Understanding God's Grace and Mercy
As a teenager, and a new believer, I constantly compared myself spiritually to others. And I always felt inadequate. Josh was really great at memorizing scripture. My friend Robbie was a natural leader. Ryan was great at prayer. He would pray those like eloquent prayers. It sounded like they came from the King James, even 13.
Lohan worshiped with passion. Lohan was ridiculous. When he would worship, he would dance. With his like whole body and he looked like one of those like inflatable waving men things, like honestly, and he did not care what anybody else thought and we were judging him for sure. And they all seem to be able to look and live like Jesus more than I did.
I felt like a mess and I was desperate to hide it. I did not want to look messy. I wanted to look super spiritual like all those guys. I became so fixated on creating an image of a perfect Christian that I lost sight of the true essence of faith, which is personal. It's honest. It's about an honest relationship with God, not a performance.
My fear of not meeting the per perceived standards of perfection paralyzed me. I spent a lot of time worrying about what perfect or perfect repentance looked like. Making each confession feel like it had to be performed flawlessly to be valid. And I believe that if I continued to struggle with my sin issues, then I hadn't truly repented, and I wasn't worthy of God's grace.
Which, not being worthy of God's grace, that is accurate to a point. Because none of us are truly worthy of God's grace. But what I failed to understand was that the key to true repentance and growth in faith is not perfection, but rather vulnerability, authenticity, surrender. We're in the fourth week of a series on Jonah, and Jonah and the people of Israel had the opposite problem of my own.
While I was fixated on my own sinfulness, they were fixated on the sinfulness of others, while blind to their own sinfulness. We began this series by placing Jonah's story in its historical context. In many ways, this was a good time to be an Israelite. After years of suffering at the hands of their neighbors, Israel was finally enjoying a time of peace, prosperity, and expansion.
And they never questioned their worthiness of the kindness that the Lord was showing them. They just felt like it was due to them. Lord, what took you so long to give us what we deserve?
The truth was that the nation of Israel was in a state of spiritual rebellion. The prophecies of Amos and Hosea had fallen on deaf ears. God had spoken through his prophets calling Israel to repentance, but the people were resistant to change. And they chose to silence the prophets rather than to repent.
And the spiritual condition of Israel makes Jonah's response to his call from God all the more ironic because when the word of the Lord came to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh, Jonah was angry at the thought that God would show compassion to the wicked Assyrians while being completely blind to the ways that Israel was guilty.
Israel and Jonah were not struggling with feelings of unworthiness. They were struggling with self righteousness. And as we saw last week, even as Jonah disobeys God, even as he runs in the opposite direction of where he's supposed to go, which then causes God to rise up a storm to prevent Jonah's escape, a storm that then leads to Jonah being thrown overboard, Jonah's prayer is not repentance.
It's out of arrogance. It's prideful. He says, those who cherish worthless idols. Abandon their faithful love. But as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the Lord. This dude is in the belly of a fish for being unfaithful. And he dares to pray this?
He's in the belly of a fish because he was disobedient to God. He's complaining about idol worshippers not being faithful. He's the one who's not being faithful to his call when he's not accepting that salvation belongs to the Lord like he just says and is actually trying to sabotage the Lord's salvation of Nineveh.
Jonah is trying to take control of the Lord's salvation. So Jonah deserves to be in the belly of the fish. That's what he deserves. He's worthless. But God is full of mercy and grace. God is willing to save those who reject him. And so at the end of chapter 2, we read this. Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Now, some people say that Jonah's deliverance came after Jonah's repentance was complete. And this is a problematic interpretation for a couple of reasons. First, because there is no repentance in Jonah's prayer in chapter 2. Jonah says some true things about God, yes. But his actions clearly show that he does not believe them.
And he's not honest about how he's behaved. The way that Jonah reports his behavior is prideful, arrogant. His words are a complete delusion. Like he's trying to fool God, or maybe just himself. His words are hypocritical, his actions do not line up with his heart. Jonah is still struggling against God's will, he still holds, er, he's still holding on to his self righteousness, and he's still holding on to his hostility towards Nineveh.
