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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8 am service, 2001-09-16

Text: Jonah 3:4-10

Last Tuesday, a great national calamity befell the United States when the World Trade Centre building in New York collapsed after being hit by two hijacked planes. An hour later, the Pentagon in Washington DC was hit by another hijacked plane. We feel very sad and sorry for all those who died in the calamity, and we sympathise with those who were injured, as well as with their loved ones, and it is our prayer that the Lord will somehow help them, especially those who are believers, in their time of grief.

At the same time, a calamity like this should make us realize that if it were not for the Great Mercy of God to us, we would likewise perish. It is a sobering thought that death can come upon us at any time, and even in moments when we least expect it to come. Dearly beloved, how often do you give a thought to matters of life and death? In the midst of all your busy-ness, do you ever take time to reflect on these realities? Do you take life for granted? Please do not forget that you are a mortal creature. Do not assume that you will have many more years to live, for your life can be taken at any time. If God should see it fit to take your life right now, nothing that you do can stop death from coming.

So let us never forget this very important aspect of God's mercy - your life depends upon it! Our topic this morning will highlight this: 'The Pattern of God's Own Saving Mercy' This pattern can be found in one little book of the Bible - the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah is a very compact and vivid book, consisting of only 40 verses, plus 8 verses of prayer. The pattern of God's mercy is found twice in this book: Firstly, God's mercy in sparing Jonah from death, and secondly, God's mercy in sparing the people of the great city of Nineveh from total destruction. Let us begin by considering:

I. God's Mercy to Disobedient Believers 

Jonah is a picture of believers today who disobey God's commandments. Because of God's mercy they are not left to degenerate in their own disobedience, but are chastised by God, until they are brought back to the path of obedience. And God's chastisement may be painful at times, but it testifies to His mercy and love toward His children. Hebrews 12:5,6 tells us, 'despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.' 

Dearly beloved have you been an obedient child of God? When God directs you to do something, do you do it willingly? Or do you evade your Christian responsibilities or find a way to excuse yourself from them? I hope you do not. What commandments has God given to you that you must obey? To love Him with all your heart; To honour the Lord in your place of work or study, to love and edify one another in church, To bring the lost to the saving knowledge of Christ, to live lives that are holy and righteous in an ungodly world. Have you been obeying all these commandments, or only those that you do not mind obeying? It is not for you to pick and choose which commands you wish to obey, and which you do not want to obey. Let us not be like Jonah who rebelled at God's call and ran away from a commandment he did not like to obey. 

According to Jonah 1:3, Jonah took a ship from Joppa that was bound for Tarshish (which is 2,000 miles west, in Spain). He was running in the opposite direction to where he was supposed to go. Why did Jonah do this? There are two possible reasons: 

Firstly, Assyria had become very notorious for being a great and terrible conqueror of other countries. Their cruelty to defeated nations had become well-known. Jonah may have believed that such a country did not deserve any mercy at all, and so did not want to go there. But God wanted to teach His prophet what it means to show mercy even to those who are his enemies and not hate them (cf. what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:44). 

Another reason why Jonah refused to go to Nineveh is that perhaps like most Jews of his time he was thinking that the Jews were the only chosen people of God, the ones to receive His special attention, and therefore Gentiles were outside of the scope of God's mercy. This same spirit continued in the New Testament and caused the apostle Peter to hesitate in going to the home of Cornelius with the gospel message. 

But this narrow view of the Gentiles does not take into account the fact that the promise God had made to Abraham includes blessings for all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). And that means that Gentiles are included in the scope of God's mercy. 

For whatever reasons Jonah had, he tried to run away from God by taking a ship to Tarshish. At this point, the Lord could easily have given up on this disobedeint prophet and sent another prophet in his place to preach at Nineveh. It was not as if Jonah was the only prophet available at that time to do His will. (Hosea and Amos lived at the same time) But He chose not to do this. He chose to retrieve this rebellious prophet out of his disobedience, and rehabilitate him right back into service. 

If you have failed in your commitment to God, this truth is your source of hope! God's mercy to His children who have failed Him is really tremendous. Christ did the same thing later on for Simon Peter - forgiving him for denying Him three times, and restoring him as the chief of the apostles to feed His sheep. Let us see now how God showed mercy to Jonah: 

According to 1:4 'the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea.' The Lord's control of the winds and waves reminds us of His complete lordship and power over nature. Later on, when Jesus was in a boat with His disciples in the midst of a storm, He commanded the tempest, 'Peace, be still.' And immediately all was calm. So whenever you find yourself at the mercy of the elements or of circumstances that are beyond your control - always remember to call upon the One who controls them.

After being thrown overboard, Jonah was totally surrounded by water and swept by the strong currents of the Mediterranean Sea, down to the sea bed. Jonah described this awful experience in Jon 2:5,6 'The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever'. Dearly beloved, have you ever been in a situation like that - where you found yourself in a terrible crisis, with absolutely no hope of deliverance? In such a situation always remember to seek God's help in prayer. 

As for Jonah, he could do nothing but to cry out from his heart to God for mercy. Jonah must have realised that since he was at that point going against God's will, he had absolutely no right to expect any deliverance from God. And so in his desperate drowning condition, the only thing he could rely on now, was for God whom he had offended, to show him mercy. And God heard Jonah's drowning prayer and mercifully spared his life. This time God used was a great fish (1:17) to save Jonah from drowning in the sea. 

Many think that this must be a whale, since it has to be big enough to swallow and whole person and to have enough room for a person to live inside it. It is interesting to observe that Jesus later on demonstrated the same power over fish: When He and Simon Peter needed to pay the temple tax, He told Peter to go to the sea, cast in a fishing line and open the mouth of the first fish he caught. When Peter did that, he found that there was a silver coin in its mouth (Matthew 17:24-27) - Jesus had apparently commanded that fish to retrieve the coin from the sea bed and to come up and be caught by no one else but Peter! 

In Jonah's case, God commanded a fish of much greater size to seek Jonah from the ocean depths, swallow him, keep him alive for three days and three nights in his belly, and then to swim to the shore to vomit him out. Jonah 2:10 tells us 'God spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land' Just like the winds and waves, the fishes of the sea and all aquatic animals are always ready to do God's bidding. Later on in the story of Jonah we will see that even a plant and a worm are ready to do whatever God wills. 

What a complete contrast all these creatures are, to Jonah who was so unwilling to do God's will! Isn't it ironical that while all God's earthly creatures are obedient to Him, it is man, the highest creature of them all, that often proves to be the disobedient one? And oftentimes, like in the case of Jonah, it is not only man that proves to be disobedient, but God's own elected people, those who are His own dear children, who fail to obey Him! Surely this is something we should be most ashamed of, if we have not been obeying the Lord! 

And it is precisely in this fact that God's mercy becomes even more amazing to us. This is the pattern of God's mercy to His own dear children -time and time again He bears with our follies and sins. Time and time again He spares us from receiving the punishment we deserve from Him. 

How great and wonderful is His mercy toward us! And now we are going to magnify God's mercy even more, by adding on to that, the pattern of God's mercy to the world of sinners, represented by the people of Nineveh: 

II. God's Mercy To The World of Sinners 

Nineveh was a very ancient city on the banks of the river Tigris, that had been occupied from about 4,500 BC. It was the center of idolatrous worship of the goddess Ishtar and the god, Nebo. At that time Nineveh was the largest city in Assyria, and was one of the places of royal administration for the Assyrian empire, which was the world's greatest superpower at that time, the equivalent of what the U.S. is today. It was large enough to house a population of 600,000 people, and probably had many more people living in the suburbs around it. It took Jonah a whole day's journey just to walk from the outskirts of the city to the city center. Hence we can consider Nineveh to be the New York City of ancient times -a massive, highly-populated city filled with all kinds of sin and idolatry. 

