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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:A Merciful Stay
Text:Jonah 3:5-10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Suggested songs:

Psalm 81:1-5

Psalm 81:6-8

Psalm 81:9-14

Psalm 103:1-4

Psalm 48

Reading: Jonah 3

Text: Jonah 3:5-10

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ Jesus,

Sam walked nervously up the sidewalk to his pastor’s house. His wife had made him go. His heart was fluttering – it felt like he’d just had three or four large cups of coffee. The pastor greeted him at the door and they went to the study to sit down and talk. “So, what’s on your mind, Sam?” Sam told the whole story of why he was there. There was some habitual sin in his life – a sin that seemed to have a tight hold on him. He openly talked about the sin with his pastor and the pastor listened. At the end, his pastor finally spoke. “Sam, it’s good that you’ve come and confessed this sin. It’s good to get it out in the open. Sin is like fungus, it grows best in the dark. So, bringing it out into the light is a step in the right direction. But let me ask you: have you repented of what you’ve done?” The question caught Sam by surprise. He knew what the answer should be, but he really didn’t know what the question meant. His answer showed his uncertainty. “Sam, I have a feeling that you really don’t know what repentance is all about. Let’s open the Scriptures and find out together.”

This morning, we open the Scriptures again to the book of Jonah and we’ll discover what Biblical repentance is about. We’ll see what happened after Jonah preached his short sermon to the Ninevites. In fact, it was an amazing turn of events -- unsurpassed in the history of the prophets. No prophet in the Old Testament found the same response as Jonah did in Nineveh. Just think for a moment about Jeremiah. He preached to the people of God. Like Jonah, Jeremiah preached a message of judgment for the wicked. But instead of repenting, Jeremiah’s audience wanted to kill him. They threw him into prison. What a different response in pagan Nineveh! And in the end, this response results in deliverance for the pagan city. I preach God’s Word with this theme:

In his mercy, God does not destroy Nineveh

We’ll see:

  1. The response of the Ninevite citizens
  2. The response of the Ninevite king
  3. The response of God

1. The response of the Ninevite citizens

The response to Jonah’s message from God is immediate. Verse 5 of our text says that the Ninevites believed God. Did you notice that the report of Jonah’s words in verse 4 didn’t mention anything about God? This again indicates that Jonah probably said more. Jonah must have told them that this was a message from God. And the Ninevites accepted that at face value. They didn’t doubt it or question it. They didn’t say, “Well, that’s your opinion Jonah. Let us study it a little bit further and then we’ll decide whether or not it’s true.” Instead, they accepted the message as divine.

Verse 5 says that they believed God. The same word is used there as in Genesis 15:6 which tells us that Abraham “believed the LORD and he credited to him as righteousness.” For the Ninevites, this meant that they first of all accepted what God was saying as being true. They accepted the fact that they deserved judgment for their wickedness. But this believing God also entails acting in response to what they heard.  Faith always bears fruit in actions.  We find out what those actions were in the rest of verse 5.

But before we look at those actions, we should notice something else here. A couple of sermons ago, we heard about the way God’s covenant name Yahweh is used in this book. That’s the name used in Hebrew whenever we see LORD with all capital letters. But now, in our text this morning, we don’t find it at all. In fact, everywhere it’s just the name God or Elohim in Hebrew. This is an important point. God cut a covenant with Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9. But as time went on, this covenant became focussed on Abraham, Isaac, and then Jacob. The other nations descended from Noah became more distant from the covenant relationship made with Noah. They forgot about Yahweh and their covenant with him. For this reason, it makes sense that the special name Yahweh drops out of our text. The people of Nineveh only knew about God in a vague, almost impersonal way. They did not intimately know the “I am who I am” who revealed himself to Moses and the people of Israel.

