Before we dive into Jonah chapter 3 I want to begin our study in a unique place… Acts 10:1, “There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion, a devout man, one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously, and prayed to God always.
About the ninth hour of the day Cornelius saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius!’ And when he observed him, he was afraid, and replied, ‘What is it, lord?’ So the angel said to him, ‘Your prayers and alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.’ And when the angel had departed, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier, and when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready the meal, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air.
And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.’ And a voice spoke to him again the second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again. Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision meant, that behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Peter was lodging there.
Now while Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.’ Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, ‘Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?’
And they said, ‘Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.’ Then Peter invited them in and lodged them. And on the next day Peter went away with them…”
Though I’m not going to provide a full expose of Acts 10 there are 3 things essential to your understanding of this story. First, God’s plan had always been to reach the world (Jew and Gentile) with the Gospel. It’d been His purpose in calling out the Jews to be a holy people.
Secondly, the mechanism by which Jesus would accomplish this Great Commission would be through Jewish men who, sadly, held long standing prejudices towards the Gentile world.
Thirdly, knowing what it would take for Peter (a good Jew) to be obedient to cross this racial barrier, Jesus has spent the last several years preparing him for this very important moment. The vision Peter receives as he’s sitting on the roof top was the final act of his preparation.
While many teach that this vision was designed to illustrate to Peter that the church would be made up of both Jews and Gentiles (clean and unclean), I’m not sure this vision had anything to do with the Gentiles or church and instead had everything to do with Peter! As we’ve seen with Jonah, God’s commands always challenge something in the messenger.
We must consider… Why would Peter when being presented with this sheet full of animals refuse to obey God’s direct command to kill and eat on three separate occasions? Answer: As a good, religious Jew eating these animals was completely forbidden by the dietary restrictions laid out in Law of Moses - specifically Leviticus 11!
So… Why would God ask Peter to do something that seemed on the surface to be wrong? Once again while I could take the entire study to address this question, the short-end of the answer is that God was challenging a pervasive misunderstanding that existed in a predominately Jewish church as it pertained to the full nature of salvation…
Though everyone in the first church agreed that salvation (justification before God) only came through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, many saw God’s continued favor (ones sanctification) as still being based in ones obedience to the Law. In essence, salvation was seen as a combination of faith in God plus obedience to God, which explains why most believed that in order to be a Christian you also had to become a practicing Jew.
While Peter undoubtedly understood his salvation was based in his faith in Jesus’ work on the cross, the text is clear he still held to a belief that his favor with God was intertwined with his obedience to the Law. His reply, “I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
With this in mind, God’s point in commanding Peter to “kill and eat” was not to change his diet, but to instead challenge his perspective! Look at God’s reply to Peter’s justification… We read, “A voice spoke to Peter a second time saying what God has cleansed you must not call common.” In context, what had God cleansed? Had God somehow cleansed the animals the Law had declared unclean? I don’t think so.
It seems to me that “what God had cleansed” was in actuality Peter! Think about how these words would have reverberated in his heart. “Peter your obedience to the Law didn’t make you clean. I did this work! At this point what you eat has no effect on this reality!”
The truth is that this vision was God’s way of telling Peter that his obedience to the Law (eating things clean or unclean) had (past tense), still had (present tense), and would never have (future tense) any barring when it came to his favor with God. Justification and sanctification were both a result of Jesus’ work for him and never his work for Jesus!
To prep him for what was coming Peter needed to know being Jewish, obeying Jewish Law, holding to Jewish customs had no impact on God’s favor! God’s favor had been given to him, not earned by his obedience. It was a work of faith based in God’s grace alone.
Understand this was an important lesson for Peter - especially in the context of what was to follow. Peter now knows that if justification and sanctification were both a work of God independent of an individuals adherence of the Law, then the doors of salvation had now swung wide open for all of humanity. Being an obedient Jew was no longer a prerequisite to receive God’s favor and be apart of His chosen people! It was all grace!
Before we connect this event to the story of Jonah, I should also point out that it’s not an accident “this was done three times.” In presenting this vision three times Peter couldn’t help but recall what? The incredible grace Jesus had already demonstrated towards him!
