Wrath and repentance might seem like old-fashioned words, but the wrath of God and human repentance will always be the heart of the Christian gospel. The sermon these notes accompany are on YouTube.
I said when we started Jonah that it’s a challenging but hugely encouraging book for Christians. This chapter is possibly the most encouraging – but even the encouragement carries a challenge! We’re half way through the book and Jonah is just about to start doing what he was supposed to do. The theme is essentially evangelism: People telling people about Jesus. And for those of us with a not-too-brilliant track record of doing things for God, God’s use of Jonah is itself encouraging:
God restores failures like you (1-2)
The first two verses of Chapter 3 are almost word-for-word the same as in Chapter 1 (more obvious in some translations). That’s not just a quirky coincidence; this whole book is full of clever wordplay that you’re meant to notice. Read v1-2.
Jonah has been sent to Nineveh a second time. The first time, he responded with direct disobedience. This time, he goes. It would take about a month to get to Nineveh on foot from the coast so he’s got plenty of time to think it all over. And still, he goes.
As Christians, we know that Jesus has commissioned us on mission for him. You’re to go into the world and tell people about him – his great love, his great sacrifice, his promise of eternal hope and life. But here’s the thing: We’ve all failed. Individually, each of us has failed Jesus. There were opportunities to make him known but you didn’t. All sorts of reasons: disobedience, fear of consequences, laziness, embarrassment. You’ve made all sorts of excuses, but in the end you know you’ve just failed him.
- Jonah failed to tell people of God’s judgment.
- Jeremiah tried to stop telling people in his day because they were so brutal to him in response.
- In the NT, Peter actually denied even knowing Jesus while Jesus was on trial before Pilate.
- John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas half way through a missionary journey – what a let-down!
What do all those men have in common? They were all used again by the Lord to do his work. Why? Because God’s mission cannot fail – even if his missionaries do (and we do). Who are his missionaries?
We’re all God’s missionaries
In Jeremiah 29, there’s a letter to God’s people in exile in Babylon. To Christians, it still contains an important truth: You and I are resident missionaries in a foreign land. We’re citizens of heaven, and we’re to bring God’s blessing to where we are now.
Our church – like every church – is only ever one generation away from not existing. We are all on mission to tell people about Jesus, and we’re all citizens of heaven, so we’re all resident missionaries for Christ here. And we all fail him. But he continues to use us! Jonah was sent again. If you feel like a failure, and you’ve given up on ever being able to speak for Jesus, know that he continues to restore and use failures like you.
Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation 2 & 3 make it clear that he will shut a church that fails to proclaim him. But those same letters call you to keep going back to him in repentance, in love, in fellowship. Be greatly encouraged, not least because he doesn’t need you to be any kind of evangelistic superstar:
Trust the power of God’s word (3-5)
Jonah finally went to Nineveh: Read v3.
Literally, the city was “a walk of three days.” It’s not clear exactly what that means, other than it was a huge city. In fact, it’s very likely that when v2 refers to “the great city of Nineveh” it’s rather like “Greater Manchester” – a whole region around a major city (i.e. villages, suburbs, smaller towns, a central city). We learn in chapter 4 that there were 120,000 people there – sanitation prevented a single city being so huge, but no problem across a region. And the message was one of God’s wrath. Read v4.
The people of the great city had committed great wickedness. Make no mistake: God gets angry at sin. And so he should.
- Who doesn’t get angry when you hear of people being abused within organisations that then cover things up?
- Who doesn’t get angry at terrible miscarriages of justice?
- That’s a good anger. A righteous anger. Not lost temper.
- And God is angry at all sin and wrongdoing – including yours. As you sin and sin, his wrath against you stores up like pennies in a jar.
- And the message to Nineveh was that God’s stored-up wrath was coming to them.
They were wicked. In God’s sight, our society is wicked. But it’s like a house that’s on fire but no-one can see the flames. Things are getting charred and collapsing, but no-one can see why. They’re unable to see the flames of God’s wrath burning away and undermining the sins of society as he hands us over to our own desire. They need someone to tell them.
One man to evangelise a city?
One man to tell an entire city? How could that work? Read v5.
The city was a three day walk. Jonah started preaching on his first day in. And somehow, the whole city heard – how come? There was no power in that preacher, that’s for sure. But there was power in his message. And it spread. He’d need to tell 3,000 people a day for 40 days to save them all – but that wasn’t necessary. They all heard faster. How might all of Bromborough hear? All of Wirral? “Go on Jonah, we’re right behind you!”
