Sermon Details




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.’  Jonah 3:1 (NIV)

The book of Jonah ends in an argument with God. I don’t think Jonah wrote the book in the middle of that argument. We can reasonably assume that the book was written in Jonah’s later years, and that it gives us his mature reflection on the extraordinary events of his life.

Chapter 2 records how Jonah prayed from inside in the fish, but he surely wrote that well after the event. I don’t think Jonah was reaching for pen and paper in the belly of the fish to write down his prayers, and I don’t suppose he wrote the story down when the fish spat him up on the beach afterwards either.

Jonah 2 is a song of praise, giving the prophet’s recollection and reflection on what had happened. Since it was most likely written after the events of chapter 3 and 4, let’s move on to these events right now, and then come back and hear Jonah’s testimony at the end.

Barriers to Obedience

“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’” (v1).

God’s command was identical to the one he gave Jonah the first time. God sometimes brings you back to face a challenge you faced before in your life, and when that happens, you will see how his grace has changed you. That’s how it was with Jonah.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Jonah would go to Nineveh when God called him the second time. Jonah still has all the old objections to overcome:

  1. Fear—the Assyrians were still known for terror and torture. Nineveh was still the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims (Nahum 3:1). Nothing had changed in Nineveh. Jonah still had to face his old fears.
  1. Shame—Jonah had failed the Lord big time. His sin had been exposed, and he must have wondered “How can God use me?” Jonah had to get over his shame in order to obey God’s call.
  1. Self Interestthe Assyrian army was the greatest threat to God’s people, and Nineveh was one of the great Assyrian cities. If Nineveh had been destroyed, God’s people would have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Jonah tells us in chapter 4 that this was why he did not want to go to Nineveh. He feared that God would have compassion on Nineveh, and God’s people wanted Nineveh destroyed.

  1. Unbelief—God said “Go to Nineveh and preach…” Can God really change a wicked city like Nineveh through one man speaking God’s Word?

Nineveh had not changed, but Jonah had changed, and when God’s word came to him the second time, we read that “Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh” (v3).

An extraordinary work of God

By any standards what happened in Nineveh was an extraordinary work of God. Jonah preached the Word of God, and there was an unusual response:

“The Ninevites believed God.” (v5).

“They declared a fast and all of them… put on sackcloth” (v5).

“The king rose from his throne, took off his robes, sat down in sackcloth in the dust…” (v6).

The Word of God came and it was met with faith. Sackcloth was a way of expressing humility and penitence before God. The king said that even the animals were to be covered in sackcloth: “We want God to know how deep our repentance really runs in Nineveh.”

“The king issued a proclamation: Let everyone call urgently on God” (v8).

“Let them give up their evil ways and their violence” (v8).

“Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (v9).

The king is calling for a national day of prayer: There is faith—the people believed God (v5), prayer—they called urgently on God (v8), repentance—they gave up their evil ways and their violence (v8), and hope—in the mercy of God, who may have compassion (v9). By any standards this is an amazing transformation of a whole city.

I want us to look at how this transformation of the city came about: 1. The message, 2. The man, and 3. The moment.

God Sends His Word to Change The City

“On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned’” (v4).

Nineveh was a large city. People in the great cities of the world live relentless lives, consumed with what is happening now: running businesses, raising families, and enjoying sports. Jonah arrives and says “Let me tell you what’s coming. Let me tell you about the future: Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

Eternity is nearer than you think

Authentic gospel preaching always engages people with eternal issues. It lifts our horizons—from the immediate here and now of our lives—to the reality of eternity: It is nearer than you think.

That is where Jesus began: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Paul also begins his message with the awful reality of the judgment of God: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).

Jonah begins there too: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (v4). Whatever you are doing now—there is God, and there is eternity, and it is nearer than you think. That’s his message.

I don’t suppose that was the only thing that Jonah said, but that was the core of his message, and everyone knew it. Our new president[1] ran his entire election campaign around a message that boiled down to one word: “Change.”

He said many things, but everyone knew that it was his message. Jonah said many things, but everyone in the city of Nineveh knew Jonah’s message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” God took that one sentence and burned it into the minds and hearts of the people of Nineveh.

Cities are changed when people hear the Word of God

The city of Glasgow in Scotland had this motto engraved on a bell in the middle of the city in 1637: “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of God’s Word.” The motto today is shortened to: “Let Glasgow flourish!”[2] Many people don’t know what will make them flourish. Glasgow would flourish if there was a resurgence of preaching and hearing God’s Word.

Chicago would flourish if there was a resurgence of the preaching of God’s Word and of the hearing of God’s Word in our churches today. If the number of people hearing the Word of God in Chicago doubled, would it make a difference to the city? Absolutely!

Even if people are not converted by the hearing of God’s Word, it brings an awareness of God into the culture, and “The fear of the Lord [even among those who are not converted] is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). Where God’s Word is heard, lives will be changed. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 AV).

There are thousands of people in our city who are comfortably absorbed in their daily lives and do not think about eternity. It would be a good thing in our city if more of the people heard more of God’s Word in more of the churches.

God Uses His Man to Change the City

God works through His Word, and His Word comes through His people. God used Jonah, and I want you to see how God used all that had happened in Jonah’s life for the eternal good of the people of Nineveh.

God used Jonah’s experience

Here’s an interesting question: Did Jonah tell the people of Nineveh about his own experience? I believe he did for two reasons: First, the king said: “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish?” (v9)

Where did the king get that idea? If all Jonah had said was “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed,” how would the king have had any reason to hope in the mercy and compassion of God? But if the King knew Jonah’s story, he would have reason to say “If God saved Jonah, perhaps He will have compassion on us.”

Second, our Lord said: “‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation’” (Luke 11:29-30).

Jonah, the man himself, was a sign to the Ninevites. But in what sense was he a sign? Some people say it is simply the sign of a man preaching, but Jesus says something more: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).

Putting Matthew and Luke together—Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, and the sign was that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a fish. If being three days and nights in the fish was a sign to the Ninevites that must mean that he told them about it.

God uses our difficulties to advance the gospel

Jonah must have preached with a special passion born of his experience: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed… I know what I am talking about. Let me tell you what happened to me!

I have worshipped the God I am telling you about all my life. But when He called me to come here, I did not want to come. I thought I could disobey him and get away with it.

I got on a boat and headed for Tarshish, but God sent a storm.  The crew knew what they were doing, but they couldn’t hold the ship against God’s wind.

God’s judgment had come on me. I felt sure I was finished, and I told the crew to throw me overboard. They didn’t want to do it, but it soon became clear they had no choice.

They cried out to God and threw me overboard. Then I hit the water. I was sure it would only be moments before I drowned, but God had compassion on me. The God whose judgment I deserved saved me.

Now he has sent me here to tell you that your wickedness has come up before him, just as mine did. Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

God will use what he has been doing in your life as a means of reaching others. God never wastes a thing. He can use your failures, your traumas, your shame, the desperate moments of your life to advance the Gospel. Sinclair Ferguson says:

“The jewels of spiritual service are always quarried
in the depths of spiritual experience.” [3]

Whatever you go through in your life, God can use it for the advance of his Gospel. If God takes you through the depths of a difficult experience, don’t be surprised if he uses it for the sake of advancing the Gospel in someone else’s life.

God Chooses His Moment to Change the City

What happened in Nineveh was unusual and remarkable. This kind of transformation of an entire community does not always happen when God’s man or woman brings God’s message.

A lady came up to me after the service a few weeks ago. She is a new Christian. She had shared the Gospel with her husband several times, and he still did not believe. She wanted to know what she was doing wrong. I told her, “You aren’t doing anything wrong!”

There is God’s Word and there is God’s man or woman, but there is also God’s time or God’s moment. You can’t force that, but you can pray for it. There are pastors and missionaries who labor for many years among people who are highly resistant to the Gospel. They bring the message, they extend themselves, and very few are converted.

Here’s what sustains us when we are anxious for the salvation of others: You never know when he is going to step in and change a person’s life—after you have been praying for them for years. Who could have predicted this kind of response in Nineveh, known for its terror and torture?

Some people may say “That’s great. We will just sit back and let God do whatever he wants, wherever he wants to do it, and in his own time.” No! Revival is God’s gift, but evangelism is his command.

So we don’t sit back and wait for God’s moment. We follow Jonah’s example. What did he do?

He overcame his own fears.
He faced up to his shame.
He extended himself beyond his own self interest.
He allowed God’s grace to transform his unbelief.
He brought God’s Word.
And God’s redeeming grace broke through to those who heard.

Was the revival in Nineveh genuine?

Some people question whether this was a genuine revival, because the history of Nineveh after the time of Jonah gives no evidence of repentance. There’s something important here for us to think about.

We know that Jonah lived at the time of Jeroboam II, so that would mean Jonah’s visit to Nineveh would have happened somewhere between 780 and 755BC.[4] God moved at that time to gather thousands of Assyrians to faith in Himself.

To get a sense of the scale of this, listen to Jonah’s description of the city: “120,000 people who could not tell their right hand from their left” (4:11). The 120,000 may be the population, or it could be the number of young children in the city, in which case, the population would have been even larger.

Either way, a vast number of people were saved by the mercy of God because they believed, left their violent ways, and put their hope in the compassion of God. If God had compassion on a city of 120,000, what must be the compassion of God on our city of over 9.5 million people in the greater Chicago area?

One generation later in 722BC, the northern kingdom of Israel was invaded, and the ten tribes of God’s people were scattered to the four corners of the earth. Who invaded the northern kingdom? The Assyrians, including a bunch of people, no doubt, from Nineveh, who were certainly not walking with God during this time.

A century after the time of Jonah, just one century later—in the year 612BC—Nineveh itself was destroyed. That is what the prophecy of Nahum 3 is all about. God’s judgment came on the city that returned to its wickedness in a subsequent generation.

Here’s what I conclude from that: In heaven you can expect to see thousands who were saved by faith in God’s grace through the ministry of Jonah. It was God’s moment of ingathering of a vast number of people of that city at that time. I suspect that you will meet relatively few Assyrian people who were alive one hundred years later. The time of Jonah was God’s moment, an extraordinary moment in history.

The advance of the gospel in this generation

What will the future hold for this great city of Chicago? I don’t know. What is the future of the church in America fifty years from now, if Christ has not come? I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea.

All we can do is offer all that we are, all that we have, and all that we can, for the advance of the gospel in this generation. We cannot live on the legacy of what past generations have done for Christ. We cannot live on the hope of what future generations might do for Christ. Our calling is to do all that we can do for Christ in our time.

The whole world needs to be evangelized in every generation. No one is born into the world knowing the Gospel.  And the only generation we can reach and serve with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the generation that is living today.

We dare not live in the future. We dare not live in the past. Our stewardship of the Gospel is now. Every generation will stand accountable before God for what we have done with the sacred trust of the Gospel in our time.

Join me in praying this prayer:

Lord, send Your Word!
Use Your people!
Make this Your moment for this city!
For Christ’s sake


[1] Barack Obama, elected in November 2008, and inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20, 2009.



[3] Sinclair Ferguson, Man Overboard, p.84

[4] See John Mackay: Focus on the Bible: Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, p.14.


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