Salvation in the Strangest of Places
Have you ever not articulated the gospel because you determined the person wouldn’t receive it? My guess is that everyone could say yes to that. Just this past week, I was talking with someone and I had gotten so caught up in all the damage sin had inflicted in this person’s life, and so discouraged, that I lost sight of the gospel. I am ashamed to confess that I was more aware of sin than I was of grace. In fact, I had, in the moment, completely lost sight of the hope of salvation.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” –Romans 1:16
If we do not guard the gospel in our hearts that will inevitably happen. We will lose sight of the God who saves and more aware of the hopelessness of life. In Jonah chapter 3 we find salvation in the most unexpected place. The messenger has been largely reluctant. The method quite meek. And the audience by all appearances hostile. But as we learned in the last chapter, “salvation belongs to the LORD.”
“Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” –Jonah 3:1-2
This is now the second time God has directly spoken to Jonah concerning the task of going to Nineveh to “call out” against this city that is perceived by God to be “great.” It is the second time because Jonah ran from this calling the first time as seen in Jonah 1:1-3. Jonah would have rather “flee from the presence of the LORD” than to have done this. But God had left Jonah no other real option. Needless to say, Jonah is no George Whitefield here. He is a reluctant preacher.
“So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” -Jonah 3:3-4
The audience that Jonah is called to preach too is a superior adversary to this one man army. Nineveh was a ruthless, violent, God mocking people. They not only didn’t fear the Israelites or their God. They had been largely victorious over them. There would be no reason for anyone to think that Nineveh would concern themselves with Jonah or his modest message of coming judgement from the Jewish God.
The method that the LORD had given Jonah was quite meek and modest. He simply instructed Jonah to “call out” to Nineveh. And Jonah went and “called out” the message that God gave him. Eight simple words. Jonah was not given a well-crafted message. Nor was Jonah given a slick and appealing method. He was simply instructed to warn Nineveh of the wrath to come. Jonah wasn’t even given a neat platform to give his message. He solely went “into the city” and preached. Jonah went into the streets of the city and preached.
This method by every modern convention was foolish. Not to mention the message. Today, we are told we that if we want to win people to Christ we need a pronounced facility, great music, excellent programs, charming speaker with vision, and all this wrapped in a largely entertaining service. Compare that with a foreigner who has recently been vomited out of a fish calling out in the street of his enemies that in 40 days your city is going to be destroyed.
“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.” -Jonah 3:5
WHAT?!?!??!! I can’t tell you how this amazes me every time I read it. Jonah “calls out” in the street and the whole city believes God! We later learn in Jonah that this city is made up of “more than 120,000 persons” and “from the greatest” of that 120,000 to the “least of them” they believed God’s word and repented. Talk about revival! Talk about a miracle! This is to remind us that “salvation belongs to the LORD!” We aren’t to marvel at the: messenger, method, or even the audience here. We are to marvel at the LORD here to whom salvation belongs and from whom salvation is granted!
“The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 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, 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. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’” –Jonah 3:6-9
Notice with me how the writer attempts to shock us in several ways! Not only does the whole city believe in the message and repent from Jonah’s preaching. By all appearances it seems that many if not most of the people repent before Jonah even gets to them. Remember in verse 3 we are told that Nineveh’s breadth is a 3 days’ journey. And in verse 4 we are told that Jonah goes one days’ journey. Furthermore, the language in verse 6 seem to imply that it wasn’t Jonah that came to the King of Nineveh but rather “the word reached” him. The language here gives the impression that the king is overhearing this message from others. And from the distance Jonah had traveled it seems this was the case with most the city that they had already believed and repented before Jonah had gotten to them.
Second, notice the level of seriousness and soberness the king, nobles, and people take this warning of judgement from God. In verse 6-8 we told that everyone including their animals fast from both food and water! And as if that weren’t enough, they are all, including their animals, to “cover themselves in sackcloth” and call out “mightily” to God. I have no doubts after the animals had been fasting from food and water they would have been a lot of crying out from them. And so, the whole city, all 120,000 plus and animals didn’t eat or drink and pleaded with God to have mercy on them.
Now we aren’t told how long the fast was to be, but the text seems to imply 40 days. I gather this from the purpose of the fast. The king declares, “Who knows?” In other words, Jonah’s message didn’t contain any explicit promise or instruction on how to respond. It merely stated what God was intending to do in 40 days. The king and the people hear this and believe God and His word and repent. But they do not know whether God will “turn and relent” from His “fierce anger” against them. It is not recorded that Jonah tells the people that God has done so in light of their belief and repentance. In fact, Jonah 4:5 implies not even Jonah knew for sure what was to become of this great city. Therefore, the only way Nineveh could have known that God had turned and relented would have been when the 40 days had passed. And I observe it to be strange should the Ninevites to have fasted and end their fast before knowing if God had turned and relented from his intense wrath against Nineveh.
Lastly, consider how the repentance was not merely a humbleness of posture but a turning aware from their actual wickedness. The king had proclaimed for everyone to turn away from their “evil (raah) way” and “from the violence that is in his hands.” This is what it means to repent. To change your mind and therefore your behavior. The Ninevites had wicked anger and violence but the LORD had righteous “anger” against them and therefore was going to bring “disaster (raah)” on them. This word “raah” has a large semantic range and the writer plays with that range in this book. In other words, the king hoped that if they turned from “raah” against their neighbor that God would also turn from “raah” against Nineveh.
In summary, the response of the Ninevites is astounding. These people humble themselves before God and literally give up everything from their comfortable clothes to their food and drink for an impossible period of time and put all their hope on the mercy of God. Though, they have no promise to even hold on to, they assume that if God had sent a messenger laced in that message was a implication to turn and be saved. And so they do and wait.
“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.” –Jonah 3:10
God didn’t have to you know? God could have punished Nineveh. The word “overthrown” that is used in Jonah’s message to speak of the judgement God was to do to Nineveh is the same word used to describe what God had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. And the King of Nineveh was right to say, “Who knows?” This is the same phrase King David used in 2 Samuel 12:22 when he fasted in hopes that God would relent of the punishment he was told to come to pass. And that punishment did come to pass despite all of David’s repenting, praying, and waiting. Nineveh deserved to be overthrown. But God relented from the disaster he said he would do.
You know, just as Nineveh deserved the “fierce anger” of God so do you and I. That’s what everyone deserves. We have received the same warning as Nineveh has received from a much greater prophet from Galilee and his name is Jesus. Here’s what He said:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” –John 3:16-18
Have you believed in Jesus? Have you turned from your evil way? Have you repented in hopes that God will show mercy? All those who have not are even now “condemned.” If Nineveh would repent from a mere eight words from a foreign enemy because they were the words of God, how much more so should we? Let us repent! Let us even now, turn from our evil ways and put our hope in the mercy of God. So long as the day of judgement is suspended let us continue to believe and continue to turn away from our evil deeds. For it is those who persevere to the end who are saved!
In Jonah 3 we see salvation come to a place we never expected it. More than that, we see salvation come to a place we would never expect, through a person and method that we would never expected. And in the process we are once again reminded that “salvation belongs to the LORD!” Salvation does not belong to the LORD plus strategy, or style, or impression, or etc. Salvation comes to whom God chooses to show mercy (Romans 9:18). And isn’t up to us to discern or decide who receives that mercy. That responsibility hasn’t been entrusted to us. But what has been entrusted to us is the message of the gospel. And it is the message that we are to indiscriminately give.
Can I ask you, “Do you put your hope in word of God plus something for its effectiveness?” What do you believe gets results? The calling that Jonah received from the LORD isn’t all that different from what we the church have received from Jesus our LORD in Matthew 28:18-20:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
And by all impressions it seems that the behavior of the church in Acts seems to have interpreted that command to means something very similar to what Jonah did. To go every which way and proclaim everywhere the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many today knock street preaching. But I question their Biblical basis for their criticism. For sure, there are wrong ways to do street preaching. But the wrong ways of doing do not discredit the general practice of it. And again, if our only confidence is the word of God then so long as we proclaim that Word, we ought to have confidence enough to do what Jonah reluctantly did. And more so, because, we are given the promise from Jesus that He will be “with you always.” The Sovereign King of the universe who has emphatically proclaimed; that He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her has, has promised to be with us in this venture.
But perhaps you think that you need to heed your civil authorities and cultural norms. And so we need to get permission to do such. Let us remember how Jesus prefaced this commission to the church. He states, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In other words, the one who has the authority has already granted you permission to do such. In fact, he hasn’t merely given us permission but a command. And so if the church neglects this endeavor she is disobeying her authority.
Saints, in light of God’s sovereign, unfailing love, let us go and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ! That Jesus, Son of God, who is fully man and fully God and who has never sinned, died for sins in accordance to the Scripture. And that He was buried and rose again in accordance with the Scriptures! And this same Jesus after 40 days ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father and given all authority in heaven and on the earth. Even now, He is reigning and putting all His enemies under His feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death, which He will destroy at His coming. When He will separate us from the unbeliever and unrepentant and take us to be with Him forever!