“Responses to Mercy” ~ Jonah 3:8 – 4:11

The people of Nineveh were amazing in their ability to accept a genuine faith and make an “earnest cry” 3:8. Which must be a better response to God’s mercy, than how Jonah responded. Their cry included fasting & sackcloth! Have we ever felt so moved by God’s mercy, that we would change our appearance and voluntarily give up food & drink as an expression of our repentance?

Some people are troubled by the fact that the Lord changed his mind from disaster in the case of Jonah’s message to Nineveh because the prophet gave no clear sign to the Ninevites that God would back off,  if the people repented. Does this mean the Lord changed His mind like we do? Like as if God learned some new information that caused Him to rethink His plan of action? Some people would answer, “yes”, but this just shows our need to read Scripture carefully. Given that prophecies often include conditions and that the Lord is not a “man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19) the idea that He did not know what Nineveh’s response would be is nonsense. He did know what would happen, for He is omniscient, including Jonah’s preaching and the Ninevites’ response, see Ephesians 1:11. The Lord just chose not to reveal to Jonah explicitly the full scope of the future impact of Jonah’s ministry until it came to pass. Why? Because He knew it would result in giving Jonah a living life lesson. Simply telling him, would obviously just result in confirming Jonah’s suspicions.

Jonah could not see the future with certainty, but he could know what would happen if the Ninevites were to repent in response to his preaching. So could anyone else who knew God’s character. The Lord is holy, yes, but He is also slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and eager to forgive our sins (Exodus 34:6-7 & Micah 7:18). Jonah never wanted to go to Nineveh in the first place because he did not want to see the Ninevites turn from their sin. He ran not because he was afraid of preaching in a foreign land but because he was afraid God’s Word might change the hearts and minds of Israel’s hated enemies. So, when the people did open their hearts. Jonah grew angry at the Lord for being merciful and acting according to what He had revealed about His character (4:1-3). Jonah’s anger was irrational—he was mad at God for being God.

Don’t be too quick to judge Jonah and not ourselves, let us consider how often we expect the Lord to forgive us but then do not want to see our enemies pardoned. We are too much like Jonah, hoping God will crush our enemies instead of saving them. But as the Lord takes no delight in the death of the wicked, Ezekiel 18:32, neither should we. May our hearts desire and prayer  always be for the repentance and restoration of God’s foes and our own if we catch ourselves even thinking like Jonah, much less acting like him. It is good to remember that when Jesus took our punishment on the cross, he also took on everyone else’s punishment. Please memorize Ephesians 4:32.

Proving Pagans Can Repent, Jonah 2:8-3:10

The idea of being grateful to the point of saying so, while meeting your demise in the belly of a sea creature, takes great faith in God to provide life. This is what comes from remembering the one and only true God, when surrounded by idolaters. Jonah’s prayer ends with the determined commitment of a martyr to sacrifice himself for God’s service. (2:8-9), which is another reason why Jesus uses Jonah as a prophecy of his own resurrection, Matthew 12:39-40. The first reason is his complete immersion by water into his own death for 3 days, the second reason here is his sacrificial motive in his own voluntary death, as he praises God in gratitude for his powerful mercy. Idolaters do not have access to this attitude of gratitude while facing any kind of trouble, temptation or trial. They can not taste of the Lord’s mercy & grace. However, the next passage is all about how idolaters can be given repentance, and once they do repent, then access is granted to a new life.

Three Facts Sinners Should Be Shown To Help Them Repent:  2nd Tim. 2:25.

  1. The Truth In Action; Jonah showed Nineveh urgency, “he went immediately”, 3:3. God’s word was more than just an “announcement” of impending doom. The Lord’s message included the reason for impending doom, “because their wickedness has come to my attention”, 1:2. His urgency would have included the obvious explanation of why the judgment was coming, and all the definitions of WHO was judging, WHY wickedness got God’s attention, and WHAT wickedness is! The term wickedness is personified; it is pictured as ascending heavenward into the very presence of God. This figuratively depicts how God became aware of their evil, as if it had ascended into heaven right into his presence. The Hebrew word for “has come up before me.” Shows the term לְפָנָי (lfanay, “before me”) can mean “in the full cognitive knowledge of” or “in the full mental view” of someone, see, Gen. 6:13, Isa. 65:6, Jer. 2:22., The use of the verb עָלָה (ʿalah, “to ascend”) complements this idea; it is sometimes used to describe actions or situations on earth that have “come up” into heaven to God’s attention, so to speak (see Ex. 2:23, 1Sam. 5:12, 2Kgs 19:28, Psa. 74:23) The point is that God was fully aware of the evil of the Ninevites. Jonah would bring this truth to them clearly!
  2. The Redemption Is Real; Jonah showed his own repentance, putting value in 40 days of mercy. As the clock is counting publicly, people are believing God’s word because Jonah is able to prove physically that he was shown mercy. How would we look, if we had been through death in the belly of a sea creature? The very fact that he is alive and able to preach God’s mercy towards himself is making their own access to this redemptive mercy is really available. Regardless of Jonah’s actual appearance, his message of 40 days of mercy can be likened to the mercy offered to Jews during John the Immersionists ministry (Matthew 3:5 & Luke 3:3) where masses of people were affected & forgiven.  How do we show and tell God’s mercy in our life?
  3. The New Life Is Glorious; Jonah’s preaching was so valiant and persuasive, even the King put repentance as a priority that had fasting joined within it, 3:6-7. This is glory (the brilliant effect or powerful influence of God’s word to benefit worldly people). This generation of Nineveh will stand in judgment on the last Day against the generation in Christ’s ministry, Matthew 12:41.

Jonah – Angry, Guilty & Prayerful

Jonah had anger in his heart for the Assyrians in Nineveh before the Lord had even called him to prophesy to them. He held that anger in his heart, until the storm moved his anger to fear. Which was good for the moment, but sadly, his anger returned outside the gates of Nineveh after he finally did God’s work as commanded. However, the sailors were moved from fearing the storm to fearing the LORD, just like Christ’s disciples in the boat did when Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4:35-41) The sailors initially did not want to throw Jonah overboard, but their fear of the storm drove them to accept Jonah’s own conclusion. Seldom do we see “blind faith” from anyone in the Scriptures so quickly rewarded. Jonah had evidenced faith, but his heart was not open to the Lord’s mercy. The sailors were desperate & Jonah was guilty. After Jonah is finally thrown into the sea, it is immediately calm. It makes us wonder if Jesus was there in Spirit, assuring Jonah, “I’ve got this”. The classic irony is that the sailors now “fear” Jehovah, 1:16, and are better at it than Jonah. When we worship God as we should in Christ, that is the very definition of “fear” from God’s perspective. The sailors vow was likely an attempt to abstain from other religions and begin anew in recognizing the sovereignty of Jonah’s God.

The first thing Jonah did right was to do the right thing with his guilt. His confession and prayer is the first glimmer of enlightened hope Jonah gives us. 

When we feel guilty about anything, what do we do with our guilt? Most people try to hide it, but here is wisdom, confession & prayer. Jonah’s prayer is written with hindsight. Most scholars are more than certain, these exact words were not what he prayed verbatim, but they are concise thoughts within his prayer while being swallowed and gasping for life. The word “distress” or “affliction” in 2:2 is the anxiety of facing death. This leads many people to pray to God, even if they were atheists in the past. So exactly what motivated Jonah to pray? His own decision to face certain death, was Jonah’s self-sentencing act of guilt. It is interesting to note that while the act of being thrown overboard was Jonah’s idea, and carried out by the hands of sailors, Jonah still attributes God with throwing into the sea, 2:3. This is true insight into the sovereignty of God. We know God didn’t do it directly, but Jonah teaches us that God planned it and gave his consent, Matthew 10:28-29. We should never blame God for the punishment we asked for, but rather, thank Him for his sovereign discipline.

There is a great contrast of faith and experience seen in 2:4, The Jews believed that nobody in the world of the dead was able to worship God again (Psalm 6:5; 115:17). Death had cut them off from God. Jonah may have thought he could never again worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem. The world of the dead was like a prison with many bars from a Jews perspective. Nobody could ever hope to escape, Luke 16:26. But God could bring Jonah back from the world of the dead. And he did. The Temple was in Jerusalem (as in verse 4), where the Jews believed that God was present in a special way. Where Jonah got the idea that God could hear him from the belly of a sea creature is obviously from the experience itself. Evidence that he prayed in faith to be heard, was provided when he landed on the beach in vomit. While trying to pray, we should note Jonah’s mental note of “remembering” v7. This is good for the quality of our prayers, motive, content and result! This act of “remembering” is used in the context of prayer, see 1st Sam. 1:11 & Nehemiah 5:19. Do we “remember” before we pray, or as we pray? Jesus says, “remember I am with you always”, Matthew 28:20. He also told us to “remember Lot’s wife”, Luke 17:32. Most references to “remember” in the Gospels, are reminders to remember what the Lord SAYS., but it is also healthy to remember The LORD himself, as Jonah did, do you? Of course we do on Sunday as we commune around the Lord’s Supper, but is it what we do any other day of the week, even if we were in “distress”?

Introducing Jonah

Jonah lived in the Galilean city of Gath-hepher during the reign of Jeroboam II (appx. 793-746) in the northern kingdom of Israel, 2nd Kings 14:25. Which means the very people God sent him to, were going to destroy God’s children in just a couple of decades, as the Assyrians viciously conquered Israel in 722BC. Nineveh was the biggest city in Assyria, and they had a reputation for violence & world domination, so it is easy to sympathize with Jonah for being less than excited when called by God to go and help them. Jonah was a contemporary prophet alongside Hosea & Amos, both of whom declared that Jehovah would use Assyria as an instrument of punishment against Israel, Hos.11:5 & Amos 5:27) so any patriotic Israelite would have desired to see Assyria fall.