But Jonah had no mission team, no fancy slogans, no website, no Christianity Explored, no outreach events. He clearly went about from place to place, but still there’s no way he spoke to 120,000 people – or even their king. Come to think of it, the believers in Acts had none of those things either. After the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, all the believers except the apostles fled Jerusalem. And, somehow, the church flourished, spread, and grew. What “magic” caused such rapid growth?!
Even in Liverpool, the fastest-growing evangelical church has no midweek kids’ work or even Christianity Explored-type courses. So how does God’s word come to spread to so many people quickly – whether in Nineveh, Judea, or Liverpool?
You might have seen the advert for Nationwide Building Society on bus-stops: “Everyday people helping everyday people.” The church of Christ will grow when “everyday people like you” tell “everyday people like them” about Jesus, every day. When Paul went to Corinth he didn’t use the powerful speaking techniques all the rage in ancient Greece. He preached Christ crucified.
Why does this matter?
- You might be tempted to leave this church’s evangelism to the pastor, like I’m some kind of professional. Or to a few of us.
- But no: The news of God’s wrath spread through Nineveh must faster than Jonah could have made it.
- The power is in the message, not the messenger.
- You are a resident missionary; you can reach people with the news about Christ that no-one else can.
Trust the message, and tell it. Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Do you really believe that? The power isn’t in the person who does the telling. The power of God for salvation is the Good News itself. If you want to see God’s kingdom grow, trust the power of God’s word. Tell people.
The thing is, this isn’t just ancient history:
You’ll see the men of Nineveh (6-10)
Read v6-9. There are two really positive things to notice, and one negative.
First, notice the sheer completeness of who responded. People and animals(!); from the king on his throne to the poorest in the city. The message wasn’t just for the “really, really bad people”, or the rich or the poor, or any ethnic group – it was for everyone. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and therefore all must repent of that sin and turn to him.
But the second thing is the amazing strength of response: They feared God – no mistake about that. They knew that the Creator could wipe them out, and that they’d sinned against him in their wickedness. They felt a great sorrow and regret – they repented of their wickedness. That’s the purpose of the fasting and burlap. And they changed; they put away their wickedness.
The negative thing is that all this is, in the end, incomplete. Read v10.
- The destruction was averted – which is obviously fab.
- But throughout this chapter, the Ninevites only refer to God as “God” – never as “the LORD/Yahweh”.
- They were spared the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah, but they never actually became part of Israel – never entered into covenant relationship with God.
- (We’ll think more about that next time when the focus of chapter 4 comes back to Jonah.)
But look: They heard the warning of judgment from God to come on them for their wickedness and… they repented, changed. God relented – he’s gracious.
Nineveh are an example for today
So here’s the crucial point: God is coming to bring judgment on this generation, on this world, on you – for your sin. You can do as the people of Nineveh did (repent) or not. But you have far, far more evidence of the certainty of the message than they did:
- You have the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
- That, says Jesus, is all the evidence you need that there is life after death and that you will be judged by God: Matt 12:40 “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.”
- Jesus rose form the dead! The firstfruits to show that everyone will rise and stand before God in judgment.
- There are strong words for anyone who refuses to repent now: Matthew 12:41 “The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.”
Jonah called to Nineveh, and they repented – and were preserved from terrible destruction (though not saved to know God).
Jesus calls to you: Repent!
- You have sinned against God and his wrath against you is storing up. Repent of your sin; turn to him for forgiveness. Wrath and repentance are at the heart of God’s message to you.
- You will be saved from the coming wrath of God because it will be counted against Jesus on the cross instead of you. This is a promise for all who repent.
- And more: You will be brought into relationship with God – he becomes your Father, you will be united to Jesus, you will have the Holy Spirit of God in you working to make you more and more holy, more like Jesus.
If you fail to repent, even the people of Nineveh will stand on that terrible Day of Judgment and be amazed at your hard-hearted disbelief: “You knew all that, and you still didn’t believe?”
So: Failing Christian (that’s all of us), the Lord will use you again. He knows you’re weak, but chose you anyway – because it’s the message that’s strong. So go and tell someone this week. Who?
And if you’ve never repented, do so now: In fear, in sorrow. Turn.