When God Pours Out His Spirit
What marks a healthy church? Hopefully, you’d all begin with confessing the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, the message we also celebrate through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. From there, perhaps you’d add sound theology as another mark. The regular preaching of God’s word. We wouldn’t want to forget faithful leadership either, nor the people’s care for one another through accountability, encouragement, and bearing burdens. A healthy church would also have great concern for making disciples, both locally and globally.
Maybe you’d add other marks like prayerfulness and generosity and ministries to the poor. But what if I said there’s something more fundamental than all the qualities I’ve listed—such that to have all those qualities and lack this one thing would make you only a shell of a church, a church in name only? What if I said it’s also not something you can produce but must be granted from God above?
I’m talking about the powerful presence of God the Holy Spirit indwelling his people and working through his people to spread the knowledge of God. I want to end there today. But first I want us to look at the prophet Joel again. Joel promised that such a day would come, when the Spirit would mark God’s people this way. In verses 18-27 we observed only the first part of God’s merciful answer to the people’s cry. Soon, he would restore their land from the locust plague. But restoring the kingdom around his people is not all the Lord purposed. They also needed the kingdom born in them through the knowledge of God in their midst. Verse 28…
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.
When reading the Prophets, one thing to remember is their unique perspective. Prophets often spoke about the future as one collage of events without indicating how far apart the fulfillment of those events would be. Some illustrate this with “the mountain peaks of prophecy.” There are occasions when, from one perspective, a whole mountain range can look like a single mountain—like this first image on the screen. It’s not until driving a bit further that you can discern how far apart the ridges really are—like the second image on the screen. The first image illustrates a prophet’s perspective—he sees the mountain peaks of future events but doesn’t always tell us how far apart each fulfillment will be. For that we must drive further into the New Testament. We’ll make that drive later, but first we’ll look at three prophecies from Joel’s perspective.
God promises the outpoured Spirit.
The first is this: God promises the outpoured Spirit. Verse 28, “It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit …” Joel doesn’t specify when God will do this. He only tells us that it’ll occur “afterward,” sometime after the Lord restores Zion. Unless the Lord pours out his Spirit, the restoration of God’s people is incomplete.
Now, when the Lord speaks of pouring out “my Spirit,” we shouldn’t think some impersonal force, a kind of divine energy. We’re looking here at the gift of God himself, the third person of the Trinity. For the Lord to pour out himself this way means for him to give himself to his people without holding back. The same word appears quite often in texts about God pouring out his wrath, releasing the full brunt of his anger. But here it is the full gift of his Spirit. The blessings of his presence will come not like a trickle or “gradual pour;” it’s more comparable to a massive flood.
Notice also who receives this gift: “all flesh.” He doesn’t mean all humans without exception—as if to say every individual on earth. He means all kinds of people who join God’s covenant community. That becomes more apparent with the next few phrases: your sons, your daughters, your old men, your young men, male and female servants. Later in verse 32, “everyone who calls.” Ethnicity, gender, age, economic status—all kinds of people. Not just Jews or those in leadership or the wealthy. Everyone in the covenant community would benefit equally from the Spirit’s presence.
That’s huge! To this point in Israel’s history, the Spirit was poured out on chosen individuals like the prophet and the priest and the king—maybe a few others. The Spirit empowered them to lead and judge and mediate and speak on God’s behalf. But not every individual enjoyed the same empowerment and knowledge of God’s will.[i] It was largely mediated through these other individuals.
We even see Moses wishing that all God’s people had the Spirit like this. There’s this episode in Numbers 11. God takes some of the Spirit that was on [Moses] and empowers these seventy elders. As soon as the Spirit rests on them, they prophesy (Num 11:25). Same happens to these other two guys, Eldad and Medad; the Spirit rests on them, but they prophesy in the camp instead of at the tent of meeting (Num 11:26). This raises concerns. So someone runs and tells Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua says, “My lord Moses, stop them.” Moses answers back, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Num 11:27).
Moses longed that everybody in the covenant community had the Spirit like he enjoyed. Well, that longing of Moses gets picked up here by Joel. The new age would be way better than any age that preceded it; the Spirit would fill everyone in the community, not just a few. And for what purpose? To spread the knowledge of God. Sometimes the prophets spoke of the Spirit purifying God’s people. At other times his ministry includes regenerating the heart, uniting God’s people under the Messiah, raising them from death to life. But another way God’s Spirit works is by spreading the knowledge of God.
He mentions “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions…” Prophesies, dreams, visions—all various means God used to reveal himself and his purposes. The Spirit would enable all God’s people to participate in spreading the knowledge of God. In the new age, with Zion restored, Moses’ wish would come true. All the Lord’s people would become like prophets, who edify one another in the knowledge of God.
God warns of the coming judgment.
The second event Joel foresees in our passage: God warns of the coming judgment. Verse 30, “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.” Joel has already prepared us for these images. Some of them we saw in 2:10, “The earth quakes before him; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”
We observed there that when kings led their thousands of chariots into battle, you could feel the vibration in the land as that king approached. But if the entire cosmos shakes, if the vast greatness of his approaching presence darkens sun, moon, and stars, we must be dealing with a far greater Warrior. The same ideas are repeated here with the sun darkened, the moon turning to the color of blood.
But he also adds signs on earth normally associated with war—blood, fire, columns of smoke. Joel seems to be drawing from at least two stories in Israel’s history. One is Joshua 8:20. Israel sets an ambush for the city of Ai. They create a diversion, luring the soldiers away from the city. Then they attacked from behind and set the city ablaze. When the men of Ai looked back, “Behold, the smoke of the city went up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that…” The other is Judges 20:40. Same thing, only this time Israel fights against one of their own tribes. Benjamin gets lured away, only to turn and see their city in flames. It says, “when the signal began to rise out of the city in a column of smoke…[Benjamin] grew dismayed, for they saw that disaster was close upon them.”
Likewise, Joel is saying that when the great and awesome day of the Lord comes, people will be dismayed. They will be powerless before his might. They will see disaster closing upon them. God is on the move to judge his enemies, and there will be no way to escape, no way to hide from his all-consuming presence. The scene reminds us of the question in 2:11 “The day of the Lord is great and very awesome, who can endure it?” Answer? Nobody, on their own. Nobody, in their sins. Is there any hope of escape?
God extends salvation to all who call on him.
Yes! That brings us to the third prophecy in our passage: God extends salvation to all who call on him. Verse 32, “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.” Based on the devastating curses that overtook Zion in chapters 1 and 2, it seems that we’re seeing here the restored Zion, a restored Jerusalem. Again, it’s a picture of God’s kingdom, of God reigning over his people in peace.
The only way to escape judgment and dwell in God’s kingdom safely is by calling on the name of the Lord. Now, calling on the name of the Lord, isn’t just a matter of saying a name. Calling on the Lord’s name comes from that place Ben has been describing as “spiritual bankruptcy.” You know how unable you are to save yourself, and so you cast yourself upon the Lord as your only hope. He becomes for you everything. Calling on his name means you trust his power and character and provision to keep saving you. Duane Garrett is right when he says, “This is not a prayer of desperation in a moment of crisis but the consistent identification with the God of Israel. It includes confessing him before the nations and involves faithfulness to the Lord through trial.”[ii]
But notice something further. The Lord’s call stands behind their call—“among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.” Implied in Joel’s prophecy is that his readers waste no time in calling upon the Lord. The matter is urgent. But when they call, they learn that God’s call enabled their own. They called because he called them. Their salvation belongs to the Lord.
How should Joel’s prophecy impact us?
Those are Joel’s three prophecies—outpoured Spirit, coming judgment, salvation extended to all who call. That’s Joel’s collage of events. Let’s now drive a little further into the New Testament to see how they play out in history. By doing so, we’ll also learn how Joel’s words should impact us.
First, know that Jesus Christ is pouring out the Spirit now. Turn with me to Acts 2. Jesus has died for sins. God raised him from the dead. For forty days he teaches about the kingdom. He tells the disciples the Holy Spirit will empower them in coming days. Sure enough, Jesus ascends to the Father. God enthrones him over the new Zion; and it’s from there that Jesus pours out the Spirit. Acts 2:33 says, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”*
What is it that they’ve seen and heard? In 2:1 it says that “…there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind…it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
What’s going on? Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit and the result is people spreading the knowledge of God. It goes on, “…all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel;” and he then quotes from the passage we’ve been discussing. Only there’s a little change at the beginning…
Did you notice it? Joel 2:28 said, “It shall come to pass afterward…” Peter says, “in the last days it shall be.” He interprets Joel for us. Throughout the New Testament, “the last days” stretch from Jesus’ resurrection to Jesus’ return. That’s the days you and I live in. Peter’s telling us the new age is here! And those days are characterized by Jesus pouring out the Holy Spirit upon his people, causing them to spread the knowledge of God. It’s here, folks! We’re living in the “afterward” of Joel. God has poured out his Spirit to empower you to declare the mighty works of God.