The most important detail of Jonah’s prophecy might be that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days, but it survived for a century & a half beyond that time. Therefore the doom predicted was conditional. Many theologians would do well to learn from this, as many theologians obviously don’t get it. For example, Israel too was promised an everlasting inheritance in the land of Canaan, but that promise was prophetically conditional as well. See Joshua 22:4, 5 & 23:1ff. The time eventually came when they lost their “deed” to Palestine, and so today and forever into the future, modern Israel has no intrinsic right to that Middle Eastern piece of real estate, they fight for it and will always fight to earn a place on the map in and around Jerusalem. Is there an innate inheritance for Israel? Obviously not, but in Jesus, they too have an opportunity to live as citizens in the New Jerusalem.

Jesus Christ believed the story of Jonah was literally true. A quick glance over the internet today shows us that most worldly people regard it as fiction. Even many theologians regard it as just an analogy and try to explain away the miracle of surviving the ordeal of being swallowed by a big sea creature. But that is the very act of God, which Jesus uses to test the faith of his disciples in his own resurrection, Matthew 12:39-41. Factually the New Testament documents that over 500 people were eye-witnesses of his literal bodily resurrection from the dead. So this makes us certain that Christ accepted Jonah’s story as literally true. God can do whatever he wants, and if you struggle with miracles, perhaps the most astounding thing to believe is that thousands of hardened idolaters in Nineveh repented of their sin & fasted, when they simply heard a single prophet preaching a message of doom. That seems far more unlikely than one person surviving the ordeal of being swallowed & vomited out by a sea creature! The hardest part of this miracle is understanding how anyone can live without oxygen for approximately 72 hours in the belly of an animal. However, that is the whole point of the miraculous experience. If Jonah prayed as he was swallowed up & then died, that means he was resurrected, then vomited out on the beach, 2:2.  Which could be the reason Jesus uses it to foretell his own resurrection from the dead, as his ordeal in death on the cross was very gory too.

From God the Father’s perspective, the reason He used Jonah was to show us his sovereignty. His power over creation to accomplish his mighty message of mercy is stupendous! The Lord God controlled the elements of weather (1:4, 11, 13, 15, 4:8) and he prepared and appointed an animal, a vine and a worm to do his will (1:17, 4:6, 7) while bringing Jonah to his knees. God’s mercy triumphs over the justice Jonah was craving for in his heart. What is our heart’s desire?

The Hebrew Writer’s Conclusion, Heb. 13:13-25

It’s fair to summarize the entire letter, as the bridge that connects the Old Testament and the New. The best bridge, Jesus Christ. These testaments or covenants are completely different and yet many Christians approach God on the basis of the Old Testament Law of Moses instead of Christ’s New Testament law of faith, Romans 3:27. The entire book is about Jesus and how He is the guarantee of a new and better covenant. When we come to a realization of how much better Christians have life with God, than Jews possess, it should fill us with gratitude and praise, not pride & prejudice. Because the superiority of the Christian’s faith, as the Hebrew writer explains, is based on who and what Christ did in Jesus. Not what God’s children have done, Jewish or Christian. The last few chapters focus on the writer’s plea to Jewish Christians who persevere in the face of persecution. Afterall, you can see the earliest persecution started in Jerusalem among Jewish Christians, in the book of Acts. So it is sensible to draw a lesson of strength & endurance from the very first Christians that knew what it was like to face persecution. One curious surprise at the end of Hebrews is the phrase “brief writing”, 13:22 as describing the entire epistle. Can you imagine what a full-length scroll would have looked like if he had written one? This makes me think that whoever penned this letter is very well accustomed to Hebrew literature, maybe he was a converted Priest (Acts 6:7). He was obviously writing to Hebrew Christians everywhere throughout the whole civilized world, and using the Jewish persecution in Jerusalem as an example.

The Hebrew writer in closing has one more description of Christ to proclaim, he is the GREAT or CHIEF Shepherd of the sheep, v20. This is a reminder to all Shepherds in the church as Elders/Pastors, that there is only one great One among us. Jesus the GOOD Shepherd. Of course that is in harmony with Christ’s own definition of the word “Good”, Matthew 19:17. It was of course Peter also that calls Jesus the CHIEF Shepherd, 1st Peter 5:4. This is in harmony with the entire book of Hebrews, proving Jesus Christ as GREATER than any person that can lead, or any place that can rule “in Christ”, or anything in the Universe, as better than angels, Hebrews 1:3-14.

The farewell given in this book, is sharing good news in the release of Timothy, v23, so perhaps the first audience was not exclusively Jerusalem, since Timothy was well known to the saints in more northern regions. But regardless of the whereabouts of the original recipients, we too see the warmest farewell as Gentile Christians, parting in this message with the greatest word in the Bible, “GRACE”, v25. Why is it the greatest? Because without God’s grace in Christ, there would be no Bible. Who among us deserves such rich wisdom as the mind of Christ in this unique & spectacular covenant the Hebrew writer expounds upon? We pay money for our Bibles, but no one can earn the point of the message itself, and neither can anyone buy faith, which this covenant in Christ produces in our hearts! GRACE to you!