The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 26, 2014
130, 390, 530, 15
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
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.” 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 the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them…Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
In the name of Him who humbly came to the cradle that He might die humbly on the cross, dear fellow-redeemed:
How do you view the story of Jonah? One pastor of another Lutheran church body told me that the biblical account of Jonah is not factual. He compared the story of Jonah to the story of Pinocchio. He said that just as Pinocchio teaches children that they are not to tell lies, the story of Jonah is merely an allegory which teaches that we should obey God.
This fellow has a serious problem: He does not regard the Bible as an objective message from God for the salvation of sinners. He considers God’s Word subjectively as a message that man needs to massage and tweak to suit his own ideas and prejudices.
The prophet Jonah had a similar problem in the beginning. He needed to be taught that salvation is from the LORD, and His message to man is not to be massaged!
The book of Jonah begins with the LORD’s command to Jonah that he go to the great city of Nineveh, and “cry out against” the wickedness of the people (cf. Jonah 1:2). The fact that God had already assured Jonah that his preaching of God’s Word would save many souls should have made the prophet of God excited about going to Nineveh.
But that was Jonah’s problem! He didn’t love the Ninevites as God loved them. Jonah felt that the Ninevites were too wicked for God’s message and deserved to be destroyed. He didn’t want take part in God’s plan to save such as these, so he headed off in the opposite direction, and boarded a ship bound for the city of Tarshish along the coast of the Mediterranean.
You know the rest of the story: A great storm arose on sea, and Jonah told the sailors that if they would throw him overboard the sea would become calm and they would be spared. Finally, the sailors did as Jonah asked, even as they prayed to the LORD that He would not blame them for Jonah’s death (cf. Jonah 1:4ff).
The sailors were spared, but Jonah was about to drown! Forced to acknowledge that he could not have his way and live, he cried out to the LORD for deliverance. God caused a great fish to swallow Jonah and carry him safely in its belly for three days and nights before vomiting Jonah up on dry land. Jonah continued to pray and praise God for his mercy. He promised to give sacrifice with thanksgiving and to fulfill his vow. “Salvation is of the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9) he cried. So it was that God taught his unwilling prophet that SALVATION COMES FROM THE LORD and He sends His missionaries with His own message.
God’s missionaries are to proclaim His judgment upon sin and unbelief. In our text God repeated his command to Jonah: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” [v.2]
Why was it necessary for the Lord to repeat the message He wanted proclaimed? Because it is so easy for us to mess with the message as if we must massage it in order to get the results we may be seeking. But our Lord here reminds Jonah and all of us that it is God, not we, who is responsible for the content of the message He sends us to proclaim. The message He sends us to tell others is not ours, but HIS!
For instance, if God sends us to proclaim His eternal judgment to those who are living in sin and unbelief, we may think: “This is a harsh message. People will not accept it, and they will not appreciate the one who brings such a message.” If we then try to massage the message, we are saying that we know better than God how to save sinners.
God tells us to preach the Law in order to convict people of sin and divine judgment. We should not tell people that if they will only give up their sin and change their ways, they will be saved from the punishment they deserve. Such preaching attempts to change the Law into the Gospel. It massages God’s wrath against sin, rather than convincing the sinner so that his only escape from judgment is found in the mercy of God.
The fourth verse of our text shows that Jonah’s message was not softened at all! He went through the city proclaiming “forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” The time element is important to note. If God had wanted to destroy the city and all its people, He would not have sent Jonah to warn them and He would not have given them forty days to hear His message. So in addition to a threat of punishment, Jonah offered a reason for hope that God would still spare the Ninevites.
What was the result of his preaching as the LORD told him to preach? First we are told that
“they believed God.” [v.5] The record does not say that they believed Jonah, but “God.” This is to be the goal of all our preaching to our fellow sinners—that they accept our message only because they know and believe it is God’s Word.
The Hebrew word for “believed” in this verse is aman — the English word, “amen” comes from this Hebrew word. It means “to be firm or sure.” The Ninevites “believed God”—they knew that God meant business, and they sought His mercy! We are told that they “put on sackcloth,” [v.6] which was an ancient sign of repentance and sorrow over sin. Furthermore, we hear that “God saw their works; that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” [v.10]
Jesus shows us in Matthew 12 that the Ninevites did not change only outwardly in response to the threats of God’s judgment. Jesus describes the Ninevites as repentant—they had a change of heart brought on by faith in the Gospel!
Jesus used the case of the Ninevites to condemn the Jews of His day when they asked for a sign that His message of salvation was true. He said: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew. 12:39-41).
The fact that God warned the Ninevites and did not destroy them does not mean that He is slack concerning His threats and promises. Rather, God shows Himself to be the patient and loving God who desired even the Ninevites to hear the Law and the Gospel and believe His message of free salvation.
Jonah’s account is a powerful, testimony to the objective message of God’s love for sinners. Just as Peter testifies: “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Paul also wrote to Timothy: “God, our Savior would have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
Therefore, His missionaries are to declare His compassion and forgiveness upon those who repent. The missionary who truly “fears God”—stands in awe of God—must know or learn, as Jonah did, that since the message is God’s, it is not to be massaged or tweaked!
We cannot soften the preaching of God’s Law as so many do by preaching a “changed and committed life of love,” as the way to Heaven. No, the law must be preached with all its “teeth,” to convict the sinner of His need of God’s mercy in Christ.
On the other hand, we cannot refuse to preach the Gospel to the repentant, no matter how unworthy we may consider them. Was not Jonah as unworthy as the Ninevites? Are we not just as unworthy as those we think are really bad people May God be merciful to us as he was to Jonah!
Our God is a merciful God. He wants us to be as concerned about the salvation of all people as He is. But in our own weakness we may also be tempted to ask, “Are the millions of heathen still in the world really worthy of it? Are they worth the thousands of dollars we spend through our CLC mission program in India, Africa, Myanmar, Nepal, and elsewhere? Do we want to share with them the mercy we have received in Christ?”
Jesus told the Jews, “One greater than Jonah” has come” (Matthew 12:39-41, Luke 11:29-32). His death on the cross and His resurrection were accomplished for the salvation of all people. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).
Does this make us angry? Are we unwilling to preach the Law and the Gospel of repentance to all people? Or do we who live on the other side of Christ’s resurrection, understand God’s love for sinners better than Jonah?
O Lord, do not give up on us; but make and remake us so that we may be faithful missionaries who bring Your message—not our own—for the salvation of those whom You also love and for whom You also died. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.