I’ve preached through several books of the Bible, but I think preaching through Jonah has been one of my favorites. There is so much in Jonah that I’m half tempted to try to write a book on it, but I don’t think I could capture the beauty. One of the things I believe Jonah teaches us is in regards to the nature of repentance and obedience.
What are repentance and obedience?
Repentance, and the concept of repentance, comes up frequently in the book of Jonah. The pagan sailors have some form of repentance. Jonah repents in the belly of the fish. The Ninevites repent. God “repents” of destroying Nineveh. But the story of Jonah doesn’t end in Jonah 3. And the fact that Jonah 4 was written tells us a bit about what true repentance looks like.
Consider a couple of questions. Is the story of repentance something like this: "I once cursed like a sailor, but God really brought some serious conviction and now I don’t do it anymore"? Or, "I once was and addict, I hit rock bottom, God gave me a second chance now I don’t do that stuff anymore, at least I try not to…but, oh how much I would just love one more hit. I’d love to get turned up one more time, but I know that God would be angry with me, so I don’t do it." You can replace this with any sin of your choosing…is repentance fundamentally, "I once did this and now I don’t do this thing anymore"? Is that the fundamental nature of repentance? Is that really what biblical repentance looks like? Or is there something more to it?
Obedience is really the other side of the repentance coin. And Jonah teaches us a bit about the type of obedience that God is looking for. Again a few questions are helpful.
Am I fully and completely faithful just because I’m obedient? If God says to me “speak my words to this people” and I do it, but I don’t really care much about the people I am speaking to, am I being faithful? If God tells you to do something in His Word and you do it—but you do it begrudgingly—is that the obedience that God is looking for? Do I have to like and treasure God’s commands, or just do them?
To summarize the questions: Is repentance simply, "I once did that thing and now I don’t or is it something more"? Is it an absolute change of heart and mind? Is obedience simply doing what God told me to do or is there something more to it?
Am I supposed to treasure God’s commands or just do them?
Lessons From Jonah
If all God cared about was obedience then we wouldn’t have Jonah 4. We’d just see a prophet who had now been compliant. He did what God told him to do, Nineveh was saved, and revival broke out. Who cares if the prophet is angry in his heart and thinks God did something evil?
Jonah thought it would be okay for him to sit outside the city of Nineveh and wait for its destruction. Can you relate to his attitude? “There. I did what you wanted me to do.” I wonder, before the events of Jonah 4, did the prophet figure that God was now pleased with him?
But God isn’t done with Jonah. He is after more than just obedience. He wants Jonah to treasure his commands. He wants to give Jonah His heart of compassion. Jonah, and the Israelites he represents, must have kingdom-eyes for the Ninevites.
What God does with Jonah should open up many questions for our hearts. What of my obedience? Does God just want lip service? Is that all I’m giving to him? Am I going to repent with my heart or just rituals?
God doesn’t just want begrudging obedience. He desires us to have hearts which reflect His. Until this happens our hearts will be off-center. Jonah, and our, greatest problem is a worship problem. His ethnocentrism and resultant lack of mission are fundamentally worship problems.
God doesn’t want mere compliance; He is after joyous obedience.
God isn’t after moralistic and merely obedient people—he isn’t about creating older brothers—he wants prodigal son type of worship. Slay the fattened calf. Celebrate. Party at the wonder of redemption.
Does your view of repentance and obedience match this?