This week, we’re looking at the OT book of Jonah. On Monday, we saw how Jonah was a prophet who was given a simple message of judgement to deliver to a hostile people – but ran away in the opposite direction. Unwittingly, he himself becomes an object lesson as he embodies Israel’s failure to live out her calling to be a light to the nations. (You probably want to read Monday’s first, if you missed it.) We then saw God send a violent storm to get Jonah’s attention. To stop the storm and save the others onboard, Jonah has himself thrown overboard. And immediately the storm stops. But God sends a giant fish to rescue Jonah, and yesterday, from within the belly of the fish, he sings a song of praise – acknowledging that God has shown him undeserved mercy and vowing to complete his mission to Nineveh.
Scene 4: Nineveh repents
So Jonah finally gets on board with God’s call, although still a little reluctantly. Having just been spat up on the beach, he heads off to Nineveh to give the message God sent him to give.
3:1-4 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.”
Not a long message, is it? Just five words in Hebrew: Forty. More. Days. Nineveh. Overthrown. One of the briefest sermons on record. And yet, it gets an instant response. Even though there’s no call to repentance – just a warning to get ready for judgement – the Ninevites repent. They fast and mourn in the off-chance that God might change his mind and relent:3:5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth…
3:8-10 “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.
This makes Jonah one of the most effective preachers ever. Five word sermon, 120,000 responses. But it also a great big slap in the face to Israel. They’ve had far more than five words of warning. Prophet after prophet. Warning after warning. Chance after chance. And still they run after other gods, and don’t fulfil their mission. Yet the most hated, godless people in the ancient world repent instantly!
Jesus even weighs in on this one, using it to have a go at the Israelites of his own day. He says:Lk 11:29-30, 32 “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous 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… (32) 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 one greater than Jonah is here.”
It’s a reminder that the nations of the world are ripe for God’s message. It’s a reminder to Israel not to abuse her status as God’s chosen people.
And it’s a reminder to us that people are still hungry for the gospel. Maybe not so much in the “Christianised” West, where, like Israel, we have all the advantages. All the resources. The pastors, the bibles, the money – and maybe see only a trickle of converts.
Yet all around the majority world, people are responding to the gospel in huge numbers. Africa. India. Asia. The fields are ripe for harvest, often in the most unlikely places. And God is working in the most unlikely of ways.
A while ago, we had a guest speaker at the college I teach at. He was from a part of the world too far from Nineveh. He told us of a muslim woman who had a recurring dream. She was standing in a building that looked like a place of worship, in a queue of people waiting to drink from a cup. But when she got to the head of the queue, she was told by a man she wasn’t ready to drink yet, and always woke up.
When she travelled to the West, she went along to a church. And found herself in that very building, in that very queue, lining up to receive communion. That night she became a follower of Jesus. Through that simple dream, God was preparing her to respond to his message in a miraculous way.
To think about
Don’t be fooled into thinking the nations aren’t interested in our message. As I write this, three people at my church – whose origins, again, are not far from Nineveh – are preparing to be baptised this evening.
God is preparing people for himself drawn from every tribe and nation and language. Their eagerness to hear stands as a rebuke to our reluctance to tell them.