The Bible contains a number of prophecies many of which are fairly straightforward and already fulfilled. The fulfillment of bible prophecy is one of the strongest apologetic proofs for Christianity and the trustworthiness of the Bible. One of the more interesting things we encounter as we read the Bible is when the New Testament quotes and applies an Old Testament prophecy, in some cases this shows that the prophecy has been completed but in other cases it seems that there is still more that needs to be fulfilled. We call this progressive fulfillment, you may be aware of progressive revelation, which simply means that God’s revelation to man has been progressive throughout history. You see God has revealed more to us than he revealed to believers in the Old Testament. For instance the believer in the Old Testament knew that a Messiah was coming but we know much more than that, we have the gospel records of the life of Jesus that describe in detail how he lived, what he said and a much fuller picture then what the Old Testament saints had.
A good example of this is in Acts 2:16-21—
“But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “ ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 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, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Pentecost had just happened and as the believers are speaking in tongues the crowds can’t figure out what is going on, their best guess is that the Christians are drunk! (v. 15) Peter responds however by explaining that what is happening was prophesied by the prophet Joel, the Holy Spirit is being poured out and special signs are happening to verify the arrival of the Spirit. The prophecy in Joel and the book as a whole point to a final “Day of the Lord” a time in which the wicked will be judged and the righteous blessed. Peter is not saying that the events at Pentecost fulfill Joel 2 and that the Day of the Lord has come this becomes clear to us as we see all the specific events that the passage prophesies, the “wonders in heaven”, “blood, fire, vapor of smoke”, “sun turned to darkness” “moon to blood” these events have not all happened. In Acts 2 the Spirit arrives and the people prophesy but cosmic signs associated with the Day of the Lord are not yet fulfilled. Those events are still to come, so we see in this passage a case of partial or progressive fulfillment. Peters usage of Joel to explain the phenomenon at Pentecost doesn’t mean that we cross out Joel 2 as having been fulfilled at Pentecost but simply that the fulfillment of Joel 2 has begun. We must remember that, “Initial fulfillment is not exhausted fulfillment”.¹
Joel points to a final eschatological Day of the Lord as does Peter. In 2 Peter 3:10 he describes the Day of the Lord as a future event that has not taken place so its clear that even Peter recognized that the prophecy of Joel had not yet been completely fulfilled. We see this layered fulfillment of prophecy throughout Scripture, in the Davidic covenant David’s descendants fulfill parts of the prophecy but ultimately only Jesus can completely fulfill the specifics of the prophecy. Progressive fulfillment of prophecy displays the complexity and ingenuity of our God, His ways are above our ways, His thoughts above ours.
D.L. Bock, “Evidence from Acts,” in A Case for Premillenialism, ed. D.K Campbell and J.L Townsend (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 197.