Jonah's initial act of rebellion and his complete lack of self awareness are both all too relatable human experiences. Like, how often have we found ourselves To be a little bit rebellious. And how often, years later, do we realize, Wow, I lack so much awareness of what I was doing ten years ago, three years ago, ten minutes ago.
The story of Jonah serves as both a mirror and a message, reminding us that despite our tendencies to run away, despite our completely wrong self evaluation, God's mercy is persistent and transformation is always there. It's always within the realm of possibility. Jonah does not deserve a second chance, but God gives it to him.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, get up, go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you. God's grace and mercy are truly remarkable. Despite Jonah's disobedience, God does not give up on him. He gives him a second chance to fulfill his calling and to preach to the people of Nineveh.
And the beginning of this chapter is very similar to the beginning of chapter one on purpose. They're parallel passages. There's an intentional contrast being drawn here. In chapter one, Jonah's flight was from the presence of the Lord, and here his obedience is according to the word of the Lord. So far here in chapter three, you're doing good, Jonah.
Doing good. Now, some people believe that Jonah was spit up onto the shore of Nineveh, which would be really impressive, especially because Nineveh is about 375 miles away from the Mediterranean Sea. So we're talking the distance from here to Los Angeles. So if Jonah did walk to Nineveh right from the belly of the fish, it would have been a miraculous feat of projectile vomit.
And because scripture doesn't tell us that's what occurred, and I think it would be worthy of being included in the scriptures, I think it's safe to say that Jonah had to travel the 375 miles over at least two to three days. And I think that speaks towards maybe the beginning of a little bit of change in Jonah.
We're seeing a little bit of obedience here. Jonah's not hopeless, just like we're not hopeless. He's just messy. Verse three continues. Now Nineveh was an extremely great city, a three day walk. Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, in 40 days Nineveh will be demolished.
Now, we might look at this as 21st century Christians and say, That doesn't sound like the gospel in 40 days, Nineveh will be demolished. Where's the gospel hope there? And it doesn't sound like the gospel. But when we look at the context of the book, I don't think we have reason to believe that Jonah was acting disobedient here.
And I don't think we have reason to believe that this was the entire message. I think this is the summary statement of the message because this book has been very transparent the entire way through about what a mess Jonah is. And his tendency towards disobedience, and we see nothing here to indicate that Jonah was disobedient, that he was just like, you guys are screwed, like that wasn't his attitude.
I think we can safely assume that Jonah told the message. And while we don't have a complete record of Jonah's speech in Nineveh, the narrative that we see in Jonah, and then when we look at other Old Testament passages, I think it reveals a little bit more of what that message would have been in its entirety.
In Jeremiah 18, we get this verse. The prophet hears from the Lord. Do I have that verse in there? Ooh, I don't. You're gonna have to, you're gonna have to listen to me. Here we go. The Lord says to Jeremiah, At one moment, I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will uproot, tear it down, and destroy it.
However, if that nation about which I have made the announcement turns from its evil, I will relent. Concerning the disaster I had planned to do to it. Jeremiah is saying if a nation that I've said I'm going to destroy, Relent, or If a nation that I'm about to destroy, Turns from its evil, If they repent of their evil, I will relent concerning the disaster I had planned to do to it.
So we can see that when Jonah warned of impending judgment, Elsewhere in scripture, that warning of judgment wasn't a final pronouncement. It was a warning. It was actually an invitation to repent. And we're going to see next week in chapter four that this is actually consistent with Jonah's understanding.
Now in this passage, in 40 days that echoes the flood narrative in Genesis, right? We're familiar with that term, 40 days and 40 nights. The reference to 40 days echoes the flood narrative, and the flood narrative is one of the most prominent examples of God's judgment of sin in the Old Testament.
So the original readers of this book would clue in to that 40 days, and they'd say, 40 days. Flood. God's judgment of sin. It's a shorthand for them. They're understanding this. And so these parallels appear to confirm that Nineveh is evil in the eyes of the Lord, just what the Lord says in the beginning of the book of Jonah.
