Who God Is and What He’s Doing (Part 2) - Joel 1:1
Last week, we looked at what God reveals to us about himself by his personal name, Yahweh, written as “LORD” in all caps here in Joel 1:1 and throughout the Scriptures. Through his name, we learn of God’s unchanging character and self-existent being. These are things we wouldn’t automatically know or assume without God telling us. For instance, you might think that God changes just like everything else in the world.
Or you might think that maybe some other god made the God who made our world. But implicit in his personal name, “I AM,” is this reality that God was, and is, and will always be. He never changes, nor does he need to change. And he was never created, so he isn’t dependent on anything or anyone else.
Today, still looking at verse 1, we get more insight into who God is and what he is doing in the world. You ever wonder what God is doing, and why he does what he does? Well, specifically, this statement “the word of the LORD that came to” is very important. To understand the message of Joel, we must know something of this phrase.
The phrase relates to something we all understand, but don’t always like. But soldiers are constantly aware of it. So are employees. So are children. It’s the difference between a suggestion and a command. You take suggestions from someone whom you recognize as an authority on a subject. But you take commands from someone whom you recognize as an authority over you. In a 1903 message to the senate and house, president Teddy Roosevelt stated, “No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor.”
The laws of the land are not suggestions. Suggestions are merely advice or recommendations. The speed limit is not a “suggested” speed (although you might treat it that way). But do that long enough and you find out it’s not a suggestion. Suggestions are “for your consideration,” you can take them or leave them. But not commands. Commands are non-negotiable. We follow them because terms and instructions have been issued by the authority and accepted by those under authority. And so we take a different posture or attitude toward advice versus commands. When we see that “the word of the LORD came to” someone in the Scriptures, it reminds us of what all of Scripture is and the posture we should have toward it. But that posture doesn’t come naturally to us.
We naturally want to give instructions and dictate terms to God. His advice and suggestions would be great, but we want to make the decisions. But as God carries out His redemptive work, as he does what he has planned to do, he alone gives the instructions and dictates the terms.
The old poem turned into a song is true, which says “This is my Father’s world.”
Psalm 50, God says, “The world and all its fullness are mine.” God gives the instructions and dictates the terms for everything. Therefore we should position ourselves to receive and obey. But how has God given these terms and instructions? What is God’s way? Or, put differently, how has “the word of Yahweh” come to us?
Two ways are in view here in Joel 1:1. You’ll see them outlined on page 6 of the Worship Guide.
1. Through the prophets He has chosen and 2. within the covenants He has established.
And through these, God tells us what he is doing. So let’s look closer at these.
First, Yahweh’s word has come to us through the prophets He has chosen.
In Exodus 20 in the Old Testament, at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, God gives the 10 commandments to the Israelites. Exodus 20 describes the awesome presence of God and the response of the people. Moses writes,
“ Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off  and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”  The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
The presence of God was too much for the people to bear. And so Moses was their prophet. God would speak to them through him. Later, in Deuteronomy 18, Moses explains the role of the prophet to the people. He tells them,  “The LORD your God (literally Yahweh your God) will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’  And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” The word of the LORD would come to the prophet for the people. Going forward, the prophets mediated God’s words to them.
They were chosen and called by God and supernaturally spoke and wrote his words.
Often when people hear “prophet” they think “future telling,” what we would call “foretelling.” That was part of their role, but just as important was “forth telling.” “Forth telling” is the proclaiming and urging of God’s word in the present. The Holy Spirit enabled the prophets to speak directly to their situation and announce God’s call to turn from sin and return to him. The prophets were continually having to call the people back to pure worship and obedience to God. In that way, they were “reformers.” They sought to reform the worship and life of the people with the truth of God. We all need reformation, don’t we?
As you can imagine, not all of the Israelites were excited about prophets or thankful for them. They didn’t want to be corrected or have their lives reformed. They liked taking up the ways of the neighboring nations, with their false gods and immorality. Hebrews 11 says that sin is good – for a season. The Israelites possessed this natural propensity to stray from God. They were like all people, in all stages of history, in that they were “prone to wander” as another great song of the church says. And so God would continually speak through the prophets and call them to return to him and his ways.
There’s a saying that has become popular in recent years. It goes something like this: “You do you. I’ll do me.” The idea is that we should leave each other alone to do as we like. I’ll do what suits me. You do what suits you. I’ll think what I want to think. You think what you want to think. The saying might be new, but the heart behind it is almost as old as mankind. Here’s a questions: what does God think? What does God have to say? A common view, and one that I ascribed to at one time, is that whatever comes from within you, from your heart, is what God is saying to you. That’s convenient - and a likely response! But it’s unwise. How often has each of us been deceived – by our own selves. Not that you never have good ideas or desires, but the Scriptures teach what actually makes sense: we need a voice coming from outside of us.
We need the unchanging written word of God, giving to us by those whom God chose and empowered to do so, and we need a community of people around us who will speak the truth of God’s word to us, and we need one more thing, though it’s often undervalued. We need the preaching of God’s Word – not a discussion or conversation about it, not a Bible study where we sit and each person gives their opinions about it, but a time within corporate worship on the Lord’s Day where the Scriptures are explained and the truth of God is proclaimed boldly by the power of his Spirit and we posture ourselves to hear and receive from God. In 2 Tim. 4:2, Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word,” to preach what had come by God’s prophets. Preachers shouldn’t make up new things. We preach the old things because the old things are still relevant. How can something old still be so relevant? Because remember, God doesn’t change. Therefore his truth doesn’t change. A true preacher still labors to explain things clearly to the people in the place and time in which he preaches. He considers the people know and understand. But one thing the preacher doesn’t have to do is try to make the word of the LORD relevant. When it’s explained and understood, the relevance is crystal clear.
Do you see your need for the word of the LORD that came to the prophets? Do you see your need for an outside voice? Notice specifically how preaching actually assists us in taking a posture that doesn’t come naturally to us. Do you position yourself to receive from God in this way? In light of the whole Bible, true preaching should proclaim Christ. Hebrews 1 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” True preaching should proclaim the message of those God chose to speak to his people.
Ephesians 2 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” This chosen men spoke a message for us. Preachers preach the word of Yahweh. Joel was a prophet of God, therefore he was a preacher of the word. He reminded the people of what was true and he called them to return to the LORD. Yahweh’s word came through him, and in these coming weeks, we will look at the meaning and purpose of that word that came through Joel. But not only has the word of the LORD come to us through prophets. Also,
Yahweh’s word has come to us within the covenants He has established.
We need to understand this concept of “covenant” to understand Joel’s message. The words of the prophets were always related to God’s covenant with his people. For that reason, the covenants described in the Bible are extremely important in understanding what God is doing in the Bible, and also, what God is doing in the world now. As a former Baptist, now a Presbyterian, I’m been repeatedly asked what caused me to make the switch. And on one hand, that’s a long conversation. But on the other, it’s surprisingly simple. It rests on the covenants of Scripture. My view of God’s sovereignty was a factor, also what the Bible teaches about the governing of the church by elders, but the covenants were fundamental. And rather strangely, also tragically, the covenants are often overlooked. Jesus says that that drink of the Lord’s Supper represents the new covenant in his blood, and yet most people in churches, myself included at one time, would struggle to give a Biblical definition of what a covenant is. So as we go through Joel together, and after that the gospel of Matthew, understand the covenants is necessary and we will continue to unpack their meaning.
Now think about this question: who is in a relationship with God? You may have heard that if you believe in Jesus and trust in him, you can have a relationship with God. That wording can be misleading though. Why? Because sounds as if not everyone has a relationship with God already. But they do. Everyone created by God has a relationship with God. People are made by God. They can’t be out of relationship with him. However, according to the Scriptures, not all people are in a right relationship with him. The whole New Testament book of Romans is clear that all people are naturally in a wrong relationship with God because we are sinners and he is holy or without sin.
