Summary: We can make a case for Nineveh's conversion being the greatest conversion in history. But whether it was or not, Jesus was clearly impressed. It shows us what genuine repentance looks like.
When I was a child people would sometimes give me a book called ‘the Guinness Book of Records’ as a Christmas present. I guess many of us have come across it. I remember as a kid browsing through the records. You can now find most of the records online and it’s now called simply ‘Guinness World Records'.
Guinness World Records has about 40,000 records, so it covers almost every imaginable record. It includes records for some very cool things. Here’s one – the most stairs climbed while balancing a person on the head (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIPX3pqgfFY&t=18s).
But there’s one world record that doesn’t appear in Guinness World Records. Nobody has claimed an event as the greatest religious conversion in history. If there was, I think Nineveh would hold it.
On one occasion, Jesus was talking to some religious leaders. He said this:
‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here’ [Matthew 12:41].
Why does that suggest that Nineveh’s repentance was the greatest religious conversion in history? Jesus’ argument is along the lines, ‘If Nineveh (‘even Nineveh!’) managed to repent, then this generation doesn’t have a leg to stand on!’ Nineveh was a very wicked city. We wouldn’t have expected Nineveh to repent.
Let me try another example on you. The example is purely imaginary – it isn’t anything like our family…
Suppose a mum is a keen runner. Every Saturday she does ‘Park Run.’ (‘Park Run’ is restarting on Saturday, which is why I chose this example.) The mum has a 15-year-old son. She wants him to do Park Run.
‘But 5k is too far’, he complains. ‘I can’t run 5 kilometres!’
The mum might say, ‘Son. A couple of years ago a man called Fauja Singh ran a Park Run in Birmingham. He was 107! If he could do it at 107, you can do it!’
The mum would choose the most extreme example of someone you would NOT expect to be able to do Park Run to make her point.
I think Jesus did the same. He chose Nineveh as the place that was least likely to repent. If that logic is good then Nineveh’s repentance may be the greatest religious conversion in history.
Well, we’ll never know whether Nineveh actually deserves the prize for the greatest religious conversion in history. But Jesus clearly looked very favourably on what the people of Nineveh did. They got something right – and that means that there’s something we can learn from them. In the story of the Ninevites’ repentance we can see what repentance SHOULD be like.
I’m going to draw four points about repentance from Nineveh.
1. The Ninevites recognized that they had a problem
2. The Ninevites recognized the urgency of the situation
3. The Ninevites repented as though they meant it
4. The Ninevites changed
1. THE NINEVITES RECOGNIZED THAT THEY HAD A PROBLEM
The first thing the Ninevites got right was that they saw there was a problem.
In 1970, Jim Lovell, one of the astronauts on Apollo 13, radioed Houston. ‘Houston, we've had a problem here', he said.
Actually, there had been an explosion and there was a real danger that the three astronauts would not be able to return to earth. The first and rather obvious step for everyone involved in the mission was to acknowledge that there was a problem.
The people of Nineveh did the same. They acknowledged that there was a problem.
Look at 3:4. Jonah went to Nineveh and proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ Now look at 3:5. The people of Nineveh recognized that this was GOD’S message. It’s a very interesting question why they believed that. But the point is, they believed it. They understood they had a problem.
Let’s apply this to people in our day. Do people face a problem? Answer, yes, people do face a problem. Jesus made it clear that there will be a day of judgement.
He said, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ [Matthew 25:31-32].
Jesus said that there will be a harvest at the end of the age. The weeds will be pulled up and burned in the fire [Matt 13:37-43].
Many people will not fare well on this occasion. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
When Jim Lovell told Houston they had a problem, Houston listened. When Jesus tells the world that it has a problem, the world should listen. But it doesn’t.