Three Views Regarding Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:15-21
By John Pappas
IntroductionIn Acts two, Peter quotes the prophet Joel. He does this just as the Holy Spirit descends and fills them (2:4). The people become perplexed as a result and they all speak in different languages. While others watch and mock them saying they are drunk, Peter takes his stand and quotes Joel two. This article explains how Peter uses Joel two in Acts two. There have been three primary views concerning Peter’s explanation of Joel’s prophecy. The three views are: (1) prophecy is fulfilled in the church; (2) prophecy is fulfilled in the future; and (3) the church presently benefits by the New Covenant and, hence, was launched at Pentecost, though the prophecy was not completely fulfilled.
BackgroundIt was the day of Pentecost (lit. "fiftieth," "the fiftieth day") or as the Jews call it, the Feast of Weeks, which occurs fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits. It was reckoned to be fifty days from the first Sunday after the Passover feast and the second of the three Jewish feasts celebrated at Jerusalem yearly. It was also the seventh week after Passover, celebrated in grateful recognition to God for the completion of the spring harvest. Furthermore, it is also considered to be the anniversary of the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai.
As the great number of Jews gathered together for the festival, the Lord found occasion to do something significant. The significance of the occasion is noted by Dr. Couch,
When the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven ten days before Pentecost, He commanded the apostles to wait in Jerusalem until He had sent to them the promised ‘Helper,’ the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17; 16:7-15)….While the Lord did not specifically state that the Spirit would be sent at the festival of Pentecost, the apostles read: ‘And when the day of Pentecost was finally come.’ But, whether they anticipated something happening on the day of Pentecost, great events did happen that day. (Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles, p. 35)
The devout Jews asked how it was that these "Galileans" were speaking in foreign languages (2:7-8). Some interpreted the sign as the "mighty deeds of God" (2:11). There were others, however, who said they were drunk. It was during this confusion that Peter took his stand and taught from the Old Testament. He provided a historical Scriptural explanation, speaking first to "the men of Judah, and all who live in Jerusalem," quoting the prophet Joel (Acts 2:17-21). Then, Peter addressed the "men of Israel," quoting David from Psalms 16:8-11 (Acts 2:15-28, 34-35).Peter paraphrased Joel 2:28-32 to the "the men of Judah, and all who live in Jerusalem." Notice the comparison between what is said by Peter and what Joel actually said.
The difference between Acts and Joel is negligible. Even the word translated "glorious" in Acts, verses "dreadful" in Joel is the same word in the Septuagint (epiphana meaning "notable," "conspicuous," or "manifest").
The Facts of the TextThe analysis of Peter’s speech to the crowd that day and the resultant three thousand being saved (2:41) as he exhorted them saying, "be saved from this perverse generation" (2:40), demonstrates that for the most part the crowd took what he was saying literally! They recognized the literal signs and wonders (2:12, 43), though not all the signs and wonders that Peter pointed out were present that particular day. What must be identified are the signs and wonders presented in Acts two. What Peter points out as signs and wonders were: (1) your sons and daughters shall prophesy; (2) your young men shall see visions; (3) your old men shall dream dreams; (4) wonders in the sky above: (a) the sun shall turn into darkness; (b) moon into blood; (5) signs on the earth beneath: (a) blood; (b) fire; (c) vapor of smoke.
"Your sons and daughters shall prophesy," may be taken as literal and there is only one objection that can be raised. Namely, only the "sons" prophesied here. There is no record of "daughters" prophesying. The word for prophesy in the Hebrew is naba’ which means "to prophesy (speak) under the influence of divine spirit, or demonic influence." (TWOT) In this case, they truly did speak without a reasonable doubt under the influence of the Holy Spirit, speaking things about God in foreign languages (dialektos, "tongue," "language," "the tongue or language peculiar to any people").The second and third signs, namely, "your young men shall see visions," and "your old men dream dreams," did not realize apparent fulfillment at that moment. There are no recorded visions or trances recorded in chapter two, nor is there any mention of dreams. One may argue that John’s Revelation would fulfill this prophecy, but that event did not happen for some 50 years later.
The forth and fifth signs, namely, wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath, were not apparent that day. Some have argued that signs from heaven are plainly identified "tongues as of fire," but the signs from heaven are specifically identified as the sun and moon’s transition.
