And it shall come to pass in the last days, said God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh…
The events of this chapter are the fulfilment of the promise of cur Saviour in Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4. But Peter recognises here the fulfilment of an earlier promise (ver. 16). The same Spirit which spake in the tongues of the apostles, and wrought effectually in the hearts of their hearers also spake by the prophets. The promise was thus fulfilled, but not exhausted; it was but the beginning of that work of preaching, and that mighty answering work in men's hearts of which the Holy Spirit was just as much the life and the secret as of the wonders of Pentecost.
I. THE PROMISE AND ITS FULFILMENT.
1. "Promise," is one of the most distinguished features of this Book; so that if you want to contrast in the strongest way the Scriptures with the sacred books of other nations you might pitch upon this and say, "The Scriptures are the Book of God's promises to men." And "promise," you know also, is the main link of human life and society. "I promise to pay" — if the breath of suspicion could dim those words upon a thin strip of paper the whole fabric of commerce and social life would be shaken. The bride and the bridegroom stand side by side in God's house, and when the manly "I will" has been echoed by the softer but not less earnest and serious "I will" what has happened? Two lives which a few minutes ago were separated are now bound together, "until death do them part." The little child says, "Promise father, promise mother," and when the father or the mother has promised the little child soon learns to know that it has a hold that cannot be broken. Well, then, when we say that the Bible is the Book of God's promises, we mean that God has come down into the circle of human duty; that you can go and present a cheque payable at demand on the treasury of infinite mercy and almighty power; that the child of God can go to God and say, "My Father, Thou hast promised, now, therefore, do as Thou hast said." There is a bond between the Eternal God and the feeblest soul that trusts Him, stronger than the bond which holds our world to its central sun. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but His word shall not pass away.
2. We cannot fix the exact date of this promise of Joel; but we gather from the fact that Amos, in the reign of King Uzziah, begins by a quotation from Joel that Joel was an older prophet. The substance of his prophecy had been, in a sense, anticipated perhaps eight hundred years or more by Moses, when he said, "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would pour out His Spirit upon them"; but to Joe! was given the high honour of announcing that so it should be, that God was going to answer that prayer. A generation later we find the promise beautifully and bountifully enlarged by Isaiah (Isaiah 44:3-5); but to Joel seems to have been given this signal honour to be the first to sound out sweet and clear this note of promise. Perhaps eight hundred years passed away, and that promise stood there upon the page in what was becoming a dead language, unfulfilled and unexplained — as long as from the days of William the Conqueror to the days of Queen Victoria — and the unbeliever could point to it and say, "What do you make of that? What is the value of a promise that is never accomplished, a prophecy that the centuries bring no nearer to fulfilment?" Generations came and went, and prophets greater than Joel rose up, fulfilled their course, and departed. Great religious revolutions, reforms, revivals took place, then they were followed by fresh outbursts of irreligion, fresh victories of unbelief and profligacy, and atheism. Alas! the whole structure seems to have broken down. But all this meant no delay, no unfaithfulness. In the fulness of time Peter was able to point to tiffs glorious fulfilment, and to say, "Jesus, whom you have crucified, being by the right hand of God exalted, hath shed forth this which you now see and hear — 'this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.'"
3. And so, across the long ages God reaches out the closed hand of promise, filled with sealed-up blessings to keep faith from fainting, to encourage patience and hope. Then, just at the appointed moment, when the dial points, when the hour of His purpose strikes, He opens it, and gives a fresh starting point for new faith. Unfulfilled prophecy Peter compares to a light shining in a dark place, a light that tries our eyes almost as much as it enlightens them — we pore in vain over the dimly-illuminated truth. The fulfilled word the same apostle compares to the sunrise, the dawn of the day, and the rising of the day-star. Time and experience at the appointed hour set their seal to the declaration that God is true.
