Read: Joel 2:1-3, 30-32, Joel 3:12-13, 16
Have you ever thought about the coming day of Judgment? People ought to! And God’s spokesman Joel tells us what to do to be ready for that awesome day.
The end-times are a hot topic nowadays. Books, articles, pamphlets and sermons are all addressing the subject with increasing frequency. Part of this widespread interest is obviously due to the approach of the year 2000, the dawn of a new millennium. Speculation—and rhetoric—about the end of the world is approaching fever pitch. Sometime ago I received an unsolicited message from a man who wished to inform me that he had worked it all out very carefully based on recent political events in the Middle East, and his calculations had determined exactly when Jesus would return. It would be on February 14 or 15—1997!
I think we should tone down the end-times rhetoric and cut back a little on the speculation. And as for date-setting, Jesus himself told us that while he was on earth even he didn’t know when the end would occur. If Jesus could not set a date for it, why do we think we can? The fact is, God’s spokesmen the prophets have been telling us for a long time about the coming end. They just don’t tell us when it will be. But they do tell us what it will be like, and most important of all, what to do to be ready for it.
THE DAY OF THE LORD
The prophet Joel is one of those spokesmen. We don’t know very much about him; in fact, we know little more than his name, which means “The Lord is God.” (He obviously had devout parents!) The book that Joel left us is a brief one—just three chapters—but it is full of significant things. Joel’s main subject is the coming of what he calls “The Day of the Lord.” References to this climactic event run throughout the Old Testament prophets. It is mentioned by Amos, Isaiah, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Ezekiel and Malachi, but it is the particular theme of the prophecy of Joel. Altogether the Day of the Lord is referred to some twenty times by these different Old Testament writers. What did they mean by it? What does it mean for us today?
According to the prophets of ancient Israel, the Day of the Lord was a future event marking the climax of world history, brought about by the personal visit of God to the earth. Many of the images and scenes associated with this day in the writings of the prophets involve war and suffering and destruction, and those images come to full fruition in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. The earth will be filled with tumult and confusion as this Day approaches. Images of chaos fill the pages that speak of this time. The Day of the Lord will be a time of decision, of vengeance and punishment upon evil, a time of terrible doom for people who have rejected God. Even nature itself will be affected. Listen to how Joel describes it:
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. I will show [signs] in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2:1-3, 30-31)
In the biblical accounts everything about this coming day is awesome, even frightening.
The most important fact about the day, though, is its complexity. You can’t make sense out of the various prophecies about the Lord’s coming in both the Old and New Testaments unless you understand something called “the prophetic perspective.” The biblical prophets, in writing about the future, were not always aware of the time lapses that would separate the various events of God’s coming. The prime example of this is the distinction between Jesus’ first and second comings. As the prophets foresaw the Lord’s coming at the Day of the Lord, they spoke of it as a day of both judgment and salvation. But they did not necessarily realize that those things would be separated by a long interval in time. When Jesus first came and died and rose again, that was the day of salvation. But the final judgment will not take place until he returns to earth a second time in splendor.
So God showed the prophet specific facts about this coming judgment, probably by means of visions sent by the Holy Spirit. But Joel wasn’t shown everything in clear detail. One of the most important points to remember is that God also sends previews of his judgment in history. These are events which serve as a kind of foreshadowing of the final judgment at the end of the world. And the biblical prophets usually didn’t distinguish between all of those things. In fact, probably they couldn’t see the distinctions themselves. If you are viewing a mountain range from a long way off, it all looks like one mountain. It’s only when you are actually in it that you can separate and identity the various peaks, and see the valleys in between. In the same way, whenever we read a prophecy in the Old Testament we must remember the prophet’s perspective (a long way off from the events he foresees). Some of what he writes describes historical events that prefigure the final judgment, things like the fall and destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Some statements were fulfilled in the first coming of Christ, such as Joel’s prophecies about the Day of Pentecost (Joel 2:28ff, Acts 2:14-21). And some refer to Christ’s return at the end of time. We must try to determine when the prophet is describing something in the foreground (an event in Israel’s history such as an invading army), and when he’s talking about the end of the world.