Nevertheless, they worked with the little knowledge they had. They did recognize the voice of God. And they did respond in the right way. They believed God and part of that was taking action. The first action described is the declaration of a fast. For many Canadians, the only fasting we hear about today is that done by Muslims during Ramadan. Rightly or wrongly, we regard fasting as something completely foreign to our lives. But fasting was a commonly accepted means of showing remorse and sadness in the Ancient Near East. Fasting meant not eating and sometimes not drinking anything for a sustained period of time. Besides the Jews, it was especially the Assyrians and Babylonians who used fasting as a type of penance. And in the Scriptures too, fasting has an important place as a way of showing grief and seriousness. So, when the Ninevites were fasting, the people of God reading the book of Jonah would know what’s going on: the Ninevites were cut to the heart by the message they heard from God.

Being convicted in this way, they went further. The text tells us that all of them, regardless of where they were on the social ladder, all of them put on sackcloth. When we hear about sackcloth today, I think a lot of us probably right away imagine wearing a potato sack. That’s close, but not quite what the term describes. Sackcloth was a strong, rough cloth woven from the long, dark hair of a goat or camel. Sackcloth was typically black, not brown like the potato sacks we have today. However, if you would have worn it, it would have been rough and itchy just like a potato sack. But what did it mean? I don’t know if we have any direct parallels in our culture today. When I preached on this text as a missionary in Fort Babine, I could refer to the black clothes that Babine widows would wear for a year after the death of their husband. But I can’t think of anything similar in our culture – so we just have to try and explain it as best we can without a parallel. The meaning of the sackcloth is captured first in its black colour: it’s to symbolize grief and sadness. Its rough and itchy texture would make the wearer uncomfortable, reminding him or her of the seriousness of sin.

Now if we take all this together, we get a picture painted with shades of repentance. Look at those two things that happen here with the Ninevites. They take God at his Word – in other words, they’re convicted of their sin. They’ve become persuaded that they have been in the wrong and God is right to judge them. Then they go a step further and show this deep sadness and genuine grief over the wrongs they have committed. There’s a strong sense given here that the Ninevites have humbled themselves before this God that they know so little about.

All of this came because of the preaching of Jonah the prophet. He preached briefly for one day and then all of this – sudden results! Then you can see why the Lord Jesus refers to this event in Matthew 12:41, “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.” This text has been mentioned a couple of times in previous sermons, but it gives us the framework to understand Jonah as New Testament believers, so it’s worth repeating. Look at what the Lord Jesus is saying here. He says that there was repentance, literally a change of attitude, at the preaching of the lesser prophet. When Jonah preached, the attitudes and minds of the people in Nineveh were changed immediately. So, shouldn’t there also be repentance among the people of God at the preaching of the greater prophet? Shouldn’t the people of God hear the preaching of the Christ and have their attitudes and lives changed by it?

Of course, those are rhetorical questions – questions to which we know the answer. So, let’s take this into our own lives. What will it look like for us to hear the voice of the greater prophet and be convicted of our sins, to repent? The basic meaning of repentance in the Bible is to have a 180-degree change of mind, a change of attitude. When we hear the Word and are persuaded that we have been wrong, one of the things that happens is that we get a new way of looking at our sins. Instead of loving our sins and dwelling on them, we learn to hate them more and more

But it means more than that. You are filled with disgust for your sin, but you also have sorrow over your sin. Here’s a place where we might need some self-examination. Have you ever really grieved over sin? Have you shed tears over your sins? Here we’re talking about the kind of sorrow that’s not just about getting caught or exposed. It’s a sorrow that we have grieved and offended God with our sin. Think about what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. When you’re just sorry that you were caught, that doesn’t count as godly sorrow. Godly sorrow is sincerely grieving over what we have done, because of the way it has hurt God and damaged our relationship with him. This is part of what Biblical repentance is all about. There’s more as we move on to our next point…

2. The response of the Ninevite king

The Ninevite king, also known as the king of Assyria, shows repentance in our text with both his actions and his words. Verse 6 describes for us his actions. He comes off his high throne and removes his royal robes. Have you ever noticed that when people are really repentant for some wrong they’ve done, they seem to be different people? That’s what’s happening here. Repentance strips away pretensions. People who seemed to be high and lofty and out of this world become human again. The façade is peeled away. The king of Nineveh in some ways becomes like one of the regular people. He knows that God will not be pleased by any shows of pomp and arrogance.

