, chapter 3 would be Act II, Scene 1. The first act of the book was the remarkable account of God pursuing his wayward prophet. God called, Jonah ran, God pursued, Jonah sank down, but then God raised him up with unfathomable grace. And at the end of Act I, Jonah confessed the truth that stands at the heart of this book, ch2, v9 – “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” That’s what Jonah has experienced. Jonah has tasted firsthand that God is free to show mercy to whomever he will. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
As we enter Act II here in chapter 3, that truth remains the focus, but it is now applied to a different cast of characters. Finally, Jonah arrives in Nineveh, and it’s here in the great city that Jonah is confronted with the full weight of what it means that salvation belongs to the Lord. You heard it as we read. What happens in Nineveh is nothing short of a revival. God acts in a mighty, merciful way to spare these people from judgment. Is it surprising? On one level, yes. Nineveh is a wicked city that deserves the judgment of God, and yet, God shows mercy, which always catches us off guard in some way. So, yes, on one level, it is surprising.
And yet, on another level, if we’ve been paying attention through Act I, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. God spared the sailors in chapter 1, God spared Jonah in chapter 2 – God is merciful to whomever he will show mercy. Salvation belongs to the Lord, in other words! The entire flow of the book is pressing this question on our hearts and minds – do we believe this to be true about the Lord? Do we believe and embrace that salvation belongs to God and to God alone?
And so, as we enter Act II of Jonah, we will focus on that same truth, but now from a perhaps a different perspective. Specifically, I’d like us to see four displays of God’s mercy here in chapter 3, four displays that press us deeper into the truth that salvation belongs to the Lord. #1 – in his mercy, God provides second chances – that’s vv1-3. #2 – in his mercy, God warns of judgment – that’s vv3-4. #3 – in his mercy, God leads sinners to repentance – that’s vv5-10. And finally, #4 – in his mercy, God call us to believe the One who is greater than Jonah – that’s a connection with the NT.
In His Mercy, God Provides Second Chances
Let’s begin, then, with vv1-3 – in his mercy, God provides second chances. The opening verses of chapter 3 sound very much like the first chapter of the book. Again, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah, and again, the prophet is commanded to “Arise” and “go to Nineveh.” In terms of Jonah’s mission, nothing has changed. God aims to confront the wicked city of Nineveh, and Jonah is God’s chosen instrument for that mission. The two chapters echo one another.
But there is something different in chapter 3 that should get our attention. It’s a little phrase tucked in v1 that might be easy to miss, but it’s a little phrase that reveals something massive about the heart of God. Notice again v1 – “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh.’” This is actually why the two passages are so similar – it’s so we will recognize God’s mercy in giving Jonah a second chance. It’s almost like a reset, isn’t it? God very well could have moved on from Jonah and given some other prophet the privilege of witnessing the Lord’s mercy. But amazingly, God doesn’t abandon Jonah like Jonah tried to abandon him. The Lord brings Jonah back to the start, back to the beginning. And he gives the prophet the same commission again as a way of saying, “I’m not finished with you, Jonah. Here is a second chance, a fresh opportunity to submit yourself to my lordship.”
This is the other side of how God deals with his children. Like a wise father, he sometimes has to discipline us, like he did with Jonah in chapter 2. He corrects us with a firm hand so we’ll see how we’ve drifted away. Like a wise father, he disciplines us. And at the same time, like a tenderhearted father, God’s discipline is very often followed by a second chance rooted in grace. It’s a second opportunity to follow him by faith, a reset so we might obey where we failed the first time. And these two sides, brothers and sisters, need to be kept together. Yes, God disciplines us, but he disciplines to restore. Yes, God allows us to experience some of the bitter consequences of sin, but he does that so we won’t go down those rebellious roads again. Mixed together with God’s discipline is the second chance of grace.
And that’s what we see here with Jonah. Notice the change in v3 – “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” Now, there are many questions left to answer about Jonah. Has he truly repented? We don’t know. Has he really learned his lesson? Not sure yet. But at least at this point, Jonah embraces the second chance of grace. He submits himself to the word of the Lord, and he goes to Nineveh.
I hope you see the heart of God in the opening verses of chapter 3. He is a God who delights in mercy, in restoration. And that means he is a God who does, at times, provide that reset of grace, that second opportunity to trust him and follow his word. Aren’t you glad for that, brothers and sisters? Aren’t you glad he’s not a one-and-done God? I know I am. Oh, how many times I’ve needed his patience to both correct me and then bring that reset where there’s another opportunity to walk by faith.