And we see here that this leads to the potential for severe judgment, which Jonah frankly is really hoping that they're going to experience. But there's still an undercurrent of hope here. There's a chance that judgment could be postponed or averted, and the people might get to experience the mercy of God.
that Jonah so desperately didn't want the people of Nineveh to experience. So despite the fact that God's relationship with Israel was never meant to be exclusive, God always intended to call all nations to him. And Israel's special relationship with God was meant to show, it was meant to demonstrate God's grace and mercy to the world.
The idea was that Israel would be an example to the surrounding nation of what a relationship with God could look like. And the idea was that people would look at Israel's relationship with the Lord, and then they would come to know the Lord as well. So it is not a surprise that the good word of the Lord is going out to the nations.
We are Great Commission people. The word of the Lord is not meant to stay in this room. It is meant to go to the nations.
Look what happens as a result of Jonah's obedience here. We witness here a remarkable and unexpected shift. The people of Nineveh, upon hearing Jonah's proclamation, respond with an immediate and profound act of repentance. Then the people of Nineveh believed God. I love that. They didn't believe Jonah.
They believed God. They believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them. So this response is significant. Not only in how fast they do it, right? This is like an immediate response. They're like, oh, we hear from the Lord. We're going to do it. Wouldn't that be nice?
Like I would love for my kids to obey me that fast. But look at how extensively From the greatest to the least, an entire city humbles themselves at the word of the Lord. Now, we can celebrate Nineveh's repentance, but this book has a lot to do with Jonah's mess and with Israel's mess. And so Nineveh's repentance is revealing something.
About Israel, despite repeated warnings and calls for repentance from prophets like Amos and Hosea, Israel remain stubborn and unrepentant. These pagans repent and the people of God with a special relationship are stubborn and hardhearted.
Jonah should be uncomfortable. We should be a little uncomfortable. Because Israel, like us, had the privilege of God's direct communication. They had his laws, they had his prophets. Their nation had hundreds of years of witnessing God's faithfulness, of being in a special relationship with God, but their hearts remained hard, their ears closed to God's call for repentance and transformation.
But these pagans were immediately responsive.
These pagans were immediately responsive and repented radically, from the greatest to the least, at just one warning from Jonah.
The answer is simple. The people of Nineveh recognized and responded to God's authority. They believed in his power and his message through Jonah. They were willing to humble themselves before him and to seek his mercy. This serves as a powerful reminder for us today. We can have all the knowledge. We can have all the access to God's Word.
And friends, we have better access to God's Word than any time in human history. We literally carry it around on our phones. You have hundreds of translations, hundreds of languages.
But if we don't recognize and respond to His authority, If
we don't even listen to the word of the Lord, it means nothing. We have to be willing to humble ourselves and to seek God's mercy and transformation in our lives. It's not enough to know, you have to respond. Now what makes Nineveh's repentance even more notable is that while it's exhaustive, an entire city, it's also incomplete.
It's incomplete. The Ninevites have no covenant relationship with God like the Israelites. They had a limited understanding of God's laws and promises. These guys weren't theologians, they hadn't been attending Sunday school their whole lives. They got five minutes. They got five minutes of a message from the Lord.
And despite all that they didn't know and didn't have, they still recognized their wrongdoing and turned from it. They didn't have the full revelation of God's character and will as Israel did, but they responded with humility.
For those of us. who have the full revelation of God's will, of God's character. How can we not be responsive?
Lord, soften our hearts.
God's grace extends beyond Israel. It reaches out to all who are willing to turn from their sinful ways. Look at verse 6. When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh. By order of the king and his nobles, no person or animal, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all.
Or animals. They didn't do anything wrong. They must not eat or drink water. They're taking their sin really seriously. Furthermore, both people and animals must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from his wrongdoing.
The king's call is a practical, tangible change in behavior. He hears Jonah's message, he understands that God sees his city's wickedness, and we established in week one that Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire were very wicked. They could teach a master class on wickedness. And the king calls for a complete departure from the way of life that resulted in God's warning of judgment.
