Genuine Repentance Displays a Changed Heart

Jonah 3
I invite you to read the previous posts about the prophet Jonah, who, instead of obeying God's call on his life, ran in the opposite direction.

Jonah made it clear that he would rather face God's wrath than share the message the Lord had commanded he proclaim to the wicked Ninevites. He didn't want to risk them being forgiven. Before we judge Jonah to harshly, we must guard against doing the same by refusing to walk in obedience to the commands in the Scriptures.

After the fish vomited Jonah on shore, he thought he could go onto Jerusalem and offer sacrifices to the Lord. But that wasn't the sacrifice God required. The plan was still for Jonah to go to Nineveh.

In most cases, when we refuse to heed God's call on our life, He brings us back around. I know a number of men who were called to become pastors but initially refused the call. But God brought them to a place of repentance and submission to His will.

If we want to be used by God—and we've discovered His direction for our life through the study of His Word, prayer, and wise counsel—we must seek to obey Him to the best of our ability and understanding.

As Jonah sat on the beach, covered in fish vomit, pledging that he would worship and make sacrifices to the One True God, unlike the pagans who worshiped false gods, "the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you'" (Jonah 3:1-2).

The way this command is worded hints at God's plan for the people of Nineveh. They were, indeed, wicked and deserved to be destroyed, yet God's plan was always to show grace and compassion, in keeping with His nature.

The Old Testament model was more a "come and see what God has done" approach. Instead, the Lord tells Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh. This reminds us of the great commission, in which believers in Jesus are told to go into all the world and make disciples. Too often, we try to make our buildings and programs drawing cards. While we want to have functional, inviting buildings and effective programs, we must not forget our call to go.

The primary role of the local fellowship is for equipping, training, and encouraging believers so they can go into the world and share the gospel. When a church adopts a "come and see" mentality, they're not focused on what Christ intended. It's doubtful the teaching goes beyond "spiritual milk," which is insufficient for spiritual growth and maturity.

When Jonah finally obeyed, the only thing we know for sure that he proclaimed to the Ninevites was this: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (Jonah 3:4)

Did he tell the people who he was or who had sent him? Did he tell them who was going to overthrow them? Did he offer them a way of repentance? Not that we know of.

The word interpreted overthrown is actually overturn. We see the same word used in Scripture when something is turned and becomes new. We see this when God turned the hearts of the Egyptians (Psalms 105:25); when He turned the sea into dry land (Psalm 66:6); and when He turned Balaam's curse into a blessing (Deuteronomy 23:5; Nehemiah 13:2).

God used Jonah's message not to initiate the Ninevites destruction, which was Jonah's desire, but as a catalyst for their repentance.

Verse 5 of Jonah 3 says, "And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them."

It wasn't because Jonah referred to Elohim, as he had when he told the sailors whom he worshiped. Yet, the Ninevites believed God … Elohim.

In verse 6, we see how far their repentance went:

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.

Every person and every creature was to fast. In their culture, they thought it was possible for animals to sin, and the king wasn't taking any chances.

God, indeed, overturned the people of Nineveh, from the king down. Remember, that if the king of a nation sought to follow the True God, the nation often did the same. National leaders still have the power to draw us closer to the Lord or drive us even further from Him and His ways.

If our leaders are not submitting to God's commands, it is not an excuse for us to sin nor is it an excuse for us to think that we can't influence others and point them to Jesus. After all, we are called to lead people to saving faith. In that way, we can all be leaders.

The king of Nineveh had spiritual insight. In Jonah 3:9, he says, "Who knows? God [Elohim] may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish."

In verse 10, we read, "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it."

The Lord graciously acknowledged their repentance and relented.

Does this mean, as some people say, that He actually changed His mind because of the actions of the Ninevites?

Malachi 3:6 says, "For I the Lord do not change."

Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever."

James 1:17 says, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change."

While the Hebrew word for relent does me "to relent, repent, have compassion, be made sorry over," let's look at how the word is used in other places in Scripture:

The first time the word appears is in Genesis 5:29. Lamech names his son Noah, saying, "This one shall bring us relief / rest."

The second time the word appears is in Genesis 6:6-7, just before the flood. God said, "I am sorry that I have made them." Here, God desired to blot out the evil and restore mankind.

The third time we see the word is in Genesis 24:67, when Isaac was comforted after his mother, Sarah, died. The word is used in the context of a broken family restored.

When we look in the Old Testament, Nacham is never used when humans repent. Instead, it's used to refer to God when He turns from mercy to justice or justice to mercy. So, when verse 10 says God relented, what it's saying is, because of Nineveh's repentance, they have been restored to a state of blessing.

That's the very thing He does with us. We're conceived in sin, enslaved to sin, enemies of God. Yet, when we repent and trust in Christ as our Savior and Lord, we're restored to a state of blessing. Even after we're believers, when we repent of a sin, He restores us to fellowship and blessing. Praise God that He never changes and that He has been, and always will be, the same!

Nineveh repented and was restored to a place of blessing, and that's all we hear about Nineveh in the book of Jonah. But if you were to look at a map of the Middle East, you wouldn't see a city named Nineveh. Instead, you'd see a different city there. Why? Because the city was eventually destroyed, and a new city was built on top of it. About 100 years after Jonah called out against Nineveh, they returned to their wicked ways. This time, the prophet Nahum pronounced judgement upon Nineveh. In this case, Nineveh did not repent, and God destroyed it in 612 BC.

So, why don't we hear more about Nineveh in this story? You would think, after an entire nation repents, there would be more information given. So, why stop here? God loved Nineveh, just like He loves all His sheep and desires them to turn from their wicked ways and run to Him. But Nineveh is not the focus of the story.

Just like in Genesis, when God sent a huge famine across the Middle East in order to get one family to Egypt, God used the repentance of Nineveh for a greater purpose, a purpose we'll discuss two weeks from now.

Before we close, I want to highlight something for you. In the first two chapters, we learned a lot about Jonah, but we didn't learn much about him in chapter 3. Instead, this chapter reveals more about God: His compassion, grace, longsuffering, and steadfast love.

But there is a time when God says, "Enough is enough." He eventually did this with Nineveh. He told them they'd gone on long enough in their sin, that they were at a point of no return, either they would have to repent or face judgment.

Is there hidden sin in your heart that you haven't repented of? Are you too ashamed to admit it? Maybe you think, if you ignore it, it will simply go away. Maybe you don't want to give up this particular sin. But living in unrepentant sin is living in rebellion against the Lord.

Turn to Christ. Run from your sin. Cry out to God. He will forgive you. He will restore your fellowship with Him. You'll experience, once again, how compassionate, gracious, and loving the Lord is.