And maybe that’s what you need to hear this morning. I hope you see that God doesn’t give up on his people. Jonah did not deserve a reset. He blew it, and yet, God didn’t leave him on the trash bin of life. God corrected him, God restored him, and now God is calling him again to faith and obedience. The same is true for believers today. If you are a Christian this morning, you may have walked far away. You may have blown it in significant ways. And yet, God is not finished with you. He is patient. He restores. And he provides a new opportunity to follow him. I hope you see his heart, brothers and sisters, and even more, I hope you’re encouraged to start again by following him in faith. God called Jonah a second time, and in doing so, we see his mercy in a second chance.
In His Mercy, God Warns of Judgment
That leads into the next display of God’s mercy, this time from vv3-4. In his mercy, God warns of judgment. Jonah journeys to Nineveh in v3, and in v4, he begins to preach. Notice the prophet’s message in v4 – “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’” That is a warning of judgment. That word overthrown was also used in Genesis 19 to describe God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those cities were infamous for their wickedness, and God, in his wrath, destroyed those cities. He overthrew them in judgment. That’s what Jonah declares in Nineveh. He warns the people of God’s impending judgment.
Now, there a few things we should note at this point from Jonah’s preaching. It’s simple but startling message, isn’t it? And that is one point we should takeaway. Jonah’s preaching is simple and straightforward. He doesn’t mince words or try to package the message in a way that dulls the sharp edge of what God has said. No, Jonah very simply speaks what God commands him to speak.
This is a good reminder. We are tasked to be wise messengers of God’s word, but we are not free to change God’s word. What God’s word says, we must say, even if that truth has some hard edges that the world won’t like. In that sense, Jonah’s preaching is an exhortation to us – our responsibility is faithfulness with clarity. What God has spoken, we must also speak.
And that highlights the second takeaway from Jonah’s message. Notice how it was necessary for Jonah to warn about God’s judgment. So far in our series, we have rightly focused on mercy and grace because those truths are the heart of the book. But we need to remember that a right understanding of mercy and grace actually begins with the reality of God’s judgment. In fact, there is no way to make sense of mercy and grace unless we first see how we deserve the judgment of God.
This is one of those sharp edges we just mentioned a moment ago. This is one of those pointed truths we are not free to change. It is popular, even among professing Christians, to claim that the church needs to move past talk about judgment, wrath, and hell. The postmodern world has no use for such doctrine, we’re often told. No one will listen to you, it’s frequently claimed.
If Jonah’s life teaches us anything, it’s that such claims are incredibly misguided. By all means, God delights in mercy, but his mercy begins first with the recognition that we deserve his judgment. And therefore, we must be clear, brothers and sisters, on the danger of unrepentant sin. God will judge those who do not turn from sin. God will judge those who reject his warnings. If you do not know God through faith in Christ, there is a great and terrible day coming when God’s judgment will go from warning to reality. Sin does separate us from God, and it does bring God’s judgment.
And listen, brothers and sisters – as servants of Christ, we cannot let go of that truth. We will undermine the gospel if we minimize the reality of God’s judgment. We will lose the gospel if we fail to tell the truth – that unrepentant sin is serious and that it leads to God’s wrath in hell.
Now, as I say that, you may be thinking, “Ok, Jeff, but I don’t want to be harsh towards people. I don’t want to talk down to them or berate them.” That’s good because I don’t want us to do that either! But here is what we need to remember. Warning people of God’s judgment is actually the merciful thing to do. I hope you see that in v4. God could have given Nineveh zero days to repent. He could have overthrown the city right then and there. But he sends his word instead. He sends a warning, and in that warning, Jonah is an instrument of mercy.
The same is true today. When we clearly and carefully warn others about the danger of unrepentant sin, we’re not being harsh. We’re saying, “I love you enough to tell you the truth.” We’re demonstrating the merciful heart of God – a God who would take the amazing step of warning sinners in advance of where sin will lead. Is that a message with sharp edges? Absolutely, there’s no denying it. But it’s a sharp edge that allows us to see God’s mercy. And so, the question before us is – will we be faithful instruments of mercy as Jonah was, even to the point of being clear with the warning of God’s judgment?
In His Mercy, God Leads Sinners to Repent
The third display of mercy is connected with the second, this time from vv5-10. In his mercy, God leads sinners to repent. We noted it at the outset. The response to Jonah’s preaching is nothing short of revival. The city of Nineveh repents. Now, you might be thinking, “But Jonah only warned them of God’s judgment. There wasn’t anything in his message about repentance.” But remember, every warning includes a call to repentance. In fact, that’s the entire reason why God warns of his judgment in the first place – so that people might turn from sin and trust in his word. Jeremiah 18 is the classic expression of this. Listen to what the Lord said about repentance through the prophet Jeremiah. This is Jeremiah 18.7 – “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…turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” Implicit in God’s warning is also his call to repentance. That’s what his warning is for – it’s a call to turn from sin before the end comes.
