Consider another well-known example of God's special strategies for confronting the wickedness of men. Consider the story of Jonah and the whale. Most know that Jonah was swallowed by a large fish and dramatically saved. So this 'happily ever after story' often finds itself in Children's storybooks along with cuddly stuffed whales. However, the whole story is both more dramatic and more joyful than commonly portrayed. Find the book of Jonah in the Old Testament and read it for yourself.
Did you also know that this story reveals yet another tactic that God may employ to graciously move his people away from the destructiveness of evil?
- God told Jonah to preach against the sin of Nineveh to help them.
- Jonah did not want grace to come to Nineveh so he ran away.
- So God stopped Jonah with a storm and a large fish.
- Then Jonah had a change of heart in the belly of the fish.
- Then God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land...
Now let's pick up the story at Jonah Chapter 3 (WEB),
1) Yahweh’s word came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2) "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I give you." 3) So Jonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to Yahweh’s word. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey across. 4) Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried out, and said, "In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!" 5) The people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even to their least. 6) The news reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7) He made a proclamation and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, "Let neither man nor animal, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water; 8) but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and animal, and let them cry mightily to God. Yes, let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands. 9) Who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we might not perish?" 10) God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it.
How are we to understand this?
God said, through Jonah, that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days. However, Nineveh repented and was not overthrown. So did God lie or misrepresent himself? His word to Nineveh included no condition, just a flat statement that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days -- period. Yet Nineveh was not overthrown in 40 days, but instead spared because of their repentance. Let's consider three possible explanations.
- God's threat of overthrow included an unspoken condition. That is one possible interpretation, however, the Ninevites' words in response suggest otherwise. The Ninevites said, "Who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we might not perish?" So it is clear that the Ninevites were not aware of mercy conditioned on their repentance. In fact they clearly did not know if God would relent even if they repented! From their point of view they were moved to repent for the mere possibility that God might relent and offer mercy.
- Jonah spoke of overthrow, but that was not the message God intended. This is not a valid understanding either. The Holy Spirit makes it clear that Jonah's words were in fact God's words to Nineveh. The Scripture says, "Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried out, and said, 'In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!' The people of Nineveh believed God;" The message of overthrow in 40 days was from God through Jonah.
- God threatened powerfully for a guaranteed effect. A final possibility is that God threatened Nineveh so powerfully that his intended effect, the Ninevites' repentance, was guaranteed. With this model of understanding we suggest that God's sovereign plan never intended to overthrow Nineveh in 40 days and that his words were a threat only -- guaranteed to result in Nineveh's repentance. He spoke his threat persuasively to guarantee his purpose. Though, one very very very important caveat to this understanding is that we can only conclude this in retrospect! To respond to any of God's warnings concluding that he is making a mere threat and will not follow through is not recommended. We are advised to repent hoping that God may extend mercy.
So do I propose that God employs this same tactic through the gospel of Jesus Christ?
One way he certainly does not employ this tactic is to merely threaten the unbelieving with judgment and punishment in Hades. Jesus does not simply threaten the fires of Hades; the unbelieving, wicked dead are actually sent there. Some would suggest Luke 16:19-31 is a parable, yet it has none of the elements of a parable. The rich man who refused to help poor Lazarus was sent to Hades fire, as Jesus makes quite plain. Consider also that Revelation 20:5 makes it clear that the unbelieving dead remain dead in Hades while believers live. Thus it is again clear that Hades is not empty, but filled with the unbelieving. Revelation 20:13 also says that Hades then finally gives up these wicked dead. So again Hades is not empty or how could Hades give up the dead? Jesus also preached hope by saying in Matthew 16:18 that grace would overcome the gates of Hades. Hades needs to be overcome because it is filled with wicked men who have yet to acknowledge their redemption. Why does Christ need to overcome the gates of Hades if no one is being punished there? Paul even joins the chorus in 1 Corinthians 15:55 saying that Christ will steal all victory from both death and Hades! Hades will be finally robbed of all victory when the grace of God proves victorious even for the unbelieving elect currently being punished there. The gospel warnings of punishment in Hades after death for the unbelieving disobedient are not a threat, but certain reality. Friend, take care!
However, we also see that Christ is willing to call his "lost sheep," "not my sheep" in John 10:26. He is also willing to call "his people," "not my people" and his "loved one," "not my loved one" in Hosea 2:23. Now this tactic is very similar to God's strategy with Nineveh. The strategy is also very fitting. Consider just what an unbeliever really is in the first place. An unbeliever is one of God's precious creations, deeply loved by God and redeemed by Christ, who rejects the love and forgiveness of our Heavenly Father in order to remain god of his own life. He rejects his election just as Esau rejected his birthright... for a bowl of soup. Jesus is perfectly willing to label these wicked unbelievers as non-elect, not his sheep, not his people, not his chosen. Just like God wanted the Ninevites to fear destruction, so the unbelieving elect can only fear eternal damnation. However, just like the Ninevites repented and were not destroyed, so the love of Christ has already guaranteed the final salvation of all his chosen people. Not one of Christ's elect can ever stumble into the Lake of Fire, but will be brought to repentance sooner... or later.
Though all mankind is chosen for the atonement of sins, most are not yet chosen to simply believe this good news about their redemption. Yet even so, they are loved by God from before the foundation of the world with a guaranteed home in Heaven.
The story of Jonah and Nineveh is another example of God's special, gracious strategies to care for rebellious, unbelieving mankind.