That’s why even the great king of the great city covers himself with that black, itchy sackcloth. He exchanges the rich velvet robes for what everybody else is wearing. And here the meaning is the same: it’s a matter of showing sadness. But the king goes further than anybody else: he sits down in the dust. Enough with the throne of gold! The situation is so serious that the king will put his pampered skin into the dustbin.

Then the king speaks. He speaks with his nobles, making it clear that this is the consensus of all those ruling the city. Just to make sure that the city is clear on what needs to be done at this moment, he commands that everybody be abstaining from food and drink. The fasting mentioned previously said nothing about abstaining from drink – this shows that the king is going a step further. He also says that everybody should be covered with sackcloth.

In all this, he includes the animals. Some find this rather funny. Why does the king include all the animals? It’s not because the animals themselves are guilty of doing anything wrong. It’s just that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, animals were an integral part of the society. It’s not unusual to see the animals included in rituals of penance – we find it also in the book of Joel, for instance.

The animals are included with the fasting and the call to wear sackcloth. However, it is only the people who are expected to pray to God in verse 8. The king says, “Let everyone call urgently on God.” Here again: a new element in the Ninevite repentance. In verse 5, we didn’t read anything about the people praying as part of their repentance. But the King includes it, and note again that he speaks of praying to God, Elohim, not to Yahweh. They prayed to God as they knew him in their limited way.

Finally, in verse 8, the king issues a call to concrete action. He tells his subjects to give up their evil ways and their violence. Here we find what seems to have caught God’s attention in Nineveh in the first place. This is why God’s anger was aroused. Now, in the words of the king, we get introduced to another new element in the Ninevite repentance: turning from sin. The citizens of the city had the turning to God part of repentance, but the king went further to urge his people to turn from sin. They had to turn away from their wickedness and turn to righteousness. Now the full range of repentance is in place with the Ninevites.

And that’s why the king can also express some words of hope in verse 9. He says, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Those kinds of words have been heard before in the Old Testament -- always in connection with some kind of threatened judgment. Sometimes God did have compassion and relented – he had mercy. On other occasions, God gave what he threatened – he gave his justice.

In the king’s words, we can see that he realizes that Jonah’s message was conditional. It was not a given that Nineveh would be destroyed. The fact that there were 40 days, that showed that there was a window for repentance. There was also the fact I mentioned last time that the words, “Nineveh will be overturned” have a double meaning. It could be a positive event, a kind of reformation.

When the king finishes speaking, when the Ninevites put his words into action, then the full measure of repentance is seen in the lives of these people. We’ve already seen that the Lord Jesus uses this full repentance as an example for the covenant people of his day. But his message is more and richer. It is not a matter anymore of thinking that perhaps God will relent if his people repent. Through Christ, the promise of the gospel, the good news is that if we repent with true faith, God will for sure relent. Because of who Christ is for us, because we are in him by faith, God’s justice will not fall on us. God has promised to give us his mercy and grace.

You see, the promise of the gospel is that all who accept it with faith and repentance will be received by God in favour. In this way, we are far richer than the Ninevites. They had Jonah, the lesser. We have Jesus, the greater. They had a “perhaps.” We have a “for sure.” But all of this centres on believing God. That necessarily entails repentance, a repentance which includes what we see with the Ninevite king: a call to prayer and a turning from our sins. With the turning from our sins, think about what the Lord Jesus said about radical amputation in Matthew 5. If there is something in our lives that is causing us to sin habitually, we have to cut it off and the sooner the better! There are many ways that this can be worked out in the lives of individual believers, and I’m going to leave it in your hands to work it out for yourself. Just ask yourself: is there something in my life that is causing me to regularly sin? How am I going to cut it off? That’s what this turning from sin is all about.

