The Nature of Repentance (Jonah 3:6-10)


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According to Mark 1:15, the essence of Jesus’ message was this: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” What does it mean to repent? In Jonah 3:6-10, we see an Old Testament description of a New Testament imperative.
 
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
 
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
 
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
 
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
 
This passage describes repentance first and foremost as an act of humility. Notice the actions of the king in particular. “He rose from his throne.” In ancient days, the king sat while others stood in his presence. But when the King of Kings spoke, the king of Nineveh stood in his presence, recognizing God’s superior authority. He “took off his robe” and “covered himself with sackcloth.” Usually, our outward appearance reveals our inward disposition. Royal robes are external symbols of power, but sackcloth is the external symbol of mourning. The king of Nineveh knew he had done wrong, and he showed it to all. Finally, he “sat down in the dust.” In Genesis 3:19, when God announced judgment for Adam’s sin, he said, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” When the king sat in the dust, it was an act of humility—he should have been sitting on a throne—as well as an act of contrition. He knew he deserved judgment.
 
Second, repentance is an act of turning away from sin. The king of Nineveh declared a fast, which applied to every living creature in the city, whether human or animal. Fasting is an act of deprivation. When we fast, we stop doing something—usually eating or drinking—in order to focus our minds on God. But God demands holiness of life. So in addition to fasting, the king of Nineveh called on his subjects to “give up their evil ways and their violence.” Their sins were both personal and social in nature, and all sin results in divine judgment. True repentance is an ongoing fast of sin.
 
Finally, repentance is an act of hope. As a pagan, the king of Nineveh had no biblical revelation telling him that God would act graciously toward him and his city. But he hoped nonetheless: “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (As Christians, we have the sure promise of Scripture that God has given us grace through Christ.) In the end, God did in fact have “compassion” on Nineveh.”
 
He will do the same for you and me today if we humbly turn from turn from sin and turn to Christ in hope.

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