February 17, 2019

God's Relenting Mercy

Steven Lee (North Campus) | (Downtown Campus) | (South Campus) | | Jonah 3

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.Jonah 3:1–10


God is love. This is a true and beautiful truth from 1 John 4:8. These three words carry profound theological significance. When most people hear these words—God is love—what they mean is that God is tolerant of sin and disobedience. 

  • I know the affair is wrong, but God wants me to be happy, right?
  • I know my anger is out of control, but I can’t help it and God understands, right?
  • I know lying and gossiping is sinful, but compared to other sins, it’s not that bad, right?
  • I know I shouldn’t crave money and success, but God wants what’s best for me, right?

We think love = tolerance; putting up with sin. This is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—God loves you, wants you to be happy, wants you to feel good about yourself, wants you to play nice with others, will answer your prayers when you need him, and then good enough people will go to heaven. This is a distorted understanding of God. This minimizes God’s love, holiness, and justice.

Others believe that God is vindictive. He’s full of wrath. He’s malicious, brooding, and angry. God is going to punish people in hell forever unless they do as he says, exactly as he says. They believe God is a divine dictator bent on exerting his will with no moral compass.

These are two ditches we can fall off on. God loves me and will overlook all my sins, so I don’t have to worry, repent, or change how I live, or God is angry with me and is out to punish me. Both of these misunderstand God and his word.

We are left to wrestle with the question: How do we reconcile God’s justice and mercy? What do we do with God’s terrible judgment against sinners, and God’s long-suffering mercy toward sinners? This takes us to Jonah 3 where we see a picture of impending judgment upon those who do evil, and the mercy of God in relenting.

This passage reveals God reveals his mercy toward sinners by awakening repentance through the preaching of judgment.

Our aim is to share God’s heart of mercy and to reflect that same heart to others. 

So we’ll look at two scenes:

  1. Scene 1 (vv. 1–5)
  2. Scene 2 (vv. 6–10)

SCENE 1 (Jonah 3:1–5)

Chapter 3 is nearly identical to how chapter 1 begins. God recommissions Jonah and gives him a second chance. God’s word came a “second time.” Prophets were usually judged harshly (e.g., 1 Kings 13:20–25). Jonah thought God’s punishment would be his escape from his task. But God mercifully rescues Jonah to illustrate that his mercy and his judgment can’t be manipulated.

This time, Jonah goes and obeys God. Now for the third time Nineveh is called a “great city” (1:2; 3:2) because of its size, requiring three day’s journey. Jonah preaches, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Not your typical gospel presentation. Jonah’s message is the threat of impending judgment. It is literally five Hebrew words “Yet forty days Nineveh overthrown.” We don’t know if this is a summary of what Jonah said or if it’s all he said. But I think the brevity here is a signal from the author that Jonah was begrudgingly doing the bare minimum. We can speculate that the people pressed Jonah for more information. 

Surprisingly and amazingly, “Nineveh believed God, called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least.” Nineveh’s response is heartfelt; perhaps an echo of Genesis 15:6 (same verb) where Abraham “believed the LORD.” They take the surprising step of fasting and sackcloth in corporate mourning, and it was across various social classes (e.g., “from the greatest to the least”). 

One of the first things we want to note is that God’s declaration of judgment on sinners is a severe mercy.

The threat of judgment and wrath is gracious. God warns and threatens judgment so that some might repent and believe. God sends Jonah to be an instrument of mercy in his preaching of judgment. It is a severe mercy—like the cancer diagnosis that feels like a punch to the gut but is merciful so that you can begin to treat it.

How do we know that a threat of judgment is really a mercy? In Jeremiah, God speaks to Jeremiah these words to declare:

“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.”—Jeremiah 18:7–8

God says that he will declare destruction of a nation, but if they turn from evil, God will relent. God uses the warning of judgment to bring about repentance and faith. The threat of divine judgment is mercy on display. 

Like warning a disobedient child, “Don’t talk back to your mother. If you continue to speak to your mom that way, it will not go well for you.” That warning for that child is a mercy and act of love toward the child. So it is with God’s threat of judgment. It is serious, but it is intended to bring about repentance. 

