The Greatest Revival in History
What would you do if you had been vomited out by a great fish?
What’s your next move?
First you find a hose and clean yourself off. After all, you’ve been covered with muck for three days and three nights. But what then?
If you happened to live in the modern world, you’d probably start a reality show, do some interviews, and share your story with the world. Call it “The Jonah Show.”
If you’ve had a spiritual experience, you might want to start your own church right there on the beach. Call it “Church of the Whales.”
And if you’re an entrepreneur, you might start a water park. That’s really big nowadays. You can make a lot of money during those hot summer days. Call it “Jonah’s Water World."
If you think about it, a man who’s spent time in the belly of a great fish has lots of opportunities if he wants to take them. A creative type could use his experience to try and catapult himself to fame and fortune.
What do you do if you are Jonah? At this point, you wait for God to tell you what to do next. In Jonah’s case, he didn’t have to wait very long.
God’s Renewed Call (vv. 1-2)
Jonah 3:1-2 tells us what happened next:
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Note the crucial words “a second time.” Jonah got a second chance. Not everyone in the Bible got a second chance. I know that when preachers preach on this, we like to say, “He’s the God of the second chance.” But that’s not always true. Not everyone in the Bible got a second chance.
Ask Ananias and Sapphira.
Ask Lot’s wife.
Check that out with King Saul who was removed from his kingship for his sinful rebellion.
The fact that God gave Jonah a second chance doesn’t mean that we will always be given a second chance when we disobey. We need to hear this because someone might read Jonah’s story and conclude, “It doesn’t matter whether I obey the first time because I’ll always get a second chance.” Not necessarily. Don’t presume on God’s grace. Let’s keep biblical truth in balance.
God always welcomes prodigals. That’s true.
The light is always on in the Father’s house. That’s also true.
But Jonah did not know in the belly of the great fish what would happen if and when he got out.
The really encouraging truth here is that Jonah’s disobedience hasn’t canceled the call. God’s message is, “Go to Nineveh. And don’t mess it up this time.” We might say that there is good news and bad news here. The good news is, God hasn’t given up on Jonah. The bad news is, he still wants him to go to Nineveh.
Jonah’s disobedience hasn’t canceled God’s call.
We can learn several important truths from this:
1. God doesn’t hold grudges.He is the God who “abundantly pardons” sinners when they come to him. He demonstrated his grace by renewing his call on Jonah’s life.
2. God doesn’t lighten the load.
The other part is equally true. It’s not as if God has said, “Okay, Jonah, I get it. You don’t want to go to Nineveh so I want you to take my Word to Tarshish since that’s where you were going anyway.” That’s not how it works. God doesn’t negotiate when we rebel against him.
God gives Jonah a second chance to do what he should have done the first time.
3. God doesn’t give up.
He cares more for the worker than for the work. If all God cared about was Nineveh, he could have gotten someone else. But he wanted Jonah to confront the evil in his own heart and to see something of the great love inside God’s heart.
God doesn’t need Jonah, but Jonah desperately needs God. And we can say more generally that God doesn’t need us but we desperately need him. It takes a lifetime for most of us to grasp that truth.
If you think about it, there are several reasons why Jonah might still have disobeyed the Lord. The first was fear. Jonah knew all about the bloodthirsty atrocities the Assyrians committed. It was common knowledge because (as the ancient records indicate) the Assyrians bragged about their cruelty. Jonah might easily have said to himself, “I’m not going to Nineveh. I won’t last ten minutes there. I’ll be a corpse before I can get a word out."
Then there was shame. When we have greatly failed, a deep sense of shame grips us and keeps us from moving forward. Jonah might simply have been too embarrassed to obey the Lord.
Finally there is the continuing issue of hatred for the Ninevites and all they stood for. As we will see later, nothing about his time in the great fish changed the depth of his disgust for the Assyrians. He still preferred to see them go to hell.
Verse three says that Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh. This is the only time in the book where Jonah obeys the Lord. Before and after this episode, Jonah has a stinky attitude, but at this point he obeys God’s call.
God gives Jonah a second chance to do what he should have done the first time. This leads to another important point. You don’t have to always like what you are called to do, but you have to do it anyway. You don’t have love Nineveh, but you do have to give God’s message.
Give Jonah his due.
He got off up off the beach, cleaned himself off, and headed for Nineveh.
Good for him.
That leads me to an important principle. Small obedience always beats great intentions. Sometimes we put aside the small things because we intend to do something great “someday.” We dream about what we will do when we have more time or more money or when we aren’t so busy or when the kids are out of school or when we get a promotion or when we’re called to a different church or when we get a better job. We all have big plans that we dream about, don’t we? Nothing wrong with big plans.
But small obedience beats big plans every time. We can dream so much about tomorrow that we neglect to do the small things we ought to do today.
So Jonah sets out for Nineveh, each step setting him on a collision course between his prejudice, Ninevite arrogance, and the unlimited love of God.
You don’t have love Nineveh, but you do have to give God’s message.
Verse three calls Nineveh “a very large city.” Literally the Hebrew text says that Nineveh was “a great city to God.” But how could that be?
They didn’t believe in God.