Church, God doesn’t pour out the Spirit, so that only the elders spread the knowledge of God—or only the deacons or only the evangelists spread the knowledge of God. He pours out the Spirit so that the whole community spreads the knowledge of God. God has been faithful to his promise, church. Christ is pouring out his Spirit now!
Which means, second, you should call on the name of the Lord. After Peter tells them all this, it says this in verse 37. “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Just like it was in Joel.
Perhaps you’re wondering about the rest of Joel’s prophecy? What about the blood and fire and vapor of smoke? What about the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood? Is Peter saying those wonders happened as well? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that some of these signs were associated with the cross of Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross in Luke 23:44-45, there was darkness. The sun’s light faded. But those signs tell us what the cross truly is—God’s end-time judgment fell on Jesus in our place. What does that mean, then, for those living between God’s judgment at the cross and God’s judgment at the end of history? It means that by calling on the name of the Lord, your judgment is taken away in Jesus. Jesus is your escape.
So, call on the name of the Lord. It doesn’t matter if you’re a prim and proper religious prude or an ashamed serial adulterer. No matter your ethnicity—Irish, Asian, African, British, Latvian, Palestinian. No matter your gender, your age, your social status—if you call on the name of the Lord, he will forgive your sins, deliver you from the coming judgment, and give you himself in the Holy Spirit. Theirs is no greater gift than the gift of God. He offers you himself in the gospel of his Son.
Third, walk humbly—your calling on God is the result of God calling you. Sometimes Christians get in these debates about whether we choose God or God chooses us, whether we call on God or God calls us. The Bible says both are true; it’s just that one is more fundamental and produces the other. The reason we call on God is that God called us to himself. As Jesus said elsewhere, no one can come to the Father unless the Father draws him. Apart from God’s initial, effective work, we would not come or call.
That should humble you. That should leave you before this Supper today asking, “Lord, why was I a guest? Why was I made to hear Thy voice / And enter while there’s room / When thousands make a wretched choice / And rather starve than come?” / ‘Twas the same love that spread the feast / That sweetly drew us in; / Else we had still refused to taste, / And perished in our sin.” That truth needs to go with us when interacting with the world and when we’re interacting with each other. We are not what we are in Christ because of anything we did. We are what we are in Christ because salvation belongs to the Lord. Worship him and walk humbly before others.
Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 1:26, “For consider your calling…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
Fourth, spread the knowledge of God. When the Spirit fills people in the New Testament, regularly the result is prayer, praise, prophecy, preaching, and so on—some kind of verbal ministry that helps others know God.
Hear me carefully. Luke’s purpose in Acts 2 isn’t that every Christian must speak in a foreign tongue, otherwise it’s questionable whether you’re full of the Spirit? We know he’s not saying that because the Spirit fills people in other instances in Acts and they don’t speak in foreign tongues.[iii] If God has it for some not to speak in a foreign tongue when he fills them with the Spirit, let’s not build a theology that makes it the criterion for all. At the same time, Luke is saying that the Spirit of prophesy makes a prophetic people. There are aspects to Pentecost that are unique and unrepeatable, yes. But Luke’s point isn’t that the Spirit filled the church this once and then quit. Rather, Luke is telling us of an entire new age that has dawned, where the Spirit of prophecy empowers everyone in the church to spread the knowledge of God.
In Acts 2, the Spirit empowers some to speak in a language not their own. But he also empowers Peter to speak in a language that is his own. The one draws; the other saves. Throughout the rest of Acts we also find the Spirit giving visions and dreams,[iv] some of them related to specific missionary endeavors. At other times, the Spirit empowers some with instruction,[v] others with guidance,[vi] insight to truth that exposes sin in some pretty uncomfortable ways,[vii] wisdom to defend the gospel,[viii] words of encouragement,[ix] spontaneous praise,[x] preaching,[xi] teaching,[xii] new evangelism efforts.[xiii]
There are all kinds of verbal ministries that the Spirit of prophecy produces in the church.[xiv] In this broader sense, all of God’s people become prophets. We speak for God based on the revelation he has given us in Christ. The Spirit came not for mere personal experience but for powerful outreach.[xv] The Spirit of prophecy is in you to declare the mighty acts of God yourself. He equips all.
