When conversation among Christians focuses on the Day of the Lord, it’s usually bad news, and for good reason. There are many prophecies in the Old and New Testaments that speak of this day as darkness, destruction, consequences and judgment.
Scream in terror, for the day of the Lord has arrived—the time for the Almighty to destroy (Isaiah 13:6). For this is the day of the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, a day of vengeance on his enemies (Jeremiah 46:10). Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope (Amos 5:20). That terrible day of the Lord is near. Swiftly it comes—a day of bitter tears, a day when even strong men will cry out (Zephaniah 1:14). The day of the Lord is near, the day when destruction comes from the Almighty. How terrible that day will be (Joel 1:15)!
None of the Twelve (Minor Prophets) references the Day of the Lord more than Joel. The prophet explicitly uses this phrase five times (1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14), but his entire prophecy is focused on the idea of this phrase. Joel describes this day as one to fear. Actually, as a day that makes even the strongest people tremble in fear. God is coming in all of his power, might and holiness…and it’s going to be ugly. It’s a day that frightens us. But it’s also a day that fills us with hope.
The first half of Joel’s prophecy is doom and destruction on Israel, God’s people. But the second half of the prophecy is a description of how God is going to bless his people.
Joel says that on that Day God will pour out his Spirit upon all people (2:28-32). I love this description. God doesn’t send the Holy Spirit as a trickle. No, the Spirit comes in abundance. And he comes to all people. This is one of those passages that declares God’s original and ultimate intent for creation, which the Holy Spirit comes to make a reality. And on that Day there will be equality because wherever the Spirit is, there is equality. Where the Spirit is present, there is no class structure, everyone has value and worth, we learn from all people, we hear God’s truth proclaimed from all people. It’s significant that when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy word for word. It begs the question: Why do so many churches put limits on women—despite Paul’s words to specific churches in specific situations—when even the ancient prophets declare that God’s kingdom has no class structure?
Of course, when the Spirit is present, there is not only equality, but there is love. This is the heart of who God is. One of the center points of Joel’s prophecy is that God’s warning about the Day to come is intended to help his people see their sin and how it is leading them to destruction. God is not speaking and acting from a spirit of vengeance—which is impossible for God to do—but from a heart of love. Does God punish sin? Yes, but never in a spirit of vengeance. He punishes sin in order to turn us back to him so that we experience his great blessings.
Where the Spirit is present, there is love—not just for our friends, but just as much for our enemies. Our calling is to think and act toward our enemies the way God does. Does this mean that we whitewash sin? Not at all. Does it mean that God ignores evil or that we ignore injustice? Never. In fact, Joel 3-16 is a harsh declaration of punishment on nations that have embraced a spirit of evil and its companion, violence. But when we are walking in the Spirit, we react to sin and injustice and evil from a heart of love not a heart of hate.
When I think about those who hurt me and those who seem bent on opposing God and his kingdom, I know that I am walking in the Spirit when my heart breaks for the consequences they may face. Even more, I know I’m in a good place with the Spirit when nothing would thrill me more than to see my enemies and those who seem to be enemies of Christ turn from their ways, elude the consequences of their choices and experience the fullness of God’s blessing.
We think of this as a New Testament perspective—both for God and for God’s people. After all, it’s Jesus who teaches us, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44-45). But this mindset of Jesus is rooted in the nature and character of who God has always been. So, God declares through the prophet Ezekiel: Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live (Ezekiel 18:32). Despite what we may think, Jesus doesn’t reveal a different God, nor God 2.0, but the nature and character of who God always has been and always will be.
Joel says that the ultimate blessing of God is that on that Day Yahweh will dwell with his people, he will make his home with his people (3:21). The Almighty God’s ultimate idea of joy and blessing and the fulfillment of all that he intended for his creation is to make his home with us! That is astounding! And yet, isn’t this exactly what Jesus does? The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). This is why the Day of the Lord is ultimately not a Day to fear, but a Day to celebrate and anticipate.
The hinge point of the outcome of this Day, however, is returning, repenting of our sin (Joel 2:12-17). This is the call of every prophet. This is the call of every Gospel, every letter and everything else written in the scriptures. If we will repent, if we will return to our Creator, we will know the joy of his wondrous blessing.
To repent is to acknowledge our need for God, to admit that our lives are meaningless and empty without God, to recognize that every good thing in our lives is from God. To repent is to turn from a selfish way of living to a God-centered way of living. Our words of confession are important, but ultimately, this is about our decisions, our actions, our thoughts reflected in our words. It’s not enough to say that we are returning to God if we don’t change our behavior; if it isn’t clear in our attitudes, then we aren’t truly returning to God. It’s a call to take God seriously. What’s fascinating is that when we return, our eyes are open to who God is—not the God who frightens us, but the God who loves to bless us. Returning, repenting is simply wanting what God wants…in the way and through the means by which he wants. To return, to repent is to want God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. To trust that no matter what, we believe that God is good and that God is for us and that everything God does is in our best interest.
This is why Joel’s words about returning and repenting are couched in the context of God’s self-declaration recorded in Exodus 34:6: Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish (Joel 2:13).