Here is Sunday's sermon. You can catch the audio here.
Call me “out of the loop” or “living under a rock,” but I just realized Rebecca Black is back in the limelight. We all her know from her “Friday” fame. Apparently, she’s had a hit or two as of late. I think I permanently confused and destroyed my Apple Music when I listened to her song “The Great Divide” the other day. I was surprised. It wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. But it wasn’t great. And you can say the same for most pop music. But it gets the airplay. It sells.
Last week, we saw how Jonah repents here in chapter 3. This time the prophet goes to Nineveh. He had disobeyed before and ended up in the belly of whale. But after being spewed up on the seashore, he has a change of heart. Now he heads down that road. The Lord says, in verse 2, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” The Lord is going to give him a message. We see that sermon right here. And it’s not easy listening. It’s not pop music. It’s not going to sell well. At least we don’t think.
A few weeks ago, I talked about this thing several years back that still influences so many in America today - the “church growth movement.” Then I explained one way they taught people to grow a church. You build a church made up of people who all look alike and talk alike and act alike. That will grow faster, they argue. It has less barriers to overcome. It’s just easier all around. But that, of course, goes against the Bible’s desire for the people of God to be made up of people from every tribe and tongue and nation.
But here’s another thing they taught, something they even emphasize more: don’t rock the boat with your preaching. Preach to felt needs. Give people what they want to hear. Don’t make people feel uncomfortable. Turn up the pop music, in other words. That’s the way you grow a church.
You look at this passage, though, and it’s clear this isn’t what God calls Jonah to do at all. The words he carries are tough. They could easily get him killed. But they’re God’s words. And they sound more like heavy metal. We learn: God calls Jonah, and us, to spread God’s word and expect Him to work.
God Cares About the City
Before we get there, though, I want to remind you of a key thing I shared our first week together. Back in the early days, we actually preached through Jonah. I was trying to be clever and provocative, so I entitled the series, “To Hell with the City?” Well, everyone laughed each time they saw me squirming, trying to make sure I sounded like the sentence ended with a question mark. But too often, too many believers have looked at the city and said, “To hell with it.” But hear me clearly: that’s the opposite of how our Lord feels.
Nineveh is a wicked city. We know that from Jonah’s message here. We also know it from history. But Nineveh also is a HUGE city. Look at verse 3. People debate what the “three days journey” means. Is that the time it takes to travel across the city - either the city proper or the metro area? Or is it how long it would take Jonah to get there? We’re not sure. But regardless, those words “exceedingly great city” say a lot. Your ESV Bible has a footnote there. If you look, it says, “a great city to God.” That’s literally what the words say in the Hebrew there. It’s not just a massive, influential city of that day. It’s a city very important to the Lord.
And ours is, to Him, also. The Lord cares about cities like ours, and so should we. It’s where the people are. It’s where culture is made. It’s where people are more open to the gospel. It’s where that gospel message best spreads. We can’t just say, “To hell with the city.” Not at all.
Spread the Word
With that point in mind, here’s the first thing I want you to take with you from this passage today: spread the word. I had a discouraging conversation with the kids the other day driving around. It was a hard one. They referred to my music as “dad music.” That one hurt. They were trying to play me songs they liked - largely pop music - and saying my stuff was lame. But you know, occasionally I’ll turn on the 80s channel. I like the pop stuff better from my day. But generally, when I listen to radio, I’m turning on the singer/songwriter channel, the indie channel, sometimes even the alternative channel. I get my recommendations from Aarik Danielsen. And I’m a Gen-Xer. We’re too sophisticated for all that pop crap. Right?
Now here's what we see in the American church. Folks hear the type of teaching found in today’s passage, and all they hear is “dad music.” It sounds outdated. And they listen to the “pop music” that churches have been playing the last 10 to 20 years, and they know that stuff’s not right. Life’s too complicated for that. They don’t want to hear “five steps to a stress-free life.” So what happens is people start trying to go indie. They take things that are hard in Scripture. They don’t ignore them. They tweak them so they don’t sound so much like what mom and dad played and heard. They do that with truths like we see in this passage today.