4. Let me say a word to my younger friends. Let me urge you to give great attention to this practiced evidence of the truth and inspiration of God's Word, which you may find in the actual fulfilment of God's promises. A distinct prediction pointing for hundreds of years to an event that could not be foreseen by mere human reasoning, and then the fulfilment in God's providence of that prediction betokens a power above and behind and within man. Now is not this perfectly plain, that the Old Testament Scriptures did claim to pledge God to these two things — viz., the sending of a Saviour in whom all nations should be blessed, and the bestowment upon all flesh of His Holy Spirit? The New Testament is just the record of the fulfilment of those two promises; and so is the whole history of the Church.
II. GOD IS FULFILLING HIS PROMISE TO-DAY. Not that we see such proofs as we here read of; our senses are not amazed with the wonders like those of the days of Pentecost; but do not forget that one soul really converted to God is just as much the work of the Holy Spirit as one thousand or three thousand. To pray the prayer of faith; to understand God's truth; to have in reality the temper of humility, penitence, and unreserved consecration; these are just as truly the gifts of the Holy Spirit as the tongues of fire and all the miracles that followed. I am sometimes afraid that we may offer prayers for the fulfilment of this very promise, which are rather the prayers of unbelief than the prayers of faith. Do we not err often in our expectations of the limits in which God will fulfil His promise? His promise is so wide, taking in the whole Church and all mankind; it is so far-reaching, running down the whole channel of human history, that we have no business to expect it to be exhausted in our time, in our nation, in our parish; and yet if it be not, do not we sometimes pray as if God were forgetting His promise, or were unfaithful to it? Thus we dishonour God and discourage our brethren and ourselves. I do not for a moment think we ought to shut our eyes to any of the facts that are around us, even the darkest, or our ears to the bitter cry that may rise from the great city, or from the lonely village; but do not let us shut our eyes, either, to what God is doing amongst us. If we look only at the tendencies of human nature, only at the set and tide and drift of events, it is pretty easy to make a dark forecast, easy to say that the signs of the times denote the prevalence and triumph of those masterly evils, superstition, atheism, anarchy — that is, if you leave out of sight God's promise and God's Spirit. But that is just what you must not do, and have no right to do. We are crying with the prophet, "Oh, that Thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, and that the mountains would flow down at Thy presence." But when He only touches the hills and they smoke — that is the finger of God. Perhaps we are looking for the earthquake, the fire, the tempest; but we fail, it may be, to hear the "still, small voice"; yet that is the voice of God's Spirit. Whence comes the gentle, quiet, but yet mighty and irresistible outburst and continual growth of missionary zeal and missionary labour and missionary sacrifice, which is carrying the gospel from year to year more completely into the most central fortresses of heathenism? Zeal and labour, which have made the Bible already a known book in all the leading languages of the world — what is this? Is not this the very breath and presence of God's Spirit? Then, in what we call the outside world, there are great waves of sympathy with this Christian work; and whence come they but from the contagion of Christian love and faith and hope, the very breath of God's Spirit?
III. GOD WILL FULFIL HIS PROMISE. "The last days" are a wide margin. It is not for us to measure how far that season of fulfilment may stretch out, or grow weary or unbelieving because of its stretching out longer than we expect. When that morning broke over the waters of Galilee, and the disciples looked weary and sadly at one another and at their dripping and empty nets, supposing one had said to them, "Friends, in less than half-an-hour that empty net will be so full that you won't be able to draw it on board" — why, they would have said, "If God would send an angel from heaven to be our fisherman perhaps it might be so." But who is that walking on the shore? A stranger? Hark! He speaks. "Cast on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find." If it had not been for the night of toil, do you think there would have been any morning of joy? No. It is not for us, to say how long the night of toil is to be. We serve the same Master, our faith rests upon the same promise; we have the same work, and we are responsible for toil, for faithfulness, for prayer, for patience, not for results; the results are God's. Can you say, "I believe in the Holy Ghost?" Why, then, fear not, doubt not. Let us bring to God's treasury not the mere tithes of corn and wine and gold and silver, but that which will make all these seem just little gifts thrown in by the way — the tithes, the first-fruits of consecrated hearts, and hallowed lives, and affections aglow with the love of Christ, and then we may prove Him and see if He will not pour out a blessing so that there should not be room to contain.
(E. B. Conder, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: