RPM, Volume 17, Number 26, June 21 to June 27, 2015

Believing God

Jonah 3:1-9

By D. Marion Clark


I can remember the moment when I learned one of my most significant spiritual lessons. I was sitting on the pulpit platform at Tenth Presbyterian Church. James Boice was preaching. He asked the question, "Do you know what God wants?" (Why, yes, I did want to know.) He wants to be believed. I could have learned that lesson earlier if I had paid attention to the response of the Ninevites to Jonah's preaching.


Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you."

Much is made by commentators of the Lord giving Jonah a second chance. I suppose it can be considered gracious of God to give his servant another opportunity to serve. It seems to me, though, that the Lord is simply throwing Jonah back into the assignment he had tried to get away from. No one can flee the presence of the Lord, and no servant can forsake the assignment he has been given. God's will will be done. So, Jonah, get to it!

3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

Let's recall Jonah's original assignment: "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." Jonah's message was to be one of doom. The evil of the city has come up before God. He was not ignorant of it before, but, rather, the city's sin had reached such a grievous point that destruction was now called for. And so, Jonah proclaims its imminent overthrow — forty days.

Then the extraordinary happens.

5 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.

The Ninevites actually believe Jonah! He probably is in some kind of marketplace where people would be going about their business. He is a foreigner, and if dressed like many Hebrew prophets, has the appearance of a poor, eccentric man. He cries out the end is near, and, for whatever reason, the cosmopolitans stop what they are doing, listen to him, and are cut to the quick.

The comparison for us would be that of an eccentric looking man standing on a crate in Times Square preaching with his bull horn that God is about to send down judgment, and all the shoppers, the store keepers, the streetwise walkers, everyone — stop, gather round, and begin to wail. It is no less than a miracle, as difficult to believe as a man being swallowed by a large fish and living. In minutes a video would have been made and gone viral!

But let's back up. The wording is not that the Ninevites believed Jonah, but that they believed God. The ancients were not atheists; they were polytheists. They believed that there were seers and oracles who spoke for the gods. Here they accept Jonah as a prophet who is the mouthpiece of God.

They believe God that he will carry out his judgment. They then engage in a formal act of mourning. They call for a fast and the wearing of sackcloth. Perhaps this is done spontaneously, but I suspect the next verses give the details of how this was carried out.

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. 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, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.

So everyone engages in fasting and the wearing of sackcloth. The king sits in ashes, which likely meant everyone else did the same. These are formal acts of mourning and contrition. The people did not lose their appetite. They practiced fasting to demonstrate their grief. They did not lose interest in their clothes. They wore coarse clothing to display their repentance. The same with sitting in or covering themselves with ashes.

There are notable participants in these acts. The first is the king himself. The mighty ruler of the Assyrian empire humbles himself. Before his subjects, he subjects himself before the god of Jonah. As the fear of God entered into the mariners, so the fear of God entered into him. He then exercises his authority to command the same response of all the city, which leads to the peculiar participants — the cattle and the sheep.

The animals were also to fast and wear sackcloth. There are a handful of references to animals being included in mourning rituals but nothing quite like this. Even so, it is not so unreasonable an idea. For one, thing it re-enforces the display of mourning, indicating that daily life was not simply to go on as before. The outward display of all living things in the city was to be that of mourning. The king meant business when he called the city to put on a show of grief. Another reason might be acknowledge that all living things in the city were coming under destruction. Whoever and whatever was in the city would receive the same sentence of doom.

So far we have spoken of a display of mourning. But the king intended repentance as well.

Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish."

"Let…turn" translates the Hebrew word for repent. To repent is to turn away from sin, which, in this case, includes violence. The hope of repentance is that God will see the change of heart, or at least the change of behavior, and then hold off from carrying out his intentions. Jonah did say that it would be forty days before the overthrow of the city. Why delay the judgment if not to give opportunity for repentance?

We stop here and wait until next week for the story to be continued. Meanwhile, what does this pagan city and pagan have to teach us?


1. One must believe God

The first lesson is that the first step of any right change is to believe God. I would even say that it is the critical step to getting everything else right about our faith and to getting our lives in order. We commonly speak of believing in God. "Believe in God," we urge others. When we are counseling fellow believers, or even ourselves, we might ask, "Don't you believe in God?" "Don't you believe in Jesus?"

Take out that preposition and now ask the questions. "Don't you believe God?" "Don't you believe Jesus?" Do you see the difference? Do you feel the difference? In particular, can you see how personal it makes matters of faith and of religion?

For example, to reject the gospel is to reject God. The unbeliever might protest that he would believe if he had enough evidence that the gospel was true. He might contend that there is not enough evidence for God's existence. He cannot believe in something that has not/cannot be proven. God begs to differ. He has spoken clearly in his Word (special revelation), as well as given enough evidence through natural revelation. According to God, unbelievers do not believe in him because they will not believe him. They will not believe for pride. They can object, but God does not believe them, and he holds them accountable for not believing him.

But we believers also need to believe God. Over the years, Christian have come to me for counsel often worried about their salvation. They wonder how they could be sure of their salvation given the sins they continue to commit. "How can I be a Christian if I have…?" "How can I know that God still accepts me or will accept me given that I…?" I take their concerns seriously. Our sins ought to trouble us, and we ought to examine ourselves. But if I determine that their faith is real and that they truly are under conviction of the Holy Spirit, I will then ask my own questions: "Do you not believe God?" "Do you believe that he will not fulfill his promises?" "Are you saying that he is too weak?" "Are you saying that he is a liar?"

That typically has an impact. For understand that however humble it may seem to question your salvation, if indeed you have called upon Jesus Christ as your Lord Savior, you are ascribing untruthfulness to the word of the very person whom you acknowledge as your Lord. It is well to mourn over your sin; it is dishonorable to then doubt the truth and promises of your Lord to have saved you. Jesus did say, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37). Will you have the audacity to contradict him?

It also works the other way. One can treat the promises of God frivolously, ignoring his words of warning. Jesus addressed such persons, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Such persons do not come for counsel worried about their salvation. But the question is the same for them: "Do you not believe God?" " Do you choose what you will believe and what you will discount?" "Do you think that God will be understanding and forgiving of such an attitude?"

Whoever we are, whatever the circumstance, we must all ask ourselves the question of whether or not we will believe God.

2. True repentance

The king of Nineveh also teaches us what true repentance looks like. Some confuse repentance with feeling sorry. To feel sorry for sin and to mourn one's disfavor with God is included in repentance and is an essential ingredient. How many of us husbands have learned the hard lessons that saying we are sorry is but one small step for mankind! Our wives want to know if we really are sorry or if we are merely trying to get them to stop being upset. God wants more than show. He wants heartfelt sorrow for sin.

That is what the Ninevites were sincerely trying to show. They believed God that he was going to punish them for their sins. They were cut to the quick, and they immediately began to outwardly show their sorrow for their sin, and most especially for the judgment about to fall on them. But feeling sorry is not enough. There needs to be repentance, and repentance for sin by definition means turning away from sin. That is why the king exhorted his people to turn from their wicked ways and their violent sins.

This is the repentance that must be proclaimed and taught to unbelievers. Spiritual conversion does not rest with an intellectual consent that God exists or even that Jesus died for sins. There are many who sit in churches because they have come to believe that Christianity is a good religion to follow. They have sown their wild oats and now are ready to settle down with a family and good moral teaching. They may even own up to not being perfect and needing forgiveness to a measure. But they are not convicted of being sinners liable to the just condemnation of a holy God. They may feel bad at times that they are not as good as they should be; they appreciate moral instruction to guide them, but they do not believe God that their souls are in peril.

It is repentance, not the message that God loves them that needs to be clearly proclaimed. It is the judgment that awaits them, not the "your life will be more fulfilled" message that they need to hear and respond to. They need to believe God and then repent of their sins. And they repent of their sins by turning away from the path of unrighteousness and following the Lord Jesus Christ along his path. They repent by turning away from their self-efforts to turning toward the work of Jesus the Savior. They repent of their actions and exercise faith in the actions of Jesus Christ. That is true repentance.

And we believers need to do the same. We have repented of our sins and professed faith in Jesus, and he has saved us. We are in the family; we have gained our inheritance of eternal life. We can rest in the promises of God. We can believe God to keep his word. Nevertheless, we continually fall back into old ways. We fear the world and lose trust or confidence in God to protect us. We envy the world and take on the world's ways, instead of seeking first the kingdom of God. We resent others who mistreat us or gloat over us, instead of finding our peace in God's acceptance. At times we outright transgress the clear laws of God out of greed or lust or pride, forgetting the riches that we have in Christ. Or we become self-righteous, trusting in the law to earn our salvation instead of trusting solely in the work of Christ. We depend on good activities such as church attendance and following the Ten Commandments and doing good works to win God's favor.

We need to repent of all these forms of sins and sinful attitudes. We need continually to hear the gospel and repent of our transgressions and of our self-righteousness. We need to repent — not because God will forget his promises — but that we will re-awaken to the truths that he has spoken in the gospel. We need to repent because without repentance we will sink further into hypocrisy, not realizing that we have turned to trusting in ourselves rather than trusting in our Lord. We need to repent so that we will give our God the glory that is due his name.

3. Jesus' indictment

Jesus also had an application to make regarding Jonah and Nineveh.

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, "This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 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 (Luke 11:29-32).

Something greater than Jonah was before the people. That something was the Son of God. Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh as a prophet warning them of the judgment of the Lord. When the Day of Judgment arrives, they will point to the people of Israel who had the very Son of God preach to them, and they will condemn such a generation that would not hear. They heard and believed a prophet. As wicked as they were, they nevertheless repented. And yet here are the covenant people of God refusing to heed the teaching of the Son of God, the promised Anointed One.

The Jews of Jesus' day will protest that they did not know Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah. They will argue that they needed a sign from him to prove his authority from God. But the Ninevites accepted Jonah, a lesser man, on face value. They — pagans that they were — accepted the foreigner Jonah's preaching as the word of God himself. And here is one (Jesus) who came to his own people, and his people would not accept him.

Our generation is guilty of the same rejection. I have listened to a preacher say that he could not understand what the cross is about and that it did not matter what we believed Jesus was, all the while his congregation smiled approvingly. He and they are but the product of skepticism that has encroached into many churches that claim to be Christian. I have listened to a preacher who upholds up all the claims of Jesus and then reduces Jesus' message of repentance to one of earthly prosperity. In both cases, even unbelievers now can point to the emptiness and betrayal of the gospel that these ministers are guilty of.

There was a doubter even among Jesus' disciples. His name was Thomas, and he refused to believe that his Master rose from the dead. When he beholds Jesus, he exclaims, "My Lord and my God." It is Jesus' response that is intended for us. "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 14:29).

Believe God. Believe his message that he will judge those who do not repent of their sins. Believe his gospel message that he has sent his Son Jesus Christ, who has paid the penalty for our sins. Believe Jesus when he says that whoever turns to him will not perish but will have eternal life. In a world of competing claims and of vast skepticism, believe something that is true — the gospel. Believe someone who does speak the truth — believe Jesus Christ.

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