Don’t forget Peter had denied Jesus three time and then it took Jesus asking “Peter do you love me” three times before the old guy finally relents and was restored! “Three times” told him, “Peter, do you really want the basis of My favor to be your performance or My grace?”
Peter’s story in Acts 10 illustrates a truth of pivotal importance… When you come to the realization that your righteous standing with God is based only on His grace, showing moral prejudice towards another becomes a baseless proposition. The only segregation that exists on Mount Calvary is the Man on the cross and the rest of us on our knees!
Imagine Peter’s reaction when at the door he discovers that the men God sent for him were two Gentile servants and a military man! And to make matters worse, not only had God commanded that he “go with them,” but the destination was the home of a Roman centurion!
Don’t overlook the significance of this detail that Peter “invited them in and lodged them.” In the original language “lodged them” meant Peter “entertained them as an honored guest.” Most amazingly this very pajama party and Peter’s obedience would have been inconceivable if not for the vision he’d just received and accepted. The magnitude of God’s grace in Peter’s life transcended anything that might have previously prohibited fellowship.
For the sake of time let me tell you what happens next… Peter obeys God’s commands, goes to the house of Cornelius, preaches the Gospel, and this man along with his entire family place their faith in Jesus, are filled with the Holy Spirit, and baptized. And it’s through this singular event that the Gospel jumps from Jewish communities into the Gentile world! Peter’s obedience in Act 10 was instrumental in determining the direction of Christianity.
And do you think it’s an accident this entire ground-shaking, world-changing development began in Joppa - the exact same port city in Israel where some 800 years beforehand God would call another devoutly religious man to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles? As we’ve seen with Jonah and now Peter the key to their obedience was receiving the implications of grace.
I bring up this story because Peter is the Anti-Jonah. He presents a man who received God’s grace, allowed it to change his heart, obeyed God’s command, submitted to His will, and was used in a mighty way. In contrast, Jonah resisted God’s grace, refused to allow it to effect his heart, disobeyed God’s command, resisted His will, and ends up being swallowed up.
Christian, the fundamental difference between immolating Peter or experiencing the plight of Jonah is what you do when God challenges you with the nature of His grace!
Where we left off our story of Jonah is interesting… Though Jonah has repented of his rebellion, tragically his repentance fell short of God’s intended desire! Unlike Peter, while Jonah understands only the Lord saves, he appeals for God’s salvation to be extended as a response to the promises he just made to God! Don't overlook how Jonah’s prayer ultimately ends “I will sacrifice… I will pay… What I have vowed” so that the Lord will save.
Yes, Jonah is repenting, but his repentance is leading him back to his religion and not grace. God’s favor based on his merit, not God’s goodness. Jonah misses the identical lesson Peter so readily accepted. As we’re about to see because he’s yet to fully learn the lesson God has been trying to teach him about grace, the last two chapters of Jonah’s story presents the exact same plot-line of the first!
Jonah 3:1-2, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.’”
Though chapter 2 closes with Jonah being vomited onto a beach by this fish, the text leaves out a few details. One, we have no idea where Jonah now finds himself. Jewish historian Josephus claims Jonah was puked-up somewhere in the region of the Black Sea meaning he now finds himself 400 miles from Nineveh as opposed to 900 miles. Others still have postulated that he actually finds himself back in Joppa. Honestly, we have no idea!
Secondly, we also don’t know how much time transpires between chapters 2 and 3. Though it’s most likely verse 1 occurs the very moment Jonah’s head hits the sand leaving no gap between the chapter breaks, it is at least theoretically possible Jonah could have settled back into his usual routine in Israel thinking the entire situation was behind him.
Either way… The one thing that is clear is “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” presenting him with the identical marching orders as the first! God was calling Jonah to “arise, go to Nineveh, and preach” the “message” He’d been given from the Lord. Though Jonah had attempted to run from a divine calling, the call itself was inescapable.
Personally, I see the very fact there was even a second calling of Jonah to be nothing shy of an act of God’s amazing grace. One author writes, “By paralleling the book’s opening remarks, almost word for word, the author skillfully conveys the idea that Jonah is being offered a new beginning.” How encouraging we serve a God of second-chances!