We are to spread the word. But notice the components of Jonah’s message here. What does he preach? Hear verse 4 again: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” What’s the main point of His message? The coming judgment. Now that tune doesn’t go over well in most places, but it’s the message God gives Jonah. In the ears of Jewish hearers, it would have brought back memories of Sodom and Gomorrah, those cities destroyed back in Genesis 19. Jonah’s walking around, telling them, “You’ve got 40 days, and then you’ll be wiped out.”
Now there’s a second component to this message: the need to repent. It’s implied here. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown, SO change your ways.” Jonah is calling them to respond - and respond immediately - to His threat of judgment. Repentance is again a change of heart that leads to a change of action. God wants the Ninevites to see their wickedness and change. Jonah calls them to turn from their sin.
And implied third, I think, is a call to turn to the one true God. The path to safety. That’s clearly how the Ninevites take it. Jonah is there representing the God of Israel, and they realize that. The prophet is calling them to cast themselves on God’s mercy.
Now those three components have to characterize how we spread the word - no matter if it’s from up here or out there - no matter how it plays. We have to warn people of the judgment that awaits - and it does. Sin leads to death and punishment. We have to call people to turn from their sin. No matter if it makes people mad. We must point people to the path of safety. And at this point of history, we can be more clear about where that is.
We’re on the other side of the cross. On that cross, Jesus Christ took the punishment of His people. He stood in our place. He died the death that we deserved for our sins. He bore the wrath of God for us. He is our propitiation. Now that’s a word we don’t hear a bunch today, but it’s found numerous times in Scripture. Here’s one place in Romans 3:23-26:
Rom. 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Rom. 3:24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Rom. 3:25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
Rom. 3:26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God put Jesus forward as a propitiation. What’s that mean? It means that Jesus absorbed the wrath of God for our sin in our place. There are only two categories of people in the world - those who end up bearing God’s wrath for themselves - people who suffer in hell - and those whose wrath was born by Jesus - and therefore those who rejoice in heaven. Therefore, as we spread the word, our message has to be that people must flee judgment, repent of their sins, and trust in Christ alone. He alone is the path to safety.
But most people don’t like to hear that today. You may have heard of Christian musician Michael Gungor’s recent tweet storm, where he called this idea primitive and revolting. He writes, “that God needed to be appeased with blood is not beautiful. It’s horrific.” Now you have to disrespect most all of the Bible to get to that place. What do you do with the sacrifices of the Old Testament that pointed ahead to the cross? But in that passage we just read, in verse 26, the cross allows the Lord to be both the “just and the justifier.” He still takes sin seriously, as any legit judge does. He’s just. He just punishes His Son on our behalf. Therefore, He’s our justifier. He forgives us. That way we can go free. That’s not horrific, church. That’s beautiful.
Now if Gungor doesn’t like the cross, I doubt he likes hell, either. But, we all want to sin to be paid for. We all get angry at injustice - or we should. When we do, we imperfectly show God’s image imprinted all over us. The problem is that we just think it’s the other people that should go there. They deserve God’s wrath - with Hitler and guys like him. But the Bible says, Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
We are all on a path to judgment. We have to repent. We must flee to Christ. As we spread the word, the only loving thing to do is to share these things. I love Gungor’s music, for sure. His creativity is as good as it gets. But getting creative here, going indie on historic doctrine, hurts us and God’s people.
And you know what? It’s really not unique. It’s just heresy, an old record, brought out of the time capsule. Churches taught that stuff long ago, and it’s why they’re now discos and not cathedrals.
