How Jesus Called the Jews to
Fresh from His own experience of corporate repentance and baptism “in behalf of the human race,” Jesus demanded repentance from the Jewish nation: “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17. The same call was echoed by the disciples: “And they went out, and preached that men should repent.” Mark 6:12.
This call to repentance was the keynote of Jesus’ ministry from beginning to end. His greatest disappointment was the refusal of the nation to respond. He upbraided “the cities wherein most of His mighty works were done, because they repented not.” Matthew 11:20. The corporate nation of Israel was likened to the unfruitful “fig tree planted in His vineyard”. “Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none.” See Luke 13:6-9. What was the “fruit” Christ was seeking? Repentance.
The barren fig tree which Jesus cursed just before His final sufferings (Mark 11:12-14) became a symbol. It represented not the mere mass of individual unrepentant Jews, but the corporate people which as a nation rejected Christ:
The cursing of the fig tree was an acted parable. That barren tree, flaunting its pretentious foliage in the very face of Christ, was a symbol of the Jewish nation. The Saviour desired to make plain to His disciples the cause and the certainty of Israel’s doom. (Desire of Ages, page 582.)
Our Lord had sent out the twelve and afterward the seventy, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, and calling upon men to repent and believe the gospel. . . This was the message borne to the Jewish nation after the crucifixion of Christ; but the nation that claimed to be God’s peculiar people rejected the gospel brought to them in the power of the Holy Spirit. (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 308.)
The leaders in the Jewish nation had signally failed of fulfilling God’s purpose for His chosen people. Those whom the Lord had made a depositary of truth had proved unfaithful to their trust, and God chose others to do His work. (Acts of The Apostles, pp. 78, 79.)
The national sin of the Jewish people was accomplished through the action of the “religious leaders” which bound the nation to corporate ruin:
When Christ came, presenting to the nation the claims of God, the priests and elders denied His right to interpose between them and the people. They would not accept His rebukes and warnings, and they set themselves to turn the people against Him and to compass His destruction.
For the rejection of Christ, with the results that followed, they were responsible. A nation’s sin and a nation’s ruin were due to the religious leaders. (Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 304, 305.)
National Ruin Followed
It is obvious that only national repentance could have saved the Jewish nation from the impending ruin which their national sin invoked upon them:
Paul showed that Christ had come to offer salvation first of all to the nation that was looking for the Messiah’s coming as a consummation and glory of their national existence. But that nation had rejected Him who would have given them life, and had chosen another leader, whose reign would end in death. He endeavored to bring home to His hearers the fact that repentance alone could save the Jewish nation from impending ruin. (Acts of The Apostles, p. 247.)
Jesus last public discourse was a final appeal to the leaders of the nation at the Jerusalem headquarters to repent. Their refusal to do so called from Christ a heartbroken lament (see Matthew 23:13-37). With tears in His voice, the Saviour spoke of the national ruin impending: “All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … !”
There is a distinct, difference between national repentance and personal repentance. He appealed to individuals to repent (“Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth,” Luke 15:7); and also appealed to “this wicked generation,” that is, the nation (“The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgement with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas,” Luke 11:32).
Like a lone flash of lightning on a dark night, this reference to the “men of Nineve” illustrates Jesus’ idea of national repentance. National repentance is such a rare thing that few believe the experience is even possible at any time. World history affords precious few examples, if any, with the phenomenal exception of the history of Nineveh,* Jesus used it as a ready example to prove that what lie was calling for from the Jewish nation was not something practically impossible. If a heathen nation can repent, said Jesus in effect, surely the nation that claims to be God’s chosen people can do the same!
As Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of Man be to this generation. … The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgement with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold, a greater than Jonas is here. (Luke 11:29-32.)
How Nineveh’s Repentance Was Effected
If one picture is worth a thousand words, Nineveh’s repentance is a sharply focused illustration of a national response to the call of God. The simple story as we find it in the Book of Jonah tells how a nation, not simply a scattered group of individuals, repented. Although we have never seen this happen in our day, there is no reason for us to doubt the truth of this sacred history. Let those who doubt that the Seventh-day Adventist Church can ever repent consider the history of heathen Nineveh!
It is easier for us moderns to believe that the “great fish” swallowed Jonah alive than to grasp the fact that a corporate nation did actually repent as a nation at the preaching of God’s word, “The people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even unto the least of them.” Jonah 3:5. Amazing as it may seem to us, here is something that the “body” of a nation did!
Jonah goes on to explain how it was that this repentance began with “the greatest of them” and extended downward from the usual order in history to “the least of them”. “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.” Jonah 3:5-7.
Although the call to repent was not initiated at the royal palace, the government of Nineveh wholeheartedly supported it. The “city” repented from the “top” to the “bottom”. If such an “exceeding great city” as a body “believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even unto the least of them,” it is clear that the repentance was both nationally “proclaimed and published,” and individually received. The divine warning had proclaimed a corporate “overthrow” of Nineveh as a city; the people’s repentance was completely complementary. Jesus’ point was that the fact that this happened once in history was proof that it could have happened in His day also.
Such a national repentance would have been very practical and easy to achieve. For it to have proceeded among the Jews as it did in ancient Nineveh “from the greatest of them even to the least of them” would have required that the High Priest, Caiphas, lead out. This he could have done had he simply accepted the principle of the cross.