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The power of repentance

A sermon by Rod Benson

Jonah 3:1-10

jonah-at-nineveh

No sooner have Jonah’s wrinkled, fishy hands gripped the coarse sand of a Jewish beach, than he hears the now familiar voice of God once more. It is the same message, the same words – a message previously disregarded, presenting a challenge previously disobeyed: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (v. 2).

God is indeed a God of mercy. He is indeed the God of the second chance. He gives Jonah an opportunity to demonstrate his changed heart, his spiritual reform. He is patient with Jonah, as he is with us, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

Jonah has experienced a transformation. His shallow faith has been tested in the storm, and in deep waters, and inside the belly of the great fish, and has proved genuine. Or perhaps it is the various trials he has encountered that have been his teacher, leading him back to God, and on to genuine faith, and his prayer from inside the great fish is testimony to the fact of his encounter with God, and subsequent conversion, accompanied by the fruit of repentance and a settled commitment to honour God, to live for God, to serve God, and to be happy in that service.

Are you happy in serving God? Or is the work you do for Jesus, and for the church, often nothing more than a duty, a parade, a burden, a discomfort that draws you away from the things that really give you joy and peace and satisfaction?

Let me encourage you to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to get back to that sweet spot where serving God – in large or small ways, up front or behind the scenes – fires your passion again, and becomes your primary purpose in life, and gives you true joy.

Perhaps you are going through a particularly rough time. Take heart from the story of Jonah: As he moved through his trials, Jonah was completely oblivious to the big picture, to God’s grand design in history, to God’s heart for the nations, as he made his decisions and lurched from one situation to the next, from one day to the next.

But what the narrative reveals is simply astonishing! The Ninevites would not have heard the word of God, and been compelled to believe God and repent of their sins, in view of impending judgment, if God had not graciously prepared Jonah for the task.

And Jonah would never have risen to the sacred task of being the evangelist to the Ninevites apart from his life-changing encounter with God in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

And that encounter would not have occurred without Jonah’s disobedience and flight from God (as he saw it), which placed him far from Israel, far from the temple, and far from his people – but right where God was present, and where God could reveal himself to Jonah, and prepare Jonah’s proud, self-centred, egotistical, willful, pouting, jealous, bloodthirsty, xenophobic character for divine service.

God uses even our failures and disobedience for good. God uses who we are, and what we are, to equip us for service, and to prepare us for the amazing tasks that lie ahead – tasks for which we would otherwise be poorly equipped and ill-prepared.

God does not call perfect people to grow his kingdom. He calls us. God does not call the most popular, the most eloquent, the most handsome, the most wealthy, the most intelligent, the most longsuffering, the most professional, the most stoic, the most adaptable, the most gregarious, the most visionary people to build his church. He calls us.

Jonah didn’t know what lay ahead, but God did. It took courage and temerity to walk east rather than run west, into the unknown, into a foreign mission field, onto the streets of Nineveh. But God was with him.

The story of Jonah reminds us that God is gracious, and desires to perform gracious acts of compassion in partnership with us.

The story of Jonah reminds us that God takes great delight when we recognise where we went wrong, and repent, and take small steps in the right direction.

The story of Jonah reminds us of God’s merciful willingness to offer us a second chance – think of Moses after he killed the Egyptian, or David after his adultery, or Peter after denying that he knew Jesus, or John Mark after that altercation with Paul, or Jonah after he emerged from the sea.

Jonah chapter three is the happy ending to this story, marred only by Jonah’s inability to really catch God’s passion and vision, and his inability to empathise with the Ninevites the way God empathised with them – but that’s a story for next week.

In chapter three, Jonah demonstrates his new-found repentance and faith, and faithfully proclaims a message of divine judgment to the Ninevites (v. 4).

And, most likely to his astonishment and chagrin, the pagans accept the message! They believe God, and demonstrate their change of heart, their repentance (v. 5) by engaging in fasting (and presumably penitent prayer).

And then the king himself hears the news, and does the same (v. 6), and passes a decree (vv. 7-9), showing that costly repentance accompanies true faith.

And in verse 10 God sees it all, and relents, and withdraws his intention to destroy Nineveh on account of their sin, and the judgment passes.

So both Jonah, and the people of Nineveh, in their own ways repent. What is repentance? What does it mean to truly repent of wrongdoing? And how are faith and repentance linked?

To repent is to turn, or return. In the Old Testament it was not unusual for God to repent, or change his plans, in relation to humankind, as we see here in Jonah chapter 3. Long before, in the time of Noah, we learn that God “regretted” that he had made human beings when he saw the profound evil they were capable of, and so he sent a great flood as judgment (Gen 6:5-7).

On another occasion, God “relented” and turned away his threat of disaster when Moses interceded for Israel following the worship of the golden calf (Ex 32:14). Later, God was “grieved” at having made Saul King of Israel, and deposed him (1 Sam 15:11, 26).

An especially poignant description of divine repentance is recorded in Hosea 11:8f, where God says to his doggedly apostate people, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? … My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger.”

But repentance is also a human quality, responding to an awareness of personal and social sin, and accompanying faith for salvation. Repentance involves a change of mind, will and behaviour. When I repent of a wrong attitude or action, I turn from the evil to embrace the good; I turn my back on the sin and turn to God.

In biblical times, prophets, apostles and evangelists all called people to repent. A striking example is in Isaiah 1:16f:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.  Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

This shows that repentance involves more than a change of mind: it involves concrete moral action demonstrating the reality of the prior internal change that has occurred through the gift of faith.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist preached a gospel of repentance, calling people to turn away from sin (Mk 1:4) in view of impending judgment (Mt 3:10), and inviting them to be baptised and to demonstrate the genuineness of their new way of life through specific ethical actions (Lk 3:10-14).

Similarly Jesus commenced his public ministry by preaching the coming of the kingdom of God, and the need for repentance as a condition of entry into the kingdom (Mk 1:15; Mt 4:17).

The first Christian preaching, documented in Acts, frequently included a call to repentance (e.g. Ac 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 26:18, 20).

It was Paul’s duty and joy to preach the good news to Jews and Gentiles, urging all to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Ac 20:21).

2 Peter 3:9 teaches that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

And Luke 15:7 says that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.

Repentance is essential to salvation and fellowship with God. It involves turning from sin to God, often with feelings of sorrow, regret or remorse. It is evidence of a new state of mind, a new allegiance to God, new attitudes, and a commitment to a new lifestyle. It is necessarily the accompaniment of true faith, and it is an essential condition for the forgiveness of sins – for Christians and non-Christians alike.

Jonah repented of his faithlessness, and God came to his rescue; the Ninevites repented of their many sins, and God came to their rescue.

It’s all about faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Without faith you cannot repent of your sins and find forgiveness. Without faith you have no sense of peace with God, no sharing in the life of God, and you remain dead in your sins.

But, as Paul reminds us in Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Have you been justified through faith in Jesus Christ?

Have you repented of your wicked ways, turned from self and sin, and asked God to forgive you, and grant you a new life of union with his Son Jesus Christ?

Is the faith you hold on to genuine? Is your repentance true? What spiritual fruit is there in your life consistent with repentance and faith, consistent with an ongoing attitude of humble dependence on God for salvation?

Let us all run to Christ, weep at the foot of the cross on account of our wickedness, repent of our sins, and hold on to faith in Christ for the trials of today, and for the ages of eternity.


Sermon 750 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 22 October 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

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