The God Who Loves Lost Cities

May 03, 2011

Jonah Series | 3:1-10 | Pastor Duane Smets

This an exegetical sermon of Jonah 3:1-10 looks at the city focused concern of God in the Bible, the importance of listening to and obeying God's word, the repentance being both sorry and change, and the graciousness of God in providing salvation. This sermon was originally preached on May 1st, 2011 at The Resolved Church in San Diego, CA.



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The Resolved Church
Pastor Duane Smets
May 1st, 2011

The Book of Jonah | The God Who Loves Lost Cities (3:1-10)
I. Nineveh & The Great City We Live In (v1-3)
II. Jonah & The Great Word We Listen To (v4-5)
III. Repentance & The Great Sin We Turn From (v6-9)
IV. Grace & The Great God We Turn To (v10)


Well after over a month we are finally back in Jonah today! We had got half way through, four sermons in the book and then my wife had our second baby, so I was out a couple weeks and got back just in time for Palm Sunday and Easter and now here we are.

Since it's been so long, it's probably a good idea for me to remind us a little bit about what's been going on in the book of Jonah.

Jonah's this dude who has a job as one of God's prophets. God gave him an assignment to do, a message to go give the people of Nineveh, but Jonah didn't want to go give ‘em that message most likely because they killed a bunch of his friends and family. So Jonah took off running in the opposite direction, enlisting a boat and it's crew. God gets ticked, sends a storm after him. As a result the crew, who's a bunch of pagans ends up coming to know God and at Jonah's request throw him overboard to get God to stop the storm. It works and as Jonah is sinking to the bottom of the ocean, right before he passes out, God sends a big fish to swallow him whole and it ends up keeping Jonah alive for three days while the fish takes him back to land and then spits him out. While in the fish, Jonah finally talks to God and is grateful God saved him.

That's the story so far and so far we've been learning a ton from it...how God cares for and goes after those who don't know God at all, like the sailors and how he cares for those who do know him but foolishly don't listen to him, like Jonah. We've learned how God is mighty and powerful and actually kind of scary because he controls things like wind and waves and big fish. And we've learned even when we hit ultimate rock bottom, God is there and he still cares and is still forgiving and full of lovingkindness.

That brings us to today where we kick off the second half of the book by working through chapter three. So open your Bibles to Jonah 3 and we're going to read verses 1-10 and then work through them together. My sermon title for today is "The God Who Loves Lost Cities." Let's read the text and pray over it.

I. Nineveh & The Great City We Live In (v1-3)

Alright. So this is Act III in the great drama of the book of Jonah. In the first chapter we we're in the middle of a great storm on a boat. In the second chapter we were at the bottom of an ocean in a great fish. Now we're on land in the midst of a great city.

Right away, at the beginning of this chapter we get nearly an exact duplicate message from God to Jonah, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and call out against it." Exact same words God told Jonah at the very beginning of the book only this time God adds these extra words you see there at the end of verse 2, "the message that I tell you."

That's sort of like saying and you better do it this time! I don't know what else Jonah would do? He already tried to run. He already tried to kill himself. Neither of those things worked. Apparently God is just hung up on this Nineveh city and he's hung up on Jonah going there with his message.

So what is with Nineveh? Let's talk about the ancient city of Nineveh and then talk about our city here, San Diego. This is my first main point this morning, "Nineveh & The Great City We Live In."

Nineveh. At the time it's the capital of Assyria. Four times in the book it's called "a great city" (1:2; 3:2,3; 4:11). What made it great? Well a few things.

One, it was big. We're told in verse three it took three days journey to walk either through or around. Ancient records say it was 480 stadia in circumference, which is about 60 miles around. One account says it had over 1,000 towers...just monumental city. Nineveh was one of the largest and most beautiful cities of the world. It was set in between the mountains on the eastern side of the Tigris river and was encased in great magnificent walls. It's right near where the modern city of Mosul is in Iraq today.