This ongoing repentance is about thankfulness for what God has done in us and for us. It’s about our love for the God who first loved us. And it’s important to remember that this repentance is also a work of grace in our lives. The Lord Jesus who saves us from the wrath of God, also continually saves us in our ongoing struggles with sin. In our own strength, we cannot do it. If we are to sincerely repent of sin in our lives, it only happens when we’re prayerfully depending on God. Now let’s turn to our third point…

3. God’s response

Verse 10 gives us a concise summary of how the Ninevite repentance affected God and his attitude towards them. We read that God saw what they did. In other words, God was paying attention to their response. God wanted to see their repentance – he was looking for it.

In this, we see the nature of prophecy in the Old Testament. God didn’t give prophecy simply as a kind of sanctified horoscope. It wasn’t like going to some holy fortune teller. Prophecy in the Scriptures was always about change and transformation. The immediate goal of prophecy was to see people’s lives changed for God’s glory, not necessarily to predict the future. Sometimes predictions of the future are given, but even these are framed in the context of effecting change in people’s lives. Prophecy was given to provoke a response of faith and obedience, either in the lives of those who first heard it or those who would read it later.

That’s the light we need to shine on the last words of our text. We read that God had compassion and did not bring the destruction he had threatened. Some read this and say, “See, God lied.” Or maybe, “See, God is capricious, he changes his mind on a whim.” Or, if one is feeling generous towards God, “See, Jonah was a false prophet – what he said did not come to pass.” But this would miss the nuances of what Jonah preached. We already saw that he preached a conditional message – if we expand it, it was something like, “You have forty days to repent and change your ways, or else!” Now, if the people repent, would that make either God or Jonah a liar? Of course not! This kind of conditional prophecy is found throughout the Scriptures.

You see, it was God’s will that the people of Nineveh would turn from their sins and live. So long as they were living in sin, God had to destroy them – this was because of his justice. But God did not want to destroy them. God was very willing to relent and have compassion when he saw their repentance.

Through this, God was at work. God worked through the power of Jonah’s message to bring life rather than death to these pagans. This shows us the power of preaching to transform lives – also today. And how much more so today, than in the time of Jonah. Because God worked through the power of the message of the one greater than Jonah to bring life – and life abundantly – to Jews and pagans alike. The power of the Word of God has been likened in the New Testament to a sword – in today’s terms, we would say that it’s nuclear firepower.

And one of the most powerful ways that it works is showing us the character of God. In this particular text, we learn that God shows mercy and compassion upon the repentant. And if he did this before sending Christ to earth, how much more so now afterwards? There is a guarantee that this is who God will be for us. But this all hangs on Christ and our being in Christ by faith. Apart from him, there are no guarantees of God’s mercy and compassion.

When we are in Christ, that means that we have faith in him. The fruit of that, by God’s Spirit, is that we live like the children of God that we are. When there are habitual, serious sins in our lives, we want to deal with them. When there are daily sins of weakness, we want to deal with those too. We’re not satisfied with the status quo. When we are in Christ, when we make an earnest beginning of being who we are, we will always experience God’s mercy in our lives. And then, with God’s blessing, we can also share that mercy with others.

So, Sam walked back down the driveway to his car. He’d heard a lot about repentance over the years, but he never really understood it. Sam knew the Saviour, he knew he believed in Christ. But that day was the beginning of a more serious commitment to repentance, both from his serious habitual sins and his daily sins of weakness. Sam was more committed than ever to putting the Scriptural teachings about repentance into practice. He went home and looked up something his pastor had recommended that he read. It was Canons of Dort Chapter 5, Article 7, “As a result the people of God grieve from the heart with a godly sorrow for the sins they have committed; they seek and obtain through faith with a contrite heart forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator; they again experience the favour of a reconciled God and adore his mercies and faithfulness. And from now on they more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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