One more thing I wanted to point out. It’s also hip today to say that there can’t be one way to God. We’re all worshipping the same God, right? We’re all on the same path, they say. But Jonah is walking into a highly spiritual place. They are sinful, but so is Israel, and they are probably more faithful to their “gods” than Israel is to God. But Jonah tells them, “Judgment is coming.” He implies, “Fall on your faces. Come to the one true God.” If we don’t do that, we’re not loving people around us well, either. In fact, we generally keep quiet because we don’t want to anger or offend them. In other words, we’re more interested in loving ourselves well.
Jonah says, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Five words in the Hebrew. Only eight even in English. Is this just a summary of what Jonah says perhaps? Does he tell them about the fish? Surely, right? Or is this just a really crappy sermon that God somehow uses? We’re not sure. But here’s something to think about: a bad sermon - either from a pulpit like this or across a coffee shop table - gets the main things wrong. And Jonah doesn’t do that here. Let’s learn from him. It’s really not that complicated. God can use you and me - polished or not. So let’s get out and spread the word.
Expect God to Work
Here’s the second thing I want to call you to from today’s passage. It’s this: expect God to work. I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to be pretty pessimistic and cynical as I preach and share the gospel. People largely don’t want to buy what we’re selling. They don’t want to hear about hell and judgment and salvation in Christ. So often we don’t even try. But that leaves out one major thing that we’ll get to later - the power of God.
Now if anybody has the right to go into an assignment pessimistic, it’s Jonah. It is highly likely the Ninevites will eat him for lunch. But to his surprise, the Lord works. He barely gets started - He just goes one day into His 3 day tour - and things start happening. We should expect Him to work, as well.
We should expect to first see repentance for sin. Verse 5 gives us the summary of what happens: “They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” Verses 6-8 walk us through what happens.
Jonah 3:6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
Jonah 3:7 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,
Jonah 3:8 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.
Jonah 3:9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
If you weren’t aware, people in power don’t generally do things like this. They don’t mourn for their sins. That’s what putting on the sackcloth represents. He exchanges his royal garb for humble garments. They don’t often admit their insignificance and mortality. That’s what sitting in the ashes conveys. Kings don’t fast. They feast. They don’t pray. They pontificate. But something else is going on here. Something big. God is at work.
The king leads with his actions. He leads with his words. He tells the whole city to do what he’s doing. He says, “Let’s humble ourselves. Let’s call out to God.” He tells them to call with their words. But He also tells them to shout with their works. He commands them, “Turn from your evil. Get rid of your violence.”
The king is sincere. He’s desperate. He wants all His people to hear. He wants God to hear. He wants this repentance to be comprehensive. It seems like every other week, something is up with our dog, Bauer. It feels like I hand my paycheck to the vet every month. One day he awoke with this huge growth on his ear, so we had to put him on steroids. Now this makes him very thirsty. You fill up his bowl, and he empties it in seconds. And wants more. And if you don’t give it to him, this dog who barks way too much already, will stand in the bowl’s vicinity and just bark until you obey. It’s really annoying.
There is a lot of barking going on in Nineveh, plus some naying and mooing and the like. From the throne room of the king to the streets filled with peasants, people are repenting. And even the animals aren’t eating or drinking. The Ninevites are taking things that seriously. They repent. They want to get the attention of God.
Now that leads to the second thing we see: belief in God. I’m not just talking about a cognitive thing. James 2:19 says that “even the demons believe - and shudder!” This is clearly a heart thing. It starts with the king. It goes down from there. I don’t think this has to mean that everyone is converted to the Lord of Israel. But a massive amount are. They believe. And that’s the other side of the coin of repentance. You don’t just confess your sins and walk away from them. You express faith in the Lord and walk toward Him. And for us, this side of the cross, we trust in Jesus - again not just with our words, but deep within us. We no longer trust in ourselves. We no longer worship at the throne of Kevin. We put our faith in Christ’s person and work. He becomes our joy.
Now some would say that it’s doubtful they actually are converted. They are probably just going for fire insurance here. After all, not too many years later, they’re the ones who drag Israel off into exile. Right? But the problem with that are some words from Jesus. Those suggest the opposite.
