Peter’s citation of Joel 2:28–32 in Acts 2:16–21 is a significant text for our attempts to define the relationship between Israel and the Church and to understand God’s eschatological program. Pivotal questions concerning the Joel text include how wide its application is, how to interpret its apocalyptic imagery, and whether it was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when Peter cited it.
Characteristic of the multiple-fulfillment approach is Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.:All interpreters know that Pentecost took care of only the first two verses in that prophecy, and that only to an initial degree. Where were the “wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke”? “The sun will be turned to darkness,” promised Joel, “and the moon to blood.” These events yet await the consummation of history.
D. Treier, “The Fulfillment Of Joel 2:28–32: A Multiple-Lens Approach,” JETS 40/1 (March 1997), 13-14.
In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost he quotes Joel 2:28-32 in support of what God is doing on that day. It is both interesting and instructive to observe the debate between Classical Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology over Peter’s citation of this text. Dispensationalists have typically tried to avoid Joel’s fulfillment in Acts 2:16-21, most likely because they see the OT prophecy addressed to Israel and because a NT fulfillment to the church threatens the distinction between the two.Classical covenant theologians took a different approach. They accepted Peter’s citation as proof that Joel 2:28-32 has been fulfilled. Moreover, on the basis of this text and others, they concluded that there would not be fulfillment to the nation of Israel qua nation. It is interesting to observe the two extremes. Dispensationalism, to maintain what they saw as the sense of the OT prediction, refused to allow the prophecy to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, while Covenant Theology, having granted the fulfillment of Joel in Acts, assumed that OT prophecies given to Israel are now to be fulfilled in the church.…Acts 2:16-21 is not the complete referent (fulfillment) of Joel 2:28-32. This can be seen from the sense of the OT prediction and from the fact that section two of the prophecy was not fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.
P. Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” J. Feinberg, ed. Continuity and Discontinuity (CB 1988), 126.
I’d like to question one aspect of this argument: the way in which premils like Kaiser and Feinberg bifurcate the prophecy, so that only the first part was fulfilled (or partially fulfilled) at Pentecost, while the second part remains to be fulfilled at the end of the church age, with a 2000+ year gap between the two.
I happen to think Feinberg’s overall interpretation is reasonable (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct). And I agree with him that we must respect Joel’s prophecy on its own terms, as well as the NT appropriation of that text. So my challenge, even if valid, won’t disprove the premil and/or dispensational interpretation.
But it does take issue with one of the supporting arguments. For it seems to me that in the context of Luke-Acts, the cosmic signs may well be fulfilled by the time of Pentecost.
i) Keep in mind that apocalyptic language is fairly generic. It reuses stock imagery. So it’s unreasonable to assume the fulfillment must exactly match the imagery. The language is more suggestive or evocative e than strictly descriptive. Indeed, commentators have noted allusions to the Sinai theophany.
ii) Jesus’ ministry was characterized by signs and wonders (Acts 2:22). Nature miracles, healing miracles, and exorcism–not to mention the Resurrection.
You also had the darkening of the sun during the crucifixion, as well as the torn curtain (Lk 23:44-45).
Then you have the Ascension (Acts 1:9-11), with Jesus levitating in mid-air. Several commentators think the “cloud” is the Shekinah. This corresponds to the pillar of fire and smoke in Exodus. And you had “tongues of fire” (2:3)–as well as the theophanic “wind” (2:2) at Pentecost.
(If we add Matthew, we have the earthquake on Good Friday, and the angelic descent on Easter Sunday.)
So, if we interpret Acts 2 on its own terms, taking Acts 1 and Luke’s Gospel into account, I think Joel’s prophecy could be fulfilled at that point. Fulfillment would begin with the recent past (i.e. life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ), and be capped in the present (i.e. the speaker’s present) by the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Of course, even within the chronological framework of Acts, the “Day of the Lord” retains a future aspect. After all, history didn’t come to a sudden end at Pentecost. Luke continues the narrative for another three decades. And the rather abrupt conclusion to the narrative hardly marks the end of the world. In modern parlance, we’d say that’s an instance of inaugurated eschatology.
Still, I don’t see any textual or contextual justification for driving a wedge between one part of Joel’s prophecy and another part. That seems to be imposing on Acts 2 an extraneous preconception of how it ought to be fulfilled, rather than taking its cue from Acts 2 (and related background material).
I also don’t see why Kaiser thinks the sun darkening and the moon turning to blood is a uniquely end-time event. Doesn’t that imagery refer to solar and lunar eclipses? And aren’t these periodic phenomena?