Love Grown Cold

“Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will appear and deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10-12).

It was a difficult and dark time. The rulers wallowed in their decadence while many of the common people suffered. People did not trust their government and looked for some kind of champion. Plenty rushed in with all sorts of delusions and plots. People did not know who to believe or trust. Everyone seemed to be in it for themselves and their ideas and would do, and did, almost anything to obtain and maintain power. In this way the people were led down the path which led to devastation and death.

Such was the plight of Judea in the 60s, just as Jesus had predicted.

While in Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples showed Jesus the various and magnificent buildings which comprised the Herodian Temple (Matthew 24:1); Jesus told them that it would be completely devastated and torn down (Matthew 24:2). When the disciples asked how such things could take place, Jesus began to warn them about what they would see: many would claim to be the Messiah; there would be wars and rumors of wars; disasters would take place; yet all such things were not the end, and they should not be misled (Matthew 24:3-8). The disciples would be handed over to persecution and death and would be hated among all the nations because of Jesus (Matthew 24:9).

The disciples would then see signs of distress within their communities. They would see people led into sin, betraying and hating one another; false prophets would tell them what they would want to hear and thus deceive many; lawlessness would increase, and love would grow cold (Matthew 24:10-12).

The devastation of the Herodian Temple complex in Jerusalem, which is the primary subject of Matthew 24:1-36, took place during the First Jewish War of 68-70. We can consider Josephus’ The Jewish War and see how everything Jesus warned about played out during that time. Josephus would have us understand how the Jewish people suffered far more from one another than anything the Romans did to them: even as they resisted the Roman siege the people of Jerusalem were divided into warring factions; some destroyed the food stock; every group would use violence against the others. Extremists were normalized overnight and given control over the fate of the nation. The people starved; stories of people eating their own children are recorded. All the Romans had to do was to wait for the Jewish people to exhaust themselves before providing the final stroke.

Jesus could predict such things not only because He was God and a prophet, but also because Israel in His own day was already primed for such distress (cf. Luke 23:28-31). They had not wanted to consider how they were as delusional as their fathers were in the days of Babylon; they remained convinced that armed uprising would liberate them from the Romans, and chose an insurrectionist over the Author of Life (Acts 3:13-14). When times got tougher, the situation spiraled out of control, and God’s judgment against Israel was completed.

While the Jewish people were God’s elect, they were still humans, and the tendencies they expressed in their collapse can be seen in other societies. There are disturbing and unfortunate trends we can perceive while times are good, and we may raise an eyebrow, but then move on to focus on what we think are greater things. Yet when times become difficult those trends get magnified. All of a sudden people who seemed righteous and holy, and many who perhaps truly were righteous and holy, are led into sin. We are shocked to find out that someone we thought highly of and trusted in his or her judgment has turned into someone we can barely recognize. People of goodwill, friends, and even families are torn apart in hostility.

How could all of this have happened? Events, trials, and difficulty expose people and their deep-seated ideas and fears. There are times when people no longer know who they should trust, and so they simultaneously trust no one and yet everyone. They presume to be in the know and well-informed, yet in truth have been deceived and deluded according to their own desires and lusts. We kid ourselves if we imagine the days of false prophets is past and gone; they proliferate now more than ever, given ever greater platforms to reach larger audiences through the media and the Internet.

This process does not take place overnight; upon reflection we can see how people could have possibly gone down these dark roads to lead to such a distressing conclusion. And what is found on that road but coldness of heart as lawlessness increases? The sinful are emboldened; the righteous in their discretion become quiet (cf. Amos 5:13). Profligacy and flagrant perversion multiplies. You cannot trust anyone anymore. So you either join in or stay quiet.

Watching this play out is like watching a train wreck: it is awful, it causes a lot of damage and death, and there is not a whole lot we as individuals can do about it. Watching the judgment on a group of people play itself out is never a fun or pleasant thing (cf. Amos 5:18-20). It may not be the end of the world, but it certainly involves the end of a world. Yes, according to God’s will, that world did need to come to an end, however things work out for those involved later. A generation will arise and will wonder how it could ever be that people could have possibly believed such delusions, or acted in such immoral ways while thinking God would somehow justify them. And yet within such a generation there is at least the seed of the next catalyst for delusion and immorality.

What, then, ought the faithful people of God do when they endure such disaster in their lives? After explaining what the disciples would see, Jesus reminded them that those who endure to the end will be the ones who are saved (Matthew 24:13). The Gospel of the Kingdom would be preached throughout the world as a testimony to the nations (Matthew 24:14; cf. Colossians 1:6).

The end came for Second Temple Judaism; the end has also come for many nations and civilizations ever since. We can look back and see how foolish it would have been for the disciples, or other Jewish Christians of the time, to have cast away their confidence in Jesus and their eternal salvation to follow a delusional crackpot in their midst who promised them victory over the Romans or over another sect of their fellow Jewish people. We can look back and wonder why Christians of the early fifth century felt compelled to uphold the vestiges of the broken remnants of the Roman Empire, the very Empire that had worked so diligently in times past to persecute them. We do not even need to look back: we can ask today why a Christian as part of another nation-state would even think to follow the twists and turns of untrustworthy and immoral people and to fall prey to ungodliness in a desperate attempt to uphold their cultural status quo.

Yet as we can see the speck in the eyes of these prospective/real Christians of the past and present, can we see the log in our own eyes? Can we see how we may be too invested in our own society, whether in its present reality or in what we imagine it used to be, and give our power over to people participating in flagrant immorality and pushing delusional theories and ideologies, all in the quest to maintain or obtain power against the perceived malignant Other? Are we willing to consider how those to whom we listen might be, in truth, false prophets, leading us astray from what is good and right and holy in the Kingdom of God in Christ? Has the love of Christians gone cold because they have become more identified with their political tribe or ideology than their commitment to God in Christ? Have we chosen the ways of the world in its corruption and decay and given ourselves over to our fears of what our perceived enemies might do to us, or will we continue to surrender ourselves to the love of God in Christ which would cast out all such fears? What will our children, or an even later generation, have to say regarding what was exposed about is in our distress?

In all of this we must remember that Jesus was speaking to His disciples about Israel, the people of God, and to allow ourselves to fully absorb the scandal that was how the people of God in His generation went so terribly wrong. That we can see this very thing play out among the people of God in our own generation is distressing and lamentable, but should not surprise us. We must endure to the end to be saved: to continue to hold firm to the Lord Jesus Christ, to not heed the siren song of the partisans and tribalists who would lead us astray so they can obtain power, wealth, and standing, and to refuse to grow cold in our love because of lawlessness, pursuing holiness and righteousness in a love that fears no thing in this creation. It is hard to watch as those whom we loved and trusted fall away in their delusions; in all things we must remain firm in our faith in Jesus and His Kingdom, and never stop embodying His Gospel in word and deed before our fellow people of God and those out in the world. May we glorify God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Grown Cold

Smooth Things

For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; that say to the seers, “See not”;
and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits, get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9-11).

The Iraq war of 2003. The economic disaster of 2008. These are but two of many instances in history when certain people warned about dangers and problems with conventional thinking and wisdom that went unheeded but proved to be precisely correct. Such voices often only gain credibility and respect after the fact when “I told you so” proves to be cold comfort.

The reason why this tendency exists in humanity is the same as the origin of the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger”: humans do not like doom and gloom predictions and warnings about the dangers of their behaviors and the consequences of their actions. In such circumstances most will seek out reassurance that all will be well, to keep on accepting the official line or statement, and carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue to grow and develop, and when they become too painfully obvious to ignore, it is too late. Pain and regret follow.

The prophets of Israel understood this tendency only too well. Isaiah laments how the king of Judah and his associates have not put their trust in the LORD but instead seek to make political alliances with Egypt in Isaiah 30:1-17. He has, no doubt, prophesied before them about the dangers of their path, but they did not want to hear it. It is unlikely that the people of Judah would be so bold as to actually tell the prophet to lie, deceive, and say smooth things (cf. Isaiah 30:10-11). Instead, they communicate the same message through their actions, rejecting the message of Isaiah and turning instead to listen to another prophet who would tell them, in the name of the LORD, that their alliance with Egypt would stand, and all would be well with them, just as they would put their trust in the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear in the days of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17).

We do well to remember that even though the voice of the false prophets is rarely heard in the Old Testament, they would have been quite prominent and vociferous in ancient Israel (cf. Luke 6:26). The false prophets do not feature prominently in the Old Testament since their deception and error proved evident: after the devastations of 722 and 586 BCE, the remnant of Israel recognized just how accurately the true prophets of God foretold what would happen. This realization helps us to understand why the Israelites did not really listen to prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: their messages were dire and harsh, demanding repentance, lest the LORD destroy them and/or exile them away from the land. Meanwhile, these false prophets would tell them that YHWH would destroy their enemies and keep them in their land. If we were there, which one would we rather believe?

We also should keep in mind that the message of the false prophet might seem to better match theological expectations. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Jesus prophesied that God would render judgment against Israel and destroy Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, many in Israel were convinced that God would give them victory over the Roman oppressor just as He gave the Maccabees victory over the Macedonians for His name’s glory and honor. Therefore, to many Jews of the first century, Jesus’ prediction seemed blasphemous and perhaps even demonic, an attempt to weaken resolve in the struggle against an imperious overlord. And then, in 70 CE, Jesus was fully vindicated.

Isaiah is right: people like to hear “smooth things.” Paul warns Timothy of how Christians will no longer endure sound doctrine, but having “itching ears,” will find teachers to satisfy their desires, and turn away to fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People still do not like hearing messages that challenge the way they live their lives and ