Joel 2:28-32 in the NT, part 3

(continued from part 2)

Section 2: Peter’s Sermon in Acts 2

Having done the work in the book of Joel, we now turn our attention now to Peter uses Joel’s prophecy to explain the phenomenon being witnessed on the day of Pentecost. Evans is correct in pointing out that “Peter’s sermon is laced throughout with language taken from Joel”[31]; however, this paper will focus on the direct quotation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-21 (and 2:39). As mentioned in the introduction, when considering Peter’s use of Joel’s prophecy, there are several issues one must address: first, in what sense is Joel’s prophecy actually fulfilled by the events of Pentecost (or surrounding Pentecost), and second, how does Peter understand the phrase ‘all flesh’.

Most modern commentators have noticed that Peter’s sermon is consistent with what, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has been referred to as pesher. Longnecker explains that pesherlays all emphasis on fulfillment without attempting to exegete the details of the biblical prophecy it ‘interprets’.[32]” Evans adds, “pesher exegesis is based upon an eschatological understanding which sees certain events predicted, in a somewhat hidden way, in the writing of the prophets of old.[33]”

That Peter is emphasizing the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy can be seen in the slight but significant adjustment to the LXX text [34] that begins Peter’s quotation of Joel. Peter takes up the ‘afterward’ (μετὰ ταῦτα) of Joel 2:28 and interprets it as ‘in the last days’ (ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις). This alteration of the LXX text highlights what was somewhat obscure in Joel’s words, namely that the outpouring of the Spirit was an eschatological event (see discussion above). This was in keeping with the rabbinic understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit [35]. However, Peter isn’t merely following the rabbi’s, he is declaring that the Spirit is proof that the ‘last days’ have arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. As Ridderbos writes, “The first thing that comes clearly to the fore in Peter’s speeches, and what one might call the ground on which all his preaching rests, is the consciousness that the time of eschatological fulfillment has dawned.[36]” Luke, the historian retelling the Pentecost account and summarizing Peter’s sermon, is also conscious of the dawning of the ‘last days’. Witherington writes, “…Luke sees a certain christological and eschatological message as central to the preaching [of the apostles].[37]” He goes on,

“As is clear from Peter’s speech and the quoting from Joel 2:28-32 at Acts 2:17ff, the working of the Holy Spirit is seen as a sign that the eschatological age has begun, and that the promises of the OT era are being fulfilled in the lives of those who follow Jesus. In general, the point of the Joel passage is that not just some but all of God’s people from the least to the greatest will have the Spirit and be equipped for witness or service with various gifts in the eschatological age ushered in by Jesus.[38]”

That Peter understood the prophecy of Joel as being fulfilled, at least in part, on that day is not, however, an uncontested point. Older dispensational theologians have argued that Pentecost did not in any real way fulfill the promises of Joel. For example, Merrill Unger writes,

“It seems quite obvious that Peter did not quote Joel’s prophecy in the sense of its fulfillment in the events of Pentecost, but purely as a prophetic illustration of those events…Peter’s phraseology ‘this is that’ means nothing more than that ‘this is [an illustration of] that which was spoken by the prophet Joel. In the reference there is not the slightest hint at a continual fulfillment during the church age or a coming fulfillment toward the end of the church age. The reference is solely in an illustrative sense to Jewish auditors at Pentecost. Fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy is still future and waits Christ’s second coming in glory and a copious spiritual outpouring ushering in kingdom blessing. [39]”

Driven by the same theological assumptions, namely that promises made to Israel must be fulfilled in ethic Israel (either in history or in the millennium), A.C. Gaebelein agrees, stating, “Had he [Peter] spoken of a fulfillment then of Joe’s prophecy, he would have uttered something which was not true, for the great prophecy of Joel was not fulfilled on that day.[40]” More recently, however, dispensationalists, even of the classic variety, have acknowledged that such an interpretation does not hold up to close scrutiny, especially in light of the discovery of the Qumran documents and the study of pesher[41].

