A Revival In Nineveh
Nick Esch, 1/20/2019 Cornerstone Baptist Church
What is revival? By revival I don’t mean something that we can schedule. As R. C. Sproul once wrote, “I’m always puzzled when I see church billboards announcing a coming revival. They give the times and the dates when the church will be engaged in revival. But I wonder, how can anybody possibly schedule a revival? True revivals are provoked by the sovereign work of God through the stirring of His Holy Spirit in the hearts of people.”
Revival is a work of God. Sometimes it’s referred to as awakening, because in a revival people are awakened afresh to who God is and what He would have them do with their life. In the past revivals have never been something that man has worked up, but something that God has brought down. That so, they’ve always been connected with movements of great prayer and repentance, along with faithful evangelism and obedience to God’s Word. In fact, God’s Word always plays a central role in revival. In the past, as God has graciously granted revival, there was always a recovery and a centrality of the right preaching and teaching of God’s Word. And through prayer and the Word, God wakes sleepy Christians up (those who have been somewhat idle or disobedient), nominal Christians get converted (people who thought they were saved, but as God begins to move among them they realized they never knew Him and so they repent and believe), and non-Christians get reached (because the church is bold and zealous in its witness to the world, and God is gracious to save in and through their witness).
One of my favorite stories of revival is that of the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905. It began with one person praying, which then turned into a small prayer meeting. And then suddenly through the preaching and teaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit came down upon Whales in a way that brought great conviction and conversion. It was almost as if overnight crime stopped, alcoholics left the bar, and entire communities were transformed. It was said that things changed so much that the police officers there had nothing to do. God’s people were stirred to greater affection for the Lord, and the lost were saved, and so all of Whales was impacted by the gospel for the glory of God. Oh, how I hope and pray that the Lord will do this again in our day in this country, and all around the world. What a gift it would be to see revival break out here at Cornerstone, in Terrell, in Texas, in the US, and to the ends of the earth.
Well, today we’re going to see a revival breakout; perhaps one of the greatest revivals in all of history. We’re going to look at the revival of Nineveh. First we’ll see the restoration and repentance of Jonah, and then we’ll see the repentance, revival, and redemption of Nineveh. So let’s look at our passage together and marvel at what God once did, and pray that He does it again….
In verses 1 and 2 we read, “Then 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.’” So, by God’s sovereign grace Jonah has been delivered to dry land by way of a big fish. And upon reaching land the Lord commissions Jonah once again to go to Nineveh. In the very first verse here we once again get a glimpse of God’s great mercy. The Lord could’ve called someone else to go, but instead he calls Jonah a second time; because God is merciful He is a God of second chances. Indeed, as we know all too well, He’s a God of third, forth, fifth, and many more chances. Like Jonah we are prone to wander. Our hearts tend to drift towards disobedience; but God redeems, restores, calls, and commissions even the greatest of sinners… Indeed, He is a God of second chances…
Now, when the Word of the LORD comes to Jonah a second time here, He calls him to arise and go to Nineveh; if you think back to what we have seen so far in Jonah, this is presenting us with a contrast. In Jonah 1 every time Jonah rebelled against God and sought to run from God it said that he went down: he went down to Joppa, he went down to a boat, he went down into the boat, and finally he went down into the depths of the sea… But now, the Lord says, “Arise, [and] go to Nineveh…” As in, “Get up, and go up…” Get out of the muck and the mire of your sin and walk in obedience to the Lord. Don’t go down into the darkness of your sin, walk up into the light of repentance… That’s part of God’s call on Jonah here, and that’s part of God’s call on all of us as well. Not to go down into the depths of sin, but to rise and follow the Lord. Forsake your sin, die to yourself, and embrace God’s call on your life…
Now, God says His call for Jonah here is to go to Nineveh and call out against it the message that He gives. Jonah is to preach the message that God tells him to, that He gives him. At this point Jonah doesn’t know exactly what his ministry is going to look like; he doesn’t know what all the Lord is going to have him say; he doesn’t know how things are going to go when he gets to Nineveh; all he knows is that the Lord is calling him to go wherever and say whatever He tells him to. So you see, the obedience that Jonah is called to rise to here, is an unconditional obedience; he doesn’t get to make a deal with God. Jonah is expected to write a blank check with his life and allow God to fill in the blanks however He likes. And beloved, that is the same obedience we are called to. We don’t get to bargain with God. We don’t get to put conditions on our obedience to God’s Word. Again, we are to forsake our sin, die to ourselves, and embrace God’s call on our life… We are to go wherever He says to go. We are to do whatever He says to do. We are to say whatever He says to say. He is King, we are not…
So, Jonah, in obedience to the King of the universe is to go to Nineveh—come what may—and he isn’t to preach whatever he would like, but specifically the message that God gives him; he is to preach God’s Word, not his own. The first time God called Jonah to go to Nineveh he told him to call out against it, because their evil had come up before the Lord. But this time He takes it a step further and adds emphasis, saying, that Jonah is to preach the message that God gives… And again, God’s call on Jonah applies to us today.
The church, and preachers and teachers especially must be about the Word of God. The call is to preach God’s Word, not our own. That’s what preachers must preach if they are going to be obedient, and that’s what they must preach if they are going to be useful. The words and opinions of man may be entertaining, but they have no eternal value—they cannot save, and they cannot sanctify. The church, and this world do not need the word of man, but the Word of God. As Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Or as 1 Peter 1:23 says, we are, “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” And as Jesus Himself said in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17:17, God’s Word is truth and sanctification comes in and through it…
We may be able to grow numerically through the words and methods of the world, but true gospel growth—where people are saved and lives are transformed—only comes through the Word of God. If we would be faithful as a church, if we would be effective as a church, we must keep the Word of God central in all we do. That’s why the main diet of preaching here is expository preaching: preaching verse by verse, line by line, passage by passage through books of the Bible, explaining and apply God’s Word. And that’s why our Bible studies are actually Bible studies, where we work through books of the Bible verse by verse. And that’s why our worship services are saturated with God’s Word: we pray God’s Word, read God’s Word, sing God’s Word, sit under the preaching of God’s Word, and even see God’s Word through the ordinances. If we are going to be about evangelizing the lost, edifying the saints, and glorifying God, God’s Word must be central…
Now after God calls Jonah to go and proclaim His Word in Nineveh, we read in verse 3, “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.” After being pulled from the grips of death in the depths of the sea by a big fish, and after spending three days and three nights in the belly of that fish, Jonah is now on the shore. But the closest beach to Nineveh was quite a ways off. It would’ve taken Jonah at least a few weeks to walk from the Mediterranean Sea to Nineveh. And that shows that Jonah was truly repentant at this time. He didn’t change his mind when he reached dry land; he vowed to be obedient to God’s call, and he went just as he said.
So it took him a while to make it to Nineveh, but surely his story made it there before him; word of mouth travels much faster than the feet of man… I’ve always loved the western Lonesome Dove; and at the end of that series, one of the main characters, Augustus, is dying, and he asks his best friend to take his body to Texas to be buried. The trouble is that this is in the days when people traveled by horseback, and they were in Montana. They actually just made it to Montana from Texas, and now he was going to have to go all the way back to Texas, making the long hard journey, while carrying his friend’s body with him. But, he vowed to do it, and so he did. But as he did, every time he made it to a town it seemed that everyone in the town had already heard about who he was and what he was doing. Word of mouth traveled much faster than he did… Well, likewise here, it took Jonah a while to make it to Nineveh, but surely the story of the man who ran from God, was eaten by a fish, and who is now on his way to Nineveh with God’s Word was spreading much faster than the speed of his journey. So by the time he got to Nineveh they had probably already heard about who he was and why he was there.
In verse 4 we see that Jonah made the journey to Nineveh. There we read that, “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” So as we saw in verse 3, Nineveh was such a sizable city that it took three days to travel throughout it. That doesn’t mean that it actually took three days to walk through it, but that it took three days for a prophet like Jonah to journey through it, going through the proper channels. In this time, if a prophet or an ambassador of some sort was welcome, he was expected to go to certain places, and check in with certain people, much the way a foreign ambassador would be expected to go through customs and the like and then travel to the Whitehouse or wherever, when coming to the US. Nineveh was a big city, that’s what our passage means when it keeps calling it a great city; it was fairly sizable in breadth (though it wasn’t a full three days journey from end to end), but more importantly it was great in the size of its population—there were a great number of people there… And that too is why it would’ve taken three days for Jonah to travel throughout the city—he had to preach to all of those people.
