If you take a look at the modern missionary movement of the past century, one of the great success stories, would have to be what has happened over the last 50 years in the nation of South Korea. It’s quite possibly the most dramatic story of church growth in history.
The first protestant Christian church in Korea was planted in 1884. Today, 130 years later, there are over 30,000 churches in South Korea, and 30% of the population are professing Christians. 10 of the 20 largest churches in the world are in the capital Seoul, the largest in the world being the Full Gospel Central Church which has 750,000 members.
Even more incredible is that today there are over 23,000 Koreans serving as missionaries in over 150 countries around the world, and that number continues to grow every year.
But as amazing as the growth of the Korean church has been, this morning we read perhaps an even more amazing story of how one city responded to the preaching of a single missionary- and that missionary’s name was Jonah. And the city was Niniveh.
For the last couple of weeks we have been looking at the story of Jonah: this fascinating tale of a reluctant prophet who at first refuses to obey when God calls him to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. But then as we saw last Sunday, he has a transformational experience with God inside the belly of a great fish. What Jonah thought was the end for him, in fact becomes a new beginning, and God gives him a second chance to respond to the missionary call on his life. And now as we begin chap 3, we see that it begins almost exactly the same way as chap 1.
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”
Do you notice God’s instructions to Jonah here are virtually identical to the ones he had given him the first time at the beginning of chap 1? Nothing about God’s call has changed. The idea of going as a missionary to these Assyrians, the most hated and reviled enemies of Israel, would have been every bit as distasteful to Jonah as it was the first time he heard it. But now Jonah is a changed man, and this time Jonah’s response is totally different: "Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh" Instead of running from God, Jonah is now willing to submit himself to God's direction for his life, even though he knows he may not be happy with what the eventual outcome will be.
You see folks, God never promises that his call on our lives will be fit our preconceived ideas of what is reasonable or appropriate. We often want to set limits on how far we will go when it comes to obeying God. “Lord, I’m happy to serve you in this way, but please don’t expect me to do that!” And so when God calls Peter, for eg, in Acts 10 to take the gospel to a Roman centurion’s house, says, “Lord, surely you can’t expect me to go to preach to a Gentile?” Jonah says “Lord, send me to anywhere you want, just don’t send me to Nineveh!” But God says to him, “Jonah, that’s exactly where I need you to go”
So now Jonah makes the journey from Israel to the city of Nineveh, which would have been about 900 km, the distance from Fort Erie to Quebec City. In those days that would have been a very long and arduous trip. And when he arrives, he finds this huge city, which at that time was probably the biggest city in the world. We’re told it took 3 days to walk through it.
1. Jonah’s message So what was the message Jonah brought to the Ninevites? We’re not given much detail here, are we? It simply says in v4: “On the first day Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "40 more days & Nineveh will be overturned" Now I suspect he had more to say than just that, but that was the basic theme of his message: “I’m here to warn you that 40 days from now, this whole place is going to be destroyed.”
Now if you were to stand out in front of the Leisureplex tomorrow announcing that in 6 weeks time Fort Erie was going to go up in smoke, what kind of a response do you think you would get?
I suspect most people would be writing you off as not quite playing with a full deck! But that’s exactly what Jonah was telling the people of Niniveh.
Now you would think if Jonah had wanted to appeal to his listeners, then surely he could have come up with a more eloquent and persuasive message than the one he gave them! Maybe he could have told the Ninevites that they were all basically good people who just needed to release their hidden potential! Ot they just needed to harness the power of positive thinking. They just needed to love and accept themselves more, and take care of their inner child! We hear those kinds of messages all the time today, don’t we? Sometimes even from the pulpit.
But Jonah’s message was really incredibly simple. He basically said: “Unless you repent, unless you change your ways, one day very soon, you’re going to experience the wrath of of a holy and righteous God.” Not a very popular message today. Not what we would like to hear. But for the Ninevites it was the message they most needed to hear.
2. Niniveh’s response And amazingly it was a message that was received in a way that he probably would never have imagined. I'm not sure what Jonah was expecting would happen when he started preaching this message in Nineveh, but I'm sure it wasn't what happened here in v5: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.”
