Christians have long loved reading about great revivals throughout history. When we read about these revivals, it spurs in us hope that the Spirit can work in our ministry today as he did in ministries throughout the ages to bring masses of people under conviction of sin.

Perhaps the most astonishing revival ever recorded took place in Assyria under the ministry of the prophet Jonah. Having spent three days and three nights in the fish’s belly, Jonah was delivered and commissioned afresh to go to Nineveh. Arriving, he preached a simple message, warning of judgement to come (v. 4). “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (v. 5). The king of Nineveh proclaimed a public display of repentance (vv. 6–9) and God, seeing their remorse and repentance, spared them the judgement of which he had warned (v. 10).

If we are honest, this display of repentance seems almost unbelievable. But it is precisely in its unbelievableness that it speaks so powerfully to us. There are at least three reasons that this revival strikes us as so unlikely.

First, this revival is perhaps unbelievable because it was so spontaneous. We are accustomed to sharing the gospel over the long haul, fielding difficult questions, and praying fervently for the subjects of our evangelism. We labour to sharpen our presentation of the gospel and our apologetic skills so as to be as effective as possible. Jonah, on the other hand, walked a day’s journey into the city and simply proclaimed, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” There was no presentation of the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, the cross of Christ, or a call to repent. Yet the entire city—“from the greatest of them to the least of them”—believed the message and fell before God in repentance. It seems incredible that repentance would so spontaneously follow such a short message.

Second, this revival is perhaps unbelievable because it was so comprehensive. “From the greatest of them to the least of them” suggests that adults and children alike believed the gospel. We are sadly far too accustomed to wives with unbelieving husbands, husbands with unbelieving wives, and parents with unbelieving children. We consider it an anomaly when God saves an entire household, let alone an entire city of households. It sounds too good to be true. And yet the Holy Spirit records that that is what happened in Nineveh.

Third, this revival was unbelievable because it was so shortlived. Within a century, Nahum would preach a message of inescapable judgement to the same city that had believed Jonah’s preaching. It may strike us as unlikely that such comprehensive repentance would be so shortlived. Surely the believing legacy would last at least a few generations? How could the Assyrians so comprehensively forget this repentance within such a short space of time?

These questions are understandable, and they highlight an important principle: The story of the Ninevites’ repentance highlights, not the greatness of their faith, but the greatness of God’s forgiveness. That is the lesson we should draw from this text. James Bruckner is correct:

A God who is intensely interested even in the salvation of animals (along with the wicked Ninevites) must be interested in anyone. A God interested in a people who will not sustain their repentance over time is an extravagant God who will welcome anyone who will turn to him. It reveals a wild and off-center God who really does love the wicked in spite of their wickedness or foolishness.

We should not come away from this text impressed with Jonah’s evangelistic methods or with the impressive display of genuine remorse by the Assyrians. We should, instead, come away from the text impressed by the magnitude of God’s grace that searches out every person it will save, rescuing them from the depths of their sin. Unbelievable? Believe it!

As you reflect on Jonah 3 this morning, ask God to give you a fresh appreciation of his extravagant love, which will seek and save every object of its affection.