So Jonah gets there and goes about the work that God called him to, calling out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Now this was surely a summery of his message. I mean there would be no need to just inform them that they were going to be annihilated (that’s what’s meant by overthrown here)… God’s point in telling them that they are destined for destruction is so that they would repent. As God’s Word says in Jeremiah 18:7-8, “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” So there was likely more to Jonah’s sermon, because God’s Word to Nineveh was gracious, if they will repent and believe…
But, though I say that, that doesn’t mean that God can’t use just a few words to save and transform; after all, as we’ve seen, there is power in the Word of God. Once when Charles Spurgeon was to preach somewhere, he wanted to test the acoustics before he preached; so he got up in the pulpit and proclaimed John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Little did he know that a nearby worker—a janitor or something—heard the words and immediately came under conviction for his sin and surrendered his life to Christ on the spot… All that from just a few words during a sound check… So never underestimate God’s Word; indeed, it never returns void…
So this could have been Jonah’s message, but it seems to be a summary of what he preached. This summary was most likely what gripped the people of Nineveh the most. After all, they’ve heard about what God did to Jonah for his rebellion, and given the evil that they have committed, they were probably terrified of what God might do to them, and rightly so… So they listened intently to Jonah as he proclaimed God’s Word. And look at how they responded to his message. Look at verse 5. There we read, “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.”
What we see here is true repentance and faith. We know this in part because Jesus says that they truly repented and believed. In Matthew 12:41 when Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for their unbelief, He says that, “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.”He says they repented, and He says that they will condemn or judge the unbelief of the Pharisees; and that’s something that only true believers will do. But also, here in Jonah 3:5 we see that they had true faith and truly repented.
Notice the text says that they believed God; not that they believed in God, but that they believed God. Often when I ask people if they are a Christian they say things like, “Yeah; I believe in God…” But that’s not what I asked. That’s not what true faith is. True faith isn’t merely believing in God, but believing God… It’s doing what the people of Nineveh did here: taking God at His Word; they believed God, they believed God’s Word in such a way that it greatly changed their life. And we see that change in their repentance. It says they fasted and put on sackcloth. They fasted to humble themselves before the Lord, and take the time they would’ve spent preparing meals and eating to pray and confess their sin. And sackcloth was something that was worn during times of mourning, much like black is worn at funerals today; so this was worn to show that they were grieving over their sin; they mourned and grieve the fact that their wickedness had grieved the Lord—they had true godly grief. It’s like what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” They truly grieved; they had godly grief, and thus truly repented.
On top of this we can see the evidence of their repentance and faith in the next verse. In verse 6 we read that, “The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Did you catch what happened? The word reached the king, not Jonah; the word reached him because of the people of Nineveh. Jonah is still on the first day of his three day journey through Nineveh; he hasn’t spoken to the king yet. But, on the first day of this mission trip Nineveh has already come to repentance. And they are so serious about the Lord, they believe God in such a way that they spread His Word… They hear His Word, they heed and believe His Word, and then they spread His Word… And like I said earlier, word of mouth travels fast… And God’s Word gets all the way to the king. So their repentance is likewise shown to be true here through their willingness to share God’s Word; it’s shown through their boldness, willing even to tell the king…
I wonder, how bold are you with God’s Word? Have you believed God in such a way that you share God’s Word with others? And I’m not talking about merely on the internet or something; I’m talking about opening your life and opening your mouth and sharing the good news with others. I mean, we’re not called to merely tell people that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed; but to tell people that there is One who has come to keep them from destruction. One who spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted and tried, yet remained without sin. We’re called to tell people about Jesus—about the perfect life He lived, the sacrificial death He died on the cross, where He took the fury and destruction of God’s wrath due us upon Himself. And we’re called to share the good news that Jesus is alive: that on the third day He rose from the grave in victory so that all who will repent and believe in Him will be saved… That’s the Word of God, that’s the good news that we are called to share. We are called to share the gospel and to call people to repent and believe. We have a far better message than the word that came to Nineveh… But are we as bold Nineveh? Is word of mouth spreading the gospel here the way God’s Word spread there? It should be even more so… Beloved, we should not be able to keep quiet about Jesus—the gospel should always be on our lips… You see, hearts that have been gripped by God compel us to make much of God… And here in our passage we can see that the heart of Nineveh is indeed truly gripped by God.