Unless one follows those who reject the idea of fulfillment in Acts 2, one must determine whether this prophecy was fulfilled in whole or in part. While it is easy to see how Joel’s words about the outpouring of the Spirit were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, it is not as easy to see how the portents of Acts 2:19-20 were fulfilled on the day. While dispensationalists have gone in one direction, denying any fulfillment, covenant theologians have often gone in the other, seeing Joel’s words as being completely fulfilled. Garrett writes,

Classic covenant theology asserts that the Pentecost experience was indeed the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. It has generally taken the signs in the sky in more of a spiritual than a literal sense. Some scholars suggest that the signs that accompanied Jesus’ crucifixion (e.g., the darkening of the sky, Matt 27:45) fulfilled the prophecy of the darkening of the sun and moon.”[42]

Some have attempted to locate the fulfillment of these portents in the unnatural events surrounding Pentecost, connecting the ‘signs on earth below’ to the miracles of Jesus [43] or the gift of tongues and the healing miracles that would soon follow [44]. Others have suggested that these wonders and signs were meant to refer to the “uncanny happenings in sky and earth some seven weeks earlier [45].” Bruce suggests,

“The wonders and signs to be revealed in the world of nature, as described in vv. 19 and 20 may have more relevance in the present context than is sometimes realized: it was little more than seven weeks since the people in Jerusalem had indeed seen the sun turned into darkness, during the early afternoon on the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. And on the same afternoon the paschal full moon may well have appeared blood-red in the sky in consequence of that preternatural gloom”

This could partly explain the addition of three words to the LXX text at v. 19, ‘above’ (ἄνω) to describe the wonders done in the heavens, ‘signs’ (σημεῖα), and ‘below’ (κάτω). Yet, even if there is some reference to events near the day of Pentecost, Bruce is also right in seeing any near fulfillments as ‘tokens’ of the more climactic fulfillment at the end of the age.

Rather than viewing Joel’s prophecy as entirely unfulfilled or entirely fulfilled, it is better to acknowledge that some portions of Joel’s prophecy have been fulfilled and others await a future fulfillment. While Kaiser may overstate his case, he is correct when he writes,

“When Peter stood up in front of the crowd on the day of Pentecost and affirmed, ‘This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel’ (Acts 2:26), it appeared that there was no more to be said. The prophecy had been fulfilled! Yet 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 await the consummation of history. The Book of Revelation picks up the same themes and projects them into the last days of earth’s history.[46]”

Not only does this square with what appears to have happened on the day of Pentecost, as recorded by Luke, but also with a proper interpretation of Joel’s words in the Hebrew OT. As pointed out above, there are indications within the passage of Joel that there would be a lapse of time between the outpouring of the Spirit and the cosmic signs that would accompany the final Day of the Lord. Those same things are highlighted in Acts 2.

Peter highlights the prophetic aspects of the outpouring of the Spirit with the addition of the phrase ‘and they shall prophesy’ in v. 18 (another alteration to the LXX). Certainly Peter emphasizes this due to his desire to defend against the charge of drunkenness and to explain the utterances given by the Spirit. What they were experiencing was not the effects of intoxication but of divine inspiration through the poured out Spirit of God. This fresh experience of the Spirit resulted in fresh prophetic activity (i.e. proclamation). This is as Joel had predicted – the Spirit would be given not merely for personal enjoyment or growth, but to equip and strengthen God’s people for ministry. Jesus’ says as much in Acts 1:8 when he promised his disciples power from the Holy Spirit and commissioned his followers to be his witnesses.

