Our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ, whose followers we were called to be, left a warning for his disciples of what was to come in the future. He told them to:
“Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” (Matt. 24:4-5)
The greek word translated as “take heed” can mean to have the power of seeing, to perceive and discover by use, or know by experience. It can also mean to turn the thoughts or direct the mind to a thing, to consider, contemplate, to look at, to weigh carefully and examine.
Next, the word translated as “deceive” means to cause to stray, or to lead away from the truth. When Jesus said take heed that no one deceive you, what was the deception he was cautioning his disciples to be on guard against? It was that many would come in his name, teaching falsely about him. Those false teachings encompass not only his identity and nature, but also his purpose, his message and his second-coming. There have been many anti-christs in the world since the Lord departed, and they still exist and are currently at work in it today. An antichrist is not necessarily just someone who denies that Jesus was and is the Christ; it is anyone teaching in his name who superimposes their own doctrine over the Lord’s teaching. For example, suppose someone taught that Jesus was the Son of God, who suffered and died for our sins so that we might live a life of peace and ease in this world. Would you accept that statement as fully true? In recent history alone, we can observe that many have believed and embraced it — because there are several mega-churches which have been built upon preaching a gospel of “health and wealth”. It may be somewhat of an oversimplification, but the essential premise of their teaching is that all that is required in order to have an abundant life filled with worldly success and the desires of the heart is that a person “accept Jesus” into their heart. These types of appeals to the flesh will always be popular, but did Jesus ever promise his followers a life of ease? What did he have to say about how his disciples should live, and the focus they were to have?
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. … Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Luke 9:23 and Matt.10:34,38)
That is but one simple example which I include to illustrate how a false theology can become pervasive, but it’s not the focus for my message today, so let’s return now to Matt. 24:4-5 and put it all together. Those two verses mean that we are to examine, consider and contemplate everything God has made known in his Word; putting it into practice so that we know by experience that it is true, in order that we be known as the Lord’s flock — those sheep who listen to his voice and follow him. Although he is absent in body, he should be present with us in spirit, to the extent that we are figuratively able to “see” him alive and at work in our lives. And when we do so, he will keep us from all deception.
Regarding that deception, we can continue on with Matt. 24:6-11. To summarize those verses, Jesus is describing what the by-product of the false teaching referenced in verse 5 will be. To whom did/does his warning apply, and when would/will these conditions become manifest? Did it pertain only to those few disciples who were present with him during his short time on earth? Were they intended only for those who would live at the time just prior to his return? Might it not rather be that he is explaining the conditions that will always exist whenever false religion grows strong in the world, which would indicate he is addressing anyone and everyone throughout history who would seek to be known as his follower? Those are important questions, because your answer to them determines how you interpret verses 12-13. When the Lord prophesied in verse 12 that the love of most would grow cold, do you believe he is saying that most people in the world will no longer practice natural love — or does he mean that most Christians will lose the love that sets them apart and identifies them as such? False religious teaching certainly can influence and diminish both, but verse 13 makes it clear that verse 12 is a warning intended for those true followers of the Christ, who possess the love of God dwelling within them.
If we desire to be amongst those who stand firm to the end, I believe it is important to understand why the love of most Christians grows cold. Our Lord provided the outline in these very verses we’ve been discussing so far. First, false religion becomes prevalent, which leads to a general, societal increase in wickedness. Next, true Christians, those who labor against that tide of wickedness and call attention to sin and false teachings, become persecuted. And, finally, due to persecution, many tire of the fight and abandon the faith. And the Christian calling truly is a fight. We can begin to grasp the magnitude of what we are fighting against when we read the apostle Paul’s prophecy of the rise of pseudo-Christianity, as described in his warning to Timothy. It’s found in 2 Tim. 3:1-5. He wrote:
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.”
Why do I say this is describing a pseudo-Christianity? Because verse 5 is very curious. It would be reasonable to imagine that people possessing such ungodly attributes would be obviously, outwardly, atheistic and irreligious. But Paul says they have a form, or semblance, of godliness. The greek word used is morphosis, which conveys the sense of a shifting of form in order to take on another appearance. In other words, who these individuals are outwardly, by creed or profession of belief, is very different from who they are at heart, by practice. Paul is describing people who may believe they are living lives pleasing to God, but who, in actuality, are Christian in name only. Figuratively, you could say these false-believers whom he is describing wear a mask to disguise their true self from the eyes of others. And they may indeed succeed in fooling some, but masks like these, once put on, are difficult to remove: and the end result of wearing them is that when they look in the mirror, they are also unable to see themself as they truly are.
