In Chapter 2 of the Acts of Apostles Peter has to give an account of the strange events of the Pentecostal coming of the Spirit. In doing so he reaches for words of the prophet Joel describing the Day of the Lord, a fearful day of judgement in the prophetic tradition.
Peter intensifies the passage he quotes by substituting “the last days” for Joel’s milder “afterwards”. In Peter’s version the passage refers to the end of the former age, the age of sin and death, and the coming of the new age, the time when, as Paul puts it, we will see face to face and will know fully, as we are known.
The “last days”, I think, must refer to the time when one age is passing and the other coming, days that still belong to the old order but which are ripe and rich with the promise of the new, when the Spirit is poured out and the coming of the day of the Lord is palpable.
There is an urgency about this image that is difficult for many of us (at least outside the Pentecostal and Charismatic Church) to appreciate. In the older denominations there is not a widespread feeling either that we are in the last days or that the Spirit is poured out on us. So what should we make of this passage?
We have the option to defuse the idea of the “last days” introduced here by Peter (or by the author of Acts depending on one’s approach to the Biblical text). We might say that it is merely a figure of speech that should make us reflect on the necessity on our part of some kind of decision for or against faith, in the way Bultmann reinterprets the resurrection itself. After all each of us will, at a time unknown, live our last day. This, perhaps, should make us take seriously our responsibility to live up to our God-given human task, whatever that might be.
Or we might take a more distant view of the authority over us of this text. Those were not, we might say, actually the last days. Peter was wrong, the end of the age is not at hand. The kind of urgency he felt as he called on his listeners to repent and be baptised was understandable in context but impossible to sustain over the long years of the Church’s existence. We properly do not and should not talk about the last days and our understanding of the Spirit is quite rightly of a gentler and less dramatic influence.
I’m not convinced by either of these arguments, although I can see both the attraction and the elements of truth in both.
If Peter believed, as he very well may have done, that his generation was to be the last that was separated from God by sin, then he was not straightforwardly correct. We remain sinners all these years later and we still die. We do not see God face to face.
However this is not all that there is to be said. For the Christian believer Jesus did inaugurate a new relationship with God for human beings. In the person of Jesus we are shown the unity of God and humanity, two natures in one person. There is a person who is both fully God and fully human and that person has risen from death to eternal life. He has announced that God’s forgiveness is offered for our sins and that the dead will be raised.
If the coming of Jesus is a decisive event in God’s dealings with creation (and any kind of orthodox Christianity has, I think, to say that it is) then we are in a new period (as compared to history before Jesus, and we might as well call it the last days. If no such decisive turn has been made then I can’t really see what’s left of Christianity (although I know there are those who would disagree with me).
The most decisive point made, I think, by Peter in quoting (and amending) Joel, is that the pouring out of the Spirit in these last days is on “all flesh”: on sons and daughters; on young and old; on male and female servants of God. All of them will prophesy.
Prophecy, here, means, I think, the interpretation of events to discern in them the action and the will of God. In the last days (in these days) such interpretation is not the peculiar property of a privileged and specialised group, In these last days it is an action of the Spirit which is poured out on all.
That I think is what Peter is saying, that is why these Galileans can speak to all. The have been given something to say by the Spirit. Perhaps the implication for us is that we should be listening for the word of God in places we don’t expect to hear it, inside or outside the Church, in languages we recognise and others we don’t.
God’s Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.