But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"
Let me begin with two questions for you to answer in your own mind.
- First, what would you say if someone were to ask if you think we are living in the last days?
- Second, if war broke out tomorrow in the Middle East with terrible bloodshed and earthshaking ferocity, and began to draw the whole world into conflict, would that be a sign that God's purpose for our day is not a great spiritual awakening but only a bleak downward spiral of calamity and moral collapse till the end?
Are We Living in the Last Days?
Now let me answer the first question by quoting several biblical passages. Hebrews 1:1–2, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." 1 Peter 1:20, "Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the last of the times for your sake." 1 Corinthians 10:11, "These things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come." In all these texts the "last days" or the last times or end of the ages came when Jesus came. The coming of the Messiah was the beginning of the end—the beginning of the "last days."
This is what our text says as well. In Acts 2:15–17 Peter says that the commotion caused by 120 people praising God (2:11) in many different languages is not owing to drunkenness but to the fulfillment of prophecy in Joel 2: "These men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.'" Peter's answer to our first question would have been, "Yes, I am now living in the last days." This was Paul's answer and the answer of Hebrews and John's answer (1 John 2:18, "Children it is the last hour"). And so it should be our answer too.
Yes, we are living in the last days, because the last days began with the first coming of Jesus, and will reach their climax at the second coming of Jesus. The "mystery of the kingdom" (Mark 4:11) is that the end of this age came and the kingdom of God arrived, but, to everyone's surprise, this age didn't completely end and the kingdom didn't completely come. And so we live between the beginning of the end of the age and the end of the end of the age. We live between the beginning of the kingdom of God and the consummation of the kingdom.
In a sense the question we have been trying to answer all year is, What is it like to live as Christians in a time when the power of the kingdom has already arrived but not in its fullness, and a time when the end of this fallen age is already over, but not yet fully over? "The form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31; cf. 2:6).
What Should We Expect Before Jesus Returns?
So let's ask our second question: If war broke out tomorrow in the Middle East with terrible bloodshed and earthshaking ferocity, and began to draw the whole world into conflict, would that be a sign that God's purpose for our day is not a great spiritual awakening but only a bleak downward spiral of calamity and moral collapse till the end? In other words, does the Bible teach that as the end of the last days draws near, spiritual conditions will only get worse and worse?
2 Timothy 3:3 says, "Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman," etc. 2 Peter 3:3 says, "Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, 'Where is the promise of his coming?'"
Jesus said in Luke 21:9–11, "When you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once . . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom will rise against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven."
So there is no doubt that the end of the end—the last of the last days—will be bleak in many ways—morally bleak, socially bleak, with great upheavals in nature itself. But is that the whole story? Is that all we can expect before Jesus comes?
I don't think so. Let me show you why, beginning with Matthew 24:9–14 and then turning to our text in Acts 2. Jesus says,
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.
The Love of Many Will Grow Cold, but Not All
Notice something remarkable here. Because wickedness, or lawlessness, is multiplied, the love of many will grow cold. But not everyone. In fact there is an implicit claim here that alongside this coldness of love, there is another group of people whose passion for Jesus is red hot and unshakeable. This is implicit in verse 14, "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations"—the very nations that, according to verse 9, will hate the disciples. Who is going to preach this kingdom to every nation before the end? Who is going to be committed enough and strong enough, in the face of violent persecution, to finish the Great Commission?
You know the answer. We have been talking about these people for weeks. They are described in Acts 1:5 and 1:8 and 2:17ff. First, in 1:5, Jesus says, "You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." Then, in 1:8, he defines the aim of that baptism more fully: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." Then, when Jesus baptizes them in the Holy Spirit, and they receive that extraordinary power for worldwide witness, Peter says it is what Joel had prophesied for the last days. Acts 2:17: "In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh."
God's Purpose to Empower His People in the Last Days
So the point is this: in the last days—the days that began with the coming of Jesus—God's purpose is to empower his people again and again with extraordinary outpourings of the Spirit until the witness to his name has reached all the peoples—to the end of the earth.
Yes, the love of many will grow cold. Yes, there will be apostasy on a large scale. Yes, people will simply forsake the faith when the world turns up the heat. But in the midst of all that unbelief and coldness and treachery, Jesus says that the gospel will be preached through the whole world as a testimony to all the nations. In the face of all that persecution and in the midst of all that deadness, the true church of God is going to have extraordinary power, extraordinary zeal, extraordinary passion and love for Jesus.
The end of the last days will not be totally bleak and will not be totally glorious. In the midst of great stress and global trauma and bloody persecution, the Holy Spirit is going to be poured out again and again on the faithful, confessing church of Christ, and she will burn with passion and shine with truth until every people and tribe and tongue has seen the light of the gospel.
Joel's Prophecy in Acts 2:17–21
Joel's prophecy, that Peter quotes in Acts 2:17–21, makes clear that the last days will be mixed days—days of powerful witness (vv. 17–18) and days of terrible calamity (vv. 19–20). When Joel looked into the future, God didn't tell him how many years would separate the different parts of the last days that he was describing. He saw the last days as all one piece. Some of what he saw was nearer to the beginning of the last days, and some was nearer to the end of the last days.
The Bright Part of Joel's Prophecy
So when you read his prophecy, it has two parts—a bright part and a dark part. The bright part is verses 17–18,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
In other words Joel says that one feature of the last days will be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on people of every kind—men and women, young and old, high and low. God's people will be clothed with power; they will receive power. And the main effect of this power seems to be bold, prophetic speech. Believers of all kinds are going to be so gripped by the Spirit of God that they see the greatness of Jesus and the purpose of Jesus with extraordinary clarity and speak it with extraordinary boldness. That's the bright part of Joel's prophecy.
The Dark Part of Joel's Prophecy
The dark part is in verses 19–20,
And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; and the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day.
In other words there will be natural catastrophes; there will be war and bloodshed; there will be conflagration and devastation.
The Answer to the Second Question
So, what is the answer to our question? If war broke out tomorrow in the Middle East with terrible bloodshed and earthshaking ferocity, and began to draw the whole world into conflict, would that be a sign that God's purpose for our day is not a great spiritual awakening but only a bleak downward spiral of calamity and moral collapse till the end?
No. On the contrary, there is a promise that in the last days the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh—all the nations will be reached. The true church of Christ will be awakened and revived and sent with extraordinary passion and zeal and prophetic power, and—right in the midst of terrorism and war and persecution and natural disasters—the flaming end-time church of Christ will finish the Great Commission, and welcome the King.
O, my dear Bethlehem friends, I want us to be a part of that bright, bold, prophetic, Christ-exalting, risk-taking, end-time band of disciples—taking the clear and glorious message of verse 21 everywhere, no matter what: "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."