And in this, there's a lesson for us all. Repentance is more than just feeling sorry. It's about a genuine change in direction. It's about a transformation of heart and action. And more importantly, the king's proclamation reveals a profound hope. Look at verse 9. Who knows? God may turn and relent. I love that.
Who knows? God may turn and relent. He may turn from his burning anger so that we will not perish. Here, the king recognizes that God's justice can be softened by his mercy. That's an amazing revelation for this king to have. He recognizes that God's justice can be softened by his mercy. This revelation is a key aspect of God's character.
How gracious is God that he would make himself known to them, that he would make himself known to us. This king had nothing but Jonah's message, no tradition, no scripture, and yet here he is able to respond in faith by the kindness of the Lord's revelation.
And here we arrive at the climax of this part of Jonah's story. In verse 10, God saw their actions, that they had turned from their evil ways, so God relented. From the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not. This is a profound moment in scripture. It's a clear demonstration of God's immense mercy and grace.
Over and over again, we see in this book that God's grace extends beyond Israel. It reaches out to all who are willing to turn from their sinful ways. And as we see in the story of Nineveh, even those who may seem like unlikely candidates for repentance can be transformed by God's love and mercy. The phrase, God saw their actions, is huge.
Because it reminds us that God is not a distant observer, but he's an active participant in our lives. He sees not only our sins, but also our efforts to turn away from them. This verse echoes the sentiments of 2 Chronicles 7, where the Lord says, If my people who bear my name humble themselves, pray and seek my face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.
The promise of forgiveness and restoration is not just for Israel. It's for everyone willing to humble themselves and to turn to God. God's choice to relent from disaster, to relent from the punishment that Nineveh deserves. is a powerful testament to his character. He is not a god eagerly waiting to punish, but he's a loving father longing to forgive.
His justice is tempered with compassion, and his discipline is aimed at bringing us back to him, not pushing us away. What the people of Nineveh experienced was the grace of a god who delights in mercy. As described in Micah 7, who is God like you? Forgiving iniquity and passing over a rebellion for the remnant of his inheritance.
He does not hold on to his anger forever because he delights in faithful love.
In this story, we see God's forgiveness. And we see his faithful love in a bold display. Despite the extreme wickedness of Nineveh's sins, God's steadfast love and mercy were available to them. God is faithful even when we are not. God is faithful even when we're not. And his love and mercy are steadfast.
The story of Jonah and Nineveh, it confronts our flawed perceptions of who can receive God's mercy. We may feel that certain people are beyond redemption. Maybe we feel that way about ourselves. Maybe we feel like we are too far gone. But this story reminds us that God's grace is available to all. It's available to all.
And as we journey through the story of Jonah, and witness the astonishing repentance of Nineveh, it's time for us to consider our own lives. How do we view repentance in God's mercy? Are we like Jonah? Holding on to our self righteousness? Assuming that we're in good with the Lord? Jonah assumed that he was in good with the Lord because he's an Israelite.
He's part of God's tribe. You assume you're good with the Lord because you said a prayer in second grade?
I'm not saying that prayer wasn't a saving prayer. You
shouldn't live your life just banking on that.
That prayer that you prayed, prayer was an act of repentance. And that prayer needs to be followed with a life of repentance. A life of asking the Lord for His mercy and compassion. Because we need it. Nineveh repented in a powerful way.
You and I, we can repent in a powerful way. And maybe you're like me and you're like, I have repented and repented and repented. And I'm not seeing the change in my life, Lord. The beautiful thing about us as Christians is that we don't do it on our own. Our Christian faith is not a performance, it's a relationship.
And so as we repent, we can look to the Holy Spirit and say, help us. Help me, Lord. I can't do this on my own. I have tried over and over again, and I need your power, your healing, your redemption in my life. Break the strongholds in my life that I might live a life worthy of your name. Have
that available to you. You have that available to you. You don't have to worry about whether your repentance is good enough. You can rest in knowing that the Spirit of God in you is good enough. He will care for you. He will meet your needs. He will do a work in your life and transform you. From the sinful, stubborn, unrepentant, arrogant, prideful person that you were, into the loving, compassionate, merciful, faithful image of Jesus Christ.
we evaluate ourselves in our Christian walk and we begin to limit ourselves. In my previous church, there were two young men in particular who Spent a great deal of time worrying about some sin issues in their life. And they were bold and transparent in coming to me and other leaders and asking for prayer and help to combat these sin issues in their life.
