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Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Fulfillment That Isn’t

God doesn’t always work exactly the same way.

Now he is consistent. He does not change his nature from one day to the next. His character is immutable. But he is also endlessly creative, as the world around us and the cosmos well demonstrate.

So when we study the Old Testament prophets we should not be surprised to find that the Lord uses consistent, repeated themes throughout history. It is in his nature. We should also not be surprised at the occasional unexpected and creative twist. That also has ample precedent.

The book of Joel is prophetic and apocalyptic, anticipating the end of this present age. Three times the writers of the New Testament pick up language, themes and imagery from Joel and repurpose them. All are instructive.

  The Locusts Are Coming

Of the three, probably the most straightforward appropriation is found in Revelation. John is given a slightly clearer vision of something first announced by Joel.

In fact, we meet Joel’s army of (literal, insect-type) locusts in the opening verses of his first chapter, and they have already stripped the land bare, consuming everything in sight:
“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.”
Grain, vine, pomegranate, palm and apple are desiccated. The nation is without its harvest, and Joel’s remedy is repentance. That is the message for the people who carried God’s name centuries before Christ.

Another “Locust Plague”

But then Joel jumps forward in time to announce that the recent plague of locusts foretells another “locust plague” far into the future. He now has the “day of the Lord” in view. An army is coming, and these locusts are people:
“Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people … Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.”
John sees these same locusts that look like horses a little more clearly in Revelation 9 in relation to the fifth trumpet judgment:
“In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.”

From the Bottomless Pit

These “locusts” come from the bottomless pit and are sent specifically to torment those that “do not have the seal of God on their foreheads”. Unlike literal locusts, they do not harm the plant life.

Joel’s description of these beings is vivid and intriguing:
“Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another; each marches in his path; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.”

Figurative or Literal?

Generations ago many Christians believed these descriptions were figurative (some continue to believe it today) and concluded that they described some sort of spiritual conflict in the Christian life. I suspect they did not have the visual vocabulary to imagine such alien beings intruding physically and literally into our world. But those of us who have seen a lot of CGI movies or played video games may easily picture demonic entities or possessed men in battle armor. We may visualize tech-based ways in which such an army might be outfitted in coming years. Science fiction, not to mention the developing technology of our own age, has equipped us to picture things unimaginable to previous generations of believers.

In the end the details are not critically important to the spiritual message for Israel in Joel (“repent and return”) or for the church in Revelation (“Behold, I am coming soon”). The fact is that we do not know. All we can say for sure is that those who are around to see these “locusts” when they are unleashed will be able to look back to Joel’s or John’s descriptions and say, “Yes, just like that”.

So let’s not speculate. What I’m really interested in here is how the New Testament writers handle Old Testament prophecy. In this instance John doesn’t really reinterpret Joel so much as he agrees with and amplifies him. He provides quite a bit more detail than Joel, but it seems highly likely he is describing the very same beings and the very same judgment.

❷  Pouring Out the Spirit on All Flesh

Later in his second chapter, Joel moves from the Day of the Lord and its judgments to the restoration of Israel. In that context, these familiar words appear:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
When Peter appropriates these words and quotes them at Pentecost, he handles them very differently from John in Revelation. He applies the part about pouring out the Spirit on all flesh to the gathering of Jewish believers in Jerusalem speaking in tongues taking place at the time. In contrast to speculation that the tongues-speakers were drunk, he confirms, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel”.

But this is really the fulfillment that isn’t — at least not completely.

A Not-Quite Fulfillment

When we consider the number of times in scripture that prophecies have multiple fulfillments, it seems to me unreasonable to suppose that Peter means, “This is exactly what Joel referred to” or “This is the full and final realization of Joel’s prophecy”. Rather, I suspect he is saying, “This is the same sort of thing you find in Joel” or “When the Spirit acts, this is the sort of thing you should expect”. The outpouring of the Spirit is something God does here in relation to the church. The outpouring of the Spirit that will take place in connection with the Day of the Lord is primarily connected to the restoration of Israel, which was surely Joel’s burden.

So here we have a New Testament speaker handling Old Testament prophecy in a more ‘spiritual’ way. I would not call Acts the literal fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. We may think of it a partial fulfillment if we wish. But it seems to me simply a reminder that God, in his consistency, tends to move in similar ways and re-echo familiar themes throughout history. This time he does so with an unexpected and rather creative twist, as Joel surely did not foresee Pentecost or imagine he was the herald of the beginnings of the Church Age.

  Everyone Who Calls

Finally, Joel finishes his second chapter with this familiar line:
“And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
While it takes place in the context of a prophecy, this is more of a truism, a proverb or an eternal principle than a prophetic statement. It relies on the immutability of God. He simply does not ever turn those who come to him away. As the Lord Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out”. It is not in him to do such a thing.

The Acceptable Time

Now of course there is an acceptable time to call and an acceptable time to come, and we are currently living in it. Just as God closed the door of Noah’s ark and shut him in (and the rest of the world out), a day is coming when people who say, “Lord, Lord” will hear back the words “I never knew you”. Still, it remains true of God throughout history that those who earnestly seek him will find him. Everybody who genuinely calls on the Lord will be saved. Those who insist on putting it off can hardly be said to be genuine, can they?

In its context in Joel, the line means that those Jews who call on the name of the Lord during the distress of the Day of the Lord will be saved. Joel puts it this way:
“For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

Prophecy Becomes Doctrine

But as I say, it is more principle than prophecy, and when Paul uses it in Romans to make the point that “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him”, it is a perfectly legitimate appropriation.

Here prophecy becomes doctrine. A New Testament writer uses an Old Testament prophetic statement quite out of context to make a vital point about the inclusiveness of God, and that “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame”. 

Repurposing the Prophets

Three times the words of the prophet Joel are repurposed for us, and each one is a little different from the others. One is literal, but more fully fleshed out. Another is at best a partial fulfillment, if indeed it is a fulfillment at all. A third is an eternal principle realized in different ways in different times and at different places.

God doesn’t always work exactly the same way.

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