If you’re going to hear from prophets past or present, there are three overarching messages they’ll use repeatedly. Understand these broad concepts, and you’ll understand how prophecy remains relevant and life-changing even today.
I’ll work from the book of Joel today, including our reading, Joel 2:23-32. It’s a concise little book of prophecy, just three chapters, and it illustrates these three messages well. I would encourage you to read the whole book start to finish to get a feel for it.
Message no. 1: Life actually is full of trouble.
Joel had a particular form of trouble that was the context for his prophecies. Locusts had overwhelmed the land of Judah, destroying everything in sight, and then a drought ensued. The livestock longed for food; we can assume people were starving to death. Joel prophesied during a particularly bad time, but it was the kind of bad time the world has seen repeatedly.
Trouble as an ongoing event is an underlying theme of the Bible. The Bible as a whole doesn’t pull any punches about that particular truth. If you know your Book of Genesis, you know the root of that trouble, sin. God made things right and holy, but he also gave his creation free will. When that free will was exercised wrongly, sin occurred.
It was like tapping a perfect porcelain vase with a hammer. Cracks ran everywhere, and the brokenness impacts every aspect of our lives.
Fortunately, the prophets never just leave us with our troubles.
Message no. 2: God gives us tremendous promises and signs assuring us of his love. Despite our unholiness, God relents in regard to the punishment we deserve.
Much of the Old Testament contains promises that God will provide us a way out of trouble. That promise largely has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, whom Christians acknowledge as the promised Jewish Messiah. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, sin has been overcome, extending God’s grace to all the world. The resurrection of Christ is a sign this work has begun.
Pentecost, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the early church, is another sign of God at work in the world. Look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He spent a lot of time quoting Joel, placing Christ and the church in the context of Joel’s promises.
Message no. 3: Full, permanent restoration of creation is coming. God’s work will be complete; creation will be re-made as holy and unbroken.
It’s a fulfillment we await today. Faithful Christians know they move toward this time each day, regardless of what trouble we may face now.
As we hear from Joel or any other prophet, the question before us becomes simple: Where in the prophetic pattern are we going to live? Do we stay mired in misery, letting the locust years of our lives consume us? At a minimum, I would prefer to live in a state of expectant watchfulness, excited by glimpses of God at work now and trusting the signs that there is more to come.
Occasionally, we even run across people who seem to be able to live at least some of their lives as if the promises already have been kept in full. Call them what you want—kingdom people, the perfected ones, saints. I call them “forward thinkers.” At the end of his life, Paul was one of these people, facing trouble after trouble yet clinging joyously to what was already his, eternal life with God.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” a battered Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:7-8. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
I also feel I’ve known such people. In particular, I think of a woman prayer warrior I once knew who could take any situation and make you see it in the light of the resurrection and a fully restored relationship with God.
Spiritually, these forward-thinking people already are what we hope to be when Christ returns and completes his work in the resurrection of creation. I look at them and wonder what the world would be like if more of us were to bear such holiness now.