There is someone in your life who consistently refuses to listen, repent, or admit wrong doing. Think about it. This person might be a close friend, a family member, or a past friend. For awhile you hoped to see the gospel change his life, but he never sees the folly in his sin. You hoped that through years of friendship and love you might soften his heart, but all to no avail. I know a few people like this. After countless hours of investment, we burn out; we find ourselves thinking, “He’s a hopeless case!” Or maybe it’s subconscious – we simply stop bring up spiritual issues, stop caring, stop respecting.
Well, we’re not the first people to struggle with this issue. Jonah was a prophet whom God commanded to preach in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. This was the last thing Jonah wanted to do (for a multitude of reasons), but maybe one reason was doubt. Jonah probably doubted that an idolatrous city, full of idolatrous people would ever repent of their sins. He must have thought, “Surely there’s a better use for my precious time, God.”
So Jonah tried to run away from God, but he couldn’t, so he finally meandered to Nineveh. He couldn’t even muster up a full sermon for the Ninevites. He breezily walked down the streets repeating the same, careless seven word speech:
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 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 (Jonah 3:4-5).
Jonah’s worthless sermon did something miraculous: it led the Ninevites to repent. The ESV study bible notes that the Hebrew in the second sentence begins with the word “believe”, to emphasize the immediacy and seriousness of the Ninevites’ belief! The hopeless people of the hopeless city defied Jonah’s expectations.
Why? Maybe two reasons:
1) Jonah preached during a time when the Assyrian empire was floundering – the people were scared, weak and distrustful about their former lifestyle, and therefore open to repentance of their former violence and idolatry. 2) God’s mercy was at work in their hearts.
We see the second (and most important) point emphasized in 3:10 – 4:2,
When God saw what they did, how [the Ninevites] turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
In this passage lays bare Jonah’s heart and God’s character.
First, we see that God is exceedingly gracious – he wants to change people’s hearts. So often we think it’s us humans who want to salvation for others, not God. In reality the opposite is true, because no one is beyond hope for God. No one is beyond receiving his grace.
Second, we see Jonah’s true motivation for fleeing God: arrogance and pride. Earlier in the story Jonah begs God for mercy to help him escape from the belly of a giant fish that ate him. Nonetheless, Jonah does want God to extend that same mercy to others. In part this is because of Jonah’s ethnocentrism – he wants God’s blessings for Israel alone. More importantly, however, Jonah’s pride is at work. He believed that he deserved God’s mercy, but that the Ninevites did not.
Jonah believed that he was a good person who therefore deserved God’s love, and that the Ninevites were bad people who did not. This is true of our own hearts when we call someone hopeless and treat them like a lost cause. We assume someone is beyond God’s grace because he is too evil. More darkly, we assume – almost subconsciously – that we received grace because we’re good people.
This sort of arrogance is ugly and unacceptable. Nineveh is the proof. No one is beyond God’s grace. More importantly, no one deserves God’s grace. Jonah certainly didn’t! He tried to run away from God! All of us are equally lost, equally fleeing God’s presence, and equally condemned in our sin. Every act of repentance is a miracle of God’s love, and whenever we see it in our evil hearts we ought to be all the more confident that will see it in the hearts of other people.