The reason the threat of judgment is a mercy is because God uses it to awaken repentance.

We see in the Ninevites a deep, heartfelt, and authentic repentance. Nineveh’s response compared with Jonah’s attitude and response highlights how remarkable this is. Jonah runs from God, disobeys his word, while Nineveh—with minimal knowledge—repents in sackcloth and fasting before the shortest sermon ever.

God sends Jonah to preach so that Nineveh would turn and repent. And yet this is also how God uses warnings in Scripture for our good as well. 

Implications of Scene 1:
Understanding Warnings in the Bible

God’s warnings are for our good. When you read warning passages in the Bible, what do you do with it?

“Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And Jesus will say ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”—Matthew 7:22–23

What do you do with a verse like that? Do you just assume that doesn’t apply to you since you believe in Jesus? There can be people who practice mighty deeds who are self-deceived and not of God’s family. Passages like this should cause us to examine ourselves, and pray, “O Lord, don’t let me be self-deceived, don’t let me become prideful, or self-sufficient, or play the game of spirituality, but search me and try me, cause me to listen and obey your commands.” Do you pray like that?

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.—Hebrews 3:12–13

What do we do with that? Do we say, “Well, it doesn’t apply to me?” No, we plead with God to help us not harden our hearts. We make every effort to receive the exhortation of fellow believers so that I don’t become deceived by sin. These warning passages are to be used by God so that we might remain in him, abide in him, and not wander away from truth.

The hard warnings of Scripture are not for us to ignore because we’re in Christ, but they are for us to heed all the more because we are in Christ. Blood-bought believers in Jesus receive warnings and take them to heart. False believers hear the warnings and think it doesn’t apply to them.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

(From hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”)

Application From Scene 1

For some, the message that Jonah declares is the message you also need to hear. If you persist in your own way or run from God, God’s wrath hangs over you and burns hot. This is a wildly unpopular message in this day and age. It’s one that perhaps is often ignored. Wrath and judgment is real. Every person will give an account for what they have done.

The Bible tells us that every sin—hidden or exposed, known or secret—will be accounted for. Justice will surely happen. But when you submit and surrender to Jesus, every sin from every part and any past season of your life can be forgiven forever. But this mercy will not delight your heart unless you know that without cleansing from Christ, we remain under God’s wrath and judgment. 

If you are a follower of Jesus, then we need to take to heart that those around us who are lost are under God’s wrath. Paul writes in Romans 9 that there are only two types of people: objects of wrath or objects of mercy (Romans 9:22–23). We need a grace- motivated urgency to plead with the lost to believe and to plead with God to save.

Plead with God to save, plead with God to be merciful. We must tell the lost the bad news of judgment and the good news of mercy. Today in evangelism, we have the dual job of telling people that they are lost and under wrath before we can tell them there is a Savior.

Be encouraged if you’re not a great evangelist. Look at Jonah! And God used him to save a city of people. This is the prophet who would rather die than preach. So no matter how feeble we feel, we can faithfully declare the good news and the bad news of the gospel. The gospel only makes sense when we understand the bad news. Let’s continually remember that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. And we are the nurses who assist the Great Physician as he does heart transplant surgery. One of our greatest privileges and joys is to be a midwife of new life. 

SCENE 2 (Jonah 3:6–10)

The word that Jonah preached, and likely the response of the people, comes up before the king. The “King of Nineveh” is a curious phrase because it should be the King of Assyria, or something like a Governor of Nineveh. Nonetheless, it’s someone in the highest levels of leadership who is responding to Jonah’s warning. In coming off his throne and removing his royal robes, he sheds himself of his identifiers of status.

What do we make of the animals? I believe it’s to show the extent and seriousness of Nineveh’s repentance. It’s a little like the idiom “poor as a church mouse,” which means one is extremely poor. And Nineveh is a living picture of the fullness of their repentance: “Even their animals were covered in sackcloth and ashes!” It’s also a contrast that while Jonah is disobedient and stubborn—nature obeys (the storm, wind, and waves), the pagans obey (sailors, the people, and Nineveh’s king), and even the animals (the fish, beasts, and worm in chapter 4).

