When we read in Acts 2:19-20, “And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,” we who are unaccustomed to apocalyptic literature are quick to scratch our heads and ask: What does this mean? Our doctrinal convictions keep us on the trail: Scripture is perspicuous (i.e., clear) and true, therefore, Peter must means what he says. He is surely not incorrect. But how can the moon turn to blood? Should we really expect the Sea of Tranquility to fill with blood, just like the Nile in Exodus?
When reading such language in Scripture, we do well to remember that Scripture interprets Scripture and that in this case, the apocalyptic language of Joel 2 is being cited by Peter to explain the historical events of Pentecost–the outpouring of the Spirit foretold in Joel 2:28. However, for reasons we will see, Peter also includes the more troubling language. Therefore, to understand the whole section lets consider four biblical-theological points that will help us see how the Day of the Lord is both a present and future reality—a method of interpreting the Old Testament that the Apostles often employed.
1. Historical Acts 2 quotes apocalyptic Joel 2.
Importantly, the strange language comes not from the historical narrative of Luke, but rather the prophetic literature of Joel. In this way, he is quoting an Old Testament prophecy to explain the events of recent history—i.e., the ostensible drunkenness of the disciples (Acts 2:13). Therefore, we must not read these words as portending to a literalistic interpretation—the moon is dripping blood. Rather, Luke is telling us how these strange, poetic words have come come true in the historical events of Pentecost.
2. Joel 2 stands in a long tradition of blood, smoke, and fire.
To confirm the non-literalistic reading of Joel 2—which is not the same as non-literal or non-literary reading—we must realize that apocalyptic writing often used imagery of bloody moons and smoke-filled skies. For Israelite prophets such language did not foretell a future day when the rock orbiting the earth would ooze hemoglobin; it rather was technical language to speak about the end of times.
For instance, there are a number of passages that speak with such vivid imagery.
Speaking of Babylon and the coming day of judgment, Isaiah 13:9–16 reads,
Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
12 I will make people more rare than fine gold,
and mankind than the gold of Ophir.
13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
and the earth will be shaken out of its place,
at the wrath of the Lord of hosts
in the day of his fierce anger.
14 And like a hunted gazelle,
or like sheep with none to gather them,
each will turn to his own people,
and each will flee to his own land.
15 Whoever is found will be thrust through,
and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.
16 Their infants will be dashed in pieces
before their eyes;
their houses will be plundered
and their wives ravished.
Concerning judgment on the whole earth, Isaiah speaks of a day when creation will shake and the nations will be utterly destroyed. Isaiah 24:21–23 uses cosmic imagery to depict God’s wrath poured out,
21 On that day the Lord will punish
the host of heaven, in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
22 They will be gathered together
as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished.
23 Then the moon will be confounded
and the sun ashamed,
for the Lord of hosts reigns
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders.
Speaking of God’s judgment on Israel, Ezekiel 32:3–7 says,
Thus says the Lord God:
I will throw my net over you with a host of many peoples,
and they will haul you up in my dragnet.
4 And I will cast you on the ground;
on the open field I will fling you,
and will cause all the birds of the heavens to settle on you,
and I will gorge the beasts of the whole earth with you.
5 I will strew your flesh upon the mountains
and fill the valleys with your carcass.
6 I will drench the land even to the mountains
with your flowing blood,
and the ravines will be full of you.
7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.
8 All the bright lights of heaven
will I make dark over you,
and put darkness on your land,
declares the Lord God.
Speaking of the Day of the Lord, a day of judgment on Israel, Joel 2:1–2 warns,
Blow a trumpet in Zion;
sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near,
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful people;
their like has never been before,
nor will be again after them
through the years of all generations.
Again, Joel 2:10–11 tells of God sending forth his Word in days before his army comes to conquer. In the day of those messengers
10 The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
11 The Lord utters his voice
before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
who can endure it?
And again Joel 3:9–16 speaks of the Day of the Lord, where God’s judgment is given:
9 Proclaim this among the nations:
Consecrate for war;
stir up the mighty men.
Let all the men of war draw near;
let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”
11 Hasten and come,
all you surrounding nations,
and gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12 Let the nations stir themselves up
and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the surrounding nations.
13 Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
for the winepress is full.
The vats overflow,
for their evil is great.
14 Multitudes, multitudes,
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
in the valley of decision.
15 The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
16 The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
a stronghold to the people of Israel.
In Amos the theme of the Day of the Lord is also accompanied by dark imagery:
18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.
Last, Zephaniah 1:14–16 also speaks of the Day of the Lord with vivid apocalyptic imagery.
14 The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
In all these passages, there is an unmistakable connection between bloody moons, dark skies, clouds, and smoke and the judgment of God. Indeed, this imagery is made to depict the cosmos-shattering effect of God’s judgment on mankind. Just as light is associative with creation; darkness is associative with de-creation. Accordingly, these symbols become synonymous with God’s judgment, effected on the Day of the Lord.
At this point, two interpretive decisions must be made: (1) Are these signs absolutely literal, purely symoblic, or something else entirely? (2) Is the Day of the Lord entirely future (i.e., when Christ comes again), or was it fulfilled (in some sense) in the days of Christ? (3) How do we decided? Does the New Testament itself answer our questions?
I believe our third observation answers question #3, which in turn help us answer the other two, to answer that the Day of the Lord is a repeated event, a day wherein God comes to save and to judge. One that is mightily fulfilled in Christ’s crucifixion, but one that is not exhausted by that momentous day.
3. Acts 2 interprets the events of Joel 2 as having occurred at Pentecost.
With literary sensitivity, Luke changes the introduction of Joel’s quote. Instead of speaking of the Spirit being poured out in the future; he says, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, ….” (v. 17). In other words, the last days have come.
Moreover, in comparison with Luke’s gospel, it is clear that some of the signs prophesied actually happened. The sky was darkened (Luke 24:44–45), the ground shook (Matthew 27:51, 54), God’s judgment was poured out as the man Jesus was entirely abandoned by God (Matthew 27:46). Indeed, there is reason to believe that the only reason why all creation was not destroyed in that instant, when humanity destroyed its creator was because God honored Jesus intervention: “Father, forgiven them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Surely, some of those who put Jesus to death were saved, but not all. Therefore, this intervention cannot be a prayer of salvation for all mankind, but rather a prayer for delay of God’s wrath.
On the basis of Peter’s sermon, it seems best to understand the Day of the Lord as having come in the bloody cross of Christ. Indeed, the references to smoke and clouds in the Prophets may also find fulfillment in Christ’s death as we consider that he was a pleasing sacrifice (Eph 5:2), a burnt offering before the Lord (Heb 15:11).
So, from comparison between Acts 2 and the Gospels, there is strong evidence to consider Christ’s death as a fulfillment of the Day of the Lord. At the same time, like the kingdom of God which is both present and future, already and not yet, the Day of the Lord has a future instantiation when Christ returns in glory to judge the earth.
As Acts 17 teaches, the son of man who was crucified and raised to life has been appointed by God to judge all creation. Not by accident, the first Day of the Lord is united to the second Day of the Lord by the person and work of Christ. In his humiliation he underwent the very judgment that he will one day pour out. And what will that future reality look like? It will be something like what we saw in the day of Christ’s judgment—blood, smoke, darkness, and the destruction of creation, so that a new creation can come forth without an sin or impurity.
4. Acts 2 does not excise the passages about the sun and the moon.
In Luke 4:17–19 Jesus, when Jesus announces himself as the promised Servant, he intentionally stops short of reading all Isaiah 61:1–2. He does so to stress the delay of God’s judgment. Apparently, Jesus and his disciples used Scripture in very careful ways. If they choose not to include a certain phrase, this should be understood as intentional and inspired by God.
Therefore here, the inclusion of the apocalyptic imagery indicates an understanding in Peter and Luke that these things have already taken place. While not denying future cosmic convulsions, the point is that the end of the ages have broken into the present (cf. 1 Cor 10:11). The Day of the Lord is not entirely future, it has been experienced and seen in Christ’s cross. And thus, if Pentecost fulfills the outpouring of the Spirit, it stands to reason that the language of blood, fire, and vapor of smoke has also been fulfilled in the events of Christ’s death and resurrection.
For these reasons, I take the apocalyptic language of the Prophets as being literal, but not rigidly literalistic. Meaning, that which actually happened on the day of Christ’s death, both fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and foreshadowed a future, cosmic judgment to come. The judgment that fell on Christ does not exhaust the Day of the Lord. Rather, as there were many “days of the Lord” in the Old Testament, days when God brought salvation and judgment on Israel, so there will be a later, greater Day of the Lord when Christ returns. As mentioned, it will resemble something of the Day of Christ’s judgment, but now instead of suffering as a lamb, Jesus the victorious lamb will rule as holy judge.
Following the apostle’s understanding of time, we affirm the fact that the last days have come (following the first Day of the Lord), and yet, we are still coming (when Christ comes again). In the meantime, let us labor to serve faithfully in God’s present kingdom, proclaiming the gospel of salvation through Christ and warning the nations of his impending judgment. Until that day, may God confirm the work of our hands and may Jesus Christ our Lord find us faithful when he returns.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds