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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:Sent Out Again!
Text:Jonah 3:1-4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling
 
Preached:2005
Added:2006-07-12
Updated:2006-09-23
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Suggested songs:

Psalm 66:1-4

Hymn 7:9

Psalm 66:5-8

Psalm 40:1-4

Hymn 64:1-4

Reading and Text: Jonah 3:1-4

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


Beloved in the Lord Jesus,

There is an African proverb: words are like bullets, once they escape you cannot catch them again. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience: how many times have we wished that we could unsay something we’ve said, undo something we’ve done, redo something that we’ve failed to do properly? Rarely does such an opportunity come along. A second chance is always a great blessing. And in our text this morning, we see a God who gives second chances.

The most obvious way is with the prophet Jonah. At this point in the story, Jonah has gone through the futile trouble of trying to run away from God. Because of this, he’d gone down to the grave, or as Jonah put it in Hebrew, down to Sheol. Eventually, God changed Jonah’s thinking and God caused the great sea creature to vomit Jonah out on to the dry land again. Then we wondered: after all this, will Jonah finally go to Nineveh? Just so there’s no doubt about what God wants for Jonah, he goes to the prophet a second time. He commands him again to get moving to Nineveh, to the loathed enemy of God’s people, to those who represented the darkest depravity on earth. And so, the theme of the sermon is this:

God sends his prophetic messenger to the enemy again.

We’ll look at:

  1. Jonah’s obedience to God.
  2. Jonah’s message to Nineveh.

1. Jonah’s obedience to God.

As we begin looking at our text, one of the most striking things is the similarity between the first two verses of chapter 3 and the first two verses of chapter 1. In both cases, the Word of Yahweh, of the LORD, comes to Jonah. In both cases, Jonah is commanded to go to the great city of Nineveh. And in both cases, Jonah is sent to preach. Actually, in 1:2, the NIV has the word “preach,” and in 3:2, we find the word “proclaim.” But in the Hebrew, it’s the same word. The difference is that in chapter 1, Jonah is sent to preach against Nineveh and in chapter 3, he is sent to preach to Nineveh. Most commentators agree that this difference is not significant.

What is significant is that God gives Jonah a second chance. Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who turned his back on his office. Every other prophet responded in obedience to God’s call. Sure there were false prophets, but now we’re talking about bona fide prophets, those who fit the Old Testament definition of a true prophet: one whose prophetic word would come to pass. From 2 Kings 14:25, we know that Jonah was a true prophet of Yahweh. He prophesied that the boundaries of Israel would be expanded and it came to pass. So, Jonah was unique: a true prophet who turned his back on his calling. And God’s way of dealing with Jonah, by giving him a second chance, was also special.

But now the bigger question is “why?” Why does God keep insisting on sending Jonah to Nineveh? God could have treated Nineveh like he did Sodom and Gomorrah, but instead God chooses a different route. There are at least two reasons why he does that. The first reason can be found in verse 3. In our English translation, it says that Nineveh was a very important city. If we take this statement at face value, it was certainly true. Nineveh was one of the most important, if not the most important, city in Assyria. It was large in terms of square kilometres, though archaeologists have a hard time agreeing on just how large it really was and whether or not the suburbs should be included. It was also large in terms of population – chapter 4 tells us that there were 120,000 people living there. Finally, it was also important politically, socially, and economically.

But there is something more. If we translate that part of verse 3 literally, it says that Nineveh was a “city great to God.” That means that it was a city that was great and important even by God’s standards. But more than that, it reflects the concern God has for Nineveh. We’ll see that concern made even more explicit when we get to chapter 4. Right now, it’s clear enough that this great city has caught God’s attention – this partly explains why God comes to Jonah a second time.

The second reason why God does that is tied to the purpose of the book. Jonah was not written for the people of Nineveh, but for the covenant people of God. The point here is that if God would go through all this trouble to reach out to the people of Nineveh, if God cares so much about them, what does that say about how he feels about his people? If he cares about Nineveh, how much more wouldn’t he care about Israel and Judah?

In all this, we should notice something about God’s character. He is persistent. When we get a hard job, we give it a try once and then maybe we give up and let somebody else try. Not everybody is like that, mind you. But God is never like that. In fact, the whole Bible testifies to God’s dogged determination to fulfill his promise to crush the head of the serpent. God does not give up on accomplishing his Word. And so it’s the same way in our text. God wants to bring a kind of salvation to Nineveh. God wants to be worshipped by these people, he wants them to give glory to their Creator. He wants to use Jonah for those purposes. Nothing is going to stand in his way.

So, God’s Word to Jonah has its intended effect this time around. Following the Word of Yahweh, Jonah makes the journey to Nineveh. This is described in a few short words in verse 3: Jonah went to Nineveh. But these short words don’t really help us to understand the magnitude of what Jonah did here. Assuming that Jonah was back in Israel or Judah, it would have been a journey of about 1500 kilometres. Jonah walked all this distance, a long way to walk.

Finally, Jonah arrived in Nineveh. As he approaches the city, he finally gets to see first hand the size of his task. This city is huge and it’s full of people. Pagan idolatry is plainly evident everywhere. Assyrian soldiers, those responsible for raping, robbing and murdering, are everywhere. This was indeed a great city – a great city of sin in Jonah’s eyes. Nineveh was for Jonah what Auschwitz is to Jews of the last 50 years.

We can only guess at what would have been in Jonah’s heart as he first set foot in the great Nineveh. It doesn’t really matter at this point. In going, Jonah was finally obedient to God; he acted as a faithful prophet. Jonah was given a second chance, and he responds properly, even if it was only outwardly.

This is where the contrast is greatest between Jonah and the one greater than Jonah. We can think here of Matthew 12. The Lord Jesus says in verse 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.” Let’s think for a moment about the ways in which the Lord Jesus is the one greater than Jonah, especially in connection with our text this afternoon.

Consider, for instance, what happens when God gives Jonah the second chance and commands him to go. Sure, we read that Jonah obeyed God. But we don’t hear the prophet saying anything. He goes, but it still sounds like he goes reluctantly. The one greater than Jonah was sent by God into this world – not into a neutral zone, but straight to the enemy. And when God sent him, there was no need to give him a second chance to respond in obedience. One time was enough. Hebrews 10:7 takes the words of Psalm 40 and shows their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. So, today when we read or sing the words of Psalm 40, we hear the voice of our Saviour saying, “Here I am, I have come – it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” When God sent his Son into this world, the Son willingly said, “For sure, I’ll go!” He did not have to be coaxed and prodded to bring salvation to the people of God. His words spoke of what was really living in his heart – and here too, we see the difference between Jonah and the one greater than Jonah. It’ll become clear in chapter 4 that Jonah’s heart was not in his mission. But we know for sure from Scripture that the Lord Jesus was entirely on fire for what he was doing. Just think of how the disciples applied Psalm 69:9 to the Lord Jesus in John 2:17. The Psalm said that “zeal for your house has eaten me up.” On this particular day, the Lord Jesus cleansed the temple and it showed that he cared deeply about what he was doing on earth.

So, God sent the Son and the Son willingly and wholeheartedly came to the enemy. In his suffering, death, and resurrection, he obtained the victory and brought back a host of those who had been happily enslaved to the enemy. Now, the Son persistently sends his church into the world with a message of salvation. God does this work today for the same reasons that he did it in the days of Jonah. God does not desire the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his ways and live. God cares about the nations – he cares about his glory among the nations -- and that’s why the Lord Jesus gave the missionary task to the church. God also knows that this missionary task will do something among his people. It reminds us first that if God cares about the nations, how much more wouldn’t he care about us! How much more wouldn’t he care about his glory through us and among us! And then there’s also the more hands-on aspect of living in the new covenant with a missionary task. God knows that reaching out with the good news of Christ is also a way that the faith and conviction of believers gets strengthened. The result is that the praise and honour God deserves is piled up still higher.

In all of this, God gives the nations not just one second chance, but numerous ones. God persistently sends out missionaries to peoples. Some of those peoples hear the gospel in one generation and the gospel takes root for a time in their land. Perhaps it holds on for more generations, but sometimes it disappears. God does not give up. He sends more missionaries in the coming generations, time and time again. The flip side of this is that God does the same with his people. God gives his people numerous opportunities to hear the Word – think of what happens here every Sunday. God gives his people countless chances to get out and share the message of the Word with others too. So, through our text and how it relates to the gospel, you can see that God is the persistent one, the God who gives not only second chances, but chances too many to mention. And that brings us into our second point:

2. Jonah’s message to Nineveh.

Here we especially want to look at the actual proclamation that Jonah made – what we find in the last part of verse 4. But before we do that, you’ll have noticed the last part of verse 3. It says there that a visit to Nineveh required three days. This may be a reference to the geographical size of the city, but it could also be a note about the density of the population. In other words, if you came to Nineveh and wanted to make your way through it completely, it would take three days.

This sets the stage for verse 4 where we read that Jonah went into the city a day’s journey. To put it another way, he’d only just begun the grand tour. From the sounds of things, he just wanted to get this prophecy business done and over with. Jonah could do his work and then just sit back and watch what happens and hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

Now verse 4 gives us the proclamation that Jonah made: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” There are several things in the following verses which tell us that this was probably just a short summary of what Jonah said. This summarizing of speeches can be seen in other places in the Bible, for instance with the sermons and speeches in the book of Acts. So, Jonah probably did say more. But the Holy Spirit, working through the human author, decided to give us just this short summary.

And this short summary is enough – it’s full of meaning. Let’s unpack it. Jonah speaks of forty days. Of course, the Scriptures speak more often about 40 days as an important time period. In the days of Noah, the flood increased upon the earth for this long. Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days. Looking ahead to the New Testament, the Lord Jesus was in the wilderness for this length of time. Forty days can refer to a time of judgment, of revelation, or of testing. In this instance, it seems to refer especially to a time of testing. God gives them forty days to test them, to see if they will turn around from their sinful ways. Forty days means a period of grace for the Ninevites. Just like your bank might you a grace period when your credit card payment is due, so the Lord was giving Nineveh a grace period of 40 days before their judgment would be due. It was time to turn around, time for a second chance.

All of this sounds good, but how were the people of Nineveh supposed to know who this message was coming from? If it was a message from a god, how were they supposed to know which one? Was it Adad, Dagan, Ninurta, Nergal, Marduk, maybe Ashur? This is where we can make a case for Jonah’s message being more than what we read in verse 4. But for the original readers of the book, it would have been clear enough. Verse 4 uses a special feature in Hebrew that makes it clear that God is the one who is going to be doing the overturning. There would be no question about that!

The meaning of this “overturning” also needs our attention. Oftentimes the meaning of this word is negative. It’s the same word that’s used to describe what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah. It often describes prophetic judgment against cities and nations. But it can also have a positive meaning. It can refer to a kind of reformation among cities and nations – when things are turned upside down and it serves for the good of the people.

So, the message Jonah had to preach at first glance looks totally negative. And it’s true: there is a negative side to what he is saying. But there’s also the positive side: there are 40 days, a period of grace. Jonah preaches that the city of Nineveh will be overturned – but this might be for the good of Nineveh. In other words, Jonah’s message meant two things at the same time: judgment if there was no repentance, blessing if there was repentance. It all depended on the response.

The one greater than Jonah preached and taught a similar message. Do you remember what the Lord Jesus taught about the purpose of parables in Matthew 13? When the Lord Jesus taught in parables, the same parable had two different outcomes among the listeners. With some, the parables only hardened their hearts even more. The parables were messages of judgment for them. With others, the parables found faith and a desire to serve the Lord. The parables were messages of blessing for them. Now if we go back to Matthew 12 for a moment, the point there is that if God’s message had these two purposes for the Ninevites, how much more so for the people of God in the time Christ was on earth?! God works the same with both, but he expected to see a better response for the message among his people when Christ preached to them.

The same Christ continues to speak through his Word and the preaching of his Word today. The Word continues to be one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. By the preaching of the Word, the kingdom of heaven is opened to those who accept the promise of the gospel. By the very same preaching of the Word, the kingdom of heaven is closed to those who do not repent and believe. In other words, by the preaching some become and remain friends of God through Jesus Christ. Others remain his enemies, destined for judgment.

As we read our text for this afternoon, we’re left with the question: how are the Ninevites going to respond to the preaching of Jonah? That question can be turned around and directed to the people of God. You see, in the minds of Jonah’s first readers, Jerusalem was really the great city. In Jonah, Nineveh presents a kind of foil to Jerusalem, and by extension to the people of God in general. The Spirit is saying: look at what happened with pagan Nineveh, now what about you, Holy City? What about you people of God? And the one greater than Jonah is asking his people today, “How are you going to respond to my Word? Is this key of the kingdom going to open the kingdom for you? Or is it going to lock you out?”

This is an important issue for us to consider today. We live in a time when the preached Word is losing its authority. Maybe some of us come home from church and we ask: so what did you think of the sermon? Then perhaps we answer, “Oh, it was good.” Or maybe: “Well, I didn’t really agree with the first point. I don’t see how he got that out of the text.” Brothers and sisters, we have to be careful in this area. On the one hand, ministers can and do make mistakes when they preach. We are human and there are no guarantees from the Spirit that the message we bring will be perfect. On the other hand, the ministers are servants of God trained in interpreting and preaching the Scriptures. They are ambassadors of Christ, officially bringing the Word of Christ, just like Jonah was officially appointed to preach in Nineveh. The ministers do their best to bring only the Word of God and not their own opinions.

So, as those sitting in the pew, how do we strike a balance between these two truths? There are two things I can mention: first of all, we have the responsibility, as the Bereans did in Acts 17, to first of all receive the Word with great eagerness and to search the Scriptures to make sure that what you hear is the voice of the Shepherd. This means that we sit under the Word with humility, not actively searching for falsehoods, but when we hear something that doesn’t sound like the voice of the Shepherd, we search the Scriptures. Second, when there is a note that’s off in the preaching, we don’t immediately spread it around to everyone else. We approach the pastor in question and ask him privately if perhaps we misunderstood him. This gives the benefit of the doubt to the minister and shows a spirit of humility. The pastor is given the opportunity to respond. He can correct himself if necessary, or make what he said more clear. In this way, we can balance our responsibility as individual believers with the Christ-given authority of the minister, and we can also grow together as a congregation!

Brothers and sisters, every Sunday is another opportunity from God to hear the Word preached. Jonah spent only one day preaching in Nineveh. The one greater than Jonah spent three years in ministry and then continued his work on earth through others. He continues that work today, constantly giving us the blessing of more opportunities to grow in grace and knowledge. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we want to use those opportunities. We want to receive the Word with eagerness – that Word which leads us to be not only prophets in New Testament clothes, but also increasingly faithful recipients of that preached Word. May that Word be for all of us a key to open the kingdom of heaven – for the glory of the God of our salvation! 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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