No One is Beyond God’s reach
Devotion In Motion
“Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey around. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk.” Three times in this book Nineveh is called “that great city.” Here it’s called “an exceedingly great city.” In the early 8th century BC Nineveh was the capital of the world’s only superpower – the Assyrian empire. And usually a city’s walls reflected its strength.
This was true of Nineveh. Its walls were huge – 100’ high, 40’ thick. Three chariots could race side-by-side atop them. Add 1500 watchtowers… and it was impressive. Here we’re told Nineveh was “a three-day journey in extent.” A day’s journey for the pedestrian people of the ancient world was about 20 miles. That meant Nineveh had a circumference of 60 miles – which is comparable to many modern cities. Archeologists tell us the walls around Nineveh proper were not that expansive – so the 60 miles must’ve also included the suburbs. Apparently, Jonah preached to metro Nineveh. And once Jonah arrived he didn’t beat around the bush. He preached from Day One… boldly, fearlessly, unashamedly.
He cried out to the people in verse 4, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Imagine what this was like… Ancient Nineveh is now modern Mosul. Until recently the city of Mosul was an ISIS stronghold. Imagine you going there wrapped in the Christian flag, standing on the street, preaching that Mohammed is a false prophet, and that Jesus is the only way to God…WOW, This was Jonah’s mission! Jonah was a Jew, in the heart of a pagan, Gentile city, proclaiming a message from the one, true God – among idolatrous people who believed in many gods.
Before his ordeal, Jonah probably looked at his assignment as risky. But after three days and nights in the fish’s stomach what could be worse? This time when God calls, come what may Jonah obeys. And notice again, Jonah’s amazing sermon – in verse 4, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s just eight words in English – even shorter in Hebrew, just five words…Of course some of you might enjoy eight word sermons! But it makes you wonder was there more to the message, or was this it?
Josephus makes a statement, “(he) went to the city Nineveh, where he stood so as to be heard; and preached, that in a very little time they should lose the dominion of 10 Asia…” The idea was that Nineveh and Assyria were about to be conquered by another nation. But I’m not sure, Jonah’s wording was as important as God’s waiting of “forty days.” In oriental culture the number “forty” had a special, symbolic significance. “Forty” was the number of “probation and testing.” Moses was on the back side of the desert for forty years… The Hebrews wandered for forty years in the wilderness… Jesus was tested by Satan for forty days… After His resurrection Jesus was seen by His disciples forty days before He ascended to heaven…
And when Nineveh heard that God was waiting forty days before He judged them, they must’ve reasoned, “God is testing us. If God is waiting forty days to judge us, it means He’s giving us time to repent. And if we do, He might just have mercy on us and spare us!” Verse 5 tells us, “So the people of Nineveh believed God…” Never forget in both ancient times and modern times – in the Old Testament and New Testament – for the Jews and the Gentiles – salvation is always by faith! Repentance, turning from our sin, sets the stage for God’s Forgiveness but no one is saved unless they believe in God’s salvation.
As Jonah preached, the Ninevites believed God… They believed His warning. They knew God meant business… But they also believed he was waiting… For God to delay His judgment for forty days, it meant He still loved them, and wanted them to repent. If not, His judgment would’ve been instantaneous. Notice too, the Ninevites never question the reason for God’s judgment – and Jonah’s warning didn’t give them an explanation. Apparently, these people were well aware of the cause of God’s displeasure.
They knew they’d sinned. Assyria had forsaken the one, true God to follow the idolatrous religion of Babel. Though they believed in many gods, Ishtar was their chief deity. She was a fertility goddess and the god of war. So, Nineveh worshipped sex and violence. And this was evidenced by how the Assyrian troops treated those they defeated. They specialized in torture tactics, and ravaged the women they conquered. In one sense, Jonah was certainly right about the Ninevites. They were a mean and immoral race. You’d be hard pressed to find a group more deserving of God’s judgment, and less likely to believe and repent.
Yet Jonah made the mistake all too common among Christians today. We write people off as hopeless, unreachable, unredeemable. We underestimate the power of the Gospel and the love and patience of God. Too often we forget the miracle God worked in us. There is no one – I mean NO ONE – too far gone to be saved by Jesus. No one is outside the reach of God’s grace. Paul wrote to the Romans (1:16), “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…” Assyria reveled in violence and sexual perversion, yet God miraculously saved them.
And I’ve got to say it, if there are two characteristics that sum up American culture in the 21st century, it’s our country’s taste for violence, and our lust for sexual pleasure. From video games, to cage fights, to road rage, to rogue shootings, to gang wars, to the bullying problem in our schools, to domestic abuse – Americans are becoming more and more and more violent a people. And we’re becoming a more lust-obsessed people. Today, every 39 minutes a new pornographic video is made in America…
40 million Americans regularly visit pornographic sites… It’s shocking, but 35% of internet downloads – more than one in three – are porn related. We live in a world sick with perversion and violence. Our society today is out of control. When it comes to sexual appetites and violent impulses people today have little restraint. Like the ancient Assyrians, many Americans today live to satisfy their base desires, regardless of the cost to themselves and to others. Yet here’s a ray of hope…
Ancient Assyria was more perverted and violent than modern America, yet the Spirit of God convicted Nineveh of their sin through the preaching of Jonah. When confronted with the mercy and righteousness of Almighty God, Nineveh repented. And if revival can come to Assyria it can come to America. A spiritual awakening can occur in the heart of your stubborn spouse, your perverted neighbor, your out-of-control teenager – It can come to a politician, it can even come to sinful you!
