Marks of True Repentance (Jonah 3:5-10)
I learn a lot of theology (about who God is) from my kids. Please forgive me for the abundance of kid illustrations that come from this pulpit. I really do not intend to brag about them or make you feel uncomfortable in any way. It is just that God shows me how much I am like my children in the way I relate to Him.
Some of you might remember this story. The other day I had been particularly extremely angry at Abbie. I don’t even remember what it was about anymore. Anyway, afterward it hit me that my anger had been excessive and unnecessary. Finally I went up to her and I apologized. And she said, “It’s okay Dada. Jesus is helping me.” And I replied, “Me too.” It was a gospel-moment. It is a moment where honesty, failure, grace and love all kind of collide.
Everyday we are faced with the truth of our failures. We may even get up straight from quiet time and fall into sin. One minute we are walking with the Lord and the next minute we can sin. We might then despair, feel like God is really upset and disappointed with us and so we give up, and live like a Christian atheist, as one author put it, as though Jesus never died and rose again for our sins. And then we wait until the next quiet time or if we have to serve at church or if we are at church to turn back to Him. I often wonder why my feet are so slow to turn back to Him? Is it guilt?
I want to encourage you today with the fact that God wants to collide His grace and love with your failures at everymoment of every day. It is a lifestyle of this “collision” that the Christian life is all about. It is that moment where we see the depth of our sin, which collides with the depth of His love and the steps we make toward Him that I want to explore today. In the Bible, this movement away from our sin and toward the Lord is called repentance. We are look at what it meant for the Ninevites in Jonah 3.
We last left Jonah, the disobedient prophet turned obedient walking into Nineveh and preaching a five-word sermon (in Hebrew) to the people of Nineveh: “You got forty days before disaster will strike!” Man, that is the worst sermon in history, in man’s eyes. I don’t think many are going to download that podcast today! But Jonah just spoke for God and that’s all God needs today, people who speak for God.
But last time we looked at how the God of grace gave Jonah an opportunity to speak at all. Thus God is one with new beginnings, giving Jonah another chance with the same call to do what He had asked him to do from the beginning. We also saw that God’s heart is a heart of mission. Not only for the pagan sinners as we see in Jonah 3, but for the Jonah-like religious rebels as we will see again in Jonah 4. Today we are going to look at how God will respond to us when we truly want to be right with Him. And it will not even be the religious people of the Bible that will teach us this, but evil, immoral, sin-city, God-hating pagans.
Repentance is really the one word to describe how the city of Nineveh responded to Jonah. I have noticed that especially in the North American churches, this word is being taught and preached less and less. It seems like there is always an invitation to accept Jesus without speaking of turning away from sin. And it is scary because repentance is the one thing Western Christianity seems to be lacking more and more. I hope I never stop preaching it. Please remove me from the pulpit if I do!
We are going to look at the definition again in a minute, but first be reminded again that this call to repentance is all over the Scripture. Every prophet’s sermon in the Old Testament is about it. It comes out of the mouth of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17) and the apostles (Acts 2:38; 3:19-20). The Apostle Peter himself says that God is patient toward us, “not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). So the alternative to not repenting is to perish. The way to life is repentance. Even in Revelation, Jesus is still talking about it (Rev. 2:5; 3:19). Listen, the call to repentance is not an invitation, but a summons, a command from Almighty God Himself. A refusal to repent is not declining an invitation, but it is defying God.
I’m also afraid that many in the church have counterfeit repentance. We must be careful not to have what the Bible calls “worldly sorrow” and call it repentance. Paul talks about worldly sorrow that does not lead to repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-12). What is worldly sorrow? Worldly sorrow is simply put, when you feel bad. You feel bad, but with that you have no desire for true change, which means confessing your sin, dealing with its consequences and reconnecting with the Lord, you have worldly sorrow or grief. Pastor Mark Driscoll has an interesting article about this and how our culture is all about worldly sorrow that I read this week.
He observes, “And what can even happen in culture is that we set up this false religion, with false prophets, and pastors, and priests, and priestesses, and what happens then is we present a false gospel. Not to pick on him, but to pick on him, I’ll give you an example from Tiger Woods. What happened in the Tiger Woods scenario is something that happens fairly frequently. First of all, someone doesn’t repent, and they get caught. The opposite of repenting is getting caught, and that is that you didn’t come forward and say, “I’ve said or done a bad thing, or failed to say or do a good thing, I got caught,” which means “I wasn’t gonna stop unless you made me.” You get caught.
