"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." - VoltairE

5 ways the prophecy of Joel challenges today’s church

Posted by Anne Witton on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 Under: Bible study


Joel as a missional book


I recently wrote an assignment for my Master’s which involved a missional reading of the book of Joel. I could pick any passage of Scripture I liked and there were several times I regretted choosing Joel, but I’m glad I stuck with it as it’s an oft-neglected book of the Bible which has an important message for the church today. When I started, all I knew about it was that it involved a lot of locusts!

As it turns out, Joel’s prophecy demonstrates the whole redemptive flow of history from creation to new creation. Why not pause to have a read of the book of Joel now? (It’s only 3 chapters!). I haven’t space here to reproduce my missional reading, but I wanted to share a few of the things I learned.

Joel is a microcosm of the grand sweep of Scripture from the rebellion of mankind in Genesis 3 to the restoration of a worshipping community in Revelation 21. The story starts with judgement on the people of God who have rebelled against Yahweh - in this case through a devastating locust plague which brings destruction and separation from intimate communion with the LORD God. Joel’s hearers would have recognised the parallels with Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. The people are called to repent (a call echoed throughout Scripture, culminating in the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus and the church). Their restoration is made possible through Yahweh’s grace and compassion alone - a typological sign pointing to the decisive salvific action of Jesus on the cross. The LORD promises his Spirit for all believers for his name’s sake, which points towards Pentecost and the spread of the early church. A final judgement will come when the LORD’s enemies and the oppressors of God’s people will be judged, and those in covenant relationship with Yahweh will be vindicated and enjoy his abundant blessing forever - a clear picture of the new creation depicted in Revelation.

The missional message for today’s culture

There are several challenges in applying the missional message of Joel in my context. The church in 21st century Britain is largely populated by Westerners used to material prosperity. It is difficult for us to understand the terror and devastation of a locust attack or to see grasshoppers as a reason for fear. Our understanding is complicated further by the fact than in our global, industrialised society we are far less dependent on the localised fruits of the land. Even the economic crisis of 2008 hardly had a devastating effect on most British Christians.

We must ask ourselves some socially-located questions before we begin our application, such as: What is under attack in our society and what do people fear? How do we relate to the nations? What is our understanding of our place in the cosmos and how does that guide our actions towards the rest of creation? How do we relate to the day of judgment - what do we expect or hope for? How does that inform our mission?

In engaging with these questions, there are five key ways in which Joel’s oracle addresses some profound needs in our current context.

  1. In a culture where loneliness and isolation are rife, the good news of Joel is that there is a God who loves the people made in his image and longs to have relationship with them. Joel speaks not of an abstract deity but of a personal God, abounding in steadfast love. Our missional task is to invite others to know the wonder of this God. We are called to covenant relationship.

  2. Where the church is tempted to assimilate with the culture and adopt its values of materialism, consumerism and individualism, there is a clear challenge in Joel to be different. Part of the church’s missional identity is to be counter-cultural and show what life under God’s rule is like. We are called to be distinctive from the nations.

  3. Here is a challenge, particularly to the conservative evangelical wing of the church in the UK, to take creation care seriously. In a world where climate change threatens and single-use plastic is ubiquitous, Joel reminds us that God’s redemptive plans do not just include humanity but encompass everything he has made. We are called to care for all creation.

  4. We are to be empowered by the Holy Spirit for God’s mission. The most famous passage of Joel foretells the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the effects on believers. God’s people should not seek spiritual experiences for their own sake. The Spirit empowers us to be a people on an urgent mission, blessing our communities and making God known in the world. We are called to be filled with the Spirit to speak God’s word.

  5. In a postmodern society where competing truth claims jostle for attention, Christians can be encouraged by Joel’s representation of the overarching biblical narrative. He expertly tells the story that we are all caught up in and issues a challenge to be monotheising in a pluralistic culture. In a climate of fear over Brexit and terrorism, we can look forward to a day when the one true God will remove all evil, pain and suffering and will redeem a people for himself. We can be confident in our merciful God who does not want anyone to perish as we “proclaim the LORD’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:26). We are called to hope.
I pray that we will heed Joel’s warnings to repent and turn to the one true God, to live distinctively as God’s covenant people among the nations, to care for all creation, to proclaim God’s word in the power of his Spirit and to wait in hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return to consummate the new creation.

If you’d like to explore further

Here are some selected helpful resources:

Video
Books
  • Hubbard, D. A. (2009) Joel & Amos. Nottingham, England : Downers Grove, Ill: IVP.
  • McComiskey, T. E. (ed.) (2009) The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
  • Robertson, O. P. (2004) Prophet of the Coming Day of the Lord - Joel: Message of Joel. First edition. Darlington, England: Evangelical Press.
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