The last time Formations ran a unit on the book of Jonah, the lesson writer received two letters in the same week. The first letter praised him for avoiding a literalistic approach of the book. The second berated him for his “fundamentalist” interpretation. If I didn’t already know it, these letters would have proved that you really can’t please everybody!
It’s easy to get sidetracked by the great fish in Jonah 1:17. Are we supposed to read this detail literally? Should we consider Jonah’s preservation in the fish’s belly a miracle?
That’s for you to decide. I can’t help but wonder, though, if an even greater miracle was that the Ninevites repented at Jonah’s preaching. I mean, it’s not like Jonah put an awful lot of effort into his message.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate that Jonah was without question the most unmotivated preacher in the Bible. His message, at least as the biblical writer presents it, is all condemnation and no grace. “You’re all about to die!” is not the most inspiring message.
And let’s also remember that the people of Nineveh were a notoriously wicked people. The Bible tells us so (1:2), but so does history. Nineveh was a key Assyrian city, and the atrocities and brutality of the Assyrians are a matter of record.
And yet, on this First Sunday in Lent, we read how Jonah at long last preaches to the Ninevites and how—perhaps surprisingly—they change their ways. All the people in the city fast, wear sackcloth, and “cry mightily to God” (v. 8). When they repent, God’s mind is changed about the calamity God had intended to bring upon them.
We should note that repentance is not the same thing as remorse. Remorse has to do with sorrow for the wrong we have done. Remorse can lead to repentance, but they’re not the same thing. The Hebrew word for “repent” literally means “turn” or “turn around.” Similarly, the Greek word for “repent” literally means “change one’s mind or attitude.”
To repent, then, is to change, to turn around, to embrace a different attitude toward the wrong that we have done. We might hide our remorse by keeping up a stoic or unemotional façade, but we can’t hide repentance. It shows itself in the way we behave.
The Ninevites, then, don’t just feel bad; they turn away from sin. As impossible as it seems given their immoral reputation and the lackluster “evangelism” to which they are subjected, they repent. And they mark this turning through ritual acts that signal their repentance: fasting, wearing sackcloth, and crying out to God. Furthermore, they pledge to “turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (v. 8).
And if God can lead the Ninevites to genuine, heartfelt repentance, God can surely do the same miracle for us.
• What do you think inspired the Ninevites to repent?
• What responsibility does a preacher have for the people’s repentance?
• How are rituals of repentance related to practical changes in our lives? Why are both important?
• What is the place of corporate, public repentance among Christians today?
Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.
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