A Prophet’s Model of Family Discipleship

The book of Joel may be an untapped resource when it comes to family discipleship.  While that may seem like an odd statement, perhaps an examination of the content of Joel’s prophecy may persuade you.

After being introduced to Joel the person (Joel 1:1), the book moves directly to Joel’s prophecy.  Not only does Joel tell the elders to hear his message (Joel 1:2), but he commands them to tell their children so that the contents of this book would pass on from generation to generation (Joel 1:3).  Some may argue that Joel is only encouraging future generations to tell about the judgment of locusts that is about to spring up (the immediate context).  If that is all Joel is getting at, then even still, we may have to re-think what we teach our children about God during family discipleship.  Who spends family worship time at night declaring to your children the vengeance of God?  Probably not many of us.  However, I don’t think that Joel limits what should be passed on to future generations simply to the locust plague.  Rather, he intends that the entire contents of the book would be declared to future generations.

Joel’s command to pass down this prophecy to future generations is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 6:7, where God commanded Israel to tell their children all of the commands that he had given them at Sinai.  If we can look at Deuteronomy and argue for a model of discipleship by which we teach our children of the great deeds of God, then should we not also look to Joel, who at the very beginning of his prophecy mimics Moses’ model to tell the coming generations about God’s character and work in the world? 

The rub with this connection comes when we reach the content of Joel’s prophecy.  Joel does not simply declare the Law to future generations.  He doesn’t relay a clean, systematic theology of God’s dealings in the world.  He doesn’t present stories that can be hashed out on the flannelgraph.  Rather, Joel says that parents should declare to their children the judgment of God, God’s restoration, and God’s future judgment. 

The Judgment of God

The book of Joel opens with a severe locust plague, an act of divine judgment (Joel 1:4).  The plague is presented in such a way that three swarms of locusts infest the land and nothing is left to harvest.  This judgment would have been a severe blow to family livelihood as well as economic livelihood.  In addition to locusts, Joel includes the Day of the Lord as a day of judgment and darkness (Joel 2:1-3).  The locusts are at this point described as a mighty army that invades to destroy the land and its inhabitants.  The Lord warns Israel of this judgment as a means of grace so that they would call out to him in repentance and be saved from the impending judgment.

God’s Restoration

In Joel 2:12ff, the Lord calls Israel to return to him.  Similarly to Joel 1:13ff, the Lord offers repentance in the face of the impending gloom and darkness of the Day of the Lord.  In Joel 2:21, we hear that the land should rejoice “for the Lord has done great things.”  He has become jealous for the land (Joel 2:18a), had pity on his people (Joel 2:18b), and removed Israel’s enemies (Joel 2:20).  In prophecy, these past tense verbs give the notion that the act is as sure as done even though in space and time, it may not have happened yet.  In other words, Joel’s description of the great deeds of God are as sure as done. 

As the prophecy continues, we see that God’s restoration was not simply agricultural progress (Joel 2:22-26).  Indeed, God’s restoration will go to the very souls of men and women.  Joel 2:28-29 tells us that in God’s restoration, he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh.  In Acts 2, Peter refers to Joel’s prophecy as an explanation for the events at Pentecost.  Indeed, Pentecost was confirmation that the New Covenant was being inaugurated such that God’s law was in the hearts of his people and his Spirit was enlivening their souls to desire to obey his word.  God’s restoration went (at Pentecost) and will extend (in the lives of believers) to the very hearts of his people. 

God’s Future Judgment

While God’s judgment has already been promised to Israel in the form of a locust plague, Joel also declares a word of judgment to the nations (Joel 3:1-16).  The Lord will usher the nations into the Valley of Jehoshaphat (the name means ‘Yahweh judges’), and he will “enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage, Israel” (Joel 3:2b).  In other words, God’s future judgment on the nations is precisely for the benefit of his people.  God will rescue his people in the end by waging war against their enemies (cf. Rev 19:11ff).  Therefore, in some sense, God’s future judgment on the nations as declared by Joel will be a way that God furthers the restoration of his people.  Indeed, Joel 3:16 summarizes the book well, “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 and a stronghold to the people of Israel.”  God will judge the nations who stand against his people precisely because he is a stronghold for us. 

So, what does Joel have to do with family discipleship?  While there may be several avenues to pursue, I think we can draw out at least three implications. 

First, don’t be afraid to disciple your family regarding God’s judgment.  While this may seem like a terrible thought, we do this all the time.  Have you ever told your children the story of David and Goliath?  Well, I’m pretty sure that Goliath felt the judgment of God that day.  The problem comes when we don’t make it explicit that God is a God of justice and righteousness and he demands justice and holiness.  Those who oppose him will be punished.  We must make this truth explicit in order for our children to initially see their need for a Savior.  If we can paint the correct picture of God’s just righteousness and holiness, then our children will at least see their deep need for Someone who can rescue them from themselves. 

Not only should we not shy away from training our children about God’s judgment on sin generally, but we should teach them about God’s judgment on his own people who fail to walk in his ways.  Isn’t this the primary topic that Joel says to pass on to future generations?  Joel follows his command to tell future generations with the fact that Israel is decimated due to a locust plague.  Where this thought meets our families is in Hebrews 12.  There we are told that the Lord disciplines us as a Father because he loves us.  If the locust plague was intended to bring about repentance, is it not a kind thing for God to discipline us so that we would return to him?  Romans teaches us that it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance (Rom 2:4).  We would do well to teach our children that God’s discipline (judgment) may be severe, but that the proper response in every occasion is to run back to Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith. 

A second implication for family discipleship would be that we teach our families about God’s restoration.  This topic is not a new one for most of us because we want regularly to teach our families about salvation in Jesus Christ.  However, we must remember that God’s restoration came at a great cost, namely the death of God’s own Son.  In other words, God’s judgment was still satisfied even though it was poured out on another (Rom 3:21-26).  God sustains his justice be pouring out his wrath on his Son, and he is simultaneously the one who justifies by counting Jesus’ death on our behalf.  Indeed, the cross portrays God’s restoration. 

If we focus in on Joel again, we find another avenue by which God restores.  God restores definitively when he justifies sinners, but he restores progressively through the power of the Holy Spirit, whom he has poured out on all members of the New Covenant.  What our children (and families) need to hear (and see modeled) is that God empowers us to live holy lives through the power of his Spirit.  God’s restoration is not only a one-time declaration; it is also a continual process by which we are “being saved” through progressive sanctification.  Our children need to know both of these avenues of God’s restoration. 

Finally, Joel encourages us to teach (and model) anticipation for God’s coming judgment.  For those who find themselves on the wrong side of this judgment, the first application in this article (God’s judgment) will play itself out.  However, for those who are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, God will one day restore all things BY judging the enemies that stand against God’s people.  The importance of this truth for our children and families could play out in a plethora of ways, but at the very least, we would do well to teach our children that God will, in Christ, defeat all of his enemies precisely because he intends to be a refuge and stronghold for his people.  O, what joy it could bring our children in the difficult stages of their life if they know that Jesus Christ will restore all things in his future kingdom!

When we think of family devotions and singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs with our families, we don’t typically think of the book of Joel.  However, if Joel’s introductory exhortation to teach the contents of his prophecy to future generations is right, then we would do well to teach our children that we serve a righteous God, who through Jesus restores and empowers those who believe, so that in the final day we may stand with our Savior as he judges the nations with a rod of iron (Rev 19:15).