Yesterday evening, I read the following e-mail from one of my readers who had a thoughtful question to me. I gave this reader a short reply but mentioned that I would like to write a longer post to give a more complete answer, and was given permission so long as I did not name the reader. Here was the reader’s query:
Are we suppose to be wise enough to understand the basics of the end of the age?
You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time? Hebrews 5:14
But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained their sensibilities to distinguish good from evil.
In order to frame this question, let us first seek to gain what insight we can from the near context of the two verses cited from the synoptic Gospels above. Luke 12:54-56 is the immediate context of the first of the verses cited, and it reads: “Then He also said to the multitudes, “Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it is. And when you see the south wind blow, you say, ‘There will be hot weather’; and there is. Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it you do not discern this time?” Likewise, Matthew 16:1-4 is the immediate context of the second of the verses from the synoptic Gospels: “Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed.”
What are these passages telling us? While the passage in Luke is rather brief, the passage in Matthew gives enough context that we are better able to understand what it was exactly that Jesus was rebuking in his audience. First of all, let us note that it was the corrupt religious leadership of the Pharisees and Sadducees that was demanding a sign. Jesus then cites a familiar saying about discerning the skies which we still cite today as: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” Jesus was dealing with an audience that was making a lot of demands, wanting Jesus Christ to entertain them by proving himself through signs–similar to what Satan was demanding in the temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus is no more willing to gratify the desire of his audience for entertainment than He was willing to act according to the whims of the adversary. It is worthwhile to reflect that any time one’s behavior is modeled after the evil one, that one is almost certainly in the wrong. What Jesus then tells his elite audience is that the audience should be astute enough to recognize the times and to know that there was trouble ahead. Given the moral and social corruption present at the time in the Roman world as well as within the Jewish world, it did not take a particularly sensitive person to recognize that the leaders of the Jewish people were not acting according to God’s ways and could be held responsible for it.
What is the model of discerning the times that the Bible presents us with in the prophets? The model is actually a pretty simple one. Perhaps the most elegant portrayal of it is described in the prophet Habakkuk , but the prophets in general show this same pattern. First, Habbakuk bemoans the evil of his age, and then God tells him that his wicked generation will be judged by Babylon. At this point Habakkuk complains that those who do the judging are even more wicked than God’s wayward people, at which point God promises that Babylon will be judged in turn. At this point Habbakuk proclaims his trust in God’s workings and God promises a glorious return of a repentant remnant. This is the pattern of prophetic judgment that we see over and over again, going all the way back to Leviticus and Deuteronomy when the blessings and curses first appear, through the cycle of disobedience-oppression-repentance-deliverance in the book of Judges, and so on.
Although this is a familiar pattern that repeats its way through the scriptures, we are not always sensitive to what it means. For one, we see that godly prophets call out to God because of corrupt societies that have fallen short of God’s moral demands as stated in the law. There are two general sorts of failings that are usually paired together, namely the oppression of the commonfolk by elites and the moral decline of the people that leads them to cast off restraint in their personal behavior. In our society, these two demands are usually focused on by different groups, as social justice is typically seen as a left-wing concern and personal morality seen as a right-wing concern. The Bible views both failings in both areas, especially among those who are viewed as being close to God or are the recipients of His blessings, as being a cause for judgment. Those who can recognize that their society is wicked and cry out about the evil that they see, as irritating as they may be to the unrepentant of their societies, are seeking to encourage the people as a whole to repent and turn to God and avoid the increasingly severe judgment that is promised in the Law to cultures that reject God’s ways. Towards the end of those judgments is the promise of military defeat and exile and captivity, where the nation will be purified of its evils and where a righteous remnant will be prepared to return, chastened and humbled through their experiences.
So, what sort of discernment is necessary here? We do not find the prophets of ancient Israel, nor those of the early Church, engaging in prophetic speculation. God may give prophets some details about which nations will be the ones taking Israel and Judah captive, but for the most part what is being discerned is the moral state of Israel and/or Judah at the time. This is what leads Habakkuk to his initial lament, this is what Jeremiah cries out against in the Temple sermon, this is what Amos confronts his audience with when he talks about three transgressions and four, and so on. Can you see how our church and our society as a whole have fallen short of God’s laws as they relate to social justice and personal morality? If so, you have enough moral sensitivity and spiritual insight to discern the times. What are you going to do about it?