And then you have to present worldly sorrow. You have to say, “I am really sorry. I did a horrible thing. I feel really bad.” “Ideally,” your PR rep will tell you, “you should probably cry, because that will help. It shows that you’re really, really sad about what you’ve done.” And then we get basically a cultural equivalent of pagan Catholicism.
…So what happens in culture is someone has worldly sorrow. They know they’ve done wrong, so they need to find someone who’s in the cultural position of a priest…so we get Barbara Walters, or Larry King, or Oprah, or Dr. Phil. We go get somebody to set up their stage for their show, their set, like a confessional. And the person who has sinned walks in looking very sad, and very scared, and says, “I’m really sorry for what I’ve done.” And then the person in the position of moral, spiritual authority, the priest of culture says, “Tell us about what you’ve done, and how you feel.” And then you cry, and you say the things that your PR rep told you to say. But your sins are not yet forgiven, because you need to go to purgatory and pay back, and so you go to rehab.
Rehab is our cultural version of purgatory. Everybody has to go to rehab…It’s like purgatory, you go there and you pay your dues. And then later you get out, and you go back, and you meet with the high priest or priestess. You say, “You know what? I’m really, really sad, and I did a very bad thing, but I feel like I paid it off, and I went to rehab. And now I’ve kind of been born-again. I’m a whole new person, and I’m going to give lots of money to women, children, or animals. Anything cute, I will give money to, to show that I have sorrow.” And then all of this is told to the population, the public, the culture, and they decide whether or not you’re forgiven. They’re in the position of God. “Oh, you said you were sorry, you went to rehab, you wrote a big check for people in need. We forgive you. You can golf again. Go and sin no more.” That’s worldly sorrow. The whole culture we live in is built on that, and people don’t change, not at the heart level. There’s no atonement, there’s no penalty paid for sin. There’s no Jesus, there’s no Savior. There’s no new life in Christ, there’s none of that, just a bunch of counterfeits—worldly sorrow. But I tell you that, not just to pick on a man, but to say that we’re all prone toward that, and our culture has this desire for something like a high priest, who forgives our sins and gives us new life. But without Jesus, we end up with a lot of impotent counterfeits.”
So if that is your idea of repentance, it is not a biblical one. Repentance is not feeling bad. It is not merely saying you are sorry. Nor is it blaming your sin on someone else. So if it is a big deal then and we know what it isn’t, then what is it? Simply defined, repentance is defined as a change of mind producing a change of behavior. You recognize sin for what it is, which results in heartfelt sorrow, which ends in a change in your life. There are three parts to repentance. Your head, heart and your hands are involved. We will see that in this story today. There is first a recognition of sin (head—the mind). Then there is heartfelt sorrow (heart–the emotions). This results in a change of behavior (hands—the will). This is how repentance works. You need all three working here for true repentance. If you just have the mental part, it is regret (King Saul had that). If you just have the emotional part, you have remorse (like Judas). But when you have all three working, you have truly repented (like the prodigal son in Luke 15 or Peter).
The call to become a Christian is one of repentance and the call to maintain the Christian life is the same, the call of repentance. You cannot be a Christian and not be a repenter. A Christian is one who keeps on repenting. The Christian is not simply one who has repented, but the one who is still repenting. It is how you experience God. It is how you can enjoy God. It is how God gets to you every good and perfect gift into your life. It is a lifestyle and not just a one-time act. Really when we greet each other it should be, “How are you doing? What are you repenting from today?”
Alright, all of that to set up the message today on the marks of true repentance from Jonah 3:5-10. Let’s begin with this:
I. True repentance begins with believing the Word of God (Jon. 3:5a)
What we see in Jonah 3:5 is the big picture of the whole time in Nineveh. The following verses give us the details. It is like if someone went on a trip and you asked him/her how was it upon their return, they might first say, “It was amazing. I went skydiving for the first time.” Then you say, “Well, tell me all about it.” And then he starts with, “Well the first day…” The storyteller is doing the same thing here.
