Q&A: Peter’s Use of Joel

How does Peter see the apocalyptic imagery of Joel in the events of Acts 2?

The first step is to take note of the context of Joel’s prophecy. It is the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

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. (Joel 2:32)

Even if we identify the context, it may sound to us as if Joel is still looking forward to the first century events at the end of his predictions. The unfortunate chapter break between 2 and 3 stops us reading further, but if we keep reading without a break, the beginning of chapter 3 makes it clear that Joel is still speaking about the restoration from exile. God would judge all the Canaanite nations, including Israel, who had behaved like a Canaanite. But only Israel would resurface from the “flood” of Babylonian control, while all the Canaanite powers remained scattered forever. And Israel would be vindicated across the world, from India to Ethiopia, in the events of the book of Esther (predicted in Ezekiel 38-39).

This means that the particular “day of judgment” had already passed by the time Peter quoted the prophet, so he is not quoting the prophecy to announce its soon fulfillment. He is, however, announcing a similar destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, with all that this entails.

The New Testament writers always quote the Old Testament “covenantally,” that is, the way God redeemed and avenged at such-and-such a time is now being repeated. A similar example is the reference in Hebrews to Jeremiah concerning “a new covenant.” In Jeremiah, the new covenant would re-unite Judah and Israel, north and south. By the first century, this was an event long fulfilled. The author of Hebrews is using the previous national “death-and-resurrection” to illustrate the inter-national one which was occurring in his day, that is, not a reunion of Israelite and Israelite into one natural body, but the reunion of Jew and Gentile into one spiritual body.

The second step is to take note of the meaning of the prophetic language. Blood and fire and smoke are potent images but together they speak of a process of transformation, the sacrificial rite. Blood is the natural body upon the altar. Fire transforms it into something new. Joel—and Peter—as prophets of God, are putting the Israel of their respective days on the altar. How is this possible?

These are things that take place on the “Land” (not the “earth”) because the Land throughout the Old Testament is a flat, four-cornered altar. The obedient offering of the firstfruits (such as Isaac) would allow the will of God to be done on earth as it was in heaven. It was an act of faithful gratitude which would allow God to pour out the rest of the harvest as a blessing to true Israel. For the unbelieving, an abundance of blessing would be a chance to fill up their sins and incur a greater judgment.

We see this on Mount Carmel, where Elijah’s holy sacrificial model of Israel (a twelve stone altar) calls down fire from heaven, and the entire mountain becomes a new Sinai, with the false priests slain and God vindicated. The Tabernacle was a model of Sinai, with the Bronze Altar as the raised earth, and the furnitures in the Holy Place signified the sacrificial blood (the Table), the fire (the Lampstand) and the fragrant savory smoke (the Incense Altar). The fragrant smoke was pleasing to God, a “legal witness” that the Law had been satisfied. Blood, fire and clouds of smoke make all Israel “the holy place.”

In the first century, the death of Christ was the offering of blood. Pentecost was the “holy fire” coming down from heaven, and the testimony of the apostles to an apostate Jerusalem and to the surrounding Gentiles was the savory smoke, after which came God’s blessings and curses upon the Jews for all time in AD70. In the Jewish war, as on Carmel, the liturgical model of Christian worship brought down the “days of vengeance.” Jerusalem herself was laid upon the altar, the entire Land covered in blood “up to the horses’ bridles.” Just as Israel was surrendered by God to Babylon due to her harlotries, idolatries, sorceries and abominations, so she would be left unprotected to be desolated by Rome, whom God would bring against her. At Pentecost, the glory of God did not fill the Temple but the faithful. As the faithful were gradually expelled from the Temple over the following decades, the presence of God was also expelled, which left it unprotected against invasion and plunder by Gentiles. The liturgical blood, fire and smoke of the New Covenant Israel resulted in literal blood, fire and smoke for old Israel.

The book of Revelation is strange to us because it is a sacrificial liturgy. It is the final sacrifice of the Old Testament: Israel herself. The believers ascended as smoke (the ascension offering in Leviticus 1, the true Isaacs, sons of Abraham by faith) and the unbelievers were swallowed by the Land, descending into the earthen Altar, as ashes, Adamic dust, like the false priests, the sons of Korah. The Altar was then split in two (symbolically under the feet of Christ) and the ashes poured out. All these allusions help us to understand what is going on. To refuse to understand the Bible on its own terms (with its constant sacrificial/liturgical models) is to refuse to take it as it was intended.

Finally, there are those who believe that the apocalyptic language in Peter’s quotation is still unfulfilled. They state that because Israel rejected the Spirit the full pouring out was postponed until “the last days” of Israel which are still future. Incredibly, these teachers overlook the destruction of Jerusalem as an important event in Covenant history. Not only this, but they fail to see that this is another death-and-resurrection of Israel, who emerges from the flames once again renewed, but this time as the Christian Church. There is no Israel besides the Church. So, how should we then understand the phrase “the last days” in Peter’s quotation? The New Testament documents are legal documents written by legal witnesses, giving testimony about a coming judgment. Following the pattern of the Old Testament prophets, they are preaching to cause a moral response in the audience of their day. So although we can apply their warnings in certain ways today, their warnings are obviously concerning the last days of the Old Covenant, not the last days of the New. The failure of most of evangelicalism to notice this is why the New Testament has little grip on reality in the lives of modern believers. The fulfillment of the warnings in the judgment of God, in Christ, is either overlooked or erased entirely from our understanding of the birth of the Church.

ART: St Peter Preaching at Pentecost, sculpture by Christopher Slatoff.

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