So while the outpouring of the Spirit and the resulting prophetic activity are fulfillments of Joel’s prophecy (partial at this point, see below), the signs and wonders of Acts 2:19-20 remain yet unfulfilled. It seems reasonable to conclude that Peter understood the prophecy of Joel was beginning to be fulfilled, and that, like Joel, he understood that there would be a period of time between the outpouring of the Spirit and the climactic Day of the Lord and the final consummation of the kingdom of God during which the people of God would exercise their prophetic giftedness empowered by the Spirit. Moreover, as Bruce points out, “Certainly the outpouring of the Spirit on a hundred and twenty Jews cold not in itself fulfill the prediction of such outpouring ‘upon all flesh’; but it was the beginning of the fulfillment.[47]” More was to come. More would receive the gift of the Spirit, and more would call on the name of the Lord and be saved [48], as Peter intimates in vv. 38-39. Stott writes, “…between the Day of Pentecost (when the Spirit came inaugurating the last days) and the day of the Lord (when Jesus will come concluding them) there stretches a long day of opportunity, during which the gospel of salvation will be preached throughout the world.[49]” More was to come, but the beginning of the fulfillment was clear to Peter. ‘This is that’; the ‘last days’ were inaugurated by Jesus and the ‘democratization of the Spirit’ is proof positive.

The second major issue surrounding Acts 2 and the quotation from Joel is Peter’s understanding of the phrase ‘all flesh’ (πᾶσαν σάρκα). Here it is necessary to distinguish between Peter’s view and Luke’s view, one speaking at the beginning of this dramatic development in redemptive history and the other writing having the benefit of seeing God’s salvific program advance several degrees. Most commentators agree that Peter likely understood ‘all flesh’ as Joel did, as referring to all the house of Israel regardless of sex, age or class. Witherington makes the point emphatically,

“It cannot be stressed to strongly that the event recorded in Acts 2 is not really about the inauguration of the worldwide gentile mission. In Acts 2:14 Peter addresses his fellow (local?) Jews, but also all others who κατοικοῦντες
(“and those who were dwelling”) in Jerusalem. Peter’s preaching, then, in vv. 14ff. must be seen as essentially a message to the Jews of the world, not to the whole world.[50]”

Witherington is likely correct, especially in light of Peter’s surprise at the inclusion of Gentiles and their receiving of the Spirit. Longnecker concurs, “It seems difficult to believe that Peter himself thought beyond the perspective of Jewish remnant theology. Just as he could hardly have visualized anything beyond the next generation, so he could hardly have conceived of anything spatially beyond God’s call to a scattered but repentant Jewish remnant.[51]” For Peter, as for Joel, it would not be all Jews merely by virtue of their Jewishness that would receive the promise, for “all people means not everyone irrespective of their inward readiness to receive the gift, but everyone irrespective of their outward status. There are still spiritual conditions to receiving the Spirit, but there are no social distinctions…[52]”

Based on this, it is likely that when Peter offers the promise to ‘all who are far off’ in v. 39, he probably has dispersed Jews in mind, not Gentiles [53]. If, as has been argued, Peter understood ‘all flesh’ as limited to Israel, the promise of v. 39 must be limited to Israel also (for the Spirit is offered here as well). Consequently, the reader should assume the promise of v. 21 was, in Peter’s mind, limited to those in Israel who call upon the name of the Lord (clearly meaning Jesus in the context of the Acts 2). For Peter, it is the faithful remnant of Israel who identified with Jesus as Lord, who would be saved and receive the gift of the Spirit. This is in keeping with what one learns of the disciples nationalistic tendencies in Acts 1, where they respond to Jesus’ promise of the coming Holy Spirit with a question, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

On the other hand, when considering this speech, one must also consider Luke’s intentions. Longnecker is right to suggest that “this is one of those situations where a narrator like Luke has read into what the speaker said more than was originally there and so implied that the speaker spoke better than he knew.[54]” One can almost picture Luke, a Gentile writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, grinning as he recalls Peter’s words and contemplates how the church’s understanding of Joel’s prophecy must have evolved as God’s redemptive plan unfolded. Polhill comments, “Joel undoubtedly had seen the Spirit’s outpouring only as a gift to Israel, and perhaps many of those Jewish-Christians at Pentecost saw it the same way. The remainder of Acts clarifies that the promise applies to the Gentiles as well: it is indeed poured out on ‘all people.'”[55]

In actuality, it was not so much that Luke or the church came to see the gift being offered to Israel and to the Gentile nations. Rather, it was an evolving understanding of the nature of Israel. This can be seen more clearly when one examines Paul’s use of the Joel material in Romans 10.