Jonah 3 teaches us, no one is beyond God’s reach! The Ninevites not only believed God, but they repented of their sin. Verse 5 tells us they “proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.” These were expressions of repentance. Sackcloth was a rough and gritty cloth – the texture of burlap. “Fasting” and “sackcloth” were ways of renouncing fleshly desires and pleasures. They gave tangible evidence of their willingness to change. Verse 6, “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.”
This revival made it all the way to the Assyrian White House. whoever was in charge showed fruits of repentance. Actually, for you history buffs, the king of Assyria at the time was Assurdan III. Even the emperor himself was struck by Jonah’s message. God’s Spirit swept over the land of Assyria – reaching even to the throne. And this brings up the question… “How did Jonah have such an amazing impact on the city of Nineveh?” Obviously, it wasn’t the content of his sermons – they were just eight words long, and the same eight words.
Let me give you four answers to that question… The time was right… The prophet was white… They heard of his flight… And the Spirit showed His might… First, the time was right. During the reign of Assurdan III a series of disasters had occurred in Assyria that the people had interpreted as omens or signs… There had been a solar eclipse (a scary phenomena for ancient people) – an earthquake and famine had rocked the Assyrian empire – as well as a few surprising and uncommon military defeats. The people were open to a message from God.
Second, the prophet was white. I don’t mean Caucasian. Earlier I described Jonah as battered, bloated, boiled, blistered, buttered, bleached, bald… but alive! Three days baking in the gastric juices of the fish’s belly had definitely altered his appearance. It singed his hair, and whitened his skin. When Jonah walked into Nineveh he just looked fishy. He immediately captured people’s attention.
And third, they heard of his flight. In Luke 11:30 Jesus said, “Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites…” Apparently, his story became known among the people. Perhaps 60 Minutes did a segment on him, or he was interviewed on Fox And Friends. Somehow the Ninevites knew Jonah didn’t want to come to their city, and God had to chase him down. His testimony highlighted God’s great love for them.
It also reminded them how impossible it would be for them to escape God’s judgment if they didn’t repent. It’s also interesting that the ancient Ninevites worshipped Dagon, the fish-god. Dagon was half-man and half-fish. He had the head of a fish and the torso of a man. A manifestation of Dagon in Assyrian mythology was the fish-man, “Oannes.” In fact, the two names “Oannes” and “Jonah” have a very similar spelling. It’s possible that Jonah’s submarine ride in the fish’s belly made the pagan Ninevites initially think he was of their own god, Oannes.
This gave Jonah an immediate hearing, and allowed him to preach to them the truth! Hey, the time was right, the prophet was white, they heard of his flight, but the most important cause for this revival was the Spirit of God showed His might. When Jonah repented in chapter 2, he said in verse 9, “Salvation is of the LORD.” Jonah’s deliverance had been the work of God, as are all true conversions. It’s the Holy Spirit that ultimately draws us to Jesus. In John 6:44 Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws him.” Nineveh’s revival, as with all spiritual awakenings, was a sovereign work of God’s amazing grace. Verse 7 records the king’s royal edict, “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.”
This was amazing, the king was so serious about repentance that he ordered even the Assyrian livestock to share and wear the symbols of repentance. It wasn’t that the animals had a relationship with God, or moral capacities. The king just wanted to include all he could in Nineveh’s attempt to show God they meant business in their decision to turn to Him. This king took repentance seriously… So should we! When God looked down on Nineveh, the king wanted Him to see cows and horses in sackcloth and ashes. Pigs used to live high on the hog, now fasting.
Rebellious cats, and we know all cats do whatever they want, sounding a repentant meow. The king wanted God to look down from heaven on a repentant Nineveh, even to the point of saying, “Holy Cow!” Of course, this isn’t the first example of animals getting religion. Already in this story, we’ve seen a whale that was more obedient to God than a Prophet.
But, have you ever heard about the Christian Bear? This guy is walking through the woods when a bear jumps out and starts to chase him. The bear finally corners him. There’s no hope, he’s about to be eaten, so he prays, “Lord, please let this be a Christian bear!” Suddenly, the man looks up and he sees the bear on his knees praying. He thinks, “Praise the Lord! This is a Christian bear!” He walks over to give his brother bear a hug when he overhears the hungry bear praying, “Lord, thank you for this food I’m about to receive.”
Notice verse 9. The king then asks, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” “Who can tell?” This is amazing, God never promises them forgiveness. Their repentance was based on a hunch! They’re all thinking, Maybe God will change His mind. In contrast, those of us who know Christ, have been given a promise! 1 John 1:9 is God’s guarantee. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Our repentance rests on God’s word and promise, how much more should we be willing to turn to Him? As I mentioned at the outset, throughout history God has launched many revivals – where His presence was felt, and sinners were convicted, and people repented, and lives were changed, and society was altered… And it all happened on a massive scale. And our merciful God has been faithful to send these spiritual awakenings whenever they’ve been needed.
Yet few revivals compare to Nineveh’s Great Awakening. At Jonah’s preaching a whole metropolis, over a million people, repent of their sin and turn to God. It’d be like everyone in New York City, or Los Angeles confessing their sins and getting saved – from the thugs in Washington Heights to the bankers on Wall Street to disneyland. This may’ve been the greatest, most comprehensive, outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the history of the world. And It can happen again. And I believe it will. Why? Because we have a merciful and gracious God. His message was 8 words long. 8 is the number of New Beginnings and that most of the time is all people need to hear. That they can start anew. 2 Cor 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”
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