Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20
At first blush the only thing connecting the Hebrew Bible passage and the gospel this week is the concept of repentance. How repentance is connected to Jesus’ calling of his first disciples in the Mark account of his life is not immediately clear either. Comparing the ministries of Jonah and Jesus should help clarify the point, however.
Jonah’s message to the great city of Nineveh was not a hopeful one: Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed. There was no nuance, no conditional statement, just destruction. The people of Nineveh, from their king to everyone else, including animals, repented of their evil deeds in sackcloth and ashes. They imagined that the God of the Israelites, whom they barely knew, could be assuaged by a demonstration of humility and repentance. And they were right. God saw how they repented of their sin and God, in turn, repented [the word nachem is not easy to translate precisely into idiomatic English here] of the evil [ra’ah, however, in unambiguously “evil”] that God was about to do (Jonah 3:10). Jonah’s mission was an unqualified success for the Assyrians in Nineveh, and for the grace of God. Jonah and the Israelites felt differently, as it was these same Assyrians who would sack the Kingdom of Israel only a few decades later. Nonetheless, Jonah is a stunning example of both humans and God repenting after a hopeless message: “Nineveh will be destroyed.”
The gospel text is less explicit about the response to Jesus’ proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). We know that shortly after this, Andrew was able to rejoin Jesus and bring his brother Simon/Peter along as well. James and John became disciples too. People were joining the Kingdom of Heaven as led by Jesus. But what about repentance? When I think about associating a few words with Jesus, I think of love, messiah, sacrifice, lord, healer. “Repentance” I associate more with John the Baptizer, Jeremiah, Hosea and Jonah. But Jesus started his ministry, at least according to John-Mark, by calling for repentance.
But repentance was not his only message. Even in the phrase that Mark’s gospel preserves, it is only a quarter of the instruction. The time is fulfilled means that the axis of history has arrived, and the messiah, God’s annointed, has been born to defeat the powers of sin and death and show us the way to God. The Kingdom of God has come near means that God’s reign on earth has arrived/returned. Believe the good news is a command to have hope that God is reconciling the world in even more powerful way than has been employed in the past. These are messages of HOPE!
Unlike Jonah, Jesus calls for people to repent, and surrounds that call with proclamations of hope and good news. Jonah prophesied only doom, and that prophesy produced rich fruits of repentance. For Jonah, however, the embrace of the Assyrians brought only despair and anger, because Jonah did not wish for the enemies of his people to have a hope or a future.
Jesus’ command to repent is often lost in the rest of the good news. Jesus’ death to conquer sin and death is such good news, we can scarcely remember that we are commanded to put to death our old selves in response (Col 3:5). It is imperative that we not neglect this aspect. Jesus’ message is superior to Jonah’s in that he announces not just the opportunity to repent, but also hope for the future. Jesus wishes to make us fishers of humans (Mark 1:17). We are to not just snatch people away from their sins, but also to proclaim that good news that Jesus died, rose and will come again.
There are these two steps to the discipleship process for Jesus-followers. We cannot lose the hope, promise of forgiveness and acceptance and focus solely on repentance. On the other hand, if we only focus on solving the problem of sin, we will neglect the reality of the spread of God’s Kingdom here on the earth and our role in it. We must repent and do Kingdom work!