And amazingly, that’s what happens in Nineveh. From the king down to the lowest member of society, the people repent. Now, does this mean the Ninevites are true believers in the God of Israel? The text doesn’t answer that question specifically. Later in history, we know that God did bring judgment on Nineveh. But for now, the focus is on Nineveh’s repentance at this moment, in response to this particular message. And it’s a repentance, I might add, that the nation of Israel never displayed in all of its history. Here we see Ninevites doing what Israelites would not – listening to God’s prophet and turning from sin. God will show mercy to whomever he will show mercy.
Let’s zero in on Nineveh’s repentance for just a few moments. I would say many people today are confused about repentance. Is it a primarily an emotional response? Do I have to wear sackcloth and ashes, like here in chapter 3? What is it? If we pay attention to the text, we note some important features about repentance that add clarity to our thinking.
First of all, we should note that Nineveh’s repentance is immediate. Notice v5. As soon as they hear the warning, the people repent. They don’t delay. They don’t weigh the pros and cons – none of that. They hear God’s word, and the people turn from their wickedness. In fact, that’s why we hear about the people in v5 before we hear about the king in v6. Scripture wants us to see the immediacy of their response. They didn’t wait.
Is that true of us? When we are confronted with conviction from God’s Word, are we quick to repent? Are our lives marked by an immediacy like the Ninevites? I often think of that passage in Hebrews 3 – “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Is that true of you? Today, if you hear his Word, are you quick to respond? Is our repentance immediate?
Along with that, we should also note that Nineveh’s repentance is produced by God’s word. Please don’t miss the connection from v4 to v5. It’s the proclamation of God’s word in v4 that produces the repentance in v5. This is important. The Ninevites did not produce their own repentance, though they were certainly responsible for taking action as we’ll see in a moment. But at the core, their repentance came in response to God’s word. Repentance is an evangelical grace, as our statement of faith says. It is God’s word that invades our hard hearts and works to bring about the repentance that God demands.
This is why it is so vital that you be regularly hearing God’s Word, both in your own life and in the gathering of the church. It’s because God’s Word is the means of breaking through to our hearts and bringing us to repentance. To stray from God’s Word is to be disconnected from the very power God uses to turn us back to him. Do you see it, brothers and sisters? Are you taking in God’s Word? Is gathering with the church a priority in your life? This is what God uses to bring about growth. His Word is what produces the repentance that pleases him. And so, we need to ask – Am faithfully hearing God’s Word? And if not, then make today the day you begin to hear again.
Note also that the Ninevites’ repentance is connected to faith. Again, the progression in v5 is important. Notice what the Ninevites did first – they believed God, and then they engaged in a visible display of repentance. In fact, in the original of v5, believe is the first word in the sentence. Faith is what gets the emphasis. Repentance and faith are always connected. At a minimum, repentance begins with the confession, “I believe what God says in his Word. I believe what God’s Word says about God himself, and I believe what God’s Word says about me. And on that faith, I now act to turn from my sin, to change my mind and my actions to be more in line with God’s Word.”
Perhaps that’s where you need to start today – with the humility to submit to what God says in his Word. Perhaps you need to begin by believing that sin is serious, that sin brings judgment, and that the Holy God calls his people to turn from sin in repentance. Many times, I’m afraid, our willingness to tolerate sin is due to our failure to believe what God has said in his Word. And if that’s you this morning, then the best place to start is with confession before God. Confess that you’ve ignored his Word, but that now, you’re ready to humbly hear and respond.
Finally, we should note the Ninevites’ repentance is evident in changed lives. The king gets involved in v6, and even he demonstrates his humility before God. Notice how he leaves his throne, takes off his royal robe, and sits in sackcloth before God. Even the mighty king is brought low by the word of God.
But it’s not just those outward actions that deserve our attention. The most important feature is v8. Look again at what the king says – “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” That’s a call for change, and that’s what repentance demands. It’s not only an attitude of being sorry for sin – it’s also the determined action to turn from sin, to change how we live. The king of Nineveh understands that if this city-wide brokenness is to be genuine, then it must also include change.
Is that true in our lives? When God mercifully brings conviction of sin, do we confess and leave it at that? Or do we confess and then, by God’s grace, make the effort to change? And I do mean effort at this point. This where you have to keep in mind what we said just a moment ago about repentance. Yes, it is brought about by God’s word, but then it also requires that we put that word into practice – that we take steps to bring our lives in line with what God has said. Is that true of us? Is that how we respond when God brings conviction – with both confession and the drive to change?