I was so impressed by them. When I was their age, I was busy wearing a mask. I was perfect. I wasn't dealing with my sin the way that they were. And these two young men would not get baptized because they didn't feel worthy. They didn't feel worthy.
But Jesus had already said that you're worthy. He went to the cross for them. You are worthy. You are worthy of my mercy and my compassion and my forgiveness. You are worthy of being called my son. You don't need to worry. You don't need to judge yourself harshly and think that you are too far gone for God to do a work in your life.
I worked with them for years. worked with them for years in their thinking that they didn't deserve to be baptized. I was like, guys, I don't know of very many teenagers who spend as much time and effort devoted to the Lord, who desire to grow in His image. You're not perfect. Nobody is. You're not perfect.
Nobody is. But God's going to do a work in and through you. He already is. You can publicly proclaim your faith.
Nineveh's repentance is not perfect. Jonah's faith is not perfect. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to be responsive.
Are your understandings of God's mercy and forgiveness all mixed up? Are you putting limits on you that God never intended? Are you judging yourself too harshly? God's mercy isn't earned by our perfect repentance. It's freely given even in our imperfection. God's mercy isn't earned by our perfect repentance.
His mercy shows up in that he will help us to transform our lives when we can't on our own. In the story of Jonah and Nineveh, we see this principle beautifully illustrated. The fact that Nineveh repented is nothing short of a miracle. They had a messenger who didn't want them to confess to the Lord, and they had no knowledge of the Lord.
They repented. And God granted them mercy and compassion. Nineveh's response to Jonah's message wasn't rooted in a flawless understanding of God or their perfect adherence to their laws, or his laws. They didn't have as long a history with God as Israel did. They were outsiders, they were strangers to his covenant of promise, yet they received mercy.
Their repentance, though imperfect, was met with God's overwhelming compassion, and this is a striking contrast to what many of us think about our relationship with God. Many of us, much like I did in my teenage years, labor under the misconception that God's acceptance and mercy are contingent upon our flawless performance.
We trap ourselves in cycles of guilt and self condemnation, believing that if we were, would just try a little harder, repent a little better, or eliminate every flaw that will finally be worthy of God's grace and love. But this couldn't be further from the truth. God's mercy is bigger than our imperfections.
Amen? His grace is not a reward for our righteousness. It is a gift. It is freely given despite our shortcomings. And this means that we can come to God just as we are. We can come to him with all of our flaws and failures. We don't have to wait until we've got everything figured out, or until we've cleaned up the mess on our own.
We can approach God in our messiness, our brokenness, trusting that his mercy is big enough to cover all our sins, and that he is big enough to help us become the man or woman that he desires for us to be. The essence of the gospel is recognizing that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is the scandalous nature of grace.
It's given freely, not because we deserve it, but because of God's great love for us. And so we have to consider how this understanding of God's mercy transforms the way we relate to others. We have to consider that if God has given us all this grace and mercy, all this compassion, we need to do the same for other people.
We can't condemn people and their mess. We can't be like Jonah and wish that they would experience the judgment of God. And so often that's the way we behave. And if we don't actively hope that God will smite people, we're hoping that in our silence, they won't receive the mercy that we have. A people who have experienced the love and mercy of the Lord should be out there spreading the mercy of the the mercy and love of the Lord.
Our response To God's love and mercy should be to walk in his image to the best of our ability, to spread his love that all might benefit, that all might benefit. The story of Nineveh is a call for us to extend the same grace to others that God has extended to us. It's a reminder that no one is beyond the reach of God's love and mercy.
It's a reminder that when Jesus tells us to go to the ends of the earth, proclaiming the good news, making disciples and baptizing them in his name, We should take it seriously. Because even if we think people are too far gone, too wicked, God is greater than any of our limits on him.