After God’s Word reaches the king, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. In other words, he too believed God and then joined the others in repentance—he grieved his sin. But he doesn’t stop there; look at verses 7-9. There we read, “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. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’”
The king’s heart has been gripped in such a way that he pushes the Word forward. He calls everyone to fast and pray, and to repent; and not only to repent by grieving over their sin, but to actually commit themselves to forsaking their sin—they are to turn from their evil way: and that’s what repentance is by definition… It’s an about-face; it’s turning from your sin and turning towards the Lord. We should be sorry for our sin; we should grieve over our sin; but repentance is not merely about having sorrow over sin, but about forsaking sin. To repent is to change; it’s to fight sin and pursue holiness… And the king did this, and he called for all of Nineveh to do this… And indeed, they did.
And look at the posture of the king’s heart in this repentance; look at his humility here. He says, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish…” This is like what we saw with Jonah earlier: this is unconditional obedience. He’s not bargaining with God, or trying to make some deal… He’s forsaking his sin because it’s the right thing to do—it’s obedience to the Lord. But he knows that doesn’t suddenly mean that Godhasto be merciful to them… He said, “Who knows? God may…” He might be merciful, but He might not… As I said earlier, God is a God of second chances, but He doesn’t have to be, and we shouldn’t assume that He always will be. Think about Uzzah and the Ark of God in 2 Samuel 6, who reached out to keep the Ark from falling over, and was struck dead immediately for touching the Ark after the Lord had clearly commanded them not to do so. Or think about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 who were struck dead after lying… God is in the habit of saving sinners, but we should never presume upon His mercy; we should never merely treat Him as if it’s His job to forgive us. God owes us nothing but death and hell.
God could take us all out right now and He will have done us no wrong. As God’s Word says in Daniel 4:35, “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” And this king in Nineveh realizes this, and yet still humbly submits himself to the Lord. And he not only submits himself to the Lord, but leads all of Nineveh to do so as well. So on the first day of Jonah’s mission in Nineveh the Word of the Lord is reverberating throughout Nineveh, and everyone is committing themselves to prayer, fasting, confession, and repentance… And this is the making of a great revival.
In our last verse we see the Lord bring all of this together, showing that this indeed was a true revival. 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.” Now this isn’t saying that God changed His mind, or that He repented (as the KJV puts it); this is what God willed to happen from the very beginning… Again, this was why He sent Jonah in the first place: that Nineveh would repent and He could relent…God wasn’t surprised by any of this; indeed He’s the One who granted them repentance. Through Jonah, through the Word, through prayer God worked His will. God is sovereign, but He uses means. So, does prayer change God’s mind? No. But does prayer change things? Absolutely… Part of the way God accomplishes His will in this world is through our prayers, along with everything else we do in obedience to Him. God’s sovereignty does not render our actions meaningless; His sovereignty is what makes our actions meaningful… That’s true in prayer, evangelism, and everything else. Some say, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” But a better question is, why pray if He is not? God is sovereign; and our prayers matter, because God, in His sovereignty, answers them, working His will for His glory and our good… And here, God answers their prayers and saves them from their sin… And if they were worshiping and submitting to the Lord before He relented, I can only imagine how zealously they worshipped God after.
Instead of pouring out His wrath upon Nineveh, God poured out revival. That city was turned upside-down for the glory of the Lord. Where evil used to rule the day, now there were men and women of prayer living in obedience to the Lord. This great revival started when God gave Jonah a second chance: the Word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time. And Jonah went in unconditional obedience to the Lord, and proclaimed God’s Word. And then Nineveh with humility, prayer, and fasting, repented, and likewise gave themselves to unconditional obedience to God; and God in His grace responded with mercy and revival. And as I said earlier, my hope and prayer is that He would do it again. But revival is the work of God; our call is to walk in glad submission, in unconditional obedience to the Lord. So is that where you are this morning; is that the posture of your heart? Perhaps like Jonah you have been in rebellion against the Lord; perhaps you have been putting stipulations on your obedience to God… Well, maybe the Word of the Lord is coming to you for a second time this morning; maybe He’s offering you a second chance. If so, you’d do well to take it, because He does not owe it to you… So, surrender yourself to the Lord unconditionally. Hand your life over to Him and let Him do with it as He wills; you never know, it may lead to revival…