Majoring in the Minors: Joel
In reading the Minor Prophets, you might at first be overwhelmed by the sheer proportion of material concerning judgment: judgment against Israel, judgment upon neighboring nations, and judgment condemning the unrighteous. How should conscientious readers navigate the many passages of doom and gloom in these twelve prophetic books?
As we consider “Christ in the Minor Prophets,” one principle worth making abundantly clear is that the heuristic key to the Minor Prophets is Jesus Himself: His messianic Person, work, life, and ministry. Christ Himself opens the minds of men “to understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). Therefore, identifying legitimate connections between the Minor Prophets and Christ leads to true understanding of the many refrains of God’s just wrath against sin and iniquity. Consider how this is the case for the book of Joel.
The ‘Day of the Lord’ figures prominently in Joel’s prophecy about Israel’s devastation (1:4-2:11) and restoration (2:25), together with the judgment of the nations (3:14) and the inauguration of a new age (2:28, 29). When isolated from other thematic features of the book, the descriptions of the great and terrible ‘Day of the Lord’ blend (and blur) Joel’s message together with the many other warnings about God’s coming judgment found throughout the Minor Prophets. But the urgency of Joel’s particular warning begins to stand out when the ‘Day of the Lord’ is understood in its surrounding Christologically significant context, organized around two remarkable features of the book.
In the first place, the promised work of the Spirit of God (2:28-29) marks the turning point of the prophecy from devastation to restoration (pictured as cosmic re-creation). It is the Spirit that brings about a renewed creation, which is itself a picture of salvation for the severely distressed people of God. Just as the ‘Day of the Lord’ has universal significance (3:14), so too does the blessing of God’s Spirit (2:28).
This Spirit is none other than the Spirit of the ascended Christ who on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:4 filled the mouths of Jesus’ followers with the languages of the nations of the whole earth. With all the force of a rushing wind, the Spirit of Christ impelled the apostles to their work of Kingdom extension to all nations. This critically important development reiterated the driving gospel themes of Christ’s universal lordship (Matt. 28:18-20) and victory over a global enemy who stalks about the whole earth (Job 1:7; 2:2; 1 Ptr. 5:8-11).
In the second place, God’s gift of a promised “teacher of righteousness” (Joel 2:23; sometimes translated as “rain of righteousness”) to His people complements the outpouring of His Spirit, even as a necessary partner in the restoration of God’s people. Christ Himself is the “teacher of righteousness” come to His people In Matthew’s Gospel.
The incarnate Christ comes as the all-wise King teaching and preaching a message of life-giving righteousness as He gathers disciples to Himself and reconstitutes the people of Israel. For example, consider Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), especially as He calls together His disciples, opens His mouth to teach them, and immediately begins with the definition of human flourishing for all those who are committed to righteousness in the Kingdom of Heaven (5:1-12).
At the heart of Christ’s teaching and preaching is an urgent call to repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). While the coming of the Kingdom is full of promise for the King’s followers, it is a terror to those who persist in unrepentant rebellion. Christ’s royal proclamation in Matthew’s Gospel is as much a warning as it is a gracious announcement of good news. This is the point at which Joel’s caution about the ‘Day of the Lord’ comes into sharper focus.
Far from being a generic trope of judgment, the ‘Day of the Lord’ is better understood as the bonding agent for the various parts of Joel’s warning and encouragement for Israel. The ‘Day of the Lord’ lends urgency to the action required of Joel’s audience: radical repentance of heart away from deathly idolatry and toward life-giving heart-righteousness. The essence of Joel’s message to Israel and the nations is profoundly evangelical in the same way that Christ’s message is evangelical.
Ultimately, it is the ascended Christ Himself who grants this radical repentance: “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
Zachary Groff (MDiv, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC, and he serves as Managing Editor of The Confessional Journal and as Editor-in-Chief of the Presbyterian Polity website.