By the way, a brief word about the protocol of visiting an important city. The first day would be spent declaring the purpose of one’s visit. The second day was to take care of any business one had come for. The third day would be to wrap up and say farewell. Notice here that Jonah spends just one day (or even less) before God moves. The storyteller wants to emphasize how powerful the Word of God is in that it is able to change the hardest of hearts, even the hearts of these pagan God-haters.
Here notice that the Ninevites did not “believe Jonah.” They believed God. This same word is used of Abraham believing the Lord in Gen. 15:6. It is to fully trust and believe what God has said through his messenger. This is the most precious gift you can give anyone and anyone can have. It is believing God’s Word. You might wonder, “How can they just believe just like that?” Well, God’s been already working on their hearts. Before Jonah showed up, you might remember, Nineveh at this time was in a period of decline. They were going through inward dissension, a defeat in war, a solar eclipse, which was followed by flooding and famine. They probably already interpreted this as a sign of divine judgment.
Regardless of their situation, what you see here is God’s power at work. His sermon was probably more than five words, but what amazing power comes from the Word of God. And even if it was just these five words, five words anointed by God can bring an entire city to its knees more than a million words from man. This is what I pray for everyday and I hope you pray that for me everyday. We don’t need to hear man speaking. We need to hear God speaking to us!
And our attitude toward the Word of God reveals our attitude toward God. If you want to live a life of repentance, it always starts with a confrontation with God’s Word. If we don’t have that, what we will do is minimize our sin. “I’m not that bad, compared to Hitler,” we might rationalize.
When we start to compare ourselves to others, it is like taking a crooked stick and putting it up against another crooked stick and saying you’re straighter than it. We will be self-deceived. The Bible must be our standard. James says the Bible is like a mirror (James 1:22-25). The purpose of the mirror is to show you your true self externally. It can also show you dirt on your face or spinach in your teeth (both of which can save you from a whole lot of embarrassment). The mirror cannot cleanse you. It merely shows you and reminds you that you need to run to the bathroom and wash up, if necessary.
The Word of God shows you who you are. It reveals to you that you feel bad because you are bad. When you get into the Word, it is a mirror that confronts you with all the dirt in your heart. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.” Bam! This is a confrontation that tells you, “You are selfish. I need to run to Jesus and repent from this and be selfless toward my spouse.” “Love not the world or the things of the world.” Bam! “I love things and stuff, Lord. I want to use things and love people and not the other way around. I repent from this! They are my pseudo-Saviors. They make me lazy and unproductive.” “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Bam! “I love control in my life. I worship it. I repent from it because you are the only one who can control my life.” And these confrontations with the Word of God cause us to run, like one covered in filth, to the Son of God for cleansing and enablement to live according to God’s will and with His blessing.
Repentance must always start with believing the Word of God. We must believe what God says about us. It is not what we think about ourselves, but what God thinks that only matters at the end. Show me someone who is living a repentant lifestyle and I will show you one who is being confronted by the Word of God. If you are in God’s Word, don’t just read it to read it. Read it to believe what it says about you. Ask the Lord to show you what areas you need to repent from in that passage. Also this is why you use the Word in reaching unbelievers. This is why you use the Word in counseling others. This is why you use the Word to raise your children. You cannot change them. God must change them. And again, this is not to make you feel bad about yourself, but to cause you to run, as the hymn writer says, to the Fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. So repentance starts with believing the Word of God.
II. True repentance is marked by grieving over sin (Jonah 3:5b-8a)
They believed the Word. How do you know? There was fruit. Notice the verbs: they “believed,” “called for” and “put on.” It affected them inwardly, causing them to make outward change. True repentance is a good tree, always bearing fruit.
Let’s look at the details of what happened in Jon. 3:6-9. So on the first day when Jonah would meet with city leaders to declare the purpose of the visit, he probably began to preach immediately. It was like a domino effect. The Word of God hit everyone and eventually the king was moved by it.
The mighty king of Nineveh gets off his throne, a symbol of his authority and exchanges it for an ash heap. His robe, a symbol of his dignity, is exchanged for sackcloth, which was a dark, thick, uncomfortable cloth of goat hair. These customs all sound so strange to us, but was normal in that day to display sorrow over your sin. A typical mourner of sin would throw “ashes toward heaven, so that they fell back on himself, especially on his head.” But if you were even more serious, you would sit on an ash heap like Job (Job 2:8). Notice the king doing the latter here. He is serious about sin. He’s saying in essence, “I am not sovereign or king over anything. You are God. I am just a sinner in need of forgiveness.”