The other major fact presented is the outpouring of the Spirit upon "all mankind," or as the Hebrew literally says, "upon all flesh." In the Hebrew the word is basar meaning "flesh" whether of man or beast, but with respect to man, "it may imply flesh with all its qualities and appetites, its weakness and corruption by sin. It is put for that which is wholly carnal and sensual, of those given up to fleshly appetites and passions."(William Wilson, Wilson’s OT Word Studies, p. 169) In the Greek, Peter is quoting the Greek Old Testament using the expression "upon all flesh." Flesh, being the Greek word sarx, meaning "flesh (the soft substance of the living body) of man or beast," "the body," "a living creature." The reference to "all flesh" does not include both man and beast here. It is restricted to mankind in this context, and is used as the Hebrew would use it and the extent is to "all" flesh (unrestricted). Not only Jews but gentiles, that is, "all types of flesh." The apostle John says,
[E]ven as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life (John 17:2).
In Acts chapter two, although this was a special Jewish appointed feast, there were both Jews and Gentiles present as verses 10-11 lists proselytes, Cretans and Arabs present that day. In Joel, however, God is said to pour out My Spirit even upon the male and female servant, which includes the Gentile. So "all flesh" here means both Jew and Gentile, and indeed it appears that in Acts, God poured out His Spirit upon both Jews and Gentiles. The question might be raised, does "all flesh," mean everyone present that day got saved? No, it is apparent the Spirit came upon all the twelve, but it is also apparent that both classes of people, namely, Jew and Gentile, received the Holy Spirit that day as "three thousand souls were added" to them (2:42). I take the "all flesh" to mean "all" in reference to "kind" not "number." This is further seen by Peter’s words, "Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (2:38-39).
This started a new work of God. The dispensation of the Church – the Church age. The Church was started in Acts two and is uniquely defined collectively as all that are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the promise to Abraham in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12; 15; 17; &etc). The outworking of the Abrahamic Covenant is the larger subsections of the one covenant into (1) the eternal Land covenant; (2) the eternal Kingship (Davadic); and (3) the eternal "I will be your God" covenant (New Covenant). It is under this last covenant that God promises a new heart (Jer. 31:33), removal of sin (Jer. 31:34), a promise of Spirit indwelling (Isa. 59:21), redemption (Isa. 49:8; Jer. 31:34), and a new relationship with God (Jer. 31:33). Notice that the Church is a new thing made up of both Jew and Gentile (Eph. 3:1-7; Heb. 8:8). A mystery - something that not only did not exist previously, but was not revealed. One cannot find the Church in the Old Testament.
I. The Argument for Complete FulfillmentThose who argue for complete fulfillment say Joel’s prophecy was completely fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. The adherents of this argument must live by a non-literal hermeneutic in order to "spiritualize" the cataclysmic events involved with this prophecy. The result of their spiritualization, as Dr. Couch notes: "The national promises to Israel are reduced to spiritual fulfillment in the church. And the cosmic signs and wonders predicted by Joel (2:30-31) and quoted by Peter (Acts 2:19-20) must be allegorized. They did not occur at Pentecost, so they must be taken figuratively." (Acts of the Apostles, p. 146) In other words, God throws away all His promises to Israel, the Church replaces Israel, and all the cosmic signs are just hyperbole describing some battles in the land.
Generally speaking those who hold to a complete fulfillment hold to Covenant theology, which includes amillennialists, postmillennialists, and covenant premillennialists. With this type of view and reasoning, what then would constitute, or differentiate, a literal from a spiritual meaning? What is plainly literal is changed to mean whatever suits the interpreter. Or, in this case, finding events that are somewhat close are viewed as proof for fulfillment, when in fact, once the facts are examined closely, close is not good enough! This is not how one reads and interprets. What is obviously literal is literal, and what is obviously figurative is plainly seen as such. If God’s word is precise, His laws of nature exact, then prophecy must also be treated with the same rigger.