This is unusual contrition and brokenness: sackcloth, fasting, and most importantly doing justice (e.g., “turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”) Much like Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Jonah 3:9 reveals that they don’t fully understand the character of God; maybe God won’t destroy us? “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” 

In verse 10, God relents. In his sovereignty and immutability (meaning that he doesn’t change), God is free to relent: God uses Jonah’s preaching—sovereignly ordained—to cause Nineveh to repent.

What we see is how often God wanted Israel to respond; Nineveh puts Israel to shame here. Jeremiah 36:3 says, “It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” God threatens disaster so he can forgive. But Israel too often resisted God and his prophets, and here God’s prophet is the resistant one, while the Gentiles respond to God.

The wording in Jeremiah 36 is very close in wording to Exodus 32:14, “And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” A significant parallel, because Jonah later goes on to quote from Exodus 34. So if we recall Exodus 32–34, we have a sinful people: Moses is on the mountain 40 days, God is going to consume the people of Israel because of their evil and the golden calf, and God speaks to his prophet. But Moses pleads and intercedes for Israel and God relents—a striking contrast to the prophet Jonah who does not intercede, does not want mercy to be shown, and is in fact very upset by God’s mercy.

God relents in destroying Nineveh. Now, though Nineveh truly does repent, it raises the question of whether Ninevites become true worshipers of Yahweh? We don’t know. It appears that Nineveh truly does repent, but looking at the history of Assyria, it’s not lasting change. But there is a generation that is spared. This is confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 12:41 when he says, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” If Nineveh truly repented with Jonah’s preaching, how much more should the Pharisees and the people repent before Jesus who is God incarnate, revealing the glory of God? 

God reveals his patience in relenting which is not powerlessness. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Why hasn’t God come back yet to rule and reign? Because he is merciful and compassionate. God desires for more people to turn and repent and be ushered into his kingdom. God’s patience is not impotence, but mercy. 

In Joshua 7, Achan steals some of the devoted things (e.g., cloak, silver and gold) that were to go only to God. And what did God do? Achan was stoned and burned with all his children, animals, and belongings. A horrific scene. The fact that none of our sins are punished with such severity and immediacy—does that move us to repentance or to taking sin lightly? 

Application From Scene 2

Does God’s patience move us to repentance or stubbornness? Do you feel godly sorrow when you sin? Consider for a moment—when you sin—are you mainly disappointed because you expect more of yourself or because you’ve offended a holy God? Are you sorry because you know there are consequences to your sin—disappointment, upsetting your family, needing to ask for forgiveness—or because you’ve grieved God? Do we feel shame because we look bad in front of others or others may think less of us, or do we recognize that our sin is against a holy and righteous God?

There is a difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow wants the consequences of sin to go away, minimizes the severity of sin, attempts to put a positive spin on things, and downplays the impact of sin. Godly sorrow seeks to make an open confession and offer full repentance, turn away from evil, accept the consequences, and ultimately seeks the forgiveness and mercy of Christ. In the example of Nineveh, we get a picture of both grieving one’s sin seriously (e.g., sackcloth, ashes, and fasting), and that of change (e.g., putting away of evil and violence).

God reveals his mercy by threatening and relenting. We see a stunning picture of change from Nineveh and the King of Nineveh. Our question has been how do we reconcile judgment and mercy? We’ve answered a part of that, in that God reveals his mercy in the threat of judgment. But when God relents, isn’t that unjust? And this leads us to the cross. 


Jonah 3 is a pre-climatic scene. It’s the set up for everything that comes in chapter 4 where we get to see and hear what Jonah really thinks and really feels. Here in chapter 3, we see a stunning portrait of God’s mercy to sinners, particularly Gentiles and those Jonah believes are undeserving of mercy.

All mercy is blood-bought. All mercy is priceless. It comes at great and infinite cost to God, namely the death of his Son. God’s relenting and mercy exist only because he gave a perfect sacrifice that could bear it all: Jesus Christ.

Only with a perfect sacrifice could sinners be saved. Every single sin that God does not punish is poured out on Christ. Every instance of God relenting in the OT points forward to Calvary when that debt is paid. Every instance of God’s patience today points back to Calvary when Jesus suffered for sinners so that we might be saved. The cross is gloriously at the crossroads of all life—for it is at the cross that God’s wrath was satisfied and sinners were ransomed for God’s glorious purposes.

Jonah is not the spiritual hero we want to emulate. He wasn’t a good evangelist.

  • Where Jonah preached and wanted blood to spill, Jesus preached and spilled his own blood so that some might be saved.
  • Where Jonah condemns Nineveh to destruction, Jesus came not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).
  • Where Jonah wanted swift and severe punishment, Jesus enables the patient and long-suffering love of his Father.
  • Where Jonah tells Nineveh the bad news, Jesus declares the good news and lays down his life for his sheep.
  • Where Jonah hates God’s forgiveness, Jesus declares, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 24:34)

If you don’t know this Jesus, don’t fall into either ditch. Jesus is not just a sweet, patient, loving lamb that is powerless and impotent. And Jesus is not just a vengeful, angry, prowling lion out to punish sinners. He’s both. Jesus is the lion and the lamb; this is a glorious tension. He is overflowing with love, kindness, and mercy, extending it all and beckoning all to come and receive the free gift of eternal life. He will return on a white horse, with a robe dipped in blood, and he will make war and pour out his wrath on those who persist in evil and wicked deeds.

As those who know and love Jesus, let us declare the Good News boldly with God’s heart of mercy for the lost. Let us declare it boldly and liberally so that many more might be ushered in to God’s kingdom and become blood-bought objects of grace to the glory of Christ.

Sermon Discussion Questions 


Main Point: God reveals mercy through the threat of judgment and relenting of his wrath. 


  1. Scene 1: God’s Mercy in Threatening (Jonah 3:1–5)
  2. Scene 2: God’s Mercy in Relenting (Jonah 3:6–10) 

Discussion Questions

  • In Jonah 3:1–2, what is similar or dissimilar to Jonah 1:1–2? What might be the reason for some of the similarities or differences?
  • Does Jeremiah 18:5–11 (especially vv. 7–8) help us understand God’s threat of judgment given to Nineveh through Jonah’s preaching?
  • How is the response of Nineveh and Nineveh’s king (vv. 5–9) compared with Jonah’s response in the story up to this point?
  • Notice some of the parallel wording between Jonah 3:10 and Exodus 32:14. What are some similarities and dissimilarities between these two episodes of God relenting?
  • How does Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection enable and empower God’s mercy and relenting?

Application Questions

  • Because God uses threats of his judgment to awaken repentance, how should we handle the “bad news” of the gospel?
  • As believers, how should we respond to the various warning passages in the Bible (e.g., Matthew 7:22–23, Hebrews 3:12–13)
  • If Jonah—a bad evangelist—is used by God, how should we feel about our commission to go make disciples and share the gospel with our neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and family?
  • In light of God’s relenting and patience, do we generally feel godly sorrow or worldly sorrow toward our sin? What is the difference between the two?
  • How can you be intentional in reflecting God’s heart of mercy to others this week? How can your small group help encourage one another to follow through?

Prayer Focus
In light of God’s mercy to awaken repentance through judgment, and his desire to relent from his wrath, spend time thanking God for his gift of mercy towards you. Confess any sins of failing to reflect God’s heart of mercy to people outside of Christ and perhaps unlike us. Ask God for grace to share the bad and good news of the gospel for the salvation of souls.

Downtown Campus

720 13th Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55415
Sundays: 7:30am, 9am & 11am

North Campus

5151 Program Ave, Mounds View, Minnesota, 55112
Sundays: 9am & 11am

South Campus

20700 Kenrick Ave, Lakeville, Minnesota, 55044
Sundays: 10:30am