Look at Matthew 12:41: “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.” Not only did Jesus think this happened in history, but their change occurred in reality. And if God can do this in Nineveh, he can do it in anyone.
We see also third an expansion on the last point. The Ninevites repent of their sin. They believe in God. They also put their fate in God’s hands. Notice what the king says here. He tells them to cry out to God. He tells them to turn from their sin. And he says, in verse 9, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” It doesn’t seem as if getting “overthrown” is his main concern. It doesn’t look like he’s primarily motivated by self-interest. It seems like he wants to do right because it’s right. It seems like he wants to honor God because he’s God. Yeah, God is up to something alright. The king is humble. The king is hopeful. And it’s not like he thinks he deserves anything from God. He knows how wicked he and his nation have been.
Now as we go out and spread the word, we should actually expect God to work in these ways. We should expect people to repent of their sin as we lovingly call them to do so. We should expect people to turn from false gods to the true God. We should expect people to be more caught up with who God is and what He wants than themselves. We just should. God is involved.
An interesting tidbit about that word “overthrown” up in verse 4. There has been a bit of debate about what the Hebrew word means. Most have said that, in this context, it’s primarily talking about judgment. I think they’re right. That’s usually what it means - like with Sodom and Gomorrah. But sometimes in the Old Testament, it’s translated more like “transformed.”
Deuteronomy 23:5 is an example: “…instead the Lord your God turned (or transformed) the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you.” Yes, the Ninevites are about to get destroyed or overthrown. But with their repentance, they end up transformed. Their lives are turned upside down - in a good way. As we go and spread the word, we should expect the Lord to work. And in powerful ways like we see here.
The Power of God
With that, I want to move to two truths about God that change everything. They make the difference, as we obey and go, as Jonah does here. We spread the word. We expect God to work. We do this in His power and in His mercy.
Take His power. Again, Nineveh was the place where they ripped off the lips and tore out the tongues of their victims. They’d dismember and skin those they conquered alive. These are bad people. Only the power of God could cause such a swift, sincere change of heart.
But here’s another angle on this whole story. The Ninevites are likely to be more open to Jonah’s message due to circumstances going on in that day. Jonah is preaching in the 8th century B.C. The Assyrian Empire is in a period of decline. They’re not demolishing other nations as they had been and soon would again. Rebellions and riots are taking place in their land. Other nations, like Israel, are standing up to them with some success. And disturbing things are taking place. A great famine hits their land. Floods cover their region. And on June 15th of 763, they witness a solar eclipse that makes an already superstitious people really freak out. They would assume they are about to be overthrown. Jonah’s message would have made a lot of sense.
Think about it. When are most people most open to the gospel? In key moments of life change: heading off to college, having your first kid, for example. People are also more open around traumatic life events: the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the experience of a bitter divorce. That’s when people are far more open to embrace Christ. In those vulnerable moments, when people realize at the end of the day that they’re powerless.
We the messengers need reminded that we’re powerless, too. God miraculously open hearts. He transforms Ninevites and others far from Him. But He also orchestrates events so that those people will be ripe and ready to receive the gospel. He is the sovereign Lord. He commands the winds and the waves. He raises up kings and puts them down. It’s all done by His power. It’s only by His strength. So we have to remain humble but also hopeful as we spread the word. He will use us. He will work in them.
Let’s take His mercy now. You may notice that I skipped right over verse 10. It’s the hardest and most controversial part of this passage. It reads: “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.” Now if you pick up some versions of the Bible, like the King James, the word “relented” is translated as “repented.” That’s because when you see the word “repented” in the Old Testament, that’s the same word we have here. But it sounds weird to say God repented, as we generally link repentance with sin.
Other versions, like the NLT, translates it as God “changed his mind.” That’s what “repent” literally means, remember? So the Ninevites change their minds, and then so does God. But that raises an even greater problem.