In fact, he is not content to do this just for himself, so he issues a fast and calls the entire city to repent in Jonah 3:7-8. Even the animals are called to repent. Look at how the general populace responded. They also put on sackcloth as well as fast. This is how serious we are God. We are not even going to pause to eat! There will be no interruption in our repentance. By the way, what is fasting? Fasting is denying physical appetites to heighten the reality of the spiritual. Even pagans sometimes fasted to mourn or appease certain deities. We are not sure if Jonah explained Old Testament fasting to them, like the prophet Joel says, “Return to me with all your heart with fasting, with weeping, an with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12). But mark their response to God’s Word with grief over their sin.
What does this mean for us today? I want to make three observations:
a) Grieving over sin can be heightened by fasting
Why don’t we grieve like that? We don’t grieve over our sin because we have many toys to dull our heart toward God. Jesus told the church of Laodicea: “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). The Laodiceans interpreted their material wealth as a blessing from God and thus had been self-deceived as to the condition of their true spiritual state. And we are no different. We are blind to our true condition because we have too many things to dull us. I feel bad, but I have television. I have my smartphone. I have my video games. I have entertainment to make me feel better. And when that’s over, we feel emptier than ever, but our hearts have gotten harder and our spiritual awareness has dulled.
Too much of anything physical (whether it is food, electronics, leisure, sex, pleasure, etc.) dulls our spiritual hunger. And one of the purposes of fasting is to heighten our spiritual awareness by foregoing or denying the physical. The point is not just avoiding food, but actively seeking God instead. And it does not have to be simply food, you can fast from anything: electronics, internet/social networking, television, video gams, etc. So I would encourage you to do this on your own or with your family. Take some time during the week to fast from these excesses. My professor in seminary told us of a time when he even turned off all the lights in his home and sat in front of a candle with his family. Initially they all freaked out, but then they finally had some meaningful conversations.
When is the last time you grieved over sin? Perhaps too much stuff has dulled your appetite for God? Perhaps you need to fast from them for a time to come before God and with no distractions, cry out to God asking Him, “Lord, you have my full attention. I am not going to anything else to function as a Savior in my life. Show me what you see. Show me areas of my life where you are not given first place.”
The Ninevites teach us that true repentance is grieving over sin seriously. These Ninevites are so serious, they are going to forgo even basic necessities. We cannot even give up the luxuries, let alone the necessities! What does that show us about our indifference to our sin and to God?
I also see that:
b) Grieving over sin must be thorough
Notice how comprehensive this repentance is. Jon. 3:5 says, “from the greatest of them to the least of them.” It begins with the king goes to the nobility and then to the entire community, regardless of social strata, age or sex, to even the livestock. When I say comprehensive repentance, I mean taking a long look at our hearts and taking a thorough inventory. We tend to just confess wrong behavior, but often, we don’t think about other areas of our lives. What about confessing how little we love others, our speech that often hurt instead of heal, prideful attitudes, withholding ourselves from worshipping God totally, gossiping tongues, love of money, lust of the flesh, unrighteous anger, defiance of our parents, laziness of our work, cheating on our tests, egomania of our pride, refusal to be submissive to assertion of personal autonomy. You cannot tell me we don’t have anything to repent about! David prayed after saying God you are everywhere and I can’t escape from you, “Search me O God and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be ANY grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24).
He wants God to be pleased in every area of His life. If you want true repentance, ask God to give you insight into your heart that is thorough. Get on your knees, open the Bible, read, pray, read, pray (by the way you should always pray with the Bible open) and you will be surprised how much the Lord will show you of your heart that needs cleansing and washing.
Thirdly, going along with that:
c) Grieving over sin must be specific
Look over at Jonah 3:8. They move from general to specific repentance: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” “Evil way” here is literally referring to the way they walk (“foot-path”) day to day. They are not simply saying this is the stuff I’ve done, but this is who I am. I walk in evil every day. They get right with God regarding violence that the Ninevites are known for. Notice also that they are calling out to God and giving up their sin. Just like the sailors earlier, their prayers to many gods have changed to one God (cf. Jon. 1:14-16). If you want your repentance to be real, be serious about being specific about your sin and run to God with it. Ask God to give you a hatred for sin; a repulsion for it.