They didn’t know God.
They worshiped idols.
Nineveh was a city given over to greed, immorality, and bloodthirsty violence. The people knew nothing about the God of the Bible. They were rapacious in their cruelty.
And God said, “That city is great to me.”
“That great city” is still on God’s heart!
God loves the great cities of the world. That’s important to know because in the last several years the demographers who study the great movements of people tell us that for the first time in history more people live in cities than live in rural areas. For a long time, for thousands of years, the rural population outnumbered the urban population.
That is no longer true.
Today more people live in cities than live on farms or in small towns or in rural villages. We live in an increasingly urban world, and that trend will only increase in the future.
Small obedience always beats great intentions.
In 1903 Frank North penned a hymn about the frantic pace of the city called Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life. Here is the first verse:
Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of race and clan
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear your voice, O Son of Man.
God cares about the great cities of the world. He cares about the megacities where teeming millions crowd together. God has a heart for Mexico City, for Tokyo, for Manila, for Beijing, and for cities like Dacca and Port-au-Prince.
If we have God’s heart, we will care about the cities too.
Nineveh was a place where no reasonable God would go. But being reasonable has nothing to do with it. Our God has a heart bigger than all our “reasonable” calculations. He loves the city and his heart goes out to those who want nothing to do with him.
Jonah’s Simple Message (vv. 3-4).
So Jonah ends up in Nineveh. The text says that it took three days to go through it. That might mean that it took three days to walk through every part or it might mean that it took three three days to walk all the way around it. Everyone agrees that Nineveh was a major city of the ancient world but there is some debate about how big it was. It’s like asking, “What’s the population of New York City?” Do you mean Manhattan? Or do you mean Manhattan and Brooklyn? Or do you mean all the boroughs added together? Or do you mean the greater metropolitan area? You’ll get different answers for each question. Scholars tell us that like modern cities today, “greater Nineveh” included a number of nearby towns. If you take the whole area into consideration, Nineveh may have been home to 600,000 people, which would have been a megacity in that day.
So Jonah goes and begins to preach in this pagan city. His message is very simple. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (v. 4). That’s it. That was his whole message. It’s eight words in English; only 4 words in Hebrew.
To be honest, I’ve never preached an eight-word message in my life. As my friends will attest, I tend to be redundant at times, which means I repeat myself, and say the same thing over and over again, as I’m doing in this sentence. So I could never do what Jonah did.
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
A pretty depressing message if you ask me.
None of this “God loves Nineveh” or “Nineveh for Jesus” or “Say Yes Nineveh.”
A message of impending judgment and nothing more.
Can you imagine how it must have been?
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (He’s not from around here, you know.)
"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (He’s got a strange accent.)
"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (He smells like fish.)
It’s not the way we would do it. If we were going to put together a “Nineveh for Jesus” campaign, we would hire an advance team, get a PR man, put together an ad campaign, buy billboards, do a social media blitz, start a Facebook page, get our Twitter team going, make some “Nineveh for Jesus” T-shirts, do some training, set up the buses, train the counselors, rent a stadium, buy some TV time, recruit the counselors, print the follow-up materials, set up home prayer meetings, arrange for simultaneous translations, rehearse the choir, and organize Operation Andrew. We’d have to raise $3 million just to get started.
Jonah just went to Nineveh and gave his entirely negative 8-word sermon.
Jonah skipped all of that.
He just went to Nineveh and gave his entirely negative 8-word sermon.
You wouldn’t think it would have much chance of success.
“So what’s your plan for reaching Nineveh?”
"We’re sending Jonah."
"And who else?"
"What’s he going to do?”
"Walk around and preach an eight-word sermon.”
“What’s the eight-word sermon?”
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
“What’s your Plan B?”
“There is no Plan B. This is it.”
By the way, why do you suppose Jonah focused on the coming judgment? Because that’s all he cared about. He hoped Nineveh would be destroyed, and he would be happy if it happened in forty days. Say what you will, no one could ever accuse Jonah of being a preacher of “cheap grace.” He was a hard-nosed preacher of God’s judgment who would be happy to see it come true forty days down the line.
When you stand back and think about it, this doesn’t seem like a very promising evangelistic approach. But underlying it was a truth that Jonah himself didn’t understand. Nineveh was ripe for awakening but no one knew it.
Jonah didn’t know it.
Nineveh didn’t know it.
But God knew it.
Nineveh was ripe for awakening but no one knew it.
I don’t think there was anything outwardly promising about Nineveh as a likely place for a mighty spiritual awakening. From the outside it appeared to be a city wholly given over to paganism. But God had been working behind the scenes, preparing the people for this very moment.
Nineveh’s Sudden Repentance (vv. 5-9).
Notice what happened when Jonah preached:
The Ninevites believed God (v. 5).
It doesn’t say they believed Jonah, though that was also true. It says they believed God, thus revealing the genuine nature of their faith. Lest we doubt this, consider the last half of verse 5:
A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
The king stood up (a sign of his serious intent), removed his royal robes (a sign of humility), covered himself with sackcloth (a sign of mourning), and sat in the dust (a sign of repentance).