What does it mean that God relents? Or changes His mind? How does that work with a God who’s in control? Who plans everything? Some people have tried to go the alt-Christian route. They’ve said that passages like this teach God doesn’t plan everything. In fact, God really can’t know the future. It hasn’t happened yet. So they argue that God gets new info here. He sees the Ninevites act. He changes His mind. Now that may sound nice, but think about living in a universe where God doesn’t know what’s coming anymore than we do. That’s scary. That’s heresy. Something called “open theism.”
Others have countered and said something quite opposite. They’ve noted passages like James 1:17 that says, in Him, “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” And Malachi 3:6 where God says, straight-up, “For I the LORD do not change.” Those scholars remind us that God is immutable. He never changes. Therefore, God may look like He’s taking a different course with the Ninevites, but really He’s not. God plans everything out. It’s all set. He’s not changing course here. It just looks like it to us. After all, as Calvin puts it, God is speaking in “baby talk” to us.
I think there is a better way of thinking about it. First, God plans the ends, but He also plans the means. Not just the goal but the steps along the way. And the means God uses here to get the Ninevites on board is a warning. If I go into my kids’ room and say, “Clean up your room or you’re not going to the Mizzou game,” I’m pretty sure - as man, not God - that they’re going to heed the warning and we’ll go to the game. God plans the warnings and the repentance.
Second, God changes how He responds but not who He is. If an unrepentant murderer puffs out his chest before Him, He’s justly angry. If a broken thief sheds tears of repentance before Him, He’s full of compassion. That’s what’s going on here. God isn’t changing. He’s just rightly responding in time to changes in us. But the Lord saw it all coming, because He planned it.
Now there’s so much more that could be said. But here’s the main thing to see: the Lord delights to show mercy! He loves it when people far from Him - like these Ninevites here - turn from sin and come to Him. He longs to turn to them with compassion. It’s so easy - especially in the American church - to look around and say, “To hell with the city!” We can look around in judgment. We can stand over those around us with disgust.
Again, we’ve done that, church, and it’s closed off doors with people in our city. But it certainly doesn’t show the heart of our God. He is merciful. He wants us to be filled with mercy toward those around us.
God Cares About His People
God cares about the city. That’s how I began this morning. He wants His mercy to be seen there. But here’s where I want to go as we close. He also cares about His people. And we need His mercy just as much. Think about the irony here. Jonah just ran from God’s will. He was just rescued in the belly of a fish. He just received a second chance. And He’s not comprehending it at all. We’ll talk about that more the next time we’re in Jonah. But meanwhile, the Ninevites are running to God. God is rescuing them. They’re getting another opportunity. The Ninevites are objects of God’s power and mercy, and Jonah doesn’t grasp this at all. He doesn’t realize that he’s been in exactly the same boat.
Let’s go back to that passage in Matthew 12.
Matt. 12:39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
Matt. 12:40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Matt. 12:41 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.
See what’s going on? Christ is talking to these proud, judgmental religious Pharisees. He's trying to get through to them. The Ninevites got their sign and repented. He himself is theirs. Would they?
Or would they act like Jonah here? See, this is less about Nineveh as it is about the prophet. The Lord wants Jonah to repent of his sin and cast himself on God's mercy. He wants us to call out to Christ in faith, to trust in His cross. To flee from God's wrath in Him.
Church, we must spread the word. We must expect Him to work. In His power and in His mercy. But will we open up our lives to God’s word ourselves? Will we desire for Him to work in us? We need His power and mercy, too. The Lord cares about our city. He cares also for us. He wants us to be humble and hopeful about ourselves, too. We are in desperate need of change. And He can transform even us.
We need the Lord to break our hearts like He did the Ninevites. We need to get on our faces. We need to cry out to Him. We need a desperate faith in Jesus and His gospel. Then we might end up having more impact on our city. Evan Roberts, a famous preacher back in the Welsh Revival of the early 1900s, prayed, “Bend the church. Save the world.” May that be our prayer, church.