The scope of Joel’s prophecy and its relation to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost has come up in discussion relating to the judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It seems to me that the traditional understanding of Pentecost simply as a formative event for the church misses the narrative significance of the passage by some distance. What I want to do here is, first, set out the narrative of judgment and restoration that is found in Joel, and secondly, consider how Peter makes use of that narrative in order to interpret the Pentecost event for the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”.
The narrative of Joel
An army has come against Israel like a plague of locusts, devastating the territory around Jerusalem, destroying the crops, overrunning towns and villages, and causing great alarm in Jerusalem (1:13-14). It is quite apparent, therefore, that the “day of the Lord” is near, a day of “destruction from the Almighty” (Joel 1:15), a “day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1-2). This is a real army, causing real destruction as it approaches Jerusalem, but it is an army of the Lord, and its progress, therefore, is described in apocalyptic terms:
The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? (2:10-11)
But it is not too late. The prophet calls the people to return to the Lord—to rend their hearts and not their garments—for he is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster”. So he calls the people to consecrate a fast and the priests to pray: “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (2:15-17). In response God promises to send back the army from the north and repair the damage that was done to Israel’s agriculture (2:18-26). Then, Joel says, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).
At this point it looks as though there is a break in the narrative. Joel 1:1-2:27 reads as an account of an existing state of affairs. What follows appears to describe a later but analogous crisis.
At some point afterward the Spirit of prophecy will be poured out on all in Israel—not only Joel but many within Israel will prophesy concerning what is about to take place. There will be portents in the sky and on earth. There will be bloodshed; there will be fire and smoke, which will fill the sky, turning the sun to darkness and the moon to the colour of blood—all this in advance of, in a build up to, the “great and awesome day of the Lord” (2:30-32). This is a poetic but nevertheless realistic account of war, very much like the preceding narrative about the army from the north. There is a military threat to Jerusalem, but those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved—they shall escape destruction, and “among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls”.
At this time God will “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem”. He will gather the hostile nations together in the valley of Jehoshaphat for judgment, because they have scattered the people of Israel “among the nations and have divided up my land”, because they have robbed Israel of its wealth, and because they have “sold the people of Judah to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border” (3:1-6). Zion will be established as a secure and enduring stronghold; and the surrounding nations will be punished because of the violence they have done to the people of Israel (3:16-21).
This second part of Joel’s prophetic narrative remains firmly within the arena of history: there will be a war against Jerusalem, some of the inhabitants of the city will be saved, Judah and Jerusalem will be restored, and the nations which oppressed Israel will be punished. There is an “everlasting” part to this: “strangers shall never again pass through” Jerusalem; and “Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations” (3:17, 20). But this is still only an extension of the story about Jerusalem.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon
Peter makes use of part of this narrative—not the whole thing—in his Pentecost sermon in order to account for the extraordinary behaviour of the disciples. Having been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus has poured out the Holy Spirit, with the result that Jews from many nations hear the “mighty works of God” proclaimed in their own languages. Since this is explicitly a Spirit of prophecy, it would be reasonable to assume that these are works that God is about to do, rather than what he has done in the past.
The pouring out of the Spirit on the disciples is closely associated with the coming “day of the Lord” that Joel describes, which is a day of war against Jerusalem, when the skies will be darkened by the pall of smoke rising from the burning city. How are we to understand this association? Well, presumably Peter’s point is that a grassroots prophetic community is now emerging that will prophesy regarding the fate of Jerusalem what Jesus at first had prophesied alone—that war was coming and that only those who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (2:21). This is the reason why it is Jesus who pours out the Spirit: the disciples were commissioned and empowered to proclaim the same message of judgment and restoration.
So Peter concludes his sermon with a call to the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” to save themselves “from this crooked generation”—to save themselves from the coming “day of the Lord” that would see the destruction of the city. If they repent of their sins—on account of which the wrath of God was coming on this people—they too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and will become part of the prophetic movement of renewal.
There are other ways in which the existence of the church as communities of the Spirit may be interpreted: they are communities of a renewed covenant according to the Spirit rather than according to Torah; they are charismatic communities variously gifted for mutual support and upbuilding. But that is not what Pentecost is about. Peter draws on Joel because he understands Pentecost to be a sign of a coming day of judgment on Jerusalem and as the proliferation of Jesus’ prophetic ministry to Israel.