I have a dream - or do I?

A little look at Joel 2, Acts 2 and me and you

Saturday 21 January 2017 by Tom Underhill

Go Deeper

At the Emmanuel Student Bible Study we're currently working through the book of Joel, one of those minor prophets tucked away towards the end of the Old Testament.

This week we came to ch2, which ends with this section:

‘And afterwards, 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.
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;

- Joel 2:28-32

It's a section that may be more familiar than your average paragraph from a minor prophet, because Peter quotes it at length on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-22).

Furthermore, it can cause a certain amount of controversy over the mention of dreams and visions. In certain Christian circles, this would be a pretty straightforward indication that we should expect precisely this: dreams and visions! That is, direct extra-Scriptural revelatory experiences as part of the normal Christian life. Alternatively, we talked on Tuesday night about whether this passage might explain accounts of Muslim believers coming to faith via dreams about Jesus.

I don't think either of those readings makes best sense of the passage, and I want to lay out why. We went over this together in our Bible study, but because it's a tricky thing to get one's head around, I thought I'd get it down in writing too.

Firstly, consider the context in Acts.

In Acts 2:1-13, we have the account of the disciples meeting together on the Day of Pentecost, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (v4). The immediate demonstration that this has happened is that they are enabled to speak foreign languages (v4), such that the foreign visitors staying in Jerusalem for the feast can understand them in their native tongues (v6) as they 'declare the wonders of God' (v11). Some of the crowd audibly put this down to drink (v13) - which is what prompts Peter to speak in explanation (v14).

Look carefully at how he defends them:

These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel

- Acts 2:15-16

So in one way working out exactly what Joel's prophecy refers to is easier than any other OT prophecy - Peter explicitly identifies it, and Acts records it!

The fulfilment of the prophecy is what happens in Acts 2 - specifically, the Holy Spirit enabling the disciples to proclaim the gospel. What the crowd see, according to Peter, is what Joel wrote about - and what the crowd see is people who have been enabled to know and tell the gospel.

Now let's look at v17-18 in a bit of detail. Look how they are structured:

A      In the last days, God says,

B              I will pour out my Spirit

C                    on all people.

D                             Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

D                             your young men will see visions,

D                             your old men will dream dreams.

C                    Even on my servants, both men and women,

B              I will pour out my Spirit

A      in those days,

and they will prophesy.

It's a kind of mirror structure (called a chiasm) where each line has a parallel. These kinds of structures normally draw attention to what's in the middle. And what is in the middle? The prediction that the sons and daughters will prophesy.

Lines 4,5 and 6 are all the same structure and so group together to form the centre. They all repeat the same idea in different ways, lines 5 and 6 simply repeating Line 4 but with different images (it's a common thing in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament, just read the Psalms!). Revelatory dreams and visions were characteristic of prophets in the Old Testament, they are images associated with prophets and prophesy.

So visions and dreams are used as poetic imagery for prophesy. But the big deal is that the people will prophesy.

In case the mirror structure of the verses didn't make the point clear enough for us, Peter repeats it explicitly: Line 10: and they will prophesy. It's significant that he adds this, because it's not in the original quotation from Joel (scroll back up the page and check!).

No, this is Peter's own addition. It's like he pauses during his quotation to exclaim "and they will prophesy!", like a kind of verbal underlining. He chooses to underline the main point for us: they will prophesy.

This is what explains to the crowd in Acts 2 the behaviour of the disciples: the outpouring of the Spirit has made every one of God's people a prophet. That used to be a special job, for only special individuals amongst God's people. But now the whole people will be bearers of God's revelation to the world. Where does Peter end the quotation? And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Nice evangelistic appeal!

So: Joel predicted that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit enabling all his people to prophesy

And: Peter tells us that Acts 2 where the disciples proclaim aloud the gospel to the gathered nations is the fulfilment of this

Therefore: the Spirit has made all of God's people prophets in this way: understanding and having power to proclaim the gospel.

(And I might add that this is what I would expect given the understanding of revelation under the new covenant unfolded in other places, e.g. Hebrews 1:1-2 and John 14:26 - focussed and mediated via the apostles witness to Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament.)

What then of Muslim believers coming to faith through dreams? I've no reason to think that couldn't happen: in fact I'm inclined to accept those testimonies and praise God for them. But I'd defend that theologically on the basis of God's freedom and power to save above and beyond the norm - rather than via an appeal to this passage. Particularly, once we see that the 'all people' of v17 is parallel to 'my servants' of v18, and that the purpose of the revelation is prophesy, it becomes difficult to match God giving his people revelation to speak with the situation of a Muslim non-believer given a vision to draw them to Christ initially.

Is this the surface reading of the text? Lots of people will think no (I can just image how Wayne Grudem might respond - "it says 'dreams and visions' so it means 'dreams and visions'!").

But two of the biggest keys to the meaning of any text are genre and purpose. In this case, the genre (Hebrew prophetic imagery) and Peter's purpose (explaining the gospel proclamation of Acts 2) make a strong case for a different understanding.  

Tom Underhill

Tom works part-time as Operations Manager at the South West Gospel Partnership, and part-time as a contract Web Developer. He is also doing postgraduate theology studies. He is married to Katy and father of Jonny, Sophia and Benjamin. Previously he was an Associate at St Helens Bishopsgate.
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