And someone might say, “Well, Stacey, that’s just semantics.” Not really though. The Scriptures teach that God relates to man in covenant relationship. God made a covenant with Adam. Adam could obey and live, or disobey and die. Adam broke the covenant through sin. And because Adam represented all people in the covenant relationship, all people were and are natural born sinners and guilty before God within that covenant relationship. That is the Bible’s view. But after Adam’s sin, we get the first glimpse of another covenant made by God with Adam. It is a covenant of grace and we see the development of it throughout the course of redemptive history until it is realized through Jesus Christ.
To be “saved” is to be represented by Jesus Christ in your covenant relationship with God. But I’m getting ahead of myself! What is a covenant? Well, it’s more than a promise, although promises are part of it. It’s more like a contract, although there are key differences. The terms of contracts are negotiable, and normally made by somewhat equal parties. Both sides have bargaining power, and either party can opt not to sign a contract. The covenants in the Bible, however, are not made between equals, and they are established between a greater party and a lesser party, with the lesser between unable to opt out or negotiate. The greater party dictates the terms.
Archeologists have discovered that in the land of Abraham, in the time of Abraham, in what they call “in the ancient Near East,” covenants were common between a big nation and a small nation. The big nation was the conqueror. The small nation was the conquered. The big nation would come to the small nation with terms. The small nation could either agree to the terms or be destroyed. They were going to be conquered either way. And the big nation would offer terms with blessings for obedience and penalties or curses for disobedience. So there were blessings for covenant keeping, penalties for covenant breaking. There were basic components to these covenants, and these same components are evident in God’s covenants in Gen 3 (Adam), Gen 9 (Noah), Gen 12, 15, 17 (Abraham), Exodus 2, 19 (Moses), 2 Sam 7 (David), and with Jesus and his church.
I saw the making of a covenant yesterday evening. Not a cov with God and man, but a covenant between a man and a woman. It was a marriage. Jonathan Lacross and Jessie Neel made a covenant with one another.
When a man and woman get married, they do more than simply make promises. They take vows. For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. But their covenant doesn’t establish the relationship. They already have a relationship. The covenant structures, secures, and confirms the relationship. And from then on the covenant defines the relationship. You don’t interpret the relationship apart from the established covenant. That’s what God’s covenants do. And that is the situation with the book of Joel. Think of it as a loving, covenant subpoena. The Israelites are being called to consider the covenant and obey. Previously, when God revealed himself as “Yahweh” or “I AM” to Moses, he was doing so, Exodus 2 tells us, because he remembered the covenant he made with Abraham, to bless him and through him, to bless all the nations the world. To be the God of his people.
That covenant is ultimately fulfilled through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. So when we read that “the word of Yahweh came to” a prophet, as we read here in Joel 1, we can know that the prophet is giving a message to God’s people
that relates to his covenant with them.
We need to take a posture toward God that is not that of an equal. We are the little nation. We were going to be conquered either way. But God, the big nation, comes to us with terms of mercy and grace. God has always been a God of grace. It looked different at times in the Old Testament, but remember that God does change. He was saving people by works back then, and saving them by grace now. He only made the covenant with Abraham because of grace. He only kept it at the time of Moses because of grace. God’s covenant is our security and confirmation that in Christ, God is for us and not against us.
2 Corinthians 5:17–21 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Interesting, we will see that the message of Joel to the Israelites is the same essentially as the message of the New Testament and our message today: return to the LORD. Turn from your sin and receive his grace offered in the person of Jesus Christ.
As we learn of the prophets and covenants in the coming weeks, we can better understand the words of the Luke 24. Luke wrote this of Jesus: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Joel points to Jesus Christ, as does all of the Old Testament. All of the Bible points to our great God who guides us on our journey. Pray with me, and let’s sing once more – a song to the great covenant God who has spoken to us, and who guides us. Bow with me.