The revival in Nineveh is really the most amazing miracle in the entire book of Jonah. If we are impressed by the ceasing of the great storm or the rescue mission of the great fish, then we should be completely awestruck by the revival in the great city of Nineveh.
There are three (3) things that characterized the great revival in Nineveh. Those same things are characteristic of true revivals in any age, even our own.
The first thing is the faithful preaching of the Word of God. The Word of God is truly preached, often with remarkable boldness and clarity, even simplicity. Look at v.2 – the LORD tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and call out to it “the message that I tell you.” Preaching is only true preaching when it is faithful to God’s Word. And how do we know that he faithfully preached the message that God gave him? Look at v.5 – “And the people of Nineveh believed God.” It doesn’t say that they believed Jonah, although that was certainly the case as well. When they heard Jonah speak, they believed God. And they can only do that because he faithfully preached God’s message.
And that is the test of preaching, isn’t it? If it cannot be said that the hearers can “believe God” when they hear what is said, then it is not true Christian preaching. It may be a nice speech; it may be an interesting lecture; it may be helpful advice, but it’s not true preaching if it is not God’s Word faithfully and clearly proclaimed.
Michael Horton writes, “It is the truth of the Gospel that saves the church and sets her apart from the world, not her own works or feverish posturing. We should be concerned when we hear reports of so-called “revivals” sweeping the nation in which God allegedly saves and acts apart from the ordinary means – word and sacrament.”1
Look at the message that Jonah preached. While Scripture’s record of preaching and conversations is often a summary or an abbreviated version of what was said, it is pretty clear that Jonah’s message was short and to the point. When people are in mortal danger, there is no time for a complicated, convoluted message. His basic message was loud and clear – “in forty days Nineveh will be overthrown!” (v.4).
This was the case with the most well-known sermon from the Great Awakening, entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is also the most famous sermon in American history. Preached by Jonathan Edwards in the city of Enfield, Connecticut on July 8th, 1741, it was based on a simple text from Deuteronomy 32:5 – “Their feet shall slide in due time.” The message focused primarily on the certainty of God’s judgment of sinners.
Here are just a couple short quotes from the sermon:
“Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight.”
Not only that, but it has been said that Edwards basically read his sermon in a flat monotone and used little or no inflection, gesture or emotion – he relied upon the Spirit of God working through the truth of the Word of God, and nothing else!3
Perhaps we do not see much revival in our churches today because the simplicity of the preached Word seems to be so rare. It is often obscured by entertainment-oriented worship and preaching the ideas of men as if they were gospel. We just don’t seem to have confidence in the power of the Word of God to make the enemies of Christ His footstool, to transform enemies of God into followers of Jesus Christ.
The second thing that characterizes true revival is the conviction of sin. People hear the Word of the Lord preached and they are cut to the heart, just like when the Apostle Peter preached to the city of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2. That was clearly the case here in Nineveh, wasn’t it? They all put on sackcloth and called for a fast. The king even declared that no one was to eat or drink anything – and that even included the animals! Sackcloth was a common expression of grief, in this case grieving over sin.
The third thing that characterized the revival in Nineveh and all true revival is repentance from sin. Where that is missing, you can be sure that there is no revival. All the holy talk in the world, all the increased church attendance, all of the furious activity in the name of Jesus without repentance is just that – empty talk and vain activity. The repentance from specific sins (in their case everyone turned from his evil way and from the violence in their hands – v.8) is the very thing that corroborates or proves that they really did believe God and really were grieving over their sins.
Another way of saying all of this is that revival involves a new awareness of the reality and presence of the one true and living God. When we are aware of the holiness of God, we are made aware of our sinfulness (that we are not holy) and our need for repentance.
So let us pray for revival. It is the work of the sovereign grace and mercy of God alone. And let us flock to hear the Word of God and respond with conviction of sin and true repentance, and faith.
You can read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” here.