The evangelistic accounts in Scripture have often been handled in ways that obscure a proper understanding of apostolic doctrine and practice. A close look at Jonah 3 brings out a key point that many believers need to pay more attention to when they handle such accounts.
Jonah “began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’” (3:4). He briefly records their response to his preaching: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jon. 3:5).
Jonah also informs us that the king had heeded his warning properly: “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” (3:6). Not only did the king respond rightly himself, but he also directed his people to do so as well:
7 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 any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: 8 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. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
Jonah ends the account by recording that God graciously spared Nineveh: “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” (3:10).
Several points about this account that are easily overlooked instruct us about how we should handle other evangelistic accounts as well.
First, Jonah makes clear that the people’s right response was the result of their heeding a decree from the king (and his nobles) that instructed them about what they were to do in response to Jonah’s preaching: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth . . . For word came unto the king . . . and he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let . . .” (3:5-7a).
The people’s response, therefore, was not just due to their own response to what Jonah had preached to them; it was due both to their believing his preaching to them and to their heeding the directive they were given by the king about how they were to respond.
Second, Jonah informs us that the king directed the people to respond in at least four specific ways:
(1) Fasting – “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water”;
(2) Covering with sackcloth – “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth”;
(3) Praying to God – “and cry mightily unto God”;
(4) Turning from evil – “yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7b-8).
This four-fold response may be summarized as their needing to repent and pray to God.
Third, Jonah explicitly records that the people heeded three of the four aspects of the king’s decree: fasting (“proclaimed a fast” [3:5]); covering with sackcloth (“and put on sackcloth” [3:5]); and, turning from evil (“God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way” [3:10]). He, however, provides no explicit indication that they obeyed the aspect of the decree that commanded them to pray to God.
How this lack of an explicit record of their praying should be interpreted points to a vital aspect of interpreting this evangelistic account properly: Does the lack of explicit mention of their praying to God mean that they disobeyed the king’s directive to pray? Or, did they heed his directive to pray, and the writer expects us to understand that they did so even though he does not bother to mention it explicitly?
The flow of thought from verse 5 to verses 6-10 shows that we are to hold the latter understanding as the correct one. Verse 5 is the writer’s summary statement of their response; it is not exhaustive, as verse 10 plainly shows. Verse 6 explains that what they did was because of the directive they had received from the king, which Jonah explains in verse 8 as having including direction to pray to God.
We, therefore, should hold that the Ninevehites did pray to God as part of their response to Jonah’s preaching. Furthermore, verse 10 says that God responded graciously to them, which would not have been the case had the people refused to “cry mightily unto God.”
On this reading, Jonah 3 teaches us that evangelistic accounts that say that the people believed and/or repented should be understood as summary statements that indicate that they also prayed to God, whether or not the passage records explicitly that they did so. This interpretation has important ramifications for many NT passages that some see as evidence that the people who were saved did not pray as a part of their salvation experience.
Support for this approach to interpreting evangelistic accounts is provided by a comparison of Acts 9 and 26. Acts 9:20 inform us that Paul preached in the synagogues of Damascus that Christ is the Son of God. Luke provides no information about Paul’s preaching repentance to them; should we then hold that Paul did not tell the people in Damascus to repent?
Acts 26:20 states that Paul did preach repentance in Damascus, which indicates to us that Luke did not intend for us to conclude from the lack of mention of that content in his report of Paul’s preaching in Acts 9:20 that Paul in fact did not preach repentance in Damascus. The comparison of these two passages instructs us not to interpret the lack of mention of specific content in an evangelistic account as evidence that no testimony to that content was in fact given on that occasion.
Based on the evidence from Jonah 3, we should hold that evangelistic accounts that record people’s getting saved but do not say that they prayed to do so are not evidence that they did not pray as an aspect of their salvation experience. Rather, we should hold that they did pray, and that the Scripture writers expect us to understand that they did do so in spite of the lack of explicit statements in the accounts that inform us that they did pray.