The Lord could easily have left the Ninevites to keep on sinning and and He could have brought His divine judgment upon them without warning when they were ripe for it. However, God in His mercy gave them the opportunity to repent, by sending them a prophet to warn them of His coming judgment. They were given 40 days to repent or else God's judgment would fall upon them. This reminds us that even now, God's mercy is being shown to the whole world by allowing it to continue until this day. Christ could have descended to judge the world a long time ago. But instead of that, the Lord has given the world more time to hear the Gospel and turn to Him in repentance. 

If there is anyone here who is still outside the Lord Jesus Christ, please understand this: It is by God's mercy alone that you have not yet been judged for your sins. But please do not take the mercy and patience of God for granted. Romans 2:4 tells us that the goodness, forbearance and longsuffering of God must lead you to repentance! You must respond now to God's mercy in the same way that the people of Nineveh did. Let us see what they did in Jonah 3:5 'So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.' 

As the prophet Jonah preached, his words took immediate effect and the people in fear came to repent before God. Even the king of Nineveh did this, and animals were made to participate in the city-wide repentance campaign. 

This is just like the revival campaigns that have taken place in many parts of the world, e.g. the John Sung revival in the 30's that caused many to weep for their sins. Perhaps it is time for God's people today to have a revival - to repent of the sins of complacency and worldliness that have crept into the church. Is God pleased with us when He looks at our lives? Do we need to come before Him now in repentance? 

What made the Ninevites so willing to repent? Some Bible scholars believe that they may have gone through some recent events that prepared them to receive this message: according to historical records, the city had experienced a serious plague that killed many people; two years after the plague a total eclipse of the sun took place, and in those days such an occurrence would strike terror in the hearts of men because they did not know what it is. These two events may have helped to prepare the Ninevites for Jonah's arrival. 

The news about how Jonah had been miraculously delivered by the great fish might also have helped to prepare their hearts. His body may still have had the scars of that experience. But the most important reason why the Ninevites repented so readily, was God's own power to bring them to repentance as they heard the Word being preached to them. Acts 11:18 tells us, 'Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.' This means that no one can repent unless God gives him the ability to repent. Jesus Himself said 'No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him' (John 6:44).

And this is another evidence of God's mercy to sinners. Not only does He warn them to repent, He also works in their hearts to make them respond with true repentance. And so, if you have repented of your sins, you must thank God that He opened your eyes to behold your sinful state, and that He gave you the willingness to turn to Him for forgiveness. Without this, we would never have responded to God's Word. 

Now we have already seen God's mercy to the Ninevites manifested in two ways: firstly in His giving them the opportunity to repent and, secondly in granting them all the ability to repent. We now see a third way in which God's mercy was manifested to them: He spared the people from the coming destruction. This is highlighted in 3:10 'And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not.' We can imagine the people of Nineveh counting the days to the anticipated destruction of their city, and at the same time weeping and crying out to God for mercy, casting away their idols, making restitution for all their wrongdoings. As the end of the 40-day period drew nearer and nearer, the anxiety would have increased to a very high level. But then, after the 40th day had passed, nothing happened - there was no destruction, but only the word from God that Jonah was told to declare to them now, that may have been like this, 'O people of Nineveh, the Lord God has seen your repentance and He now mercifully spares you from the calamity He intended to bring upon you!' We can imagine all the weeping and crying of the people, turning into gladness and rejoicing as they heard this good news and praised God for the mercy He had shown to them! Such joy can be yours if you repent of your sins today! 

