What does Acts 2:17-18 mean?
Tasmania’s electrical power shortage has reached crisis levels. 30% of the power usually comes from Victoria by cable, but the cable has been broken since December 2015. 60% of the power usually comes from hydro-electric systems, but dam levels are at a record low capacity of 14% and falling. An old gas-fired power station has been brought back into operation and temporary diesel generators acquired. And major manufacturers have cut production to conserve power.
After Jesus died and rose again, He told His apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:4, 5, 8). When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, the church era commenced replacing the era of the law of Moses. In this post we look at the meaning of a passage from Joel, quoted by Peter as an explanation to the Jews.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants (slaves), both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18NIV).
We will see from this passage that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Context of Acts 2
Luke wrote the books of Luke and Acts in the Bible. Acts, written about AD 63, is a selective history of the first 30 years of the church. It describes the church in Jerusalem (Ch 1-7), in Judea and Samaria (8:1 – 9:31), and elsewhere in the Roman Empire (9:32 – 28:31). It was written for Theophilus who was probably Luke’s patron (Lk. 1:3-4; Acts 1:1). The main theme of the book is to describe the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire and to indicate the major challenges to this.
After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His followers, so they could be His witnesses (1:3-8). Then the Lord ascended into the sky and the disciples were promised that He would return in a similar manner (1:9-11). While they waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (1:12-26).
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and indwelt the disciples (2:1-13) and Peter addressed the crowd of Jews and Jewish proselytes who were in Jerusalem (1:14-41). As a result of Peter’s message about 3,000 people came to faith in Christ and joined the infant church. Then Luke summarized the activities of this pioneer church (2:42-47).
Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost included:
– an explanation of recent events (v.14-21)
– the gospel of Jesus Christ; His death, resurrection and exaltation (v.22-36)
– an exhortation to repentance and baptism (v. 37-40).
Peter explained what happened on the Day of Pentecost by saying they weren’t drunk and quoting from the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32).
Context of Joel
Joel was a prophet of God to Judah prior to the Jewish exile (his book is difficult to date more precisely). The key phrase of the book is “the day of the Lord”, found five times (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). It’s a time when the wicked are judged and the repentant are saved (Joel 3:15-16).
Up to 2:18 Joel addresses the desolation that would come on Judah. After that the repentant are promised deliverance. The book is structured as follows:
– Plague of locusts (Ch 1). This probably also symbolized the Lord’s army on the day of the Lord.
– An army is approaching (2:1-11)
– Call to repentance (2:12-17)
– They are promised material prosperity (2:18-27)
– They are promised an outpouring of God’s Spirit (2:28-29)
– Wonders in the heavens and earth (2:30-32)
– Judgement of the Gentile nations (3:1-16a)
– Promises restoration and blessing for the Jews (3:16b-21).
The people of Judah had turned away from the Lord (Joel 2:12-14). They had broken their covenant with the Lord. Consequently, the locust plague and drought was God’s judgement. Joel urges Judah to repent, but when they continually resist, God’s judgement is inevitable. Those who repented were promised prosperity, restoration, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation. The passage quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost mentioned God’s blessing (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18) and God’s judgment (Joel 2:30-32; Acts 2:19-21).
Joel 2: 28-29
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).
As the context is “afterward”, these verses may apply after the day of the Lord. So after God punishes the rebellious, He rewards repentant Jews with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit is generally among the community of Israel, but not in the individuals (Is. 63:11). Instead, the Holy Spirit only came upon particular people for particular tasks. For example:
– The Holy Spirit empowered Joseph (Gen. 41:38), Moses and Joshua.
– The Holy Spirit empowered craftsman (Ex. 31:2-5) and Gideon and Samson (Jud. 6:34; 14:6)
– The Holy Spirit empowered prophets (Ezek. 11:5; Mic. 3:8; Zech. 7:12; Acts 28:25)
– 70 elders prophesied when the Spirit of the Lord came on them (Num. 11:24-30).
– The Spirit of the Lord came on David and departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:13-14).
When the task was accomplished, the Holy Spirit would leave the person. David said, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). So, in Old Testament times the empowering of individuals by the Holy Spirit was selective and temporary.
Joel 2:28-29 predicts a change where the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people. Instead of selected individuals, God says it will regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was a message from God enabled by the Holy Spirit. This is different to the rest of the Old Testament because it indicates the Holy Spirit coming on people in general and not only particular individuals. Instead, it’s similar to the promised new covenant, which included “I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
Of course, the Holy Spirit’s current role of indwelling believers and abiding with them “forever” is also a great contrast to the Old Testament situation (Jn. 14:16).
Joel 2: 30-32
On the day of Pentecost, Peter also quoted from, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:30-32).
The day of the Lord is the time of judgment associated with the blessing given in Joel 2:28-29.
What did Joel 2:28-32 mean then?
Joel was given a revelation of a future time when a period of judgment (v.30-32) is followed by a time of blessing (v.28-29). Wonders in the heavens and on earth precede the judgment (day of the Lord). As judgment was often associated war, the meaning to the Israelites of that time could be that they will by invaded by an enemy, but God would deliver the faithful who would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. As afterwards “all people” have faith in God, it seems as though all the unfaithful people are destroyed in the judgment. Or it could mean that Israel is physically delivered from God’s judgment and its enemies destroyed. When the prophecy was given their enemies were the Phoenicians, Philistines, Egyptians and Edomites (Joel 3:4, 19).
