For every command God gives, there is a promise or benefit. As we look at Jesus’ teachings, we’ll be examining how those rights and responsibilities of being a Christian should be evidenced in our daily lives. But before Jesus was born and began his earthly ministry, centuries of prophets preached the first fundamental pairing: repentance and forgiveness. This morning we’ll be studying the story of Jonah to illustrate God’s design.
We’ll be focusing mainly on Jonah chapters 3 and 4, but let’s refamiliarize ourselves with the start of his story.
Jonah 1:1-2 begins, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’”
In Jonah’s time, Nineveh was one of the largest, most influential cities in the known world. It was a major hub of the Assyrian empire, which was at its peak while Israel, in contrast, was on the precipice of falling to Assyrian rule. While the Assyrians were flourishing in terms of art and culture, they also had a notably ruthless military presence. They were known as bloodthirsty and cruel colonizers. I won't go into detail, but the British Archaeological Museum has recovered cuneiform tablets and carvings with descriptions and illustrations of many creatively gory and torturous practices used to expand the empire.
1. God, of course, sees the growing wickedness of the Assyrians and calls on Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to do what? (Preach against it.)
2. What does God’s sending Jonah to Nineveh reveal about God? (He’s not only just, but compassionate, gracious, and merciful in giving them the opportunity to repent. Also, he knows more than Jonah; he sees past their cruel reputation to the fundamental needs of their hearts.)
Not only is Assyria’s growing influence a great platform for spreading the message of repentance and forgiveness, but their current political situation presented an opportune moment. The timing of Jonah’s calling is significant because the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, was dying and turning the throne over to his younger son who was busy quelling the revolt of the older prince. This window of transition was the perfect time to deliver God's message and possibly change the trajectory of culture.
How does God’s prophet respond to this opportunity? Read verse 3: “But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed to Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.”
For perspective, from Joppa inland to Nineveh was about 550 miles. From Joppa to Tarshish was about 2,500 miles across the Mediterranean Sea. So, Jonah isn’t just skirting his calling, he’s hightailing it in the opposite direction as far as he can get.
3. Who is Jonah running away from? (The Lord. Not the Ninevites.)
I find it striking how Jonah makes no effort to hide what he’s doing. The parenthetical aside in verse 10 says, “They [as in the sailors] knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.”
4. What does this open avoidance of God imply about Jonah?
Well, the most famous part of the story is Jonah’s time in the belly of a great fish. There he repents and is spat out on dry land with another chance to obey God, and from there he journeys to Nineveh. This is a literal illustration of repentance, isn’t it? He has turned around from going his own way and is now following God’s path. What happens when he arrives at the heart of this powerful and wicked nation?
Read chapter 3:4-10.
Imagine yourself as a Ninevite for a moment. You’re wealthy. You’re at the height of your power. The whole world looks to your influence. Here comes a disheveled backwater Israelite smelling of rotten fish, and he tells you that unless you repent from your gods and change your barbaric ways – ways that have been serving you pretty well – you’ll be overturned in 40 days. How might you respond? (It would probably sound laughable. You may think he’s crazy. An outlandish claim easily brushed off. You might even have him executed.)
5. But how do they actually respond?
6. What does this tell us about them?
7. And how did God respond? (verse 10)
Here we see how taking the responsibility of repentance ushers us into God’s forgiveness. It wasn’t just a “We’re sorry” said. They acted on it from highest office down to the lowliest animal.
8. Now put yourself in Jonah’s sandals. You’ve been through this ordeal from being tossed overboard and spending three days and nights in a fish, vomited onto dry land, and treading cross-country into enemy territory to deliver a potentially offensive message. And instead of meeting death or even ridicule, your mission is a resounding success! The great city repents! How do you think you’d be feeling? What would you be thinking?
Oddly, we don’t find Jonah rejoicing. Look at chapter 4 verse 1.
Not only is Jonah unhappy with this result, he’s angry! How does he explain this? Read verses 2-3.
9. Put this into your own words. What is Jonah telling God?
Matthew Henry’s commentary has this to say about it:
“This gives us occasion to suspect that Jonah had only delivered the message of wrath against the Ninevites, and had not at all assisted or encouraged them in their repentance, as one would think he should have done. . .
Only by pride comes contention both with God and man. It was a point of honour that Jonah stood upon and that made him angry. [1.] He was jealous for the honour of his country; the repentance and reformation of Nineveh shamed the obstinacy of Israel that repented not, but hated to be reformed; and the favour God had shown to these Gentiles, upon their repentance, was an ill omen to the Jewish nation, as if they should be (as at length they were) rejected and cast out of the church and the Gentiles substituted in their room.”
Henry is proposing that Jonah, despite having just experienced repentance and forgiveness in a spectacular way, still held to his prejudices and perhaps preached repentance without the promise of forgiveness. When the Ninevites responded to God with more humility and obedience than God’s own chosen people, Jonah may well have resented them even more instead of learning from their example.
10. And what does God say in response? (He asks, “Do you do well to be angry?”)
11. Is this the kind of response you would expect? Why or why not?
12. By asking Jonah this question, what is God doing? (He’s illustrating Proverbs 15:1 which says, “A gentle answers turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” God is giving Jonah yet another chance to experience the liberation of forgiveness through repentance. Jonah wants to die he’s so bursting with wrath, but God is opening the opportunity for him to live in praise and gratitude instead. But he’s also challenging Jonah to take a self-inventory and examine why he’s feeling the way he is.)
God knew the Ninevites would repent. He could have sent another prophet who might have been more compassionate. But he didn’t. He held Jonah accountable to fulfilling this specific mission.
13. Why? (Jonah needed to learn repentance and forgiveness as much if not more than the Ninevites.)
Jonah was caught up in his self-righteousness, pride, patriotism, and emotions that he missed the whole point of his calling. This serves as a warning for us as well. We as believers are as much in need of repentance as anyone. This is especially true when something gets us worked up – when our emotions outweigh our compassion. We can become so enflamed in our own opinions that we completely miss the point and joy of God’s calling.
The challenge set for us this week is to take a self-inventory of how we’re participating in God’s calling. If something has our dander up, then we have to ask ourselves what God asked Jonah: Do you do well to be angry?
Are we allowing any resentments or prejudices to cloud our ministries?
Are we cutting ourselves off from living joyfully in forgiveness by withholding the message of that promise from anyone?