Sermon on Jonah 3:1-10 – “The Repentance of Nineveh”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, June 9, 2024 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text

[Jon 3:1-10 ESV] 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. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 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. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 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.

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

The word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time.

 

God is a patient Father. Jonah is fortunate for that. God could have destroyed Jonah for disobedience. But there is a second chance. And Jonah takes it. He goes to Nineveh as God has commanded him (twice).

 

Even so, we should obey the first time.

 

My friend Jon says to his children (and he has good number of them. I don’t know the exact number but it takes two hands to get there). And he says:

Obey,

Right away

All the way

And in a happy way.

 

Each of these is good and true. But the one we are dealing with here is “right away.” Obey right away. That is the safe bet. Obey the Lord right away. And children, obey your parents right away.

 

The second time around now, Jonah does obey right away. But it would have been “right right away” he he obeyed the first time! Nevertheless, he is now on his way to Nineveh.

 

And we don’t have any record of his further travel there. Last we know he was vomited out on the shore by the giant fish. Then, he’s in Nineveh. If he started on the shore of Syria he’d have to travel by land something like 600 or 700 miles at least. But this must be a rather uneventful journey, not something too out of the ordinary. Perhaps trading caravans made this route often.

 

The more remarkable this is Nineveh itself. So large that it takes 3 days to traverse. This might be how long it takes to traverse by someone journeying through it, or perhaps it is how long it would take someone like Jonah to walk AND preach across the city. Either way, it is a large and impressive place. The capital of the greatest empire of its day. Some also argue that the “3 days to traverse” is perhaps Nineveh with a collection of cities near it; cities that it controls or is allied to. Ideas like this come up because it is hard to believe that it is a city that takes 3 days to traverse. If a person walks 20 miles a day, that makes it 60 miles wide, and the archaeology doesn’t match. Ultimately, the solution this issue is not that critical. The point is, Nineveh is big, and no one disputes that.

 

And Jonah there call’s for repentance.

 

And Jonah is a fit instrument to preach to repentance to Nineveh. He himself has sinned against the Lord but is now repenting. So he can say to Nineveh, “I was like you, but the Lord changed me.” Well, I don’t know if that personal testimony came up or not. It is not often that personal testimony is used in the Scriptures, though Paul frequently gives his testimony. More often, the prophet or apostle is to the point: “repent and believe.”

 

I. Nineveh Believes

 

And then Nineveh repents. This is a great display then of the power of the Word of God to accomplish his purposes; to bring repentance to the nations.

 

And I think this is remarkable. They do repent. From a human perspective it seems unlikely. A foreign nation, what do they know of God? If you tell someone today to repent they look at your weird, they probably don’t know what you’re talking about, and you’ll have to do some explaining.

 

And you might expect that the reaction would be antagonistic. Jonah could be putting his life at risk. He’s telling a whole city that they are sinners in need of repentance.

 

But instead of killing Jonah they repent. And they do so after just a single sermon, a single warning of God’s destruction. Contrast that with many in our age who have had many opportunities to hear the Word of God but reject it. Nineveh is remarkable for its immediate repentance.

 

They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. 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.

 

The people seem to repent before the king; or at least some of the people. But the king takes leadership, calling for repentance. So Jonah’s message gets amplified through the edict of the king.

 

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. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

 

What is going on here? Did the Ninevites already know of God? And do they become believers in God?

 

[Now, I should say that some make this chapter to be about Jonah and the 2nd chance that God has given him. Maybe that is the case, but I think the big deal is Nineveh’s repentance.]

 

We find in the very next verse after Jonah calls them to repent that they do in fact believe. “And the people of Nineveh believed God.”

 

This fits well with how I understand “repentance.” Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. When you repent, you change you mind from unbelief to belief. Faith is the result of repentance. Faith is what you repent TO. You repent OF false beliefs, and repent TO truth and faith in the true God. Repentance isn’t exactly “stopping sin.” Repentance is a change of mind. It is going from non-faith to faith. And from repentance there is a change in behavior. The desire to sin is diminished, not entirely removed, but diminished.