And while that is a glorious reality in its own right, there is a caveat that should be pointed out… Jonah’s new beginning began the identical place of his previous failure. If Jonah thought his fresh start would circumvent his past mistakes, he was sorely disappointed. Because he failed the class there was no mistaking he’d have to re-enroll in the same grade!
Now before you recoil at this fact consider… Would it have been in Jonah’s best interest for God to have simply capitulated to his rebellion and stubbornness? Though Jonah had repented of his attempt to “flee the presence of the Lord,” it’s a truth that simply allowing him to settle back into his former life would have failed to address Jonah’s core issues.
It’s been correctly said of repentance that “God always takes you back to the place you said no.” As such Jonah, while learning several lessons of importance through his experience in the “tempest” and in the “belly of the fish”, had still failed to accept the power of God’s grace.
Friend, here’s a reality you need to grasp… God is way more stubborn than you are! As any loving parent quickly learns, if you don’t develop a greater stubbornness than your children it’s going to be nearly impossible to win any significant battles. Friend, know you can resist God, but He will resist you right back. You can wrestle and He’ll wrestle right back. You can fight Him, but know He will fight back because He loves you!
Jonah 3:3-4, “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’”
“So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh…” Regardless of which beach Jonah was up-chucked, because of the location of Nineveh there was a significant journey involved regardless. Note: Contrary to many Bible commentaries (and I don’t understand how they miss this) the city of Nineveh was not a port and was rather hundreds of miles from an ocean. Geographically, we know the ancient city of Nineveh exists today under the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Aside from the fact it would have taken Jonah several weeks to walk from any shore to this city, we also know from archeological digs that Nineveh was about 60 miles in diameter. Since it’s likely Jonah could probably walk about 20 miles a day, the detail Nineveh was “a three-day journey in extent” (interior wall to wall) served to demonstrate that after the completion of the “first day’s walk” Jonah “cried out” as he approached the city center.
Before we get to the essence of Jonah’s message, I should reiterate that Nineveh was a massive metropolis - the first of its kind only to be later rivaled by only Babylon. In the very last verse of the book God will actually affirm that 120,000 young children lived in Nineveh bringing the overall population of the city as high as potentially 1.5 million.
Imagine the scene… Jonah, who don’t forget hates the Assyrians, walks into Times Square and begins “crying out” declaring, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In the original language the Hebrew word translated “and he cried out” is in the active tense implying Jonah was simply repeating the same message over and over again.
Not only was the message incredibly simple (8 words in English, but only 5 in Hebrew) and if we’re to be honest quite vague on specifics (how was Nineveh to be overthrown when it was the impregnable capital of the predominate world power, why 40 days, etc), it’s likely Jonah cried out in Hebrew - a language completely foreign to the Assyrians who spoke Aramaic.
Imagine you’re a Ninevite going about your daily activities when you notice a foreigner has set up in the city square and is repeating the same five words over and over again. Though you maybe able to recognize the dialect to be Hebrew, the reality is you have no idea what he’s saying. You’re initial assumption is that Jonah’s just another one of the crazies!
Even when someone finally does translate his message if you’re honest it yields more confusion than clarity. Is this man making a threat? Does he know something we don’t and how would he? Has God actually sent him or worse an approaching army? Is there any credence to what he’s saying? How would this even happen? On and on the questions go.
Beyond this… What do you think Jonah’s tone was as he repeats this message over and over again? We know he detests the Ninevites. There is no doubt that while Jonah is being obedient to preach he’s hoping the message is ignored and Nineveh destroyed.
The last thing Jonah wants to see happen is repentance. Jonah would have probably preferred he was killed on the spot taking solace in the knowledge that at least God’s judgment would soon follow. I think it’s safe to assume Jonah’s tone wasn’t pleading. There was no compassion in his voice. In all likelihood Jonah’s declaring this warning with a grin on his face. And yet, in spite of all of these things, check out what happens next…
Jonah 3:5-9, “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying…
‘Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?’”