A Day of Judgment
Joel doesn’t tell us all we need to know about the Day of the Lord. His job is to get our attention by emphasizing the bad news. Listen to his warning. It’s important, and it applies to everyone: “Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Joel 1:15, NRSV). The Old Testament people of Israel were looking forward to the Day of the Lord. They couldn’t wait for it to arrive because they believed that the judgment it brought would fall only on their enemies. They thought God was going to punish all their oppressors and destroy all their rivals. The corrective to that mistaken view came in the prophets’ message that judgment would come upon Israel too, because of their sins. “Woe to you,” said another of them, “who desire the day of the Lord! For it is darkness and not light” (Amos 5:18). Judgment is passed on all evil; no one is spared, no one escapes. God doesn’t play favorites. If anything, his people will be held to a more strict accounting. “Judgment begins with the household of God,” said the apostle Peter” (1 Peter 4:17), writing to Christians. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul added (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Needless to say, this is not an appealing message. I don’t think Joel, or any of Israel’s prophets, would ever have made a list of the world’s ten most popular preachers. The thought that God might actually punish people for sin, that he could even destroy them (perhaps destroy me!), is not a very welcome thought. It is much more inviting to think of God as nothing but love, and of everyone as being saved in the end. One reason we’d like to believe there is no judgment is because that would let us all off the hook. No judgment means no accountability, and no accountability means no responsibility. If that’s the case, I can live as I please, do whatever I want. I don’t have to be concerned about my actions, or care for my fellow human beings. I don’t have to help the poor or share the gospel with those who don’t know Christ. I can simply indulge myself fully in self-centered individualism.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to be suspicious of any idea that excuses me of responsibility. Believing that sort of thing is the quickest way to deceive yourself. The fact of a sure and certain judgment to come should deeply impress itself upon all of us. Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century English writer, spoke as much to our century as to his own when he said of the final judgment:
I remember that my Maker has said that he will place the sheep on his right hand, and the goats on his left. That is a solemn truth which this frivolous age needs to hear, for it strikes at the very roots of life and destiny.Samuel Johnson
A Day of Salvation
But while making the truth about judgment clear, Joel also highlights God’s alternative: salvation. For if there is terror and destruction for some on the Day of the Lord, there will be peace and security for others. The message of the Bible is never one of unrelieved judgment, of hopelessness and despair. The Lord is a God of mercy. If he comes to punish and to destroy, he comes at the same time to save those who repent and turn to him for mercy. Joel gives us a wonderful hint about how it works.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. (Joel 2:12-13)
What a wonderful passage that is!
It is possible to look forward with eager expectation to the coming of the Lord, provided you have followed Joel’s instructions, that you have humbled yourself genuinely and sincerely in repentance. “Yet even now, says the Lord”; those words are an invitation to you. They remind you that it is still not too late for you to repent. Biblical repentance means much more than just feeling sorry for your sins. It means more even than saying you’re sorry for them. Biblical repentance means turning away from your sins to embrace God. It means change—changing your mind about the way you’ve been living, changing your heart about the things you’ve been wrongly valuing, changing your actions and intentions into ones that are pleasing to God. This is the great mission of every prophet: not to frighten you with a message of inescapable doom, but to invite you to come back home to the Lord. Even when they talk about the terrible things that will befall those who persist in evil, God’s spokesmen have another purpose. It is to invite you to accept his salvation. The message about judgment is always an opportunity to repent.
After that terrible description of doom and destruction in Joel 2, there comes this wonderful statement at the end of the chapter: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The apostle Paul quoted that verse (Joel 2:32) in Romans 10 where he explained how the way of salvation works through the gospel of Christ. The name of the Lord is “Jesus,” and he really does save anyone who calls upon him. So the sobering prospect of judgment is real, but salvation from judgment is real too for all who will sincerely turn away from their sin to Christ and call on his name.
The most important thing to remember about the Day of the Lord is this:
The Lord roars from Zion . . . and the heavens and the earth shake. But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. (Joel 3:16)
Don’t you want to be one of those people? Why not take refuge in God’s embracing love today!