Monday, July 26, 2010

Sermon on Jonah 3 & 4: Part 1, The Forgiven People

After being puked up on the shore near Nineveh, Jonah finally obeys God in this dreaded assignment—dreaded because Assyria is a growing superpower in the middle east that is threatening the the norther border of Israel. Dreaded because Jonah cannot imagine how this will end in his favor: either the Ninevites reject his message and kill him or they receive his message and repent.

The one consolation left for Jonah is small. His message isn't one of repentance, only judgment. His only recorded words to the Ninevites is "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

Yet the Ninevites seem to come to all the right conclusions: fasting, sackcloth, dust and ashes, calling urgently on God, and giving up evil ways. No infant sacrifices or self-mutilation which was common in many pagan practices. We see universal conviction on the part of the Ninevites. The king issues a royal decree of repentance and mourning, but the text points out that the people already "believed God" and were in the process of fasting and mourning before he said a thing. This is nothing short of the hand of God on the hearts of the people.

Biblical scholars seem to be divided about whether the Ninevites truly repented and were saved in the book of Jonah, but the argument is strong that they were for three reasons:
  1. In verse 3:5 it says they "believed" (NIV) or even that they "believed in" (NAS) God. This is the same phraseology used describing the faith that Abraham had that was reckoned to him as righteousness.
  2. Obviously their repentance was of the substance that God had compassion on them and relented.
  3. Jesus seemed to consider their repentance to be of note: "Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 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." Matthew 12:38-41
Though God destroyed Nineveh just a few generations later (as chronicled in the book of Nahum), this does not rule out the true repentance and turning of heart by an earlier generation.

In summary, the Ninevites:
Respond with belief toward a God who was not a god of Assyria.
Respond with humility toward a prophet who was not a prophet of power.
Respond with repentance to a message that was not a message of repentance.

Why is this relevant? Because centuries later, one came to the Jews who was a prophet of power, who was from the God of the Jews, and with a message of repentance. And the result? The Jews rebelled and killed that prophet. And Jesus knew this would be their response. When he told the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham said to the rich man "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31)

What do we see through the repentance and salvation of the Ninevites? First, we see that the God of the Old Testament was not just a God of wrath, judgment and jealousy. God was a God of mercy and forgiveness. Above and beyond that, He loved, sought, and saved those outside of the covenant of Israel. Certainly this was not his normal operating procedure, but God demonstrates here (as Paul delineates later) that salvation has always been a gift from God for Jews and Gentiles alike, through faith, and not from ourselves, not by works so that no one may boast.
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people."
- Rom. 10:20,21 ESV
This post is the first in the three-part series of excerpts from a sermon delivered at Redeemer Church in Omaha, NE on July 25th, 2010.

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