THE SALVATION OF A CITY
We’ve arrived at one of the simplest and most beautiful chapters in the entire Bible. It’s partially beautiful because it is the fullest expression of one thing we’ve seen so far in this book. In chapter 1, we saw God call Jonah to preach to the city of Nineveh, a foreign city outside of the covenant God had made with his people. We see Jonah run from God’s call, provoke a storm on the sea, and be thrown in the sea of his own volition. And yet, despite Jonah’s sin—and despite the fact that his original mission wasn’t even for this purpose—we see God’s compassion toward the other mariners who were aboard the boat with Jonah. In chapter 2, Jonah proclaims in his prayer that idolators have separated themselves from the mercy of God; which is, of course, at least superficially true. And yet God has compassion on these idolatrous mariners—because of what happened on the boat with Jonah, these mariners turn to God in faith.
This same thing happens even more gloriously, on a much larger scale, in chapter 3. The first two chapters of the book of Jonah, especially chapter 2 (which we saw last week), are deceptively complex; but chapter 3 tells a story that the most biblically ignorant can understand, and by which even the most hardened criminal can be broken. This episode shows God accomplishing the plan he sent Jonah out to accomplish. The story is very simple: through Jonah, God warns of imminent judgment on Nineveh because of their sin; the people repent of their sin; and God relents of his judgment and forgives them.
1) A Simple Message (v. 1-4)
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. We only see Jonah for a brief moment. Jonah’s just come out of three days in the belly of a fish: think of how you would look after a three-day bath in the stomach juices of a fish! He’s in all likelihood pruny, and slimy, and very smelly. The fish vomits him back up onto dry land, and then, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, saying basically the same thing he said before: “Go to Nineveh, and proclaim the message I will give you.”
So Jonah gets up, does his best to spruce himself up (at least I imagine he would!), and goes into the city. Nineveh was a huge city—it was (v. 3) an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. So (v. 4) 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. So Jonah only gets about a third of the way in to the city before he stops. We don’t know exactly why he stopped there—whether God told him specifically to stop in this place or whether he simply couldn’t take it anymore—but whatever the reason, he stops a third of the way through and stands up and calls out against the city. These are his words as the author relates them: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Now, I imagine he said more than just this; more than likely this is just a summary of what Jonah said. But the point is this: Jonah’s message was crystal clear. No one can say this message is confusing: God’s judgment is coming on this city. There would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the message was meant to convey: because of the great wickedness of this pagan city, God was threatening to destroy it in forty days’ time, like he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
So for once in this story we have an example of Jonah giving us a good example to follow: giving a clear, concise message which puts the most important thing front and center. He doesn’t get sidetracked by funny stories or illustrations; he doesn’t get drawn into a debate. He communicates the message God had given him in a very clear, no-nonsense way.
Imagine what this must have been like for him! For all the grief we give Jonah, we have to admit that this would have been a very frightening endeavor: going into an enemy nation and telling them that their ways are wicked and that if they don’t turn from their sin they will be judged for it. How tempting would it have been for him to get sidetracked by particulars? Debating why the sins of the Ninevites were particularly wicked, or trying to persuade them by reason that the God of Israel is the one true God? But that’s not what he does. He gets straight to the point and then gets out of the way, so that God can work.
This is striking from at least two perspectives. First of all, think of it from the Christian perspective: or to put it another way, imagine that you’re Jonah, today. How hard is it for us to do what he did today, in our context? Obviously we aren’t going to tell the people of Paris that God will destroy the city in forty days—God hasn’t told us any such thing, thank goodness—but we have been called to share a message too, haven’t we? And our message is equally simple: we are all sinners, we all need a Savior, and if we reject the Savior God has sent, Jesus Christ, we will be forever separated from God, which is the just punishment of our rebellion against him. And yet, how seldom do we communicate this simple message? How easy is it for us to get sidetracked into useless debates over secondary issues?
Think of the questions people ask, that we feel obliged to give satisfactory answers to. “Why does the Bible condemn homosexuality?” “How can you believe that God really created the earth in seven days?” “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” These are important questions, to be sure—but they are not central questions. (Or, to take a more “professional” slant: they are important, but not urgent.) Very often in conversations with unbelievers we jump on these questions, but for all the wrong reasons: not because they are essential, but because they buy us time, allow us to beat around the bush to avoid coming to the central issue of sin and judgment and the sacrifice of Christ as long as humanly possible. And we avoid that subject because we’re afraid to bring it up; people love debating and reasoning and batting issues back and forth to find the chinks in the armor—it’s a national sport! But no one likes to hear that they are sinners in danger of judgment and condemnation. So we are happy to let ourselves talk about anything else but the central message of the gospel, while the central message of the gospel is the one thing people really need to hear.
The second perspective would be that of the Ninevites: imagine being these people hearing this simple message of God’s impending judgment. Is this a message that you would readily accept? How would you react hearing that your heart—like everyone else’s—is ultimately corrupt and wicked, and that there is an ultimate authority who created you for his glory, and that if you turn from the means he provided to be reconciled with him, you will in fact be eternally separated from him…and that that will be the worst punishment imaginable? How would you react? You need to know—because this is ultimately exactly the message of the Bible. And how you react to that news will not only determine how you feel about Christianity, but ultimately will determine your eternity.
The gospel is simple. It is clear. It is concise. It is both important and urgent. And our call is first to respond to that message the way God requires us to, and second, to share that message with others.
2) A Miraculous Repentance (v. 5-9)
We’ve heard what happens next so many times that we may become numb to the immensity of the events. Jonah, a foreign prophet (probably in very bad shape after spending three days in the stomach of a fish), comes into the center of the city, tells its inhabitants that their wickedness is going to bring judgment on them in the near future. If you didn’t know what the outcome of this story was, what would you guess would happen? The best case scenario would be that the people of the city would laugh Jonah out of town as a lunatic; the worst case scenario would be that they would fly into a rage at his impertinence and kill him.
So what actually happens should astonish us—v. 5: 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. This is astounding. They hear this insane message—decidedly the least seeker-sensitive message imaginable!— coming from this strange foreigner; but when they hear it, they do not laugh him out of town, and they do not kill him. They believe it. Somehow, they believe that the God Jonah spoke of is real, that what Jonah says is true, and that they are indeed in imminent danger if they continue on the same course. And not just a handful of people in the city believe it—all of them, collectively, do: The people of Nineveh believed God. How is this possible?
What we see happening here is the same thing that happens in the book of Acts. The apostles receive the Holy Spirit to preach boldly to the Jews, but God sends them to the Gentiles as well, and the Gentiles are given the same grace, the same Holy Spirit! And when Peter comes and tells the Jews what has happened, listen to their response (Acts 11.18): When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has GRANTED REPENTANCE that leads to life.” In other words, God sends out his people to proclaim the good news of the gospel, people hear the good news proclaimed, and through his Holy Spirit God causes that good news to change the hearts of the hearers. This sovereign work of the Holy Spirit—to take a message that sounds objectively crazy and make it transform the hearts of those who hear it—is the only explanation for what happened in Nineveh. It is the only thing that could cause an entire city to come to faith after one man’s simple preaching.
And not only do they believe, they repent as well. In the Ninevites, we see a beautiful example of what repentance looks like. First, they display grief over their sin. This grief is shown at the end of v. 5: They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Fasting and wearing sackcloth (a very rough material) were both signs of grief—it’s what people at the time did when mourning the death of a loved one. So they did this of their own accord, but the response was so strong that the king of Nineveh himself issued a decree that this should be the case in the entire city, for everyone. V. 6: 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.
It may seem strange that the Bible would see grief as a good response; but we need to know it’s a very specific kind of grief. The Bible makes the distinction between godly grief and worldly grief. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7.10: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. In other words, worldly grief is simple grief: we become aware of the gravity of what we have done and we feel the weight of our guilt, and we are crushed under it. We feel no hope that this guilt isn’t the end of the story—we simply look in the mirror, see what we are, and disgusted. And it ends there: people go into depression over regret; people are ruined by regret. Worldly grief is devastating. Godly grief, on the other hand, although painful, leads to salvation WITHOUT regret. In other words, when we feel godly grief, we are aware of the gravity of what we have done and we feel the weight of our guilt, but at the same time we believe what God has told us: we believe that he has provided forgiveness not for those who aren’t guilty, but precisely for those who are. Our guilt is not crushing, but rather opens our eyes to our need for God, and to the fact that God is ready and able to respond to that need! Godly grief, rather than crushing us, causes us to stand up and say, “I must change! Lord, help me change!”
Which is exactly what happens here—their repentance are marked by godly grief, which leads to an active turning away from their sin. At the end of verse 8, we see the king of Nineveh continue his decree: Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. The king, along with all the people under his rule, makes a resolution: the sin which characterized me before will characterize me no longer. I am no longer the person I was, and I don’t need to do the things I used to do. Rather than looking back at the shame of my past, I look ahead, to what God has called me to do in the future.
The prospect of this change must have been daunting; the people must have supposed they may not be able to do this well enough. But they believe that at least that it must be possible. The king says in v. 9: Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish. So their faith is still small; it is not yet great, unshakeable faith. But it is faith nonetheless. It is the faith of every new believer. The first question of every new believer—whether it’s explicit or implicit—is not, “What do I do?” but rather, “Could this be true? Could it be that he would NOT exercise judgment on me? Could this be possible?” And thank the Lord, this small glimmering of hopeful faith is enough.
3) An Undeserved Grace (v. 10)
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. This is the most amazing thing of all. Think of someone who has consistently failed you; think of the classic picture of the alcoholic husband. The wife comes home, finds her husband, for the millionth time, passed out drunk on the couch. She knows this man. She knows what he’s like. She knows his weakness. So when he comes to and feels grief over it and swears, “I’ll never do it again” (as he always does), what will be her reaction? More than likely, it won’t do anything for her. She won’t believe it, because she knows him. “I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again” won’t hold up in any courtroom in the world.
And yet God, who knows the hearts of these people better than they know themselves, and knows that repentance doesn’t equal perfection, still accepts that repentance. He knows they won’t be perfect. He knows there will still be sin in this city. He knows that the Ninevites’ turning from their sins will not make Nineveh a city of angels. And they don’t deserve this grace—they, like us, deserve judgment for their sin. Nevertheless, when he sees their grief over their sin, and sees their desire to turn away from that sin and live righteously for him, he relents of the judgment he had planned for them, and does not do it: he relents.
We have a hard time believing God would do this for us, don’t we? We might say, “Well, God sees into their hearts, so clearly he must have seen something in them that’s better than what’s in me. He accepted them because they were so transformed; there is no way he would accept me, because I still struggle with my sin.” But the Bible doesn’t tell us that the people of Nineveh suddenly became saints; the Bible is filled with stories of people who meet God, who love God, who know God, and who still struggle grievously with their sin. And guess what? God still calls them his children.
The overarching story of the Bible is a very simple one. God is the main character, and he describes himself as a God who rejoices to love the unloveable, not because of anything they do, but because of what he has done in them. God grants repentance to people, and then rewards those people for the repentance that he himself granted. This story isn’t meant to make us think primarily about how our repentance compares to that of the Ninevites; it is meant to make us marvel at the incredible grace of God who would accept to forgive even people so vile as these (and us).
This chapter of the book of Jonah, just like the previous chapters, pushes us to ask ourselves a few questions. We saw Jonah declare a very simple, concise message to the Ninevites—a message that goes straight to the essential. So the first question we need to ask ourselves is this: What prevents us from clearly announcing the Word of God in our city? Surely there’s fear there: we don’t want to offend anyone by calling them sinners (even though we call ourselves the same), so we avoid the main message by talking about peripheral issues (important issues, perhaps, but still secondary). It’s clear that these peripheral issues are more culturally interesting; they’ll stimulate livelier debates. But they are not the center of the gospel message. The focus of our message is that we stand under and deserve God’s judgment, but he has offered grace to us; so we are called to repent of our sins and trust in Christ alone for our salvation, for faith in his sacrifice alone is what makes us righteous before God and unites us to him. Let’s not get sidetracked—let’s “keep the main thing the main thing” (as they say) and if ever we get asked about these peripheral issues, let’s use them to point people back to the real subject at hand.
Secondly, do we realize the extent of our sin, and will we react to the knowledge of our sin the way the people of Nineveh do? There are several possible reactions to the gospel message. We may show outrage and indignation: “How can you be so arrogant as to say that I’m bad enough to deserve judgment?” We may just laugh it off: “This call is ridiculous: everyone knows there is no God, and there is no sin.” Or, we may react as the Ninevites did: we may believe God, display godly grief over our sin, and turn from that sin. In the end, this is the only response that leads to life. So when we hear the gospel call, how will we respond? And this question isn’t just for unbelievers: for we who are Christians, how will we continue to respond? When we hear the gospel, do we harden our hearts to our sin, imagining that because we have already received God’s grace, our own change of life is a secondary issue? As Paul said last week when he preached, are we more shocked by other people’s sin than by our own? Or do we continue to feel grief over our sin, which leads us to continually place our faith in Christ alone for our salvation and growth in holiness?
Thirdly, do we trust God’s power to transform his people? We have received a clear mission from Christ: Go and make disciples of all nations. Especially in a city like Paris, where there are so few people who seem open to the gospel, this can seem like a profoundly daunting task. But look at the power of God at work here—through a profoundly simple message, an entire city is cut to the heart and comes to faith! Do we believe that God can still do this in people who are alive today? Do we truly believe that God has the power to change people’s hearts, to produce a mass revival even in a city as disinterested in the gospel message as Paris? We should.
So this question leads us to our last question: Do we trust not only God’s power, but his WILLINGNESS to forgive all those who repent of their sin and turn to him in faith? Do you believe that God actually wants to forgive even the worst of sinners? Do you believe that he not only can forgive you, but wants to? We’re sometimes ashamed to come to God, because we have this idea that even though he will forgive us (because he said he would), he’s secretly not very happy about it. We feel like that guy in the office nobody likes but who gets invited to the office party because everyone in the office got invited. So we show up and take our glass and sit in a chair in the corner because we think no one really wants us there, especially the boss.
But the essence of the gospel message is just this: if you turn to God in faith, not only can God forgive us and not only will he forgive you; he EARNESTLY WANTS TO. And he proved that he wants to because he sent his Son to die for all those who place their faith in him, long before we ever made any kind of choice to follow him! Before the foundation of the world, God had already planned to send his Son to die in our place, precisely so that we might come to him as the only possible hope of forgiveness and redemption we have. God does not and will not regret saving you! He doesn’t go about it halfheartedly; it is his joy and pleasure to give his Son to save whoever comes to him in faith—even you!—for he is wondrously glorified through the grace he shows you.
Brothers and sisters, let us announce the Word of God clearly, and boldly. Let us realize the extent of our own sin: let us grieve over that sin, and let that grief push us to Christ’s throne, asking him again to forgive us and pick us up again and change us. Let us trust that God can produce a revival in our own hearts first of all, and a mass revival in our city. And let us trust that not only can he forgive all those who turn to him in faith, but rejoices to do so. This is the great God we serve; this is the good news we have received.