So last week we began a three week series entitled Schooled, looking at the Old Testament book of Jonah. We spent last week in Chapter 1 talking about God’s missionary call on Jonah, his outright hatred of the Assyrian people, his running away from the call of God, and his willing sacrifice for the gentile Pagan sailors who he looked eye to eye with, but not for the gentile, Pagan people in the city of Ninevah.
This week we are looking at the 3rd chapter of Jonah together and next week we’ll wrap up our series with the conclusion of the story in Jonah chapter 4. So let’s turn to Jonah chapter 3 and see what this chapter might say to us and how it might school us in the ways, values, and life of the Kingdom of God.
“Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” So the first thing we see in this text is the second call of God to Jonah. The second call to live out the Abrahamic covenant found in Genesis 12:1-3 as well as the second call to be a missionary of God and to share the redemptive narrative found in the God that Jonah worshipped. The interesting thing about this call in 3:1-2, is that it is a direct parallel to the beginning of Chapter 1, almost word for word. The author is skillfully trying to convey the idea that Jonah is being offered a new beginning, a second chance. A second chance to take up the missionary mantel that God was placing on him. A second chance to show love, grace, mercy, and compassion to the people of Ninevah as he had shown to the gentile, Pagan sailors. A second chance at faithfully living out the call that God was putting on him.
But he still had a choice to make. God was still not forcing him to go to Ninevah. He was just giving him a second chance and doing what God was calling him to do. He realized the first time that he couldn’t outrun or run away from God’s call on his life. (Anyone experience something similar, trying to run away from a call on your life and only realizing that in the end it was impossible?) And so we see in verse 3 that Jonah obeyed God and sent off for Ninevah.
What I find very interesting though is the words obeyed God. Why did he go to Ninevah and preach to it? Was it out of love, mercy, grace, and compassion? Was it out of duty to God because he couldn’t outrun God? Was it out of a sick desire to look people in the eye, and hope that he could see their destruction? Was it because God showed Jonah mercy in chapter 2 by saving him from death by having giant fish swallow him, and then spit him up on dry land? Was it from a heart of love that God had given to him for his enemies? Was it from a heart of repentance and wanting others to experience that same forgiveness that he experienced from God?
It seems like, at least to me and my reading of chapter 2 and chapter 3, that Jonah’s obedience to God’s call on his life, to be a missionary to the people of Ninevah, does not come from a heart of mercy, repentance, love, grace, and compassion. In fact, at no point is there an acknowledgement of disobedience or an expression of repentance on the behalf of Jonah. So I believe Jonah’s listening and going to Ninevah was not a willing obedience but a temporary forced compliance. He was taking up the missionary commission grudgingly. There was no mercy in his heart. God’s mercy upon Jonah in the belly of the whale didn’t kindle mercy in Jonah. So Jonah heads off to Ninevah, ever the reluctant missionary to a people that he, I believe, still despises in his heart and still desires to see God’s hand of judgment fall upon them. So Jonah gets to Ninevah and begins to proclaim “Forty more days and Ninevah will be destroyed.” Not a great message for the Assyrians to hear, but I can almost hear the love and hope that Jonah had that it would indeed happen. Almost like, I can’t wait for you guys to be destroyed and get what is coming to you. But something happens that I am sure Jonah wasn’t counting on, and I’m sure he was hoping that it wouldn’t happen. We see in verse 3 that a visit to Ninevah would require three days, and in verse 4 we see Jonah starting out on the first day. The very first day, when he had only gone 1/3 of the way through the city, is when his words took a starting effect on the population of Ninevah. We see in verse 5 the reaction to his preaching, “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” This verse is one of the most striking in the entire book of Jonah. In fact this verse and this chapter stand in direct contrast to the people of Israel, and in particular to the prophet Jonah. The lack of repentance on the part of Jonah himself through the book stands in striking contrast to the universal repentance and humiliation of the Assyrians. Jonah is singularly unmoved by his sin against God, while the pagan, Gentile citizens of Ninevah repent at the first word of judgment. This is surely intended to indicate how hardened against God, Israel had become in its proud, self-assurance and how wrong the Israelites were to think that they stood in a relationship with God of which the pagan, Gentile citizens of Ninevah were incapable of. Jonah was still a first class nationalist, exalting his own country, his own people, and “his” own God. This should strike us to the heart. The hero or heroes of this story isn’t the people of Israel represented by Jonah, (or the people of God if you will) but the pagan, gentile people who took God at his word, repented, and were justified. I’m sure that Israel hated this story, because God was showing that he showed no partiality and was no respecter of people. It was what got Jesus into the most trouble, because he was saying that it was the sick that needed a doctor, not the healthy. He said that the prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners were entering the Kingdom ahead of the religious leaders, Pharisees, and upright Jewish people. (Mt. 21:31) He told stories where the tax collector who humbled himself and was repentant went away justified, and the Pharisee who honored himself and condemned the tax collector went away not being justified by God, only by his self righteousness. (Luke 18:10-14)
Lastly, Jesus himself points his hearers back to this story that we are looking at today and paints the pagan, Gentiles of Ninevah with a beautiful brush of faithfulness, repentance, and justification. And paints his hearers as faithless, unrepentant and unjustified. In Luke 11:29-32 we read this, “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.” Jesus was driving home the same point that the writer of Jonah was driving. That the pagan, gentile people (whether of Jesus day) or of Jonah’s had a more open heart to the things of God than the religious people of Jesus’ day (or Jonah’s day for that matter). Could we say that about our own day? That people who are “outside” the Christian faith might have a more open heart to the things of God than “Christians”? Interesting question that we’ll explore together. So to end the story, the entire city of Ninevah, from greatest to least, from the King of Assyria to the livestock, sitting in sackcloth and ashes, fasting, and calling upon God in repentance. God hears their cries of repentance, their cries of mercy, and their pleading for forgiveness, and he relents from the destruction that he had planned (which would be an interesting discussion sometime).
So let’s turn to the question that I just asked about people outside the Christian faith having a more open heart to the things of God than Christians and a few other questions to unpack and apply this Scripture into our lives here in the 21st century.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, push back, etc.. do you have regarding the message and/or the Scripture? 2. Who is God calling you to be on mission with and on mission for? Have you obeyed this call and if so out of what? (Love, Compassion, Duty, etc..) 3. Have you ever experienced a person who wasn't a "follower of Jesus" looking more like a follower of Jesus, than someone who claimed the name of Jesus? If so, share with us the story. What do you do with that? 4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to go about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?