Up Next: Romans 10 and conclusion.


31 Craig A. Evans, “The Prophetic Setting of the Pentecost Sermon” in Zeitschift für die neutestemntliche Wissenschaft und di Kunde der Älteren Kirche, 74.1-2 (1983), 149. Evans points out that Luke uses approximately 20 words from the book of Joel in Acts 2, words that “provide essential details to the narrative itself”. C.H. Dodd contends that Joel was one of the key Old Testament sections that became foundational for the church’s apocalyptic/eschatological understanding. He argues that quotes from any one of the large sections would be understood as pointing to the whole context of the work quoted – “it is the total context that is in view, and is the basis for the argument.” C.H. Dodd, According to Scriptures: the Substructure of New Testament Theology (London: Fontana Books, 1965), 126.

32Longnecker, Commentary on Acts, The Expositors Bible Commentary New Testament, electronic edition, release 10.1.98 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

33 Evans, “Prophetic Setting”, 150.

34 There are some insignificant adjustments to the LXX text that need not preoccupy us, including the reversal of order in which the promises regarding old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions and the addition of the word ‘my’ (μου) as a qualifier of servants in v. 18.

35 “Peter’s conviction was very much in keeping with the rabbinic consensus that the Spirit no longer rested on all Israel but would return as a universal gift at the end time.” J.B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 109.

36 H.N. Ridderbos, The Speeches of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles (London: Tyndale Press, 1962), 12.

37 Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 100.

38 Ibid, 140.

39 Merrill F. Unger, “The Significance of Pentecost”, Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 122:486 (Apr 1965):177-178.

40 A.C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles, An Exposition quoted in Daniel J. Treier, “The Fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32: A Multiple-Lens Approach”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:1 (March 1997), 13.

41 See, for example, Zane Hodges, “A Dispensational Understanding of Acts 2”, in Issues in Dispensationalism, ed. Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 167-179.

42 Garrett, Hosea, Joel, 370.

43 Allen, Joel, 103.

44 I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2000), 74.

45 Allen, Joel, 103.

46 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Back Towards the Future (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989), 123.

47 F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 68.

48 Space will not allow for a full discussion of how those hearing Peter’s sermon would have understood ‘LORD’. If Peter quoted the text in Hebrew, then the reference would clearly have been to YHWH. The identification of Jesus as Lord become clear in v. 36. However, for the reader of Luke’s account, the Greek ‘Lord’ the connection with Jesus would be more evident (Marshall, Acts, 74).

49 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), 75.

50 Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, 141.

51 Longnecker, Commentary on Acts.

52 Stott, The Message of Acts, 74.

53 Calvin disagrees, “The Gentiles are named in the last place, which were before strangers. For those which refer it unto those Jews which were exiled afar off, (and driven) into far countries, they are greatly deceived. For he speaketh not in this place of the distance of place; but he noteth a difference between the Jews and the Gentiles, that they were first joined to God by reason of the covenant, and so, consequently, became of his family or household; but the Gentiles were banished from his kingdom. Paul useth the same speech in the second chapter to Ephesians, (Ephesians 2:11) that the Gentiles, which were strangers from the promises, are now drawn near, through Jesus Christ, unto God” (Commentary of the Acts of the Apostles, The Ages Digital Library Commentary, version 1.0. Ages Software,1998). Calvin, however, doesn’t seem to deal with Peter’s own hesitation to reckon these dividing walls between clean and unclean as demolished. Paul ministers and writes after the gospel and the Spirit had been given to Gentiles. Peter speaks before that event. If Calvin is reading into Luke’s intentions, he is certainly correct; however, it seems unlikely to this author that Peter’s understanding is quite as open as Calvin would suggest.

54 Longnecker, Commentary on Acts.

55 Polhill, Acts, 109.