Up until now, we have already seen in the book of Jonah, two wonderful patterns of the mercy of God - His mercy to His own servants when they are disobedient, and His mercy to to the world of sinners, as represented by the people of Nineveh. Now we come to the last part of the book where we shall see: 

III. God's Great Mercy, Compared with Man's Lack of Mercy 

While the whole city of Nineveh was rejoicing and thankful to God for His mercy, there was one lone person who was not rejoicing at all - and that was Jonah. You know, the greatest joy that any preacher can have, is to receive the same kind of results that Jonah received from his preaching. How wonderful it is to see great numbers of people repenting of their sins and being saved from eternal death! Jesus said that, 'there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.' (Luke 15:10) 

But Jonah was not only unwilling to rejoice over the repentance of the Ninevites, he was also angry. The first verse of chapter says that 'it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.' Why was he so displeased and angry? It was because God had 'changed His mind' about destroying the city. In v.3 he even said to God 'O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me: for it is better for me to die than to live.�' Here we can find the main reason for Jonah's strange response - It was his self-centredness. He was most unhappy that God had not fulfilled the word he had brought to Nineveh. He thought that he had now lost all his credibility as a prophet because the destruction he had foretold had not materialised at all. 

This was a serious matter to him, because in Israel, a prophet's credibility was established only when the things he predicted were fulfilled. And so Jonah may have felt that after this 'failed prophecty' of his, the Ninevites would never believe whatever he said anymore. 

All this showed that Jonah suffered from a profound lack of mercy for sinners. He was so caught up in his own little self-centred view of things that he could not see beyond himself. He could not see the miracle of revival that God had wrought among the people. The only thing he could see was that he had lost his credibility as a prophet. And it is for this same reason that we too often suffer from a profound lack of mercy - because we focus so much on ourselves. When we are interested mostly in our own concerns, and hardly in the concerns of others, then we need to learn the lesson that Jonah now learned from the Lord. 

The fact that Jonah received such a lesson is itself another evidence of God's mercy. At this point God could have executed judgment on Jonah for being so unreasonable in his response, but He did not. Instead, He chose to show him mercy again! Like a loving Father patiently instructing a little rebellious child, the Lord taught Jonah a lovely object lesson on His love and care for precious souls. The first thing God used was to teach Jonah this lesson a giant plant (4:6) that grew up amazingly fast and provided some cooling shade for Jonah. That was a real help to him because the mean daily maximum temperature in Nineveh today is about 44 degrees C. 

The second thing that God used was a worm to destroy the gourd (4:7), after Jonah had enjoyed the shade for just one day. Now, the amazing thing about this worm is the speed with which it destroyed the plant: God sent it at the onset of dawn (6 am), and by the time the sun was up in the sky (8-10 am), the plant was completely gone. 

The third thing that God used was a hot east wind (4:8). This phenomenon is known in that region as a sirocco and would cause the temperature to rise 9-12 degrees C above the average temperature. It became so hot that Jonah felt faint and became quite upset that the lovely shade he had enjoyed from the plant was gone. He was sorry that the worm had destroyed his nice plant. This was exactly what God wanted to achieve through all that He did to Jonah, because it provided the clear contrast between Jonah's pity and God's mercy.

And so, God said to Jonah in v.10,11 'Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?' The Lord showed Jonah how utterly unreasonable he was - to feel so sorry for the loss of a mere plant, but to have no qualms at all about the loss of thousands of precious lives, that would have resulted from the destruction of the city! The Lord says that there were 120,000 persons in Nineveh that cannot tell their right hand from their left - this is probably a reference to young children or infants, all of whom would have perished if Nineveh was destroyed!

The truth that we all must grasp from this is that: Although God must bring judgment upon sinners, He is still a God who cares for life. He cares for the little children, He even cares for the animals. He does not take any delight in seeing any of His creatures destroyed. He does not take delight in seeing sinners perish, but rather in seeing them turn from their wicked ways and receiving eternal life. Listen to what God Himself says in Ezekiel 33:11 'Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?'

Dear friends, this then is God's pattern of mercy: A pattern of mercy that we should strive to follow - A mercy that is ready to mourn over the loss of lives; a mercy that moves us to feel for the plight of people around us, and to do whatever we can to help them. And let us not forget that if God had not shown such mercy to us, we would all have perished in our sins a long time ago! May we all strive to follow His pattern of mercy as we live each day of our lives.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25