Sackcloth and ashes

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Jonah 3-4

Is Jonah the Bible’s most successful evangelist?  In Hebrew his sermon consists of just 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 death-dealing judgement of God.  When the LORD sees their repentance, He turns from His wrath and brings salvation instead.

This is even more remarkable because of the preacher’s blatant rebellion and xenophobia.  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 want to save the Ninevites apart from the preached word.  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 and 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.

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.  And like me!  Evangelists take heart: nothing can thwart His gospel mission to the ends of the earth.

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