 

The Assyrians were polytheists; they worshipped many Gods.

 

One has said:
“Why would The Most High even be concerned with what another nation was doing because he is married to Israel only? The people of Ninevah were Israelites from the Northern kingdom of Israel. This is the most logical answer to the question of who the people of Nineveh were.”

 

But in the text of Jonah, the King himself of Nineveh repents, and I doubt he was a Jew. And, in fact, the WHOLE city repents and believed God, “from the greatest of them to the least of them.”

 

He Preached.

They Believed.

 

It is fascinating that in the New Testament, Jesus references this episode in Jonah. And he does so to emphasize a great conversion and faith. Matthew 12 and Luke 11.

 

[Mat 12:41 ESV] 41 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.

 

That’s strong evidence — proof — that the Nineveh truly believed. And they did not later reject that belief and show it to be temporary and false. They will ruse up at the judgment and by among the saints condemning the ungodly.

 

The reference in Luke’s Gospel is longer.

 

[Luk 11:29-32 ESV] 29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 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.

 

Consider the shock of seeing Jonah. Some think he was all white, from the digestive juices of the fish. He was in essence dead (whether in the sea or in the fish); at least he was a goner; but now he’s back, from the dead.

 

So the shock of Jesus when his disciples saw him. Crucified, died, and buried. But on the third day rose again. And we better GET that message! Christ has power over death; and turns away the wrath of God promised upon those who do not repent.

 

So Nineveh repented.

And we repent.

 

II. Repentance is a work of God.

 

But this can only happen by the power of God. Repentance is a work of God. The spirit of God was working and brought them to faith. They believed.

 

Jonah’s preaching, yes, converted them. But that is more of an instrument of their conversion.

The more central cause of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit using the word of God.

So don’t give Jonah credit; give God credit.

 

Now I don’t know what followed at Nineveh. One of the challenges is that we don’t know the exact year that the Book of Jonah takes place. But Nineveh in the long run goes back to its pagan roots; and they attack Israel and Judah. So it might be that this great conversion came only for a generation. But nevertheless, it came. And it is a display of God’s grace and power, to all nations. That is so heavily emphasized in the New Testament; that God’s people are of all nations. But it is present frequently in the Old Testament as well. So common in fact that it shouldn’t have been such a shock to the Jews in the NewTestament times.

 

Also in the Gospel is it emphasized that repentance is a work of God. One of my favorite places is in John’s Gospel.

 

“Lord, what must WE DO to be doing the work of God?”

 

And Jesus answers “The work OF GOD is this, believe in the one whom He has sent.” That strikes us as simple. Have faith. But if we look at the first half of that line is should strike us as even more remarkable, because it is God working in us. HE brings repentance by His power.

 

And repentance bring “relentance.” That’s a word I’ve made up. Relenting maybe is the real word.

When Nineveh repents, God relents from the promised destruction.

 

Did He change his mind? Does God change? Of course not.

 

I like what one writer for Ligonier ministries says:

 

Given that the Lord knows all things and has ordained whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11), the repentance of Nineveh did not take Him by surprise. He knew that Nineveh would believe His word and that its citizens would respond appropriately. In fact, He announced judgment through Jonah in order to put the fear of God in their hearts and lead them to repent so that He would not have to destroy the city.

 

So God relents, … as He planned.

 

 

 

III. The Call of Repentance Continues

 

God calls for repentance. Here with the Ninevites. But also in the Gospel for all men.

 

In Matthew 3:2 John the Baptist says: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

In Matthew 4:17 Jesus says: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

 

And the result of their preaching, in time, brings in more than Jonah’s preaching at Nineveh.

 

By the power of God, many nations came to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord.

 

And the Gospel call of repentance and faith continues to be heard in our day.

 

It is a message for us, and a message for all. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

 

If evil Nineveh can repent. So can you, by the grace of God.

If Nineveh can repent, so can the United States. Saudi Arabia, North Korea, anywhere, anyone. ‘

 

We should pray for the repentance of ungodly nations.

And that’s all of them.

We should pray for an ungodly world; that it will repent. Every person.

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