Peter proclaims, "in the last days" instead of Joel’s "[a]nd afterwards." What Joel had said previously involves the doctrine of the "day of the Lord," or the "last days," (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). The day of the Lord is the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7; cf. 1 Thes. 5:1-3). The day of the Lord is described by Jeremiah as,
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book. ‘For behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel and Judah.’ The LORD says, ‘I will also bring them back to the land that I gave to their forefathers and they shall possess it.’ Now these are the words which the LORD spoke concerning Israel and concerning Judah: For thus says the LORD, ‘I have heard a sound of terror, Of dread, and there is no peace. ‘Ask now, and see If a male can give birth. Why do I see every man With his hands on his loins, as a woman in childbirth? And why have all faces turned pale? ‘Alas! for that day is great, There is none like it; And it is the time of Jacob’s distress, But he will be saved from it. ‘It shall come about on that day,’ declares the LORD of hosts, ‘that I will break his yoke from off their neck and will tear off their bonds; and strangers will no longer make them their slaves. ‘But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.
‘Fear not, O Jacob My servant,’ declares the LORD, ‘And do not be dismayed, O Israel; For behold, I will save you from afar And your offspring from the land of their captivity. And Jacob will return and will be quiet and at ease, And no one will make him afraid (Jer 30:1-10).
Notice that trouble comes first, which then results in national Israel being saved and at peace. Joel chapter two describes a great locust army that God will send upon the land and the nation (2:1-11). Then the Lord calls the nation to repentance, a call for a sacred assembly (2:15), to call upon the Lord (2:12-17). But the Lord knows they will not repent, so He alone will restore the land and His chosen people (2:18). He does this because He is "the Lord your [Israel’s] God and there is no other" (2:18-27). And when that day [the Day of the Lord] comes, the Lord will pour out His Spirit on all flesh (2:28) & etc. This event coincides with God judging the nations in the great battle called a judgment in the Valley of Jehoshaphat ("Jehovah has judged") (3:1). After the final judgment of the nations (3:1-16), the Lord God will dwell in Zion - "My holy mountain" (3:17), and Judah will abide forever in peace (3:17-21).
It is agreed, MOST of the items prophesied in Acts came to pass, but the "blood and fire and vapor of smoke" (signifying a great battle), and the "sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood" of verse 19-20 did not occur "on that day" nor "in that day". The argument that the day Jesus was crucified the "sun was darkened" (Luke 23:45) can be brought to the table, but where is the "moon turned to blood?" Some argue that the phrase "moon turned to blood" and "blood and fire and vapor of smoke" is a battle reference that was fulfilled in 70 A.D when the Romans came against the Jews. But where is the judgment on the nations and the resulting peace for the all Jews. The nations were not judged in the "valley of Jehoshaphat" nor did the Jew find rest as a result of 70 A.D., in fact the Jew has only found grief. The Jew had not returned to the land that God had given them until 1948, and since then has experienced only pain.
Therefore, complete fulfillment cannot be claimed, because ultimately, several things are missing, (1) the final judgment on the nations; and (2) the corporate salvation of the Jews; (3) the Jew in the land in peace, and (4) God is not in Zion. Therefore, complete fulfillment cannot be a true interpretation.
The Argument for No FulfillmentThe next view, namely, that there is no fulfillment, says that Joel’s prophecy was not fulfilled in any way on the Day of Pentecost. "It [this is that] is used by Peter homiletically and will be fulfilled at the Second Advent." (House, Price, Charts of Bible Prophecy, p. 62) The argument that there is no fulfillment of Joel in Acts, is primarily based on the fact that Joel’s text is addressed specifically to the Jew and the context is clearly the "Day of the Lord" that future time of final judgment on all the nations including Israel.
The argument goes like this: (1) The outpouring of the Spirit is upon "all-flesh" meaning all Jews/survivors of the Day of the Lord that is yet future; (2) Peter says "this is that which is spoken" which is equivalent to "this is like that" (2:16); (3) Not everything was fulfilled that day.
To counter this argument only point (2) need addressing since (1) & (3) are true statements. The statement "this is like that" is simply not a possible translation nor interpretation. The proper translation is "But this is that which had been spoken by the prophet Joel." Dr. Couch notes, "Because Joel’s prophecy is addressed to Israel, and because any fulfillment in the church is thought to threaten the distinction between the two, some dispensationalists have insisted that Peter’s ‘this is that’ is best understood as ‘this is like that.’(Acts of the Apostles, p. 146) Clifford Rapp justifies as follows:
First, Joel speaks of an outpouring of the Spirit on Judah (see Joel 2:28 with the repeated use of the "your" to describe the "all flesh" which will receive the outpouring of the Spirit). Joel 2:32 speaks of Mount Zion and Jerusalem as the recipients of deliverance… Second, the events spoken of in Joel 2 that precede the outpouring of the Spirit have not been fulfilled. The heavenly wonders of Joel 2:30, 31 did not take place on Pentecost. The judgment of the Gentiles and the restoration of the land of Israel that follow the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 3) have not been fulfilled. Third, Peter does not specifically say that Pentecost fulfills that which was spoken by the prophet Joel. The experience of Pentecost does not touch upon all that Joel predicted. Fourth, the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost was for the formation of the church, the body of Christ. It is similar to but distinct from the outpouring of the Spirit upon repentant Judah…. Over all it seems most satisfactory to understand Peter’s words as "This is like that which was spoken by the prophet Joel." (Acts of the Apostles, p. 147)
Again, the interpreter is not allowed to change the translation. Nothing is lost in the translation here. "This is that" cannot be turned to "this is like that." Just as the engineer must live by the laws of science that have been established by God, so the interpreter must live by the rules of grammar that have also been established by God.
Peter says, alla touto estin to eiramenon dia tou prophatou Ioal "But this is that, the thing that had been spoken through the prophet Joel." There is no "like" (Gr. hos, "as," "like;" or homosios, "like," "similar," "resembling;" or hosei, "about," as though," "like") in the Greek text, nor is there room for inserting a similarity. The proper translation is what has traditionally been given "this is that." I can find no justification for interpreting this in any other way.
The Argument for Partial FulfillmentThe partial or continuous fulfillment argument says Joel’s prophecy was partially fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, but finds complete fulfillment in the future. In this argument, the outpouring of the Spirit is fulfilled but the rest of the prophecy with regard to Israel is future. In this view a distinction between the church and Israel is preserved, and, hence, satisfies Peter’s statement "this is that which was spoken through the prophet Joel." As Dr. Couch writes, "he [Peter] was not speaking an analogy, allusion, illustration, or making homiletic use of Joel’s prophecy. The Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost was partial fulfillment, or was one referent of the prophecy of Joel."(Acts, p. 147) Since the Old Testament promise of the outpouring of the Spirit is linked to the New Covenant, there is no reason to dissociate Joel’s prophecy from those of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Zechariah.
One final point must be established here that does not have to do with this text in particular, but has a clear theological implication. The outpouring of the Spirit is associated with the New Covenant (Jer. 31). If this outpouring of the Spirit is not associated with the New Covenant, where then is it found? The New Covenant is clearly inaugurated as is described by Jesus in Matthew 26 and forms the practice of communion in the church.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matt. 26:26-28)
This is further established in Scripture as Hebrews 7:11-28 speaks of Christ as becoming a guarantee of a better covenant- the New Covenant. "Other NT passages corroborate this conclusion. The references in the Gospels specifically connect the new covenant with Jesus’ cross work (Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:20; Mark 14:24). The cup, representing the new covenant, was made on the basis of the blood of Christ. Jesus’ words require the covenant’s ratification at the cross. It is not that the cross simply enabled a future ratification. The blood ceremony of the Cross institutes the covenant just as Jesus’ inaugural words instituted the ceremony that would commemorate it."(Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, p. 280)
The New Covenant contains the following provision: "Originally made with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31) and containing redemptive blessings of both salvation Isaiah 49:8; Jeremiah 31:34) and subsequent life (Isaiah 49:8; Jeremiah 32:40-41), this autonomous covenant later allowed the New Testament church to be saved (see Romans 11:11-32) through Christ, the messenger (Malachi 3:1) and mediator (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24) of a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6), purchased with the blood and death of this unique High Priest (Zechariah 9:11; Mathew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 9:15; 10:29). Old Testament believers anticipated (Hebrews 9:15) Christ’s life-giving sacrifice (2 Corinthians 3:6) involving (1) grace (Hebrews 10:29), (2) peace (Isaiah 54:10; Ezekiel 34:25; 37:26), (3) the Spirit (Isaiah 59:21), (4) redemption (Isaiah 49:8; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 10:29), (5) removing sin (Jeremiah 31:34; Romans 11:27; Hebrews 10:17), (6) a new heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16), and (7) a new relationship with God (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 16:62; 37:26-27; Hebrews 8:10)."(Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, p. 62)
With respect to the coming of the Spirit and the inauguration of the New Covenant, Dr. Couch writes, "the New Covenant is now launched as prophesied in the Old Testament, and that the Holy Spirit is the dynamic initiator of that covenant. This does not mean that the church is replacing Israel, but rather, that the prophesied covenant has begun, and it will have its ultimate fulfillment among the Jewish people in the future kingdom.
