The Audience of the New Covenant in Joel (Part 2)
Editor's Note: Some readers might benefit reading Part 1 though it is not essential
So who was that audience in Joel's day? Who was gathered together then as a representation of the gathering for Pentecost? As has been seen there has been a question about the sons and daughters of Peter’s sermon. How old were they? Were they only those present at Pentecost who were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37)? Postulating who was and was not present to hear the original message of Joel will answer all of these questions. It is here that many will choose to spend their time discussing who was present to hear Peter's sermon. Typically arguments are made that only the heads of households plus or minus a son were the predominate audience. But this is losing sight of the important context. Peter is quoting Joel because his audience in a Biblical sense matches Joel's audience. He is quoting Joel because the fulfillment is happening. Thus the "audience" is the recipients of the promise, Joel’s audience, and not just the people hearing Peter's sermon. And nothing needs to be presumed about the audience of this theological fulfillment. The passage itself tells us,
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
assemble the elders;
gather the children,
even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her chamber. - Joel 2:15-16
"Nursing infants" is right there. But first, it needs to be addressed that this is the calling of the “people.” Quite literally the “nation” is meant in this case. In an even better sense, this is the Jewish people of the “nations” of Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:5). Moreover, for what are they being gathered? To be sanctified. This is truly to be made holy. This is consistent with other Old Testament covenant giving experiences (Exo 19). It is a corporate event and it was a corporate sanctification. Even more practically, “congregation” in the LXX is the Greek word for church. The church is being corporately sanctified in Joel’s prophecy. This is the type of corporate sanctification that permeates the introduction of almost all of the New Testament epistles. And it is likely the type of sanctification associated with baptism by Paul (1 Cor 6:11). This corporate sanctification is the prerequisite for God’s blessings in this chapter (Joel 2:18).
So the assembly is a corporate assembly. And it is one that includes infants. Sanctified infants. This concept of sanctified children is not foreign to the New Testament (1 Cor 7:14). The corporate sanctification of God’s people moves completely in the New Covenant almost unchanged. As so it is at this point that the matter seemingly becomes settled if Joel 2:15-16 is the audience for the prophecy of Joel. If the audience of Joel explicitly included "nursing infants" then the promise is to them that their seed will receive the blessing upon sons and daughters. Now it may be argued that the generational transfer of Joel to Peter is ambiguous. The “sons and daughters” of Peter are obviously many generations after Joel. They’re the promised generation but does the cross-generation nature of the promise continue?
This is where it seems that the important question is to whom the promise is delivered. And as the context of Joel makes clear, infant children are promised that their offspring will be the recipients of the Holy Spirit. Or put in the language of Isaiah, “your children’s offspring” (Isa 59:21) will receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The multigenerational promise of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah provides a resounding certainty to the promise upon infants and unborn children. It is beyond doubt then that they too were the recipients of the promise concerning the Holy Spirit. Can it be rational to think that Peter would exclude them? Certainly not without an explicit teaching. So one is left to presume that Peter in the fulfillment of Joel includes "nursing infants" even if they were not physically present at the time of his sermon at Pentecost.
But what about that particular portion of Peter’s sermon “whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (Act 2:28)? This is often used by Reformed Baptists to indicate that only the decretally elect are in view here. Something along the lines of only the “true, regenerate covenant members” are the recipients of this promise. These “children” are spiritual children and not biological descendants. Thankfully this is actually covered in the context of Joel. Peter did not add this to make a theological point but to tie it more firmly to the fulfillment of Joel. In Joel’s context it is used in reference to the survivors of God’s holy and righteous judgment,
32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. – Joel 2:32
All who call on the Lord will be saved because He calls out the survivors. The survivors of what? The assembly that has come together in repentance (Joel 2:15-16). In this way, Peter can and should be read as affirming the strong generational elements of God’s corporate election for salvation. He is assuring those who hear the promise that they are those whom the Lord calls. This is a covenant community being called in Joel’s day and in Peter’s.