The Weather Forecast

Matthew 16:1-4 says:
"Now when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus, they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He said, “When evening comes you say, ‘It will be fair weather, because the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, because the sky is red and darkening.’ You know how to judge correctly the appearance of the sky, but you cannot evaluate the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away."

The attitude of the religious authorities in this passage is quite remarkable. By this point in his ministry, Jesus had performed many extraordinary miracles. He had turned water into wine, and performed many healings and exorcisms. He had fed the five thousand and then the four thousand, and he had walked on water, just to name a few. But to the religious authorities, none of these was seemingly enough. They would sit on the fence until they had even more. They wanted some kind of great miracle-on-demand from heaven. Jesus told them they could not evaluate the signs of the times because they were a wicked and adulterous generation. They had already witnessed many signs, but they neither recognised them as such, nor understood their implications.

I also find his reference to the weather forecast quite fascinating. Effectively, Jesus quotes the proverb, "A red sky at night is a shepherd's delight. A red sky in the morning is a sailor's warning". And he chides them for paying more attention to the weather forecast than to the signs that speak of his coming. As Christians, how guilty are we of this today?

In Jesus' day, meteorology was a very crude science, if you could even call it that. Today, the weather forecast is a particular kind of puzzle that has many pieces, and those pieces are in constant flux. Meteorologists keep track of their ever-changing values, collecting data from observatories, balloons and satellites, and streaming it all into computer algorithms. They have to solve multiple equations in multiple variables simultaneously. At each particular moment in the future, those variables will have specific values that we might call unknowns. Supercomputers help them 'do the math' so they can solve those unknowns and piece together what the weather will look like at each given moment in time.

In mathematics, you sometimes have neat equations that you can solve algebraically. In order to solve 'n' unknowns simultaneously, you need at least 'n' distinct equations. If you only have 'n-1' equations, you have to guess at least one variable. But then the resulting solution is not unique. Perhaps the variable that you guess has only a very limited number of possible values, even just two perhaps. You still then have 2 possible solutions or output scenarios. If you watch the TV weather forecast for the week ahead, sometimes they will show you more than one possible outcome. Meteorologists don't give up just because they are lacking some of the data or equations. They consider multiple possible outcomes.

In other situations in mathematics, you might not know the exact equations, so instead you follow a graphical approach. You plot real-life data values, draw the best possible straight line or curve through them, and then extrapolate that line or curve to predict future values.

Regarding the circumstances surrounding Christ's second coming, the bible presents us with many pieces of 'prophetic data'. These are statements that God's people have pondered over for two, three, or even four thousand years. When the disciples asked Jesus what the signs would be of his second coming, his response included over 30 signs to look out for (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 17 and 21). His response is commonly known as 'The Olivet Discourse', since he was sitting on the Mount of Olives at the time. Together with his use of the weather forecast as an illustration, his response implies that we should pay careful attention to earthly and cosmic events, and attempt to correlate them with biblical prophecies.

Such an attempt is often dismissed as inherently flawed. Throughout Church history, generations of Christians have assumed themselves to be living in the final generation when Christ was about to return, and attempted to correlate the events taking place in their own lifetimes with biblical prophecies. As generations have come and gone, many of their conclusions have been shown to be wrong. So is such correlation futile? I would argue "No"!

Imagine you are planning an important outdoor event, such as a wedding perhaps, on a particular day. You are hoping for good weather, but wondering if it might rain and you need to erect a marquee. Two weeks before the big day, you check the weather app on your phone and it looks promising. As each subsequent day passes, getting closer and closer to your big day, the weather predictions are updated and refined. You don't criticise the forecasters for doing so. Rather you appreciate them giving you more and more accurate predictions. There is no shame in them contradicting some of their earlier predictions. For the closer you get to that day, the more the current weather data aligns with what it will be like on that day, and the easier it becomes to predict accurately.

With the second coming of Christ, we have the added difficulty or paradox that Jesus said we cannot know the 'day or hour' (Matthew 24:36) or the 'time or moment' (Acts 1:7). And yet we are supposed to know when 'he is near, right at the door' (Matthew 24:33). The Apostle Paul tells us that the time is short and that we should live in the reality that this world in its present form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). It is as though God wants to keep us on our toes, in eager anticipation of Christ's second coming. Those generations of Christians who lived and died as though Jesus was about to return were not wrong to do so, although they were wrong if they identified specific dates for the second coming. We also should seek to correlate current events with biblical prophecies, as long as we also maintain the humility to acknowledge our conclusions might be wrong. I would rather be wrong in some of my conclusions than be chided by Jesus in that day for failing to recognise the signs or attempting to understand them! And given that we are certainly closer to that day than previous generations of Christians, surely the state of the world today is closer to what it will be at his coming. Therefore it is easier for us than it was for them to understand biblical prophecies and to piece together the end time puzzle more accurately.