Jonah 3:1-10, Third Sunday of Epiphany: A Light Unto the Gentiles

Providence Church (CREC)

Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 25th, 2009.

Third Official Sermon

Jonah 3:1-5,10.

Audio for the sermon.

Prayer: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and the boldness to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may see the glory of His marvelous works. This is our prayer, O Lord. Amen.

When Queen Esther feared going to the Persian King to intercede for the Jews, her uncle Mordecai said to her: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”[1]

Esther, convicted of her task, asked the Jews to hold a fast on her behalf. Then her noble response was: “Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” [2] As a result, the mercy of God poured on Israel. Israel was delivered, her arch enemy, Haman was hung, Esther was exalted and her people had light and gladness and joy and honor and they shouted and rejoiced.[3]

Now consider another narrative. The narrative of a prophet called Jonah. In chapter 1 Jonah is called by God to arise and go to Nineveh that great city and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.

Nineveh was the great capital of the Assyrian empire. The prophet Nahum describes Nineveh as the “embodiment of evil and cruelty.”[4] Some have referred to it as the “Assyrian war machine,” [5] because of its atrocities. Instead of seeking the peace and repentance of the city of Nineveh, Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord. Jonah forgot that even if he fled to Sheol, God would also be there. [6] Anyone with a vague familiarity of the Jonah narrative knows that when Jonah fled he went on a downward journey. First, he went down to Joppa, then down into the tumultuous sea, then into the depths of the fish. Indeed Jonah went to the belly of Sheol only to find out that God was there. And in Jonah chapter 2, he cries a psalm of repentance.[7] Jonah concludes his prayer by declaring that salvation belongs to the Lord.[8] But if salvation belongs to the Lord, then He gives mercy to whom He wills and elects whom He will. Jonah is thinking in nationalistic terms. He believes that the gospel ought to remain with God’s chosen people. Jonah’s problem is a theological problem. Jonah is not thinking as a Biblical Theologian. Jonah is not thinking of the promise of the Abrahamic covenant; Jonah is not thinking about the promise of Genesis 3:15; Jonah is not thinking of God’s plans in redemptive history.

Application: I wonder how often we think in those terms. How often do we think that America is God’s chosen nation and she can do no wrong? The only antidote to this form of unbiblical nationalism is to be a missiological church; a church that is deeply concerned with God’s work among the nations; a church that prays for the persecuted church throughout the world. This is who we are to be!

We come to our text this morning in chapter 3. Jonah has a rare chance to re-consider his mission. The same mission that he had in chapter one is now re-addressed to Jonah. Jonah’s prayer indicates that he has matured. He had a David-like repentance.

“Then the word of the JEHOVAH came to Jonah the second time, saying, rise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”[9]

Jonah now will be restored to his prophetic role if he obeys and calls out against Nineveh. According to verse 3, Jonah arises from his disobedience and goes to Nineveh. He is going to preach to the Ninevites. But he is not going to preach any message from his Jewish sermon collection. According to verse 2, “he is going to preach the message that God tells him.” How crucial this is for the success of Jonah’s mission! Only the authoritative word of the Lord can bring reformation to any land.

This Reformation is to take place in the “exceedingly great city of Nineveh.” Why does the text say that Nineveh is a great city? Is it because it has a great reputation? It may even be great because of its size or significance throughout the known world. All these things are true, but what the text appears to imply is that this city is great because God sees His work of the conversion of Nineveh as great. In other words, this is an exceedingly great city because it will experience an exceedingly great repentance from an exceedingly great God!

So the journey begins and it is a three days journey for the missionary. Three days of proclamation of God’s word. Jonah becomes a traveling evangelist proclaiming a message of doom: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

What is the significance of this threat? There are two elements in this proclamation. The first is that Jonah uses 40 days as a reference. Not 39 or 41, but 40. Why is this so? This is because the number 40 indicates a time of testing and judgment. Israel wondered for 40 years, Moses was in the mountains for 40 days, the spies were sent into the land for 40 days to gather intelligence…Jesus is tested in the wilderness for 40 days. The number 40 suggests that God’s threat of coming judgment is really a test to see how Nineveh responds to the word of God.[10]

According to the gospels, it was 40 years that elapsed from the beginning of Christ’s ministry to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. What we have in Jonah is a similar situation. The nation of Israel failed to repent of her many sins in the first century and suffered the full measure of punishment. But instead of killing Jonah, instead of killing the prophet of the Lord, instead of mocking the prophetic message, as Jerusalem had done to her prophets,[11] look at Nineveh’s response in verse 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.”

This is a remarkable event! The Ninevites had probably heard of how Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown, and they were not about to accept that fate for themselves. Remarkably, this response did not take three days, but according to the text there is immediacy about their response. They did not sit around considering the matter, whether it was worth it or not, the Ninevites hasted to believe God. This is the prophetic task of Jonah. Remember, a prophet is a covenant prosecutor. He is bringing a case against the people of Nineveh. But instead of excusing their guilt, the Ninevites declare themselves guilty immediately. “The people called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”[12]

To put on sackcloth was the ancient near east way of mourning. This is what they did when there was death. So too, here they are proclaiming that they are dead to their old way of life. As Paul writes, “…the old has passed away and the new has come.”[13]

But notice also that this was not a localized repentance. It did not happen in one part of the city, but the text says that from the greatest to the least of them. This was a city-wide revival and reformation; from the greatest in power and authority to the least in power and authority; from the oldest to the youngest. Nineveh is putting the Jews into utter shame! The history of Israel is one of disobedience and idolatry. In a sense, Nineveh becomes God’s chosen city; they become a royal priesthood; they become a better Israel. Nineveh has become a city of Biblical theologians. They understand the mercy of God; they understand the grace of God. This is why it was so distressing for Jonah to see Nineveh repentant; because Jonah represents Israel. Jonah did not listen to God in the beginning, but Nineveh listened to God and acted upon it immediately. Whereas Jonah fled from God, the Ninevites fled to God.

Nineveh becomes the city of God. We see this from verses 6-9. It is one thing for a citizen of Nineveh to set an example, but it is another thing for the king to set an example. It is the kingly duty to represent his people. Nineveh could not have been spared without their great leader also repenting of his sins. The King goes through a death experience as we see in verses 6-8:

a)      First, he leaves his throne of glory and dies for his people. As the text says, “He covers himself with sackcloth and ashes;” a sign of death.

b)      Secondly, he not only goes through a death experience, but he also humbles himself on behalf of his people.

c)      Thirdly, notice that he unrobed himself. He removes his royal garb; the garb that gave him power and authority and becomes like his brothers and sisters.

d)      Fourthly, the king makes a royal decree that every man should turn from their sins and abandon their ways.

The king of Nineveh acts like an Israelite King; like a chosen King. Here in the text we find a clear picture of Jesus Christ.

Christ, like the king, leaves His throne of glory and literally dies for His people, so that they might be spared from the judgment to come.

Christ, like the king humbles himself, even to the point of death as Philippians 2 affirms.

Christ, like the king takes off his royal robe, and leaves the splendor of heaven; and he becomes like his brothers by taking human flesh.

And Christ, like the king, makes a cosmic decree that all people in all places should repent of their sins and turn to Him.

My brothers and sisters, Christ is the greater King; the greater King who took upon Himself the wrath of God, so that His people might live. The King of Nineveh prayed that God would turn His wrath away from His people, but Christ suffered the full wrath of God for His people.

After the genuine repentance of the people of Nineveh, God relented of the disaster He was going to bring upon them and He did not destroy them.

What we learn from this passage is that God’s threat of destruction is a call to action; a call to repentance. The Bible teaches us in both Old and New Testaments that there are blessings and curses. These threats are not imaginary threats and warnings, they are real threats. If Nineveh did not repent in 40 days, God would certainly overthrow them as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah.

How shall we then live?

a)      This morning Christ has taken the wrath of God, so that His people might live. You were once a Ninevite, but God has made you His child. We are to live grateful lives in light of the work of Christ on our behalf.

b)      We also see that the Ninevites did not try to rationalize their sins; rather they immediately believed and repented. This is a clear call to Christ’s church: to fathers and mothers, and children to turn away from your sins and live obedient lives in the presence of Christ our King. Examine your lives and see if there is any wicked way in you and pray that our righteous mediator will forgive you and He will.

c)      Remember the story of Esther. Esther risked her life by asking the King to save her people. The story of Esther is that God used a woman to bring about the joy and honor of a nation. Jonah’s task, though with great hesitation, was to proclaim a message of repentance to the Gentiles, so the Gentiles will be filled with joy and honor. There is no room for nationalism in the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord. The story of Jonah is the story of epiphany. The new born Christ becomes the light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. Amen.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Amen.


[1] Esther 4:14 All quotations are from the ESV.

[2] Esther 4:16

[3] Esther 8:15-16.

[4] See The Reformation Study Bible, pg.1287.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Psalm 139.

[7] There may be some similarities to the Psalm of David in chapter 51.

[8] Jonah 2:9.

[9] Jonah 3:1-2.

[10] The explanation for the number 40 comes from Rich Lusk who has done significant work on the book of Jonah and who has told me that he plans on publishing a commentary on Jonah in the near future. See http://www.trinity-pres.net/audio/sermonindex.php

[11] Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!

[12] Jonah 3:5.

[13] II Corinthians 5:17

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Jonah, Sermons/Epiphany. Bookmark the permalink.

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