Many of the religious leaders who came to see Jesus teach were not there in good faith. Rather than earnestly trying to learn, they were actually trying to trip Him up and to dissuade the crowds from following Him. On one occasion, having heard testimony of the miracles He had done, they asked Him to perform a sign for them to test Him.
39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. Matthew 12:39-40 NKJV
Nineveh, known today as Mosul in Iraq, was the greatest city in the greatest empire on earth in the early years of the prophet Isaiah and Judah’s King Ahaz. The Assyrians were known to be exceedingly cruel and harsh in their treatment of conquered foes. God had permitted the Northern Kingdom of Israel to begin to experience some of this heat in hopes that it would turn them back to Him. Unfortunately, it did not.
In the midst of all this, God told the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach a simple message of repentance, that they might turn to God. Instead, Jonah ran the other way, and found a ship heading into the Mediterranean, far away from Nineveh.
God sent a storm upon the sea and the ship was on the verge of being lost. Jonah, convicted in his heart, admitted to the ship’s crew that he was on the run from God and was the likely cause of this impending disaster. He asked them to throw him overboard, presumably to end his life but to save the ship. The crew exhibited a deep faith and tried everything they could to avoid this, but reluctantly agreed.
But rather than dying as a failed prophet, God had a different plan for Jonah. As he sank into the depths of the sea, enwrapped in seaweed and praying to the Lord with his last bit of consciousness, God sent a great fish to swallow him, and he spent three days in the fish’s belly.
We have no idea what kind of fish this was. We also do not really know if Jonah was alive or dead these three days – both Elijah and Elisha had miraculously raised young people from the dead around this time period. Jesus was also referring to Jonah when talking about His own coming death and three-day burial before His resurrection. But either way, the fish spit Jonah up on the shore after three days, and at that time, Jonah was quite alive.
When God wants us to do something, He may give us a second chance to do it, but He will not change His mind on the assignment. He gave Jonah the exact same instructions that He had given him the first time:
2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. 4 And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Jonah 3:2-4 NKJV
Jonah’s simple message was well received by the multitude, and they responded positively in faith and repentance, avoiding the judgement of God. Contrast this with Jesus’ message that was rejected by many in the crowd. As Jesus told His opposition, the people of Nineveh would one day rise up to condemn them for their lack of faith and hard-heartedness to His message.
Some have speculated that Jonah must have been quite a sight passing through Nineveh after spending three days in the fish’s belly. But when we are obedient to God, no matter our appearance, we can achieve the most amazing results using His simple instructions. He does the actual work but chooses to do it using obedient human instruments.
God loves all people, even our enemies. Which of these can I be praying for today?
Lord, help me to see my enemies the way that You do, with love. Help me to be obedient in performing the tasks that You are asking me to do. May Your Spirit achieve great and wonderful things as I attempt to carry out Your will, leaning totally on Your power and strength throughout the process. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.