Presently, the church benefits from this covenant but is not fulfilling it. The New Covenant was prophesied to replace the Mosaic Covenant by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-37). It was ratified by the death of Christ and by His blood (Luke 22:20), and was then launched at Pentecost." (Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, p. 376)
It stands to reason then that the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost fulfilled just a part of Joel’s prophecy and is linked to the New Covenant, so the term partial fulfillment or continuous fulfillment is demonstrated. It should be noted however, that while this view is popular with the progressive dispensational camp, this in no way speaks of the Davidic Covenant. Jesus is not ruling as King, He is currently at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19) and intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34) until that time when He will make His enemies His footstool (Heb. 1:13; cf. 8:1).
It is the impression of Dr. Couch that this outpouring of the Spirit is a partial fulfillment of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31) and hence Joel’s prophecy. He writes, "The birth, nature, and even the concept of the church were not revealed in the Old Testament (Eph. 3:5; Col. 1:26). In the sovereign plan of God, however, prophecies concerning the new covenant and the outpouring of the Spirit were to apply to the church. In the outworking of Joel’s prophecy there is both near and far fulfillment. Joel focuses on the far view or the end point of the process. Peter, by divine insight, recognizes the events of Pentecost as marking the inception of this process. It is doubtful, however, that Peter understood that there would be centuries between Pentecost and Israel’s reception of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit….Peter no doubt saw the coming of the Spirit as the inauguration of the messianic age, and considered Israel’s salvation to be imminent."(Acts, p. 150)
It is also the impression of Dr. Walvoord that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a partial fulfillment. In writing on Joel he writes, "The Apostle Peter in his Pentecostal sermon quoted from this passage (Acts 2:14-21). It was quite clear that the entire prophecy of Joel was not fulfilled, but what Peter was alluding to was the similarity of the situation. Just as in Joel’s time the people of Israel were called to repentance in the hope that the Day of the Lord’s blessing would come on them… The length of the present Church was unknown to Peter and to everyone else at the time of his Pentecostal sermon. On the basis of existing Scripture he could rightfully expect the Rapture to occur and the events following to come about immediately. This would include the dark days of the Great Tribulation described in Joel 2:30-31 which would precede the second coming of Christ and a time of blessing would follow."(Every Prophecy of the Bible, p. 289)
Other New Testament Uses of Joel 2
In Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel two concerning the New Covenant and the salvation of Israel. In Romans 9-11, Paul addresses God’s plan for Israel, and uses Joel two in Romans 10:13, but demonstrates that although some, namely, a remnant, is being saved now, their heart is hardened (Rom. 11). Far from a national redemption of Israel promised in the last day.
Joel two is most surely a last days event as Jesus quotes in Matthew 24:29, a description of the condition of the sun and moon. Though this description is not unique to Joel for this event is described by Isaiah (13:10; 24:23), Ezekiel (32:7), Amos (5:20), and Zephaniah (1:15). And seen in the vision of John in Revelation 6:12. The fact of the Church being a mystery would certainly be good reason that Joel does not describe a break in the end time events, he just sees the last day, not the church.
The events of Acts two suggest that (1) Peter most certainly wanted the Jews from all areas of the world who were gathered in that place to know that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was prophesied in the Old Testament, and that what they were seeing with their own eyes was something that was prophesied for the end times, specifically the day of the Lord (hence, the mystery of the Church). (2) The result of the outpouring was that the disciples spoke in many different languages, a sign and wonder that may be linked with "your sons and daughters will prophesy." (3) The fulfillment of the outpouring of the Spirit upon "all flesh" meaning both Jew and Gentile, that is, the usage restricted to "classification" not "quantity" was satisfied on that day. Separate from this, no other aspect of Joel’s prophecy can be claimed as fulfilled.
The question is then posed, is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit fulfillment of Joel’s outpouring? I believe the answer is yes. This text is the New Covenant’s spiritual blessing portion. As Dr. Couch asks, "if not, where else do you find the New Covenant passage in Acts?"