The Forgiveness We Need
Robert Wurtz II
“For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?” (Jonah 3:6–4:4 KJV)
I have quoted the story of Jonah at length to illustrate God’s willingness to forgive while people are quick to unleash judgment. I’m reminded of David, who once said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14). Sometimes we underestimate God’s willingness to forgive. He is far more merciful than people. Only when the Holy Spirit is moving in us, yielding the fruit of the Spirit, can we have compassion for the lost. Otherwise, we would be no better than the disciples who suggested calling fire down from heaven on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54).
The Ninevites were Assyrians. This fact alone should give us context as to why Jonah would have wanted Nineveh to receive judgment. The Assyrians were exceedingly mean and murderous in their dealings. They even memorialized their evil in stone. A Nov. 5, 2018 article by Jonathan Jones of The Guardian captures this truth, “Their artistic propaganda relishes every detail of torture, massacre, battlefield executions and human displacement that made Assyria the dominant power of the Middle East from about 900 to 612BC. Assyrian art contains some of the most appalling images ever created. In one scene, tongues are being ripped from the mouths of prisoners. That will mute their screams when, in the next stage of their torture, they are flayed alive. In another relief a surrendering general is about to be beheaded and in a third prisoners have to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed in the streets of Nineveh. These and many more episodes of calculated cruelty can be seen carved in gypsum in the British Museum’s blockbuster recreation of Assyria’s might.”
Jonah knew how evil the Ninevites were, so he probably didn’t mind bringing a message of judgment. Jonah prayed to the Lord and revealed why he fled from the Lord to avoid preaching to them. He said, “(…) was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” Ordinarily, somebody would laud these qualities as wonderful. But Jonah didn’t seem to want Nineveh to experience them. So he fled. When God forced his hand, and he finally delivered the message, he waited to see if God would destroy them. God saw their repentance and changed His mind.
God’s mercy towards the Ninevites set Jonah off. Why? Because people can’t forgive as God does. It’s hard to comprehend how God would forgive so much evil. But He did when they humbled themselves before Him. Manasseh is another example of a man who did great evil in Israel, and yet God forgave him when he humbled himself. This truth should be very encouraging to those who feel they have sinned to the point of no forgiveness. Jesus used Nineveh as an example of people who “repent” of their evil ways. We could even say His definition of repentance was the Ninevites when they repented at the preaching of Jonah.
The Chief of Sinners
Paul was a persecutor of the early Church before Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. He commented on this when he wrote to Timothy, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:12–15 NKJV).
The only thing that limits our forgiveness is our willingness to humble ourselves, repent, and ask for it. Jesus stated it plainly, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31 ESV). Note that every sin and blasphemy (with the exception of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit) will be forgiven. The sin of “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is what the religious leaders did when they saw Jesus moving in the power of God, and they called it Baalzebub.
Forgiveness is the attitude of heart that we move in when we are full of the Holy Spirit. We ask God to forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive others who have trespassed against us. Jesus demonstrated forgiveness under extreme circumstances when He asked the Father to forgive those who crucified Him, and Stephen showed it when he was stoned (Acts 7). The attitude is further revealed in the blood of Christ that speaks better things than that of Abel (Hebrews 12:24). What is it? It is God’s attitude towards repentant people. He desires mercy. As Jonah said it, “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” This should excite us beyond measure!
When we are carrying the burden of sin (as the old hymn called it) it’s like chains that hold us in bondage and keep us from pursuing God. Do we need free from the power of Sin? Indeed! But we also desperately need to be freed from the burden of our past sins.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV).
David discovered the truth of 1 John 1:9 long before John ever penned the words by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When Nathan came to confront him, he simply stated, “I have sinned against the LORD,” and immediately Nathan responded, “And God has taken away your sin, you shall not die” (2 Samual 12:13). David suffered the consequences of his sin, but his relationship with God was restored, and that’s what matters.
What does it mean “God is faithful and just” to forgive us of our sins? It simply means that the price was paid at Calvary. God is faithful and just to appropriate to us the forgiveness that Christ paid for on the Cross. It was His shed blood that makes it possible.