God has chased Jonah across the Mediterranean Sea, and finally brought him to the point where, in the belly of the great fish, Jonah repented, looked to the sacrifices of the temple, and declared that he would obey God. God is now ready to use Jonah again, so Jonah is spat out onto the beach – all rather undignified but effective (2:10)!
God’s grace in recommissioning Jonah
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time (3:1-2). Some have tried to see a slightly different message here but it seems essentially the same as the original message. There is great grace in this recommissioning. Jonah got his job back. He had proved himself unworthy of God’s call, and had been to the grave and back, but so gracious is God that He comes to him the second time.
John Newton’s Amazing Grace is not just about how to become a Christian; it is about the whole Christian pilgrimage.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
That is conversion, how Newton became a Christian. But then he writes:
‘Tis grace has led me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
That is the whole Christian journey, all of life. That is what Jonah found.
God was under no compulsion to recommission Jonah – to pursue him, restore him, and entrust him with His word again. But He did. Christ did the same thing with Peter. Peter was all bravado – ‘Others may deny You, but I never will.’ But it all came to grief. He denied Christ three times. The story could have ended there but it did not. Three times Christ asks Peter to confess his love for Him (John 21:15-17). It hurt Peter but it also healed him. We are not to presume on that grace. More than one person has said to me, in the words of Catherine the Great: ‘God forgives, that’s His job.’ It is not His job at all. His job is to be just. We have every claim on His justice, not that that does us any good. His mercy is something we are not to presume upon, but to be grateful for. If you have failed, you can take heart – ‘the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time’.
This time Jonah did not try to flee. He wandered up and down the streets of Nineveh, including the outer suburbs, and set up his fruit box in front of the pagan temples, and let fly: ‘Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed. You have forty days to repent or the God of the Israelites will overthrow this city’ (see 3:3-4).
Yet all is not as it appears on the surface. This is arguably the greatest revival in history – greater than that of the 18th century under men like George Whitefield and John Wesley – yet the instrument whom God used is very defective. He preaches the truth but look at the state of his heart. When Ninevites responded, Jonah was not just disappointed but angry (4:1-2). You would think he would have been thrilled out of his mind. Jonah had preached repentance but all the time hoped against hope that his hearers would not repent. Strange preacher! Jonah’s feet were obedient – he went to Nineveh; his lips were obedient – he preached the truth; but his heart was far from God. He was a rebellious prophet, not a false prophet.
Contrast that to the apostle Paul (Acts 20:31; Rom.9:2-3). Outward obedience is not enough but it is still better than disobedience. We are to do what is right, no matter how we feel about it. Sure, God demands more than outward obedience but He does not demand less. Jonah repents in two stages – more or less outwardly, then more inwardly. Obey the word of God whether you feel like it or not.
The proofs of true repentance
Nineveh repents at Jonah’s preaching. Notice the features of a true repentance:
(a) they believed God (3:5). Many of them, even the king, who was regarded as a regent of the god Asshur, believed God. They believed that the God who made heaven and earth was not bluffing when He threatened them with judgment. He had made Himself known through His prophet Jonah. Believing is not just believing that God exists, but believing that He has made Himself known in His word.
(b) they mourned over sin (3:5-8). The sackcloth and ashes and fasting signify their sorrow over their sin. We may not insist that new communicants come dressed in sackcloth and ashes, but there must be mourning over sin. Someone who is flippant about sin is surely not converted.
(c) they turned away from evil (3:8, 10). Repentance is not just feeling bad about sin, but doing something about it. Isaiah 55 says: ‘Let the wicked forsake his way.’ When the multitudes came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he called on them to change (Luke 3:10-14). The Assyrians had plenty to change in their lives – the Assyrian kings used to skin their enemies alive.
(d) they put their hope in God’s grace (3:9). They were uncertain about whether God would relent; this is not quite up there with 1 John 1:9. But it is still hope in God’s graciousness. And God was gracious (3:10).
These cruel and pagan Ninevites had all the disadvantages: Nineveh was part of a thriving empire, the culture was different, its gods were entrenched, and it spoke a different language to Jonah. But the people listened to this strange cantankerous man, from another culture, speaking another language, and telling of a God who was identified with Israel, not Assyria. Cross-cultural evangelism is difficult, but God can overcome all obstacles. The Ninevites listened and they believed. We have far greater advantages. We have the whole word of God, not just some cranky prophet on a fruit box, we have a long tradition of Christianity, Christian friends, Christian books, Christian schools and churches. We live in the fullness of time – the Messiah has appeared, has died and has risen from the dead. ‘One greater than Jonah is here’ (Matt.12:41). Our judgment will be all the greater if we refuse to repent at God’s word of grace in Jesus Christ (Luke 12:48).
Rev Dr Peter Barnes is currently the pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church and Church History lecturer at Christ College, Sydney.