The Great Revival
If you were to ask the average church person what the greatest miracle in the book of Jonah is, what would they say? Most would, undoubtedly, point to Jonah in the belly of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights.
Now, as amazing as that occurrence is, Jonah in the belly of the whale is not the greatest miracle in this book. Yes, the miracle of the whale is great, but the miracle of chapter 3 is greater. In this chapter we see the largest mass conversion ever recorded.
If we were to examine revivals in history, one of the common factors we would see in each is that there is always a devout and charismatic preacher behind the revival. Since the time of the Reformation, we can connect particular revivals to the preaching of John Knox, John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.
Read the biographies of these men and few will be surprised by the impact they made on society. These men were highly intelligent, immensely gifted, and unmatched in their zeal for preaching the Gospel.
But then we look at Jonah. Who could have predicted the results of his preaching? Jonah was hardly an ‘all-star’ prophet. His biography is not nearly as impressive as that of his colleagues, and yet God uses him powerfully.
God, in His mercy, uses a reluctant prophet to convert an entire city. In chapter 4, the text says that there are "more than 120,000 people"(4:11) living in Nineveh. Historians and theologians agree, however, that this number accounts only for the adults. With an average of 3-4 children per household, Jonah would have witnessed the conversion of nearly 600,000 people.
Notice the parallel between Jonah and the city of Nineveh. The "great"(3:2) city of Nineveh gets a second chance because of the preaching of a prophet who received a second chance. Our text begins by saying that "the Word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time"(3:1). God gave Jonah a second chance to obey, and now He was giving the city of Nineveh one more chance to turn away from their wickedness.
It is intriguing to note that when "the Word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time" it was the same Word—“Arise, go to Nineveh"(3:2; 1:2). It likely doesn’t surprise us that God pursues us when we wander. And it likely doesn't surprise us when God gives us a commission to do something. But one might think that God would bear in mind the fact that Jonah ran away the last time He told him to go to Nineveh. We might expect, therefore, that God would change the command. But God does not—the command stays the same.
Thankfully, Jonah’s response changes. The first time Jonah is commissioned to go to Nineveh we read that, "Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord"(1:3). But now, after receiving the commission a second time, we read that, "Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the Word of the Lord"(3:3).
As we examined the first chapter of Jonah, we were encouraged to examine our own willingness to heed the call of the Lord. Most of us, I suspect, could relate to Jonah because running away from the Lord is something many of us have done.
As we examined the second chapter of Jonah, we were encouraged to think about our experience of having God bring us back to Him through some significant or alarming experience. Again, many of us could relate to this and, for some, this accounts for why we are sitting in a church pew this morning.
And now, in chapter three, we have Jonah sharing God's message to a people that are perishing. It is here, unfortunately, where our relating to Jonah stops. Many of us, probably due to fear rather than willful negligence, are reluctant to share our faith with others.
Remember, Jonah didn't want to share his faith either—at first. But thankfully Jonah changed his mind and 600,000 were converted as a result of his preaching! We may not be eager to share our faith, but if we do . . . perhaps we will witness a mini-revival. Maybe not the conversion of a city, but perhaps the conversion of our family. Perhaps we will see the conversion of our circle of friends. Perhaps we will see the conversion of those we work with.
The Word of the Lord has come to you this morning from the book of Jonah. The question is, are you going to "flee" from the commission of God, or are you going to share your faith with others? Let me remind you, when Jonah disobeyed the Lord, he ended up treading water in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea before being swallowed by a whale. By contrast, when Jonah obeyed, 600,000 were rescued from incalculable physical and spiritual harm.
If sharing our faith is not optional, how shall we engage in this practice? We learn, at least, 3 principles of evangelism from Jonah's mission to Nineveh. The first has to do with the content of Jonah's preaching. Jonah was told to "proclaim" what the Lord told him to proclaim (3:2). In other words, Jonah did not make up his message from his own experience. Jonah received his message from God. For us that means that when we share our faith with others, our focus should not be our experiences, but rather, our focus should come from the written Word of God.
Many well-meaning people run into difficulties in evangelism because all they do is share their experiences. If the person you are sharing with has an experience that is exactly the opposite of yours, how are you going to show which experience is more valid? You can't. When you witness to others, follow the example of Jonah, and proclaim what the Word of God says.
The second principle we learn from Jonah's mission to Nineveh is that we should keep the message simple. On the surface, Jonah's message is quite unimpressive. Jonah does not present any persuasive evidence nor does he utilize any clever arguments. In the same way, the Christian message may appear unimpressive to others. Admittedly, our message borders on simplistic—we are sinners who will perish if we are not reconciled to God.
And yet, the simplicity of our message lends itself to being easily passed on. Our message is that Jesus died for our sins and promises that all who turn to Him will gain eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
How is it that Jonah's simple message could convert 600,000 people? How does the simple Gospel message effect fundamental change in the life of the hearer? It must be as the apostle Paul has said, “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
The third principle we learn from Jonah's mission to Nineveh is that we need to be courageous. Remember, the people of Nineveh were enemies of the people of Israel. We are often negligent in sharing our faith with others because we have a fear of rejection. Jonah, however, was not simply risking rejection by preaching to the people of Nineveh—he was risking his life.
It is one thing for Billy Graham to hold a revival meeting in New York City; it would be quite another thing for Rev. Graham to hold a revival meeting in the middle of Baghdad. And yet this is not far off from what Jonah was expected to do. Preaching to Israel’s enemies in Nineveh was nothing short of courageous. And, as such, Jonah's example should motivate us to be courageous in sharing our faith.
Three principles of evangelism from Jonah's mission to Nineveh: speak from God's Word, keep the message simple, and be courageous. When Jonah did this, the text reports that the people of Nineveh "believed in God"(3:5).
Notice that the people of Nineveh did more than just hear and believe Jonah's message—they "believed in God". And to demonstrate the genuine nature of their faith, the people of Nineveh acted on their belief, "they called a fast and put on sackcloth"(3:5). Even the king of Nineveh took part, issuing a "decree" for all the people to participate in the rituals of repentance, and by urging them to "call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way"(3:8).
The entire city of Nineveh repents of their sin, and how does God respond? "When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it"(3:10).
What a remarkable account! The revival is initiated by a disobedient prophet who receives a second chance, and who preaches to a disobedient people in desperate need of a second chance. As a result, the people of Nineveh "believe in God", and turn from their sin.
A city on the verge of becoming the next Sodom and Gomorrah becomes, instead, the location of the greatest mass revival ever recorded.
What does all this mean for you and I today? First of all, whether we relate more to Jonah or more to the people of Nineveh, we should now have a better understanding of God’s eagerness to give second chances to all who turn to Him.
And, secondly, having received a second chance, we, like Jonah, must be prepared to share the message of God’s mercy to those who are perishing.
This message begins with the birth of Jesus Christ, continues with His life and ministry, and climaxes with His atoning death and bodily Resurrection.
God has so designed that salvation comes from hearing this message preached (Rom. 10:14-17). Therefore, we must not be intimidated by a society that exhibits a growing distaste for the Christian Gospel. For even though God has made the message simple (1Cor. 1:21), He has charged the message with His power.
Jonah shows us what is possible when we share a message powered by God. Sharing the message might mean salvation for a member of your family. It might mean salvation for a friend or neighbour. Or perhaps, like Jonah, you may even witness your enemies embrace salvation.
Friends, as we reflect on the book of Jonah, it becomes abundantly clear that the blessings of heeding the Lord’s call are preferable to His methods of correction. The way of the Lord may not be easy, but the choice to obey should be. Amen.