So we discover 3 things happening:
1. They covered themselves with sackcloth. Sackcloth was a coarse uncomfortable cloth often made of goats hair, which was usually worn only by prisoners, slaves or the poorest of the poor. But everyone in Nineveh, from the king himself right on down, put on sackcloth because this was a traditional sign of repentance & sorrow for sin. They were saying that they now saw their wickedness & sin in a new light. They came to realize how offensive what they had been doing was in God's eyes.
2. They declared a national fast- This happens spontaneously at first, but is put into offical decree by the king, that no one should eat or drink anything. By fasting they were seeking to humble themselves, & to again express sorrow & regret for their sin.
3. Finally in v8, the king says: "Let everyone call urgently on God, & give up their evil ways & their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."
Now remember that these were not Israelites, or anyone that we would think of as being godly in any way. As we said last week the Assyrians were notorious for their idolatry, their immorality, & their violoent cruelty. And so for them to respond with this kind of repentance to Jonah's message from God is really nothing short of incredible. In fact, nothing like this occurs anywhere else in the Bible that I can think of, where a whole city right from the king on down to the lowest citizen repents and turns to the Lord like we see here.
So how do we explain the kind of reaction that we see from the people of Nineveh? I think there’s only one explanation: What we are seeing here is nothing short of a miracle. In fact it's every bit as miraculous as Jonah surviving 3 days inside the fish. You see at the same time God was dealing with Jonah, & calling him to go & proclaim this message, he was also preparing these peoples' hearts to receive that message. Notice in v5, it doesn't say "They believed Jonah" but they believed God. That’s what made all the difference. They understood that even though it was Jonah's voice & Jonah's words that they heard, behind those words was the voice of God himself speaking to them
And I believe God can do exactly the same thing today thru us. Often our reluctance to speak on behalf of God, to share our faith with someone, stems from an assumption we have that they will never respond positively to what we are saying anyway. But what we fail to understand is that how a person responds is not my responsibility. God simply says to us, Go & give the message, & I will take care of the rest. The reality is that no one will respond to God, unless he 1st of all opens their eyes & awakens their hearts to be able to do so.
3. God’s response 3:10:
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened."
Again we see the incredible grace of God in this story, don’t we? Just as he had given Jonah a second chance, now instead of bringing destruction and judgment on the people of Nineveh, when he sees the repentant condition of their hearts, he spares them.
What do we see in this story that is relevant to us today?
1. We too need to hear Jonah’s message today. The Bible tells us that there is still a day of judgment and destruction awaiting those who refuse to accept his mercy. 2 Peter 3:7, 9
“By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly…The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
2. We need to respond the way the Ninivites did, in repentance and faith. People sometimes attach negative connotations to the word Repent, but in fact it is a very positive & necessary step if we are going to experience God's blessing in our lives. Repentance simply means to turn around, to change direction.
That's what Jonah did, that's what the people of Nineveh did. And that’s what God is calling you & I to do this morning. What does repentance look like? The book of Jonah illustrates 3 essential steps:
1st, like Jonah when he was in the fish, we must come to the end of ourselves, & our own ability to cope on our own with what is happening in our lives. We must come to the realization that our only hope lies in turning to God
2. Then we must be willing to acknowledge our own responsibility for the mistakes & sins of the past. Like the Ninevites, we must come to God, sincerely confessing our sin, & asking for his forgiveness. For many of us this is a very difficult thing to do: To admit that we have been wrong, to experience sorrow & regret for the things we have done that have hurt others as well as ourselves. Repentance means having a broken & contrite heart before God. In 2 Cor 7, Paul says to the Corinthians "I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation"
3. We must be willing to turn our heart, our mind, our will completely over to JC. As we saw last Sunday, Jesus takes the story of Jonah & gives it a deeper signficance.
Mt 12:40: "For as Jonah was 3 days & 3 nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be 3 days & 3 nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation & condemn it. For they repented at the preaching of Jonah, & now one greater than Jonah is here"
What is Jesus saying here? He's saying this: If the people of Nineveh repented after hearing Jonah's message, how much more should we repent when we have heard the message of the one who died, was buried, & 3 days later was rose from the dead.
How will you respond to what God is saying to you this morning?
The Bible says "Repent then & turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out & times of refreshing may come from the Lord" Acts 3:19