He then sends out a call for a time of fasting and prayer, because as he says, "Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish" (v. 9).
The mighty king of Nineveh gets it.
He knows they are guilty.
He reckoned on the mercy of Almighty God.
He doesn’t know for sure. But he thinks God may yet have mercy on Nineveh.
Though I’m sure he had never heard these words, it’s as if he has memorized Isaiah 55:6-7.
“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
The king of Nineveh acts as if he’s known that passage all his life. What follows is the greatest revival in history.
Billy Graham never saw anything like this.
The whole city repented. They all believed in God. George Whitefield never saw anything like this. Neither did D. L. Moody or Billy Sunday. Nothing like this ever happened in the worldwide ministry of Billy Graham.
Think about that. A whole pagan city believed in God.
We doubt it because it seems so fantastic.
We’ve never seen or heard of anything like that.
It’s like saying . . .
Everyone in Tokyo believed in God.
Everyone in Singapore repented.
Everyone in Dacca became a Christian.
Or maybe we should say it this way:
The whole city of San Francisco got right with God.
Cleveland turned to the Lord.
Boston got on its knees.
It’s phenomenal, unbelievable, incredible.
And yet it happened.
The greatest revival in history happened because of a one-sentence sermon preached by a prophet who didn’t even want to be there, who was hoping for destruction, and who hated the people he was preaching to.
What are the chances of that happening?
Without God, the chances are zero.
Why did this happen? Not because of Jonah. He didn’t even want to be there.
How could this happen in a pagan city like Nineveh? It happened because of the two greatest words in the Bible: “But God!”
You never know what God will do.
You never know what God will do.
You never know who he will touch next.
Nineveh was ripe for revival. They just didn’t know it.
But God did.
God’s Gracious Response (v. 10).
We see the end of the story in verse 10:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
Sometimes we stumble over this because some older translations say that God “repented.” A better word would be “relented." God always intended to show mercy once the people turned from their evil ways. He threatened judgment (which they richly deserved) knowing that he would gladly pardon them once they turned to him.
Let me emphasize the most important fact once again. No one could have predicted this in advance. Three days before Jonah showed up, it was business as usual in Nineveh. Two days before, the same thing. One day before, no one had an inkling what was about to happen. And on that very day, the king woke up in his palace ready to do whatever was on his schedule, little knowing that by the end of the day he would be in sackcloth and sitting in ashes, calling his people to prayer and repentance.
God always intended to show mercy once the people turned from their evil ways.
When I say “no one knew,” I should really add the phrase, “but God."
God knew all along.
He was busy working in that pagan city long before Jonah showed up.
A few questions and we will be finished.
1. How much did the Ninevites know? Not too much, but give them credit. They believed God and acted on what they believed.
2. How much faith does it take to be saved? Not too much, as long as your faith is in the right object.
3. Did this really happen? Jonah 3 certainly presents it to us as sober historical fact. If this happened in 765 BC, how do we account for the fact that the Assyrians attacked Israel and took the northern ten tribes captive a generation later, in 722 BC? My answer is simple. This was Nineveh’s moment and the people of that generation responded. Even if it did not last to the next generation, the people who responded to Jonah’s message were changed forever.
This was Nineveh’s moment and the people of that generation responded.
Consider these words of Jesus:
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 (Luke 11:32).
I believe there will be thousands of Ninevites in heaven.
This was God’s moment for Nineveh and they responded.
We could ask the same question in our own day. What is the future of America? How much more time do we have? Sometimes we look at the moral erosion around us and think that God’s judgment can’t be far away. Perhaps we are under judgment at this moment and don’t even realize it.
Perhaps we are under judgment at this moment and don’t even realize it.
But this study of Jonah 3 ought to encourage us in another way. Perhaps we are closer to a great awakening than we have imagined. Jack Wyrtzen, founder of Word of Life, the great worldwide youth ministry, used to say, “It is the responsibility of each generation to reach their generation for Christ.” If you visit the Jack Wyrtzen Center in upstate New York, you’ll see those words emblazoned above a picture of Jack preaching to a vast multitude in New York City.
But Jack’s voice is now silent. We can’t look to the past and focus on what others have done for Christ. Nor can we live in the future, thinking about what the children of today might do thirty years from now. The only generation we can reach is our own.
We will be held accountable for what we have done with the opportunities God has given us.
It is the responsibility of each generation to reach their generation for Christ.
Have we stopped believing that God can reach the unreachable?
Have we stopped believing that God can do the impossible?
Do we look around us and see how bad things are and say, “It’s Nineveh. It’s hopeless"?
God loves Nineveh!
Jesus touches the untouchable.
Jesus reaches the unreachable.
Jesus can save Nineveh.
But can God save Jonah? What will become of the reluctant prophet who doesn’t love the world God loves? Stay tuned. There is one more chapter in Jonah’s amazing story.
Lord, send out your Word.
Use your people.
Make this your moment.
Banish our unbelief.
Increase our faith.
Do again what you did in Jonah’s day.
Give us your heart for this world, especially for the great cities of the world.
May we not fail in the task of reaching our generation for Jesus.
We pray in his name, Amen.
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