In a twist literally no one would have ever seen coming (especially under the circumstances) we read, in response to Jonah and this message, “the people of Nineveh believed God!”
For reasons we’ll soon discuss the people of Nineveh become so confident judgment was actually coming in 40 days that they organically “proclaimed a fast” so that all of the citizenry “from the greatest to the least of them” ends up “putting on sackcloth” in collective mourning.
What’s happening naturally in this city is so astounding as soon as “word came to the King of Nineveh” he also immediately “arose from his throne”, joined in this national act of repentance, even going so far as to then issue an official proclamation for everyone to “cry mightily to God” and “turn away from their evil way and violence.” These Ninevites undoubtedly believed God was communicating an important message through Jonah!
Don’t overlook the magnitude and radical nature of what’s taking place. Historically, what we find recorded in these verses is the first great and maybe greatest spiritual awakening in all of human history. An entire city of a million plus wicked, vile, brutal Assyrians repent of their sin and collectively appeal for the salvation of the true and living God!
As we consider how such an unlikely turn of events is even possible, please keep in mind this awakening was ultimately the byproduct of two things: The message and the messenger of the Lord. First, notice the message Jonah delivered fundamentally possessed two central components… One direct and the other implied.
No doubt the central theme of the message was the coming judgment of God. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It would seem the idea of a coming judgment struck an immediate cord in the hearts of the Ninevites. Though they were an evil and depraved people, they weren’t ignorant of this fact. They knew they were cruel and savage!
What’s interesting about their reaction is that the Ninevites never once question Jonah’s claim that judgement was immanent! In actuality, they don’t even inquire that Jonah provide them some specific reason God found it necessary to judge them in 40 days!
What’s suggested is that the Ninevites knew deep down they were guilty of unspeakable crimes against humanity. They knew their brutal actions were worthy of a swift judgment. They rightly knew the divine wrath of God would have been just all things considered.
And yet, a coming judgment was not all Jonah’s message conveyed. In addition to a day of reckoning, you can’t escape the incredible measure of grace implied in the very fact God was giving them a 40 day warning. Think about it… If the Ninevites understood their actions warranted judgment, they also knew the very fact God was affording them 40 days meant He was intentionally giving them time (mercy - withholding what they deserved) and an opportunity to repent (grace - providing what they didn’t deserve).
In writing on this passage Biblical scholar and commentator Sandy Adams makes this very interesting observation, “In oriental culture the number 40 had special significance. The number is the product of 5 (the number for grace) and 8 (the number of new beginnings).” As such “the number 40 denotes the period of testing that usually precedes an outpouring of God’s grace in the form of a revival. The Ninevites heard that in 40 days God would judge their city. They must’ve reasoned, ‘Why is God waiting 40 days? He must be giving us time to repent. Perhaps if we repent, God will have mercy on us and spare us?’”
Friend, if you know deep down that who you are and what you’ve done would rightly demand the judgment of a holy God, the very fact He hasn’t brought down His wrath is evidence of His mercy and grace. In His mercy God is affording you time and by His grace He’s giving you an opportunity to repent, receive Jesus, and be saved from the very punishment you deserve. This was a fact the Ninevites recognized and they acted accordingly.
Aside from this, there is another component to this story you can’t deny… There is incredible power in “the word of the Lord.” God’s perfect timing combined with the way His Word speaks to the human soul can move anyone to repentance! As Jonah so aptly stated at the end of the previous chapter “salvation is of the Lord.”
Christian, there is a reality of evangelism often overlooked… Your job is not to save people. In actuality, you have zero power to do so! “Salvation is of the Lord.” The ultimate saving of the sinner and subsequent transformation of the sinner’s life is God’s job and His alone.
You see your job as an instrument of Jesus in this world is to simply expose people to the most powerful spiritual force on earth - God’s Word, and then let that Word do its thing. Honestly, this should be liberating! Your job is to share God’s Word (sure speak honestly of judgment, but also emphasize the incredible mercy and grace of God) knowing this wonderful truth… What results is entirely God’s responsibility!