Fifth, earnestly desire to prophesy. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh boy! Where’s he going now?” Just to the Bible, that’s all—that’s a quote from 1 Corinthians 14. I mentioned that the Spirit of prophecy produces all kinds of verbal ministries. One of them is prophesying. Now, in the New Testament, the words “prophet” or “prophecy” sometimes refer to God’s authorized spokesman or to the foundational content upon which the church stands. But that’s not the only type of prophecy the New Testament describes. The other type refers to that which offers the church more specific, circumstantial content that’s built on the foundational content.
Sometimes in Scripture that looked like someone exposing another person’s sin or falseness rather directly. Think of Peter exposing Ananias and Saphira lying to the Holy Spirit. At other times, it looked like someone giving specific direction for an individual or the church’s mission—like when the Spirit tells the church to set aside Paul and Barnabas or when Paul receives the Macedonian vision. On other occasions it included imparting strength in a very specific way to the people gathered. Think of Judas and Silas, who were both prophets, strengthening the brothers in Acts 15:32. Or also Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14—that prophecies happen to edify the whole body; prophecies are preferred over tongues in conveying the knowledge of God to outsiders.
This kind of work by the Spirit we should not despise. We shouldn’t despise it actively, by putting it down. We also shouldn’t despise it passively, by ignoring it or standing indifferent to it. Instead, we should earnestly pray for it to happen more. In Romans 12:6, Paul exhorts the church to utilize the gift of prophecy in particular. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:20 he says, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything…” In 1 Corinthians 14:1 he says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”
By asking you to pray this way, I’m not suggesting that the Spirit’s fullness in a church is evidenced only when he helps people to prophesy this way. I’m also not suggesting that when the Spirit empowers someone to prophesy that it’s superior to the other ways he empowers people. I’m simply highlighting one way the Spirit works that our circles are more hesitant to pray for based on abuses elsewhere.
Lastly, pray for others to know God in our midst. I want to close where we began, with what marks a healthy church? Necessary to being a church is the powerful presence of God the Holy Spirit indwelling his people and working through his people to spread the knowledge of God. In 1 Corinthians 14:25, the Lord pictures what I’m talking about. An outsider enters the church. The Spirit of prophecy works to spread the knowledge of God. The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he worships God and declares that God is really among you.
Do outsiders find themselves meeting God among us? When people enter our gatherings, are the secrets of their heart disclosed? Do they fall humbly before the Lord and worship him? I hope so. I really hope so. I don’t want to be just a shell of a church. I don’t want us to just come and go and do all our churchy things and have missing the powerful presence of God’s Spirit. I don’t want to be like the temple became at one point in Israel’s history where all the sacrifices were still going but the glory of God had departed from their midst. When people get around us, when we get together with one another, I want us to be able to say, “Surely, God is among us.”
Would you make that part of your prayers for our church? The risen Jesus is pouring out his Spirit on his people. Luke tells us that if we, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. Ask the Father that his Spirit would work mightily among us so that others know God in our midst. Fundamental to being a church is God dwelling among us in the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading the knowledge of God.
[i] The Spirit was certainly at work in God’s people under the old covenant, but only in a way that anticipated the much greater outpouring under the new covenant.
[ii] Garrett, Joel, 375.
[iii] E.g., Acts 4:8, 31; 7:55; 9:17.
[iv] Acts 7:55-56; 9:10-18; 10:10-20; 16:9-10.
[v] Acts 11:28; 13:2.
[vi] Acts 8:29; 10:19; 20:22.
[vii] Acts 5:3; 13:9.
[viii] Acts 6:10.
[ix] Acts 9:31.
[x] Acts 2:4, 10; 10:46.
[xi] Acts 4:8, 31; 5:32; 9:17.
[xii] Acts 9:31; 13:52.
[xiii] Acts 1:8.
[xiv] Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 43-44.
[xv] See also the helpful treatment by Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, NSBT 27 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 132.