A Christian must have the light of Christ, the light of truth shining out from within them and, when they encounter others stumbling in the darkness of deception, they must be willing to walk into that darkness to help others find their way out of it. That’s what preaching the Gospel is: being a light. It’s one of the ways that we show we possess the love of God. In application, the love of God is not just some vague warm and fuzzy feeling toward people. It’s not the type of love that sends “positive vibes” to someone who is sick. It’s not even about being perceived as someone who is “nice” to everyone. Those are simply a few examples of what natural human affection is, and even as corrupt as our present day is becoming, we still see many examples of this type of love being practiced in the world today. But that’s not the love of God as it’s modeled in Scripture. Jesus told his followers:
“A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)
Jesus was not persecuted for being “nice;” and people who consistently exercise human affection towards others are not generally persecuted for doing so either. Our Lord was put to death by the world because he revealed sin for what it is, and he exposed the guilt of the people — not to condemn them, but to bring them to repentance. And many who came to him did acknowledge their guilt and repented. But others resisted having their “masks” removed and, like Cain, they hated the Lord for confronting them with their guilt. Why then are the Lord’s followers warned that they must and will face persecution? It’s because they have been entrusted with the responsibility of contending against falsehoods. The apostle Paul spoke of this responsibility in 2 Cor. 10:3-5, which states:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
In other words, he is saying that when a kingdom or nation of the world fights a war, they use the power and authority they have been given by God, which is administered through their governing bodies, in order to destroy their enemy’s physical strongholds. But a Christian is to use the power and authority given to them by God, administering the words of God through the spirit of God, in order to deconstruct erroneous reasoning, overthrow lies and destroy falsehoods. Christians need to care about that enough that they are willing to speak the truth of God to people so they can see sin for what it is. A Christian strives toward the goal of freeing others from their slavery to the prince of the powers of this world – and continues to care despite being persecuted and hated for it. (2 Tim. 2:24-26) Isn’t that the example we have recorded for true followers of God throughout all of Scripture? So then, ask yourself: “If I died today, is that what I would be known for? Is that what I lived for?
There is only one way we can love in such a way. The type of love that is required is that which is only available through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is something for which we must continually go to God. In my two previous messages, I spoke of the love of God. Now I’d like to shift to a discussion of love for God. To begin, consider the Lord’s admonition to the Ephesian church, found in Rev. 2: 4-5. There he said:
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”
What was the first love they had forsaken? What do you suppose it was that they were no longer doing? The answer to those two questions might be found by asking another: Why does false religion exist in the world? Simply because the world does not know God as He truly is. All false religion arises from false conceptions about God. Therefore, although the purpose of our Lord’s death was to atone for sin, the purpose of his life was to reveal the Father; and he has called all of his disciples to carry on that same purpose. (John 17:18) But how is that to be done? How do you show God to someone? Certainly it requires that we be filled with His love in us and that we consistently function as models of that love. And it involves many things beyond that as well — like preaching the gospel — all of which are to be done over the course of a lifetime. But doing so requires an understanding and application of the entire gospel message. Anything added to or subtracted from the Gospel of Christ leads to false concepts about God.
Which brings me back to the warning for the Ephesian church. Collectively, their love had grown colder in certain areas, which led to a decrease in their willingness to labor for the gospel, relative to what they had been doing previously. Individually, they could have forsaken their first love for a variety of reasons: some to avoid persecution, some because they grew weary of a life of self-denial, some because they became ensnared by deceptions and distractions. Their example is evidence that the Lord’s warning regarding love growing cold isn’t limited to some unknown future day where nearly all society will be evil to an historically unprecedented degree. That is an important fact, both collectively and individually. Collectively, because if they were susceptible to having their first love wane, when they had the apostles still living and teaching among them as first-hand witnesses of the life and resurrection of the son of God, we should be doubly vigilant that we do not stumble in the same way. And individually, because if we, as individuals, are weak, it is impossible for us to be strong as an organization.
How do we show our love toward God? One important way is by obeying his commands. One of the two greatest commandments is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Therefore, as urgently as you desire to have eternal life and be a part of God’s family — as fervently as you desire to be a first-fruit in His Kingdom — the spirit of God in you ought to produce an equally powerful desire that everyone else partake of those indescribably wonderful blessings also. In that regard, as far as my labor for others is concerned, I cannot say that has been true, nor can I say that it is now; and that is one of the ways I know that my love for God has not been, and is not, what it needs to be. If it was, my life would be significantly different than it is now. Far too much of the time it’s only been true in an abstract way — a goodwill wish for others that has lacked the reinforcement of sufficient action — like the man who encounters someone without food and clothes and wishes them well but does nothing to address their need.
Passion always maintains a willingness to suffer for its object of affection. The Son of God willingly suffered many horrible things out of love for His Father and his love for us. Abraham was willing to suffer the loss of his son out of reverence for the will of God. Moses had to bear with the stubborn rebelliousness of nearly an entire nation and endure the ire of a people who, despite all the good he had done for them, were ready to stone him at one point. (See Ex. 17:4) And bear with them he did, out of love for God. Because of their love for God, all of the prophets suffered for speaking the truth. And there are many other examples like those, both in the Old Testament and the New. Knowing that to be true, leads me to ask myself “What have I suffered for the sake of the Gospel?” And if I haven’t suffered, have I really loved? Everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person, but the truth is that none of us are; so, if we are to “take heed that no one deceive us,” we should also be diligent to pray that God would keep us from being overcome by self-deception. If you share my concern, here is another question which you can use as a litmus test of your own degree of love for God: as it pertains to the gospel, how big is the sphere of influence He has given you with others? I believe that it is unavoidably true to say that as the love of God increases in you, so too will your power and influence in speaking the words of God.
In conclusion, I mentioned that the only way we can maintain love toward those who despise and mistreat us is by the power of the Holy Spirit — having the love of God dwelling within us. And that love is something we must continually go to God in order to have it replenished. Which brings me to my second point regarding love for God: in addition to showing our love for God by obeying His commandments, we also show our love in the same way we show love to anyone else — by spending time with him — and so that will be the topic for a future post.