Let us learn to be specific in our confession of sin. Let us not simply say, “I am selfish,” but “I am selfish in the amount of time I spend for myself instead of my family.” Be specific about the ways you love money or entertainment or how you have been lazy. And again, we are not merely thinking about how we broken the law of God, but on the fact that we are breaking the heart of God.
So true repentance begins with believing the Word of God and then grieving over our sin. Those are great signs that repentance is working in your soul. Here is the good news for those who take those steps:
III. Our God of grace will turn to those who turn back to Him in true repentance (Jon. 3:9-10)
This is one of the themes of the book of Jonah. The God of grace turns to those who turn to Him. Notice in Jon. 3:9-10, the words, “turn” and “relent” (which means “moved to pity”). The Ninevites “turn” away from sin toward God and God “turns” toward them. And even more wonderfully, our God of grace does not turn away from those who turn away from Him! Look at Jon. 3:9-10. The King exhibits such a fear of God and a wonderful demonstration of humility. He knows they deserve nothing. They are not entitled to anything. He realizes they are like that story in the New Testament, mere dogs that do not even deserve the crumbs from the hand of God (Matt. 15:26). And that is enough for the Lord. Interestingly what was it about the Ninevites that averted the wrath of God? It was not their sackcloth and ashes. It wasn’t their fasting. It was their turning from their sin. That is what really matters in the end. And this one step toward Him with action—notice “God saw what they DID” (emphasis mine; not just words, but deeds) and He is moved with compassion. His wrath is averted. For us we know that God’s wrath is averted because all of our sin and all of God’s wrath was cast on God’s Son on the cross.
Some scholars are not convinced that the Ninevites truly repent here. They may have just wanted God to not destroy them, just like the sailors in Jonah 1. In other words, they weren’t truly interested in conversion, but making sure they don’t suffer under God’s wrath. The argument for this is the fact that they would in 30 years (with violence) take Israel into exile after this. Perhaps it was the next generation that did this or perhaps they never really did repent. But Jesus says, ‘The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Matt. 12:41; emphasis mine). And I have been preaching here that repentance is not a one-time act, but a lifestyle. But that’s not the point here. The point is that God is a God of grace. Even if their motives weren’t pure, God is a God of grace. A small step from their idol-worshipping, violent, God-hating pagans toward God and God moves 10 steps toward them.
What is God really saying here? He is speaking to Israel, His own people. He’s saying, “Look at how I respond to these pagans whey responded to me. How much more will I receive you and bless you, my people, if you would repent? (2 Kings 17:7-18)” He is saying the same to Jonah, who is a picture of Israel. Jonah has some issues with what God just did, which we will look at next week.
700 years later, Jesus cried out to the religious folk to learn from the prostitutes and outcasts about what it meant to come to Him. The religious people always missed it. The religious people are us today. And today, we might be waiting for certain unbelieving friends or family members to repent or even for Glendale Heights to repent. But God looks at us. What about Living Hope? When are you going to repent? I hope Jesus does not say in looking at our church, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here…AND YOU STILL HAVE NOT REPENTED.” It starts with us. It starts with me. And if our God of grace has a heart that melts so quickly when a bunch of pagans turn to Him, how much quicker will He receive us when we turn from our sin and embrace Him again? The question is not do I need to repent? But, where O Lord, do I need to repent today?
As I close, I am praying the Lord give us the gift of repentance. I pray we will not be like Israel and the Pharisees who turned the other way when they heard the same message of repentance. What do you need to repent from today? Remember that the Christian life is not the Christian life without repentance. What would the Lord see in your life today and say, yes, that thing. I need it out! Is repentance your lifestyle? Are you a repenting Christian? Are you a repenter? God wants to collide His grace and love with our sin every moment. Have you just been happy with worldly sorrow? Have you been excusing your sin? Have you been minimizing it? Is there is real repentance in our lives? God wants us to experience the freedom of living a lifestyle of repentance. He will turn to us when we turn away from our sin and to Him. Let’s turn to Him now as we are confronted with His Word.
Driscoll, Mark. “7 Counterfeits of Repentance,” http://theresurgence.com/2010/07/05/7-counterfeits-of-repentance accessed 13 January 2011.
Azardia, Arturo. “When Repentance is Real Part 1.” http://www.spiritempoweredpreaching.com/downloads/When_Repentance_Is_Real.mp3 accessed 13 January 2011.
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