Genesis 10:8-11 tells us that Nimrod, Noah's great grandson was the one who originally founded Nineveh. Many years went by and then it was Sennacharib, one of the kings prior to this did this major building project built these 70 foot walls that had 30 foot tall winged lions and bulls made out of stone sitting on top of them. It was a great city. The very last verse in the book of Jonah tells us there were more than 120,000 babies who lived there, so we're probably talking somewhere the 5-600,000 range of people who lived there. A lot of people.

It was also known to be great because of it's military power and brutality. The king who ruled prior to Jonah's arrival, a century before bragged about the great strength of the city. He wrote, "Many captives I have burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some I cut off their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers. I burnt their young men and women to death...I have constantly established my victory and strength over the land" He goes on to describe how in one battle he had the soldiers skin those they defeated and he took them and draped hundreds of human skins over Nineveh's walls.

Gnarly stuff. Jonah himself, we learned back at the beginning of the book that Jonah was around when 100,000 of his friends, family and countrymen were killed by the Ninevites according to 2 Kings 14. Nineveh was a great city. Greatly beautiful. Greatly populated. Greatly powerful. And Greatly feared.

Nineveh was great but it was greatly broken. There was a cancer in the city. A darkness which had consumed it. As we'll see, it's own king new the place was filled with evil and violence.

So here's the question. Why does God care? Why does God care about Nineveh? I mean this has been the place he's been going after from the start. Is God just out to destroy it because they're bad? Or is there more to it than that?

Well, we'll see in more detail what God's overall and specific plan for Nineveh was but even before we get into that, there's something we could easily miss and pass over in all this. And that's that God cares about cities. He always has.

Throughout the Bible there are good cities and bad cities. Babel was a bad city. Bethlehem was a good city. Jericho was a bad city. Jerusalem was a good city. And we consistently see this theme, God is always appealing to the bad cities and trying to get people to repent and either change or get out of the city before he has to destroy it. God has always cared about cities. Why? Because that's where people are and God cares about people.

Cities are important. Not only are the places of safety and refuge but they are designed by God to be central places where he is worshipped and where his light is spread out from. In fact the whole thrust of human history and the Bible is a move from the first book of the Bible in the garden of Eden where sin and corruption entered in, moving then out and forward unto the new city which in the last book of the Bible is described as coming down out of heaven and God dwells in the middle of it.

Christians have always cared about cities for this reason. Historian Rodney Stark wrote a book called "Cities of God" and he documents how the first three-hundred years of Christianity was particularly successful because it went after the cities which are the culture forming centers of the world.

Christianity was actually so city focused that those who didn't live in the city were called "pagans" which didn't mean anything religiously at the time, but merely meant they lived and worked out on the farm or whatever. But after time, it came to mean those who either didn't know or had rejected the message of God's love provided for in Christ.

What cities do is put people together which brings out the best and the worst of the human heart. In cities you get a density and a diversity of people so that there are both those who are like one another to bond with in mutual support and there are also those who are unlike one another and thus must learn how to live and work and play and grow together. That's why they're important to God.

So let's talk about our city. San Diego. I love our city. We're the eighth largest city in the nation and definitely the best city. We don't have to deal with tornados or floods...just the occasional earthquake and forest fire. We've got great beaches and are known for our amazing weather. Our city is simply beautiful. I live just a couple miles east of downtown so nearly every day I drive down the I-5 and I get to look out across the San Diego Bay and see the buildings of our great city sitting downtown on the water. Our city is just awesome.

We're actually a lot like Nineveh. They were near a big river, we're near a big ocean. They had a lot of people living there, so do we. They were known for their military might and so are we. San Diego has one of the biggest military bases in the country. Granted we're not skinning people and draping ‘em on our buildings. But we are tough. Right military men? Perhaps most of all, just like Nineveh, San Diego too is broken.

We're literally broke financially. We're broke socially, with one of the biggest homeless populations in the country. We've got gang problems and drug problems and family problems. Nearly every night you turn on the San Diego news it's reported that someone got shot or hurt. If you live in North Park, Normal Heights or City Heights like we do you're probably familiar with what we call the "Ghetto Bird." It's this helicopter that shows up almost nightly circling around calling out on the loud speaker the description of someone the police are looking for.

San Diego is beautiful, but it's broken...spiritually most of all. We're a confused city...a melting pot of any and every religious belief possible. As a whole, we've got no consensus, up, down, left right...so we just figure it's all good and try to play nice. But we're all hurting and longing for reconciliation and renewal with God the creator and with one another, his creatures.

Like Nineveh, we're a great city and we're a great city in need. We'll talk about what we need here in a couple minutes. But for now let's get back to the story and look at what happened in Jonah's day with Nineveh. Let's talk about "Jonah & The Great Word We Listen To."

II. Jonah & The Great Word We Listen To (v4-5)

Well, we already know Jonah doesn't like Nineveh. It's actually kind of hard to read his attitude here. You would expect and hope that after defying God and yet experiencing God saving him from the depth of the ocean in the belly of fish that he'd start to understand God's graciousness toward sinners. But it doesn't really seem like it.

It might just be me because I'm a preacher but it seems like Jonah preaches the worst sermon ever. It's five words in Hebrew, eight words in English. Verse 4, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

This is the exact message God tells him. And Jonah is a good Jew. He knows that forty is a special time when after it God does something good. After forty days of rain, the flood of Noah's day ended. After forty days up on the mountain, God gave Moses the ten commandments. After forty years of wandering in the desert God brought his people into the promised land. In the New Testament Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted and then starts his great ministry. After he rises from the dead he appears for forty days and then ascends and the church gets started.

I think there is a hint of God's intention of grace here in this message. In fact the word for "overthrown" in verse 4, meaning "overturned" can also mean "transformed" which some have thought is a literary device filled with double meaning. But that's not the vibe you get from Jonah here. It sounds like he wants the city overthrown.

I imagine him walking through the city yelling out: "Forty days and you're all gonna die!" "Forty days and you're all gonna die!" "Forty days and you're all gonna die!" Like those stupid billboards all over town saying Jesus is returning on May 21st even though Jesus himself said no one can know the day or the hour (Mt 24:36). Apparently this crazy cult leader who got kicked out of his church in 1988 made a lot of money in radio stations in the 60's and is paying for all this advertising with big bold letters "JUDGEMENT DAY." I seriously hate ‘em. He even put a verse from Jonah on there and so we've had people ask if we put those billboards up.

All doom and gloom and no grace. It's such a different story from when God came to Abraham and told him about his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah but said he wouldn't destroy it if Abraham could find some people there who would turn to God. That's different than just "JUDGMENT DAY" or "Forty days and and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Way different.

Jonah here is preaching the worst sermon ever but guess what happens? People take him seriously and believe. Verse 5 says they "believed God." All of them, from the greatest to the least. It's crazy. I put a lot of work into my sermons and my delivery. Maybe I ought to quit studying and preparing and just start telling everyone they're all gonna die and then we'll see the whole city of San Diego come to Jesus! :)

Now, I don't think that's the answer because I think something special was going on here. Some commentators have tried to guess why they responded the way they did and have suggested things such as fear of invasion, to solar eclipse, famine, earthquakes or a previous omen and maybe there was something like that...but even then, I don't think just hearing those five words would do it.

Here's what I think happened. This is what John Calvin says, "It was the hidden power of God (attached) to the preaching of his word...God not only spoke by the mouth of Jonah, but added power to his word." I tell you what, that's what makes the difference. That's what I pray for every time I preach. That somehow, someway, beyond me and despite me that God would speak to you his word...that he would add power to it to pierce you heart and call you to himself.

You see there is a tension here and contrast being made. Throughout the whole book Jonah has been resisting God's Word. But everyone else receives it. Pagan sailors who've never heard of God, when Jonah reluctantly gives them the word and tells them who God is, they turn to him, start fearing God and making sacrifices to him. These Ninevites, when they hear Jonah speak the word, even though it's just five words...they respond!

Really the tension, the push here is to call us, the readers out and to ask us are we listening to and obeying God's word? So are you? Is there something God has been trying to get through to you that you've been resisting? Is there something you know you simply need to give into and believe? Is there an area God is calling you to make a change in?

What is God saying to you through his word today? The most important thing we can ever listen to is the word of God. Not crazy billboards. Not crazy street preachers. Not the ideas of our friends and family. Not the feelings which so easily deceive us. We need to hear, listen and obey the Word of God.

Well, the next section describes how this thing with the people of Nineveh happened...it gives us some details and actually describes really well the biblical concept of repentance. So let's talk about "Repentance & The Great Sin We Turn From."

III. Repentance & The Great Sin We Turn From (v6-9)

Basically here's what happens. The king of Nineveh hears about the message from Jonah and he does five things: he gets up, takes off his royal robe, puts on sackcloth and ash and then sits down issuing a decree for all.

If you're wondering what sackcloth and ash is, it's just like it sounds. A sackcloth is a rough piece of cloth used to make sacks, you know like the kind you do sack races in. They would cut a hole in it, put it over their heads, then burn something and take the ashes and dust their head and clothes with it. This was a common sign in the ancient world of grief, discomfort and sorrow.

Notice the fifth thing the king does. He calls for a citywide fast. No eating or drinking for anyone including the animals. Somehow he recognizes God's creator rights and rule over everything. The king here, literally bows his knee and all of his kingdom before the king of heaven. In taking off his royal robes, he humiliates himself before all his people and acknowledges God the true king.

And look at his acknowledgement. He admits and confesses his own sin and the sin of his city. Verse 8, "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."

That's important to recognize because you see there are two parts to repentance and often we don't get this second part. You see sometimes we think repentance just means to be sorry. But that's really only the first part, the beginning. In face 2 Corinthians 7:10 says "godly sorrow leads to repentance." So the repentance really comes after the sorrow.

The word repentance itself literally means change, a change of course or direction in the opposite way. You need both here. You've got to have the sorrow part or it's not genuine. And you've got to have the turning part or it's just emotionalism with no lasting effect. Repentance is real change through and through. Attrition and contrition. Sackcloth sorrow. Turning from change.

You've got to have both. Without sorrow it's just behavior modification that's not motivated by a real love for God and it simply won't last. If all you got is sorrow but you never take action and turn then you really weren't sorry enough or you weren't sorry before God, just before yourself or someone else.

Repentance. Repentance is huge. It's seriously like the rhythm of the Christian life. Increasingly being convicted of sin and turning away from it as Jesus changes us from the inside out.

Some of you are caught in some sin and you know it. You know you are living in sin and it needs to change. Repent. Some of you need to move beyond emotions and move to action.

Some of you are caught in self-righteousness where you just comparing yourself to others and think you're doing fine but you haven't really gone before God and you're numb toward him spiritually. All of your life is just action and you need some affection.

What is God calling you to repent of today? Some specific thing? An attitude or outlook? Don't be proud and think "I'm doing fine." No one's doing fine. Every one of us here in this room are in need. If we don't see that we just haven't dug deep enough. I'll tell you what. I need change. I need the gospel to work in my heart. I need more sorrow and more repentance. We need to be more like the king and be willing to disrobe our feeble robes of righteousness and bow before the king of heaven.

I already read from Calvin earlier but I think he's helpful on this point too. He says, "the faithful ought to live their whole life continuing to repent in order to serve God." The Christian life is one where we are always being moved and always being turned to see our gracious God and be tooled as his servants unto other who need the touch of his hand.

And this is where our text leaves us to today, pointing at the great grace of God. So let's hit our last point, "Grace & The Great God We Turn To."

IV. Grace & The Great God We Turn To (v10)

What we see and learn is that turning away from sin isn't enough. There has to be something greater to hold our attention. Someone greater worthy of our attention and devotion. And nothing but God will do. All else leaves us empty.

The king's prayer and edict is in hopes that God will relent and not destroy Nineveh. Verse 10 says that when God saw what they did, "how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster he said he would do."

We'll see clearly next week how this was God's plan all along from the start. But for today I want us simply to see the character of God in this verse. That's what it's about.

Some have tried to overanalyze and overphilosphize this word "relent" or as some translations says "repent." It's just silly. God doesn't ever repent because he never does anything wrong. And he wouldn't have been in the wrong if he destroyed Nineveh. The book of Jonah has championed God's sovereign rule over all events, present and future...over storms, sailors, the sea and sea monsters.

This verse is merely describing the action of God from a human perspective, not the divine one. It's a literary device called a anthropopathism for you nerds. So I'm not even going to talk about that any more because it entirely misses the point of this verse.

The author's intent for us is to read and hear verse 10 and think, "Wow! I can't believe it! God is so gracious! These people are sick and evil and God had grace on them! Wow! God is truly a gracious God! ...Maybe there's hope for me too. Because deep down I'm really sick too and I need a God like that." That's the point.

You see there something bigger going on here than project Jonah and project Nineveh. The story really isn't about either of them. It's a about a gracious God who loves lost people in lost cities. It's about God doing the greatest miracle of all, greater than the storm, greater than the fish, greater than the great city of Nineveh...the miracle of changing the human heart.

You see here's the truth. We know we ought to care more for the cities of God, but we don't. We know we ought to listen and obey God's word but we don't. We know we ought to be sorrowful and repent but we don't. You see the truth is, you can try and do all of this and you'll fail. You can't do it.

Ultimately, what we're left with is we are a people who are in need of the grace of God. The grace of God that determined to have grace on the Ninevites from the beginning. And just as God had planned from the beginning of the book of Jonah for his grace to come to the city, God planned from the beginning of time for his grace to come into the world.

The book of Jonah really points forward to God sending his son Jesus into the world, the one full of grace and truth. Jesus submits to the mission of God from the start and comes preaching and teaching the word, "repent, believe in me." Unlike Jonah his message is more than just a callous declaration of justice, Jesus' message is that he came to suffer the justice for us once and for all in our place.

Jesus is the true and better king of Nineveh because he takes off the royal robe of heaven and steps down into earth taking sackcloth and ash upon himself for your sin and mine. But he doesn't stop just there because unlike with the king of Nineveh, God did not relent but instead poured out his full wrath upon Jesus on the cross for every sin and wicked thing mankind has ever done.

He does it so our hearts might truly be changed and turned to God. That's what we need. We need Jesus. The book of Jonah really points to the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done. How Jesus took on the disaster we deserve for us in our place. Only getting a hold of that will change us and only that will save our city. San Diego needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.


This is what we are inviting you into. Our mission is to be apart of and live in the gospel city where Jesus rules and reigns because he conquered sin once and for all. We love the city of San Diego and want to see it flourish and prosper.

Our vision is to, like the early Christians, go after the city. We see ourselves as missionaries here called to live in houses in neighborhoods and workplaces where we live out the good news of the gospel by continually turning from sin and turning to Jesus. When that happens we experience love and peace God means for us to enjoy as we express his grace in all the avenues of life...in our families, friendships and communities. We're here to help people in that and to learn that the gospel life and the gospel city is the good life.

Some of you need to get a bigger vision and sense of the significance of actually loving and committing to a city for the sake of the gospel rather than chasing all kinds of other things.

Some of you need really begin to listen to and obey God's word rather than listening to and doing your own thing.

Some of you need to repent of some things today and turn to Jesus. To truly be sorry and to truly turn and change.

Some of you need to marvel at the great grace of God and thank him for his goodness.

As we go to the table today let's do business with Jesus and allow him to do his work in us. Jesus lived and died on the cross and rose again for our sin. May he be glorified and we be changed as we trust in him for our salvation.

Let's pray.

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