All of this is mercy, brothers and sisters. I hope we see that. All that happens in Nineveh is mercy. God brings his word, and through that word, he calls even the wicked Ninevites to repentance. And if we’ve somehow missed the mercy, notice the final word from Nineveh’s king This is a staggering confession from a Ninevite, v9 – “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” At the end of the day, where do the Ninevites find themselves? In the merciful hands of God. The king recognizes that repentance does not obligate God to serve us. God remains free to show mercy to whomever he will. Repentance does not turn God into our debtor. Salvation belongs to the Lord! And so, the final word in Nineveh’s repentance is not, “You owe us, God.” No, the final word is, “Our lives are in your hands.”
And that’s what I hope we takeaway from this point on repentance. By all means, we need to confess and strive for change. We need to labor to put off wickedness and grow in obedience to what God has said. Those are necessary actions in repentance. But even then, at the end of it all, where do we find ourselves? In the merciful hands of God, and as we’ve seen all through this book, there is no better place to be.
And to drive that truth home, brothers and sisters, please notice again v10, where we see the heart of God on display. Repentance can sometimes seem overwhelming, maybe even frightening. So as an encouragement, notice God’s heart in v10 – “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” You know, some of the commentaries on this passage spend a good deal of time discussing whether or not God changed his mind, with the implication being that perhaps God doesn’t know the future. But that actually misses the point. This is what God intended for Nineveh at this point – his will was to display his mercy. That’s why he sent his word, that’s why he brought about their repentance – not so we would wonder about his omniscience, but so we would see his mercy. He does not delight in the death of the wicked. He delights in mercy, and that’s where repentance leads us. It leads us to mercy.
Wherever you are this morning, I pray you see the heart of God on display centuries ago in the most unlikely of places – in Nineveh. And in seeing God’s heart, I pray each of us is encouraged to trust him, to turn from sin, and to believe that he is merciful.
In His Mercy, God Calls Us To Believe the One Who Is Greater Than Jonah
That brings us to the final display of mercy, which actually comes from the NT – in his mercy, God calls us to believe the One who is greater than Jonah. I mentioned last week that Jesus himself references Jonah’s ministry in Matthew 12, and since we always come to the OT as Christians, we need to understand how Jonah’s ministry connects with the ministry of Christ. In Matthew 12, the religious leaders come to Jesus and ask for a sign. Understand, they want Jesus to do something that will eliminate the need for faith. They don’t want to take God at his word; they want proof, so to speak. Never mind that Jesus has healed the lame, opened the eyes of the blind, calmed storms, cleansed lepers – never mind all that! The religious leaders want a sign because they refuse to believe.
Jesus is too wise to play the religious leaders’ game. He tells them, “No sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus’ point is that the resurrection will be the proof of his ministry. You want a sign? Then see Christ risen from the dead and believe!
But then Jesus goes on to say something else, and it’s here that we have the most pressing connection for us today. Jesus says, Mt12 v41 – “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.” Christ himself is telling us that Jonah’s ministry is ultimately a call to believe Jesus’ message. Or to say it another way, the revival of mercy in Nineveh leads us on to see and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jonah was a prophet who spoke the word of God, but Jesus is the very Word of God made flesh. Jonah’s ministry pictured in part God’s sovereign mercy to the undeserving. Jesus’ ministry brought that mercy to fulfillment in saving his people to the uttermost. Jesus, then, is greater than Jonah. Jesus is the flesh-and-blood realization of the God who would mercifully call even Ninevites to repentance. And therefore, if the Ninevites believed Jonah, how much more should we believe the One who is greater than Jonah? Jonah was a prophet who spoke the word of God. Jesus is the very Word of God made flesh.
If you do not know Christ today, God’s Word is calling you to believe. But please hear me on this, friend. True belief is not simply in a general idea of repentance or even in a vague notion that God is merciful. No, God’s Word is calling you to believe in Jesus Christ, the one greater than Jonah. It is Christ who brings us to know the merciful God. It is Christ who embodies for us God’s sovereign grace that saves. It is Christ who spares us from the judgment to come. And it is Christ who assures us that God’s fierce anger against our sin has been satisfied. Believe in Christ, friend. Turn from sin, and trust that in Christ, God shows mercy to whomever he will show mercy.
If you are a Christian today, I pray this small glimpse of how the gospel connects to Jonah will stir you to know Christ more and more by faith. There is more glory in Christ than we have yet seen, and that glory will satisfy our souls and hold us fast in the faith until the last day. Perhaps the gospel has lost some of its luster in your eyes. Perhaps you’ve even subtly begun to think, “Maybe there is something more to Christianity than seeking to know Christ and make him known.” If so, then I do pray your eyes have been opened again this morning to the glory of the Son of God. Jonah’s ministry is a marvel of mercy to the undeserving, but Jonah’s ministry is only a shadow of the mercy God has displayed in Christ. Behold the Savior today, brothers and sisters, and be encouraged anew to press deeper in his gospel. Amen.