This Is What Was Spoken by the Prophet Joel
The Hebrew Old Testament, from which our English versions are translated, is divided into three major sections, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, in that order. The section of Prophets is divided into two groups called "former prophets" and "latter prophets," not because of their chronology but because of their order in the Hebrew canon. The "former prophets" are Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. The "latter prophets" are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve so-called "minor prophets," Hosea through Malachi. The book of the prophet Joel comes second in the group of minor prophets, but unlike Hosea and Amos and others, it does not tell us when it was written or when the events recorded in it happened. The value of the book remains, even so. What Joel saw happening and what he saw in the future are clear, even if we can't date the book.
The Locust Plague and the Day of the Lord
Joel writes in the midst of crisis. A devastating locust plague had attacked Israel and left virtually no vines or grain: "What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust has left, the destroying locust has eaten" (1:4). "The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but after them a desolate wilderness and nothing escapes them" (2:3). Joel tells the drunkards to weep because all wine is now cut off since the vines are eaten and gone (1:5). But for Joel the tragedy is felt most keenly because "the cereal offering and drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord" (1:9). The plague was no accident. Joel sees it as a judgment from God on the people who had left the Lord. The locusts are God's army: "The Lord utters his voice before his army, and his host is exceedingly great; he that executes his word is powerful. For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can endure it?" (2:11).
So Joel calls for repentance: "'Yet even now,' says the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.' Return to the Lord your God . . . Who knows whether he will not turn and repent and leave a blessing behind him?" (2:12–14). And the people respond to Joel's preaching with the result that God's jealousy for his people is stirred up. "The Lord answered and said to his people, 'Behold I am sending you grain and wine and oil, and you will be satisfied, and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations"' (2:19). Then after he has spelled out the richness of their restoration, Joel lifts his eyes by divine inspiration to the more distant future in 2:28 and delivers God's word again:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and the maidservants in those days I will pour out my spirit. And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered.
Joel had called the judgment of God in the locust plague "the day of the Lord" (2:11). But now he sees another "day of the Lord" coming, "great and terrible" (2:31). It will be signaled by portents in the sky and signs on earth for all to see, and the whole earth will be summoned for judgment: "I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat (which means Yahweh judges), and I will enter into judgment with them there" (3:2). But before this cataclysmic judgment occurs, God promises that a great outpouring of his Spirit will happen: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh" (2:28).
Pentecost and the Prophecy of Joel
Hundreds of years later the apostle Peter stands up on the day of Pentecost and announces the fulfillment of this prophecy, and he says in Acts 2:16, "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel." Last Sunday we focused our attention on the ascension of Jesus which happened forty days after his resurrection. Today we move forward about a week to Pentecost. The word means "fiftieth" and refers to the fiftieth day after the Passover. Pentecost was the Jewish celebration of the feast of weeks (Exodus 34:12; Numbers 28:26) when the first fruits of the grain harvest were dedicated to the Lord.
But today, for Christians, Pentecost (or Whitsunday as it is sometimes called) has a new meaning. Jesus had told the disciples in Acts 1:4 to wait in Jerusalem for the "promise of the Father," namely, the baptism of the Spirit. He had told them in 1:8 that they would "receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you." Then on Pentecost morning, Luke tells us, "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues" (2:4), so that pilgrims from all over the world heard them telling in their own language "the great things of God" (2:11). The people listening are amazed and perplexed and ask in Acts 2:12, "What does this mean?" And Peter gives the astonishing answer: "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel." Then he quotes Joel 2:28–32. The two questions I want to try to answer this morning are: 1) What did Joel mean when he predicted this outpouring of God's Spirit before the great and terrible day of the Lord? 2) What is the fuller significance of this event now, as we view it from the standpoint of New Testament revelation?
The Outpouring of God's Spirit on All Flesh
In the Old Testament the Spirit of God is the presence of God in the world to reveal himself by some action or word. Therefore when Joel says that God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, he means that God will draw near to men and women and make himself known and felt in a powerful way. There is a great difference between perceiving a lake at a distance and being immersed in the lake. So there is a great difference between experiencing God as a distant object of knowledge and being immersed in his presence. The picture of a worldwide pouring compels us to think of being soaked and saturated and swept along by the Spirit of God. Joel wanted his readers to anticipate an unmistakable flood-tide of God's presence.
When God draws near to a person by his Spirit, he does so to reveal himself. He aims to be known as God, not as a psychic phenomenon or some indescribable fantasy. Therefore when he pours himself on us by his Spirit, he stirs up in us true images and conceptions of his beauty and power and mercy and truth and holiness and greatness, and he quickens our affections to respond properly to all that we see. It is unthinkable that a person could be, as it were, soaked by the presence of the infinite and holy God and not be moved deeply. If you are not often moved deeply by the self-revealing presence of the Judge of the world and the Lover of your soul, then pray for the fulfilling of Joel 2:28 in your experience, and set your gaze firmly on God's beauty in Scripture.
All God's People Will Prophesy
Joel goes on to say that when God makes himself known and felt in people's lives, this can manifest itself in three ways: they may dream dreams, see visions, and prophesy (Joel 2:28). What a person dreams about is a sign of what his mind is saturated with. What looms up in his mind's eye while strolling alone signals whether he is soaked in God. And you can usually tell whether a person has been drenched with the Spirit by whether his mouth is given to declaring the excellencies of God. When God almighty pours himself into an individual, the inner life is changed; it is filled with God. And since the mouth is simply the pressure valve of the inner life, when the inner life is full of God, the mouth prophesies.
We must not think of prophecy mainly as prediction, though it is true that those who are closest to God will know best what he is likely to do next. Nor should we think of it as the fulfillment of a special office. Prophecy, as it is used here I think, is primarily verbalizing the great things you have seen of God for the sake of "upbuilding and encouragement and consolation," as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:3. Joel is not trying to get us excited that we will all one day be able to know the future before it happens (there is nothing especially holy about that). He is looking to a day when men and women everywhere will be so filled with God that they catch visions of him in the daytime, dream about him at night, and speak of him continually with their mouths. The best evidence for this is that when in fact the Spirit was poured out like this at Pentecost, the result was that those filled with the Spirit "spoke the mighty works of God" (Acts 2:11). The miracle of "tongues" enabled all to understand, but the important thing is what they said. Tongues is just one variety of prophetic speech. This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Joel wasn't the only Old Testament prophet who longed for the day when God would saturate his people with his Spirit. There is a story about Moses in Numbers 11:24–30, similar to Joel's prophecy. Moses had the Spirit of the Lord on him in such a way that he could see God and speak his word powerfully. It says that one day "the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was upon him and put it upon the 70 elders; and when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied" (11:25). And word came to them that there were two men in the city who had not come out to the tent but were prophesying by the Spirit also. Joshua said to Moses "'My lord Moses, forbid them.' But Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!"' (11:29). That is the day Joel is predicting—the day when all God's people will prophesy. Would that all the Lord's people were prophets! Would that all the people at Bethlehem were prophets! So saturated and soaked with God, so filled with God in the inner life that we would constantly speak to each other of the excellencies of our Maker and Redeemer and Friend.
And do not think this is beyond your reach. Do not think that such an experience of God is for the professional spiritual elite. The point of Joel's prophecy is this: the Spirit will be poured on all flesh—whether you are man or woman, old or young, servant or master, the promise is for you. Baptists have always insisted on the priesthood of all believers. But should we not also say, Would that all God's people were prophets! Would that all God's people were so filled with God that our love and admiration could not but spill over into words. Would that every Wednesday night and every Sunday night we might come together so deeply moved by the Spirit that we would fall over each other to testify in prophetic words of edifying praise to what we have seen of God.
What is it that hinders us? What is it in our tradition that has locked us into ourselves and imprisoned us in solitary cells of silence? Why, why in the name of Pentecost are we so reticent to speak of God when opportunity is given the church and beyond? I don't know why. But this I know: it is not the Spirit; it is not the Spirit of God that seals your lips and makes you think that praise and exhortation is a private affair. "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying; test everything, hold to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21). God declares, "I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy!"
Does This Promise Apply to Us?
But perhaps one may say, I don't think that applies to us. So we must look briefly at Acts 2 and Peter's understanding of Pentecost. We learn at least three new things about Joel's prophecy from our present New Testament perspective. First, we learn that it at least began to be fulfilled at Pentecost with the pouring out of the Spirit on the 120 and with their prophetic declarations of God's greatness. In verse 17 Peter says that this prophesy refers to the last days, and so he also gives us to understand that the era of fulfillment in which we live is a mercifully extended end-time period (cf. 1 Peter 1:20; Hebrews 1:2). Thus we may expect any of the things predicted for the end to appear in our own day.
Second, we learn that the great and terrible "day of the Lord," with its cosmic portents described in Joel 2, is separated in time from the preceding outpouring of God's Spirit. This was not clear in the Old Testament prophecy but is evident from our perspective. The day of judgment for all the nations is surely coming (Acts 10:42; 17:31), but until then we live in what might be called a Pentecostal era—an age in which the exalted Christ is pouring his Spirit onto all flesh.
Third, we learn that "all flesh" does not mean every human without exception. This was already clear from the Old Testament. Already Joel said, "Whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Joel 2:32). There are those who do not call on the name of the Lord; they sense no need for him and no joy in him. But it is impossible that the promise of the Spirit belongs to them. All flesh does not mean every individual; it means every sort of individual in every nation. It means that no one can look at anything he is by birth and say, "This excludes me from the promise." But what we do learn new from the New Testament is that the only way to receive the promise of the Spirit is to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Peter concludes his sermon in Acts 2:38 with these words: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Therefore Peter announces that with the coming of Jesus Christ, "calling upon the name of the Lord" means turning from all other hopes and calling upon Jesus in the act of baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:21).
I conclude, therefore, that the prophecy of Joel 2:28–32 does apply to us, precisely to us who claim to pin our hope for salvation on Jesus. And, therefore, I return to my original application: Would that all God's people were prophets! A friend of mine, Mark Noll, who teaches history at Wheaton, wrote a review of a recent publication of Jonathan Edwards' scientific writings. He said something about Edwards which I want so much to be true of me, and which I pray will be true of all of you. He said, "Jonathan Edwards was a thoroughly God-besotted individual." "Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). Perhaps, after all, Peter and the 120 were drunk—inebriated by the beauty and greatness of God.