Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before.Joel 2:23 (ESV)
Joel’s former and latter rain refers to two rainy seasons in the Holy Land. Thus, at a time when the land had been ravaged by a cloud of locusts leaving behind a dust bowl in its wake, God promised the restoration and blessing of the land with the coming rain.
But this is only a backdrop to understanding the full meaning of Joel’s rains. We know this because when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples on the Day of Pentecost and the onlookers asked what it all meant, Peter quoted from Joel 2:28-32 and said “this” (the Pentecost event) is “that” (what Joel prophesied). So the outpouring of God’s Spirit was likened to an outpouring of rain and the blessings it brought.
Yet even Peter’s sermon does not explain the meanings of Joel’s rains in their entirety. Much of Joel’s language is heavily apocalyptic (blood, fire, smoke, the moon turning to blood, cf Rev 6:12), all within the context of “the day of the Lord” (which is a central theme of Joel). So while at one level Acts 2 was a momentous revelation event accompanied by signs and apocalyptic phenomena (wind, tongues of fire and judgment) it it is far removed from the end times scenario envisaged in Joel.
Moreover, Joel’s army of invaders from the north—strongly echoed in Revelation 9:1-11 (also Zechariah 38)—is missing in Acts 2. So it is not unreasonable to search for an eschatological fulfilment also, especially given Joel’s thoroughly eschatological language.
Actually, both an Acts and an eschatological fulfilment of Joel helps make sense of his reference to former and latter rain as two separate and distinct outpourings of God’s Spirit. These are two events, closely connected but also separate. One happened at Pentecost, the other is yet to come.
The early Pentecostals interpreted Joel precisely this way, regarding the birth of their movement marked by speaking in tongues as a second Pentecost, or the latter rain. Moreover, they believed the return of the Lord was imminent given their understanding that this was an eschatological event.
However, over a century later we have yet to see the eschatological phenomena described by Joel. The early Pentecostals, then, were half-right: the latter rain is eschatological but it is not manifest through that establishment of that movement. So how might we envision the latter rain?
The context is surely Israel. Note how in Joel the invasion of locusts is upon Israel and its inhabitants. The events at Pentecost took place in Jerusalem, the disciples were all Jewish, and the onlookers present were local and diaspora Jews visiting the city for the festival. To be sure, it marked the beginnings of the mission of the spreading of the Gospel to all the world, but its starting point was in Israel, ushered in by a Jewish Messiah (Acts 1:8, John, Is 49:6). Finally, Joel’s eschatological message centres around the future salvation, vindication and blessing of the land and its people (Joel 3:1).
It seems reasonable, then, that a second outpouring of the Spirit will be upon His people which marks their salvation, vindication and blessing.
In Romans 11:25-27 Paul states that one day all Israel shall be saved. Note that he quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21 which goes on promise the giving of the Spirit to His people Israel when that salvation comes. Elsewhere, Zechariah 12:10 speaks of the people looking upon Him whom they have pierced and God pouring out His Spirit upon them, which will be a day of salvation (13:1). Isaiah 44:1-3, Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 also speak of the future salvation of Israel, accompanied with the giving of the Spirit on that day. The Scriptures closely link the future, eschatological salvation of Israel with the pouring of God’s Spirit upon His people.
In conclusion, if the former rain marks the outpouring of Holy Spirit and the Gospel emanating from Israel to the Gentile nations, it seems likely that the latter outpouring marks the end of the time of the Gentiles (Lk 21:24, note how the following verse echoes the phenomena in the sky described in Joel, Acts and Revelation). This is the time when salvation is returned to Israel, through whom it was given (John 4:22).