Friday, November 23, 2012

When was Joel fulfilled?

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?


  1. The Sun to Darkness and the Moon to blood is also used in The Revelation. It's easy to dismiss as simply a description of eclipses, but I think that makes one assume he knows What the writer saw when it could be something completely different (I've never seen the heavens rolled up like a scroll).

    Because it appears in The Revelation as one of the seals, it suggests (since it was written during John's exile on Patmos) that it is an event yet to happen.

  2. How is it "dismissive" to think the imagery refers to eclipses?

  3. Steve, thanks for the article.

    Let me give a few points to consider from a futurist perspective. I also think Bock makes some excellent points on this text.

    I see Joel's prophecy as bookends to the church age. Peter intends quoting Joel to show the beginning of fulfillment, not its complete fulfillment. In that sense, it is not bifurcating, but recognizing an inauguration of fulfillment. The church age intervenes between the cluster of Spirit-signs (Pentecost) and the cluster of Apocalyptic-signs (to the day of the Lord). The former announces the church age, the latter concludes the church age. So the Spirit- manifested visions, dreams, and prophesy mark the inauguration of the church (vv. 17–18). The cluster of apocalyptic wonders in the sky and on the earth mark the termination of the church age with “the great and glorious day of the Lord” (vv. 19–21).

    The explanation Peter gives applies to verses 17–18. He never relates the celestial and earthly disturbances in verses 19–21 back to the crucifixion event. Indeed, as Joel states those disturbances must happen “before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes” (v. 20).

    Only the sun’s lack of light is mentioned in Luke 23:44–45. Since Luke is the author of Acts, certainly if Peter intended to refer back to the crucifixion he would had described more than a single element.

    Future judgment is alluded to a little later with Peter’s exhortation to avoid judgment (Acts 2:40). It is unlikely to connect the reference to blood back to the cross because this blood conveys judgment against the ungodly.

    The language is clearly apocalyptic-consummation: "fire smoke" and "the great and magnificent day"; see Peter’s similar language in his epistle to “great and manifest” associated with the day of the Lord.

    It is noteworthy that in Luke's second volume he connects the cluster of celestial disturbances (including terrestrial disturbances), which announces the day of the Lord's wrath upon the _world_ (not Jerusalem as preterists would have us believe):

    “(25) “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, (26) people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (27) And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (28) Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25–28 ESV)

    Incidentally, preterist interpretation of this passage is impossible given: “(35) For it will come upon _all who dwell on the face of the whole earth_. (36) But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34–36 ESV)

    This does not exhaust my thoughts on this text, but I did want to highlight some points that are often left out in discussion on this text.

    1. Hi Alan,

      I agree with some of what you say. I agree with you on the inaugural part. I don’t think the fulfillment at Pentecost is exhaustive.

      When, however, you say the church age “intervenes” between Pentecost and the Day of the Lord, I think that shifts the text off-center.

      i) On the one hand, 2:16 refers back to the tongues of fire and the theophanic “wind,” while 2:19 is a lead-in to v22. V22, in turn, alludes to dominical (and apostolic) miracles in Luke’s gospel (4:18; 7:22; 10:13; 19:37), elsewhere summarized in Acts (10:38). So Peter applies the prophecy to the recent past (i.e. life of Christ) and present day (i.e. Pentecost).

      ii) If Peter meant to postpone the fulfillment of the cosmic signs to the end of the church age, why did he quote Joel 30-32? Why not confine the quote to vv28-29?

      iii) I don’t think the dominical and Pentecostal miracles have to match Joel’s examples in one-to-one correspondence. They need to be the same type of events, but apocalyptic imagery is fairly fluid.

      Even Bock, whom you mention, says “It’s hard to know how literally to take the Joel imagery in Luke-Acts, considering that the initial reference in Joel 2 is describing the effect that an incoming locust plague had for those present during the plague in Joel’s time” (117).

      So it’s unnecessary for the portents and prodigies to replicate Joel’s examples, as long as they are the same kinds of miracles–in contrast to preterism, which reduces apocalyptic language to allegory.

      iv) Also, the timing of the fulfillment is problematic for preterism, not because it’s too late, but because, ironically enough, it’s too early. Preterism generally assigns NT endtime prophecy to the fall of Jerusalem or the fall of Rome–not the day of Pentecost.

      v) Once again, I agree with you that Acts 2 marks a starting-point, not the end-point. For instance, signs and wonders continue throughout the Book of Acts. And I agree with you that the “day of the Lord is” is still future from the narrator’s perspective (as well as our own experience). But where you (apparently) see a historical hiatus, I see a continuum–exegetically speaking. (Whether there’s a discernible continuum in church history is a different question.)