Nephology is a branch of meteorology that deals with clouds. The nephoscope is an instrument used for the observation of clouds and nephometry is the measurement of cloud dimensions. All these terms have been derived from the Greek word ‘nephos’ meaning a cloud. However, they are not very much in vogue these days and cloud physics, cloud dynamics and cloud chemistry are fast evolving as separate domains of scientific research and observation. For the purpose of describing and classifying clouds, latin names like cirrus (thin and feathery), stratus (spread out like sheets), cumulus (like heaps of cotton) or cumulonimbus (tall thunderclouds) have found common usage.

In the Greek New Testament, the word ‘nephos’ occurs only once but its variant ‘nephele’ occurs in 18 places. These words have been interpreted in English translations of the Bible in most places as ‘cloud’ and in rare instances as ‘mist’.

In the New Testament, ‘cloud’ has been used in the literal or meteorological sense in several references. There is an instance of Jesus admonishing the people around him that they knew how to interpret the appearance of the sky, such as a cloud building up on the west meant that it would rain, but they could not see the signs of the times (Luke 12:54-56).

Chapters 11-13 of the Letter to Hebrews, which may be described as a call to faith, remember the deeds of people from Abel to Rahab who stood firm in their faith, lived by faith and died in faith. Besides those mentioned by the author of Hebrews, he was aware that there were other people about whom he did not write. He names this assembly of innumerable anonymous faithful men and women as a ‘cloud of witnesses’ around us (Hebrews 12:1) just as a real cloud in the sky is formed out of millions of water droplets and snow crystals.

An analogy with real clouds is also drawn in two other places in the New Testament, in the context of the nature of ungodly people. They are said to be like mists driven by a storm (2 Peter 2:17) or like clouds carried away by the wind without giving rain (Jude 1:12). These comparisons vividly bring out the dry, empty and purposeless existence of such people.

Apart from the few literal usages mentioned above, all other references to clouds in the New Testament evoke a sense of God’s glory and majesty. It is important to note that the transfiguration of Christ, his ascension into heaven after his resurrection, and his second coming or return to earth, all have an association with clouds.

As per the three accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36) Jesus was standing on a mountain with Peter, James and John, when a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is my son, my beloved, on whom my favour rests, listen to him. Jesus’ disciples were terrified when they entered the cloud, such was the glory of its presence.

Acts 1:1-9 tells how forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, he was lifted up and a cloud removed him from the sight of people watching him.

When his life on earth was coming to a close, Jesus had told his disciples that that the Son of Man will return on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory (Matthew 24:30, Mark 13:26). Even in the course of his trial prior to his death, Jesus had claimed before the high priest that the Son of Man would be seen seated at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62). In Revelation 1:7 John reasserts: Behold, he is coming with the clouds and every eye shall see him. At that time the celestial bodies will be shaken and the sun will be darkened. These are obviously not the clouds of precipitation formed out of normal atmospheric processes as we now know them to be, but heavenly spectacles of awe and splendour that would exude the glory of God.

Paul envisioned that it will be a time when the dead and the living will be caught up in the clouds to meet their Lord and be with him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Jesus himself said that angels will gather his chosen from the four winds from the farthest bounds of earth to the farthest bounds of heaven (Matthew 24:31, Mark 13:27). Revelation 14:14-20 has more vivid imagery of this event. It pictures the likeness of a son of man riding a white cloud, wearing a crown of gold and holding a sickle to be put to the earth that is ready for harvest including the grapes of God’s wrath.

In 1 Corinthians 10:1, Paul talks about ‘the pillar of cloud’ which guided the Israelites during their journey to the promised land. I plan to write more of this in a subsequent post about the clouds of the Old Testament.  

See also:  The Clouds of the Bible (2)   The Clouds of the Bible (3)

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