And while the power resided in the Word, it’s also evident the messenger also played an important role. In Luke 11 Jesus said something interesting… We read, “And while the crowds were thickly gathered together, Jesus began to say, ‘This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation... The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”
While there is no doubt the Ninevites “repented at the preaching of Jonah”, this phrase that “Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites” is rather fascinating. I should point out that this one phrase has led most commentators to attribute much of this spiritual awakening in Nineveh to the unique physical appearance of Jonah himself. Some even reason that since the Assyrians worshipped the fish god Dagon, Jonah being vomited onto shore by a fish only to then walk into Nineveh must be the “sign” Jonah “became” - what Jesus is referencing.
There are several problems with this theory. One, Nineveh was not a port city and was at least 400 miles (a several weeks journey) from a body of water. As such no one living in Nineveh would have seen Jonah deposited onto the shore. Two, in an age when communications traveled slowly, it’s also highly unlikely enough time expired whereby the sailors or witnesses on the beach would have been able to carry word of Jonah to Nineveh.
Three, proponents of this belief reason that Jonah would have been terribly bleached by the acid juices of the “fish” making him whiter than Casper the Friendly Ghost. In a sense this bleaching would have created a literal “sign” - arguing that Jonah’s bizarre physical appearance would have then served to contribute to Nineveh’s most unlikely repentance.
The problem with this is that the text actually makes zero mention of Jonah’s appearance and it’s illogical to extrapolate out the conditions and effects of being in the “belly of the fish” if you conclude this was a unique animal specifically designed by God to preserve Jonah.
Beyond all of this… I personally don’t like any of these theories because they’re basically designed to provide some logical explanation for a supernatural occurrence. God’s Word was preached and it changed the lives of the Ninevites. God didn’t need to bleach out Jonah’s appearance or have him thrown-up out of a fish for this to happen. Not to mention, if this is true it would have meant the Ninevites believed in Dagon and not the God of Israel.
So… How did Jonah “become a sign”? Notice Jesus connects this idea with the fact that “the Son of Man will also be a sign to this generation.” Yes, there is no doubt the resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate sign, but this can’t apply to Jonah who wasn’t resurrected and who’s story of being in the “belly of a fish” the Ninevites would only come to learn after the fact.
Instead, in the most simplistic interpretation, it would seem the real “sign to Nineveh” Jonah fulfilled was the very fact God loved these Assyrians enough to send a prophet all the way from Israel - just like “God so love the world that He sent His only begotten Son.” Jonah's very presence in Nineveh was a “sign” - not some goofy physical appearance.
I hope you know a powerful reality is communicated when you step out of your comfort-zone and share the truth of God’s Word with a neighbor, co-worker, family-member, or fellow parent on the soccer or football team. Whether they accept the Word or not (which isn’t your responsibility) there is one “sign” they cannot deny… The God of the universe just practically demonstrated His love for them by sending you to speak into their life!
We see this in Nineveh - the fact Jonah was sent by God with such a message was the sign they needed to see in order to know that God really loved them and preferred grace over judgment. We also witnessed this in Acts 10 when Peter laid aside his moralism to go to the untouchables. The fact Peter entered the home of Cornelius said more than his message.
In conclusion, chapter 3 presents a truth that should encourage all of us to be bold in our mission and brave enough to reach out to those we might see as the unreachables. If God’s Word could change the Assyrians there is literally no one the power of His Word and the saving nature of His grace can’t reach. As Paul wrote in Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes!”
Friend, if a spiritual awakening can come to Nineveh it can come to America! And if Jonah (an unwilling prophet) could be used, think of the impact you can make if you’re willing!
Jonah 3:9 leaves us with a tragedy… Though the Ninevites have repented via the message God had delivered through His prophet Jonah, the King of the Assyrians is tormented with a grand question… In spite of their repentance he wonders, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”
The irony of this question is that there was a man in Nineveh who could have told them God would “turn away” His wrath because they’d repented. His name was Jonah. Sadly, instead of filling this divine role, unlike the Apostle Peter who told Cornelius about Jesus and the salvation of the Lord, Jonah will continue to resist grace robbing himself of the joy he could have experienced being in the center of the greatest revival in human history!
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