The phrase “all people” (Strongs #3605, #1320) could mean every person, people from all categories in society, or all nations. As the context is “Your sons and daughters”, “Your old men” and “Your young men”, it probably means every Israelite. To call “on the name of the Lord” meant to trust and respond to God the Father (Mt. 7:21; Jn. 6:29). It shows God’s mercy in offering a way of escape to those facing judgment. They will survive the day of the Lord.
The principle of Joel 2:28-29 is that in future God will empower all the faithful Israelites with the Holy Spirit.
What does Joel 2:28-32 mean now?
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Joel’s prophecy.
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were partially fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C and by the Romans in AD 70. But John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. It’s associated with Christ’s second advent.
What about times of blessing? It’s difficult to identify periods when Israel has been blessed since Joel’s time. The only clear application of Joel’s prophecy to times of blessing is that made on the day of Pentecost by Peter, which is the subject of this post. Soon after this Peter said that the promised time of blessing was still future (Acts 3:21). It’s associated with Christ’s millennial kingdom.
So we understand that Joel 2:28-32 is a prophecy about events associated with Christ’s second coming and His millennial kingdom.
When Peter quoted from Joel, he changed the introduction from “And afterward”, to “In the last days”. As he is speaking to Jews and it was before the New Testament was written, they would have understood the “last days” from the Old Testament where it can mean the coming tribulation or the Millennial kingdom (Dt. 4:30; Isa. 2:2; Dan. 10:14; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1).
Peter also added “God says” to the quotation to emphasise that these were the words of God written by the prophet Joel. This is like a prophet saying “The word of the Lord came to me, saying” (Jer. 1:4).
Peter changed the word “dreadful” to “glorious” when describing the day of the Lord (Joel. 2:31; Acts 2:20). The reason for this maybe that He was associating this occasion with Christ’s second coming (Ti. 2:13).
Peter also added “and they will prophesy” at the end of v.18. This phrase is repeated from the previous verse for emphasis. Also he stopped half way through Joel 2:32 omitting, “for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls”. This could be so he could finish the quote with “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” to indicate what his audience needed to do when they were convicted of their sin (Rom. 10:13). In this context, they are spiritually saved from God’s judgment. And “the Lord” is Jesus Christ. Also, he didn’t want to make the application to deliverance from an army.
There is another difference between what happened on the day of Pentecost and Joel’s prophecy. The spiritual gift that occurred on the day of Pentecost was speaking in other languages, while Joel referred to prophecy. So the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit who gives the gift, not on the particular spiritual gift.
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Peter’s sermon. He was announcing to the Jews that what they saw on the day of Pentecost was a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. But this is only a partial fulfilment because John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). Also, the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers, not “on all people”. Also, there were no wonders in the heavens on the day of Pentecost (Mt. 24:29; Acts 2:19-20). Although some argue they were fulfilled at the crucifixion or figuratively on the day of Pentecost. So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. This is associated with Christ’s second advent and His millennial kingdom.
Peter was announcing to the Jews that through Jesus Christ, God had now brought in the promised new covenant. This meant that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was enabled by the Holy Spirit. Updating the principle from Joel 2:28-29 to the day of Pentecost gives: God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Who were “all people” who received the Holy Spirit? It wasn’t every Israelite. Afterwards, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children (Jews) and for all who are far off (Gentiles)—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). So, on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to those who repented and were baptized. Although they were mainly Jews, Gentiles weren’t excluded. They were people of every gender, age and social class.
It was also a fulfilment of Christ’s promises to send the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49; Jn. 7:37-39; 14:16-26; 15:26 – 16:15; Acts 1:3-5; 2:33).
What does Acts 2:17-18 mean?
It meant that from that time onwards, all those who accepted God’s gift of salvation through Christ would receive the Holy Spirit. This was the new era of the church age which replaced the era when the Israelites lived under the Law of Moses. It doesn’t mean that all will prophesy. Instead the New Testament teaches that each believer will have at least one spiritual gift.
Today, we are still in the church era, and the Holy Spirit still indwells all believers. But the church’s foundation was laid almost 2,000 years ago. It is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today because these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
Peter was pointing out a similarity between what happened on the day of Pentecost and events associated with the second coming of Christ. This involved the activity of the Holy Spirit.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Acts 2:17-18 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– every Christian has the gift of prophecy regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race, or
– every Christian can prophesy (or preach or teach) at a church meeting regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
Instead, prophecy was used to illustrate the fact that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
There are similar messages to this in other New Testament Scriptures. For example, when the household of Cornelius accepted the gospel message, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). Now Gentiles could be God’s people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Also, in the church people of various genders, ages, social classes and races are empowered by the Holy Spirit:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
Quotation from the Old Testament
According to Fruchtenbaum, Peter’s quotation in Acts 2 of Joel 2 is a literal fulfilment of an application from the Old Testament.
“Virtually nothing that happened in Acts 2 is predicted in Joel 2. Joel was speaking of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the nation of Israel in the last days. However, there was one point of similarity, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, resulting in unusual manifestations. Acts 2 does not change or reinterpret Joel 2, nor does it deny that Joel 2 will have a literal fulfilment when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on the whole nation of Israel. It is simply applying it to a New Testament event because of one point of similarity.”
We have seen that Acts 2:17-18 shows that Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-29) had a partial fulfilment on the day of Pentecost, but the complete fulfilment is still future. The thing they had in common was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit indwells all believers. But in a coming day after the wicked have been judged, everyone will be empowered by the Holy Spirit as prophesised by Joel.
The fact that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit is a challenge and an encouragement. Do you have this power in your life? If the answer is yes, does the presence of the Holy Spirit encourage you to live for Jesus Christ?
Fruchtenbaum A.G (1992) “Israelology: The missing link in Systematic theology”, p. 844-845
Written, March 2016
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