Sackcloth and ashes
Could Jonah be the most successful evangelist in the Bible? In Hebrew the report of his sermon consists of 5 words. And yet, in response, the 120 000 residents of Nineveh cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes and turn to the LORD.
Sackcloth was the clothing of mourning. Ashes were also a reminder of mortality. To cover oneself in sackcloth and ashes was to identify oneself with the judgement of God who had deemed them worthy of death. When the LORD sees such repentance, He Himself turns from wrath and brings salvation to the greatest city of the day.
What makes this even more remarkable is to note the outright rebellion and xenophobia of the preacher. Jonah detests the Assyrians, whose world capital, Nineveh, he is commanded to evangelize. And he does everything he can to thwart the missionary purposes of God.
When he is commissioned in chapter 1, he flees in the opposite direction. But the LORD does not will to save the Ninevites apart from the preached word. And so He sends a storm to bring down Jonah’s ship. Jonah, the guilty one, is hurled into the sea to save the innocents on board. In chapter 2, he is brought even lower. Swallowed by a monster of the deep, he spends 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a fish. Yet after this death and resurrection experience, Jonah is sent to the nations. And, just as Jonah had feared, they repent. So, in chapter 4, Jonah is furious at the grace of the LORD. The book ends with a petulant missionary despising the salvation of God while the LORD explains His global love.
It’s then that we realise the truth. Jonah is not the Bible’s greatest evangelist. The LORD is.
And when He came in the flesh, it was in total obedience to the missionary call of His Father. Though we had sinned, He was cast into the depths to save the guilty. He spent 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth before rising again to a global mission. By the sending of His Spirit He gladly accompanies and empowers the evangelisation of the nations. He is the true expression of the Father’s heart who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
For every soul that repents “in sackcloth and ashes” it is Christ who saves them by His Spirit. He remains the world’s greatest evangelist. And so great is His passion for the lost, He can even use faithless preachers like Jonah. Evangelists take heart: nothing can thwart His gospel mission to the ends of the earth.