Joel 2.28-32 in the NT, part 1

I’m not sure anyone will read a very long exegetical paper, but Joel 2:28-32 is an incredibly rich promise and one that several NT authors draw upon. Just how they use it gives us great insight into how they understood their Bibles and how they understood the progression of redemptive history. So, here’s my latest paper in many parts (I hope the formatting of different fonts works):

The Use of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2 and Romans 10

Joel 2:28-32 (MT 3:1-5) is a text that surfaces in direct quotes and subtle allusions throughout the New Testament.

“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. “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. 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.” (ESV)

The importance of this short book to the theology of the church must not be underestimated. Prior contends ‘in proportion to its length, the book of Joel arguably had more impact on the writers of the NT than any other OT book'[1]. The purpose of this paper is to examine two passages in the New Testament which echo these verses from the prophet Joel, namely Acts 2:16-21 and Romans 10:12-13. The tangle of issues in these texts is complicated and incredibly rich; however, this paper will only focus on two primary issues. First, how do the various parts of the Joel’s prophecy find fulfillment in the events surrounding Pentecost? The second issue this paper will seek to address is the meaning of the phrase ‘all flesh’? Who did Joel think would receive the outpouring of the Spirit and have Peter/Luke and Paul maintained this original meaning or altered it in ways that violate Joel’s intentions?

The thesis of this paper is not only that Peter saw the events of Pentecost as fulfilling a portion of Joel’s prophecy, leaving other portions to be fulfilled in the future, but also that Joel would have understood the promises of 2:28-32 as coming in stages and not all on one day or at one time. Moreover, while Peter understands the phrase ‘all flesh’ as Joel does (meaning ‘all the people of Israel’), Paul’s understanding is larger (meaning ‘all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile’) but not at all inconsistent with Joel’s intended meaning. Simply put, the New Testament deals faithfully with the promises of Joel 2:28-32 even while interpreting them freshly in light of new redemptive historical developments.

This paper is organized into three main sections. The goal of section one is to establish the original meaning of Joel 2:28-32. It is simply a brief exegetical outline and theological inquiry into the issues in and around the selected text. The second section is an examination of Acts 2:16-21. The third section is a brief study of Paul’s use of the Joel material in Romans 10:12-13.

Section 1: Interpreting Joel

One of the challenges the interpreter faces when approaching the book of Joel is the lack of clarity regarding Joel’s historical setting. Discussion continues over the dating of the book, with dates offered ranging from early 9th century BC to the early 5th century. This paper will presume an early post-exilic date, probably around 500BC, which seems to be the growing consensus of scholars [2].

The message of Joel is dominated by the Day of the Lord theme, a theme that many of Joel’s predecessors had developed also, especially the prophets Amos and Zephaniah. To understand how Joel uses the motif of the Day of the Lord one must understand it as a ‘two sided phenomenon'[3]. Israel had come to believe that the Day of the Lord would mean unadulterated blessing for them but unmitigated disaster for the nations. Amos, however, taught that the Day of the Lord would spell doom for Israel also, and this message was confirmed by later prophets [4]. Hubbard correctly contrasts the message of Amos with that of Joel when he writes, “Amos had said that the Day was darkness not light (5:18,20); Joel says that it is darkness before light.[5]”

In the opening section of the book of Joel (1:1-20), the prophet applies the judgmental aspect of the Day of the Lord to the devastating plague of locusts. Then in 2:1-17, while using language from the locust plague, Joel shifts his focus from the literal six legged insects to the climactic and eschatological Day of the Lord of which the locusts were a herald [6] and calls God’s people to repentance. Joel 2:18 is the pivotal verse in the book, indicating that the people did indeed repent and return to the Lord (though from what sin or covenant breach we are not told) and that God would respond with blessings. The initial stage of blessing would be a restoration of what had been lost. Hubbard contends that the present participle in 2:19 ‘I am sending’ (שֹׁלֵ֤חַ) suggests an immediate fulfillment. This immediate initial blessing would be followed by a second stage of blessing, “the inauguration of a new era in God’s dealing with his people.[7]”

This second stage of blessing is outlined in 2:28-32. While there is no clear indication of when Joel envisioned the second stage of blessing to be given, there are at least some clues. The Hebrew אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן(“afterword”) makes it clear that it would be after God had restored Israel’s losses from the plague of locust. Patterson argues, “Since the previous section dealt with the near future, it may be safely presumed that the events prophesied here lay still farther beyond. Indeed, these chapters disclose the Lord’s eschatological intentions.[8]” The verbal connections between 2:28, 2:29 and 3:1 seem to favor Patterson. ‘Afterwards’ in v. 28 is connected to the ‘in those days’ of v. 29 and of 3:1ff. In 3:1ff the phrase ‘in those days’ is clearly eschatological and not likely to have been viewed as an imminent development. Such a view is supported by a reading of rabbinic literature in which the work of the Holy Spirit is relegated to the past and to the Age to Come [9]. Kaiser, on the other hand, sounds a corrective note when he writes,

“Never had an individual in the OT been completely without the aid and work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly Jesus held that the subjects of the new birth and the special work of the Holy Spirit in the gift of salvation were not new or inaccessible doctrines to the OT men and women before the cross. In fact he marveled that Nicodemus could have been a teacher in Israel and still have been so totally unaware of this fact (John 3:10).[10]”

This is important, for if Kaiser is right, and there is convincing reasons to believe he is, then we should not read Joel’s words as a promise that the Spirit would begin his work in some future day. The outpouring of the Spirit should be understood not as a beginning but as an intensification and an enlarging of the Spirit’s work. This is seen in two key elements of God’s promise through the prophet: first, God will ‘pour out’ (אֶשְׁפּ֤וֹךְ) his Spirit, and second, it will be poured out on ‘all flesh’ (כָּל־בָּשָׂ֔ר). As Stuart writes, “In the new age all of God’s people will have all they need of God’s Spirit.[11]” The ‘democratization of the Spirit'[12] is a major advancement in God’s plan for his people. The people would experience the fullness of the Spirit in a way that had, up to this point in redemptive history, been true of only a select few.

To whom, though, does this ‘all flesh’ refer? Walter Kaiser argues strongly that it must refer to ‘all mankind’, meaning Jew and Gentile alike. Kaiser points out that of the 32 uses of כָּל־בָּשָׂ֔ר outside of Joel, 23 of those instances are references to ‘the nations’, and in four of those it is used as a near synonym for ‘the nations'[13]. To say that Kaiser stands alone in his opinion would only be a mild overstatement, for the context of Joel’s promise trumps Kaiser’s argument as to the normal usage of the phrase. Wolff writes,

“Certainly ‘all flesh’ (כָּל־בָּשָׂ֔ר) can mean the whole of humanity, indeed even animals as well as humans. Yet here it surely means not ‘the whole world as such’, but ‘everybody’ in Israel, for according to the introduction in 2:19 this oracle also pertains to Yahweh’s people, and immediately preceding it the manifestation of Yahweh ‘in the midst of Israel’ has been announced (2:27).[14]”

Calvin too interprets the ‘all flesh’ to be a reference to ‘all Israel’. Allen, Patterson and Garrett all agree, as does Hubbard who points out the pronouns used in immediate context qualify the extent of the outpouring, namely ‘your sons’, ‘your daughters’, ‘your old men’ and ‘your young men’. Robert Chisholm offers a similar assessment,”Joel envisioned an eschatological outpouring of God’s Spirit upon “all flesh” (Joel 2:28 [3:1]). In this context the phrase seems to refer to all classes of people within Judah rather than to humankind in general (cf. “Your sons and daughters … old men … young men,” and “servants, both men and women,” vv. 2:28 b- 29 [3:1 b- 2]). God would pour out his spirit upon all the residents of Judah, regardless of age, gender, or social status, enabling all to exercise prophetic gifts (cf. Ezek 39:29 and Zech 12:10; see also Num 11:29).[15]”

Kaiser, on the other hand points out that “the male and female servants” of v. 29 would have included Gentiles. Yet Kaiser ignores the fact that even Gentiles servants could and often were included in the covenant community through circumcision (Gen 17:27, Ex 12:43-49) and were thus included in the house of Israel. Further strengthening the case against Kaiser’s reading, and for a more limited understanding of ‘all flesh’ is Ezekiel 39:29 in which God promises, “I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” This lavish outpouring of the Spirit promised by Joel would be for all the people of Israel irrespective of class, gender, or age. This promise echoes the wish of Moses in Number 11:29, “But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!'”

VanGemeren further limits (correctly) the scope of ‘all flesh’ arguing that “the promise of the Spirit is limited to a particular group in ‘Israel”[16]. After commenting on the openness of the promise (the Spirit is promised to all despite class or sex or age), he writes,

“On the other hand, the application of the promise of the Spirit is not mechanical. Not ‘all people’ will be saved and find deliverance in the city of God, Mount Zion. Only those who ‘call’ on the name of the Lord make up ‘all people’.[17]”

In other words, v. 32 further qualifies v. 28 [18]. Thus, for VanGemeren and for Wolff, there is a remnant motif coming through here. This group from within Israel will “constitute the new community of the Spirit, who will be brought through the Day of the Lord as the heirs of the promises of God.[19]”


1 David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk: Listening to the Voice of God, Bible Speaks Today(Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1999), 70.

2See, for example, Leslie Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

3 Allen, Joel, 36.

4 Ibid, 30.

5 David A. Hubbard, Joel and Amos, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989), 22.

6 Space will not allow for a full exploration of the possible relationships between the locusts of chapter one and the armies of chapter two. Some have argued that Joel has in mind the plague of locusts in both chapters one and two (see Allen and Hubbard) while others have argued that the Joel envisions human armies in chapter two of which the locusts were just a portent (see Patterson). Still others have argued that Joel uses the real plague of locusts referred to in chapter one to speak of the final conflict on the climactic Day of the Lord (see Treier). Finally, some have argued that the locusts of chapter one and two should be viewed as a human army (see Stuart).

7 Hubbard, Joe and Amos, pg. 68. Hubbard rightly points out that the distinction is not between material and spiritual blessings as many other commentators contend. The material loss and restoration were spiritual at their root – the loss resulted from covenant breach and the blessings flow from a restoration of covenantal relationship.

8 Richard D. Patterson, Commentary on Joel, The Expositors Bible Commentary Old Testament, electronic edition, release 10.1.98 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

9 Allen, Joel, 104.

10 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. “The Promise of God and the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit: Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:16-21,” in The Living and Active Word of God: Studies in Honor of Samuel J. Schultz, ed. Morris Inch (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1983), 112.

11 Douglas Stuart, Hosea – Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1987), 216.

12 Ibid, 260

13 Kaiser, “The Promise of God”, 119.

14 Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos, trans. by Waldemar Janzen et al, ed. S. Dean McBride Jr., Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 67.

15 Robert B. Chisholm, “rc;B; ( )”, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem, VanGemeren electronic edition v. 7.25.01 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

16 Willem VanGemeren, “Spirit of Restoration”, Westminster Theological Journal 50:1 (Spring 1988): 91.

17 Ibid, 91.

18 See also Wolff, Joel and Amos, 68-69.

19 Ibid, 91.

3 thoughts on “Joel 2.28-32 in the NT, part 1

  1. cool paper. at first i felt that kaiser’s quote was sort of making the prophecy moot by saying that people have always had the Spirit. but then i read on and you pointed out the significance: ‘pour out’ on ‘all flesh’.

    i wrote a poem based off of those verses in joel. you can read it here (or maybe you already have):

    reading white text on a black background totally hurts my eyes…and then after i read i see white lines everywhere i look…just wanted to complain in case it might cause you to change the color, haha.


  2. Mark asked me to email him the paper because he couldn’t read it…Never thought of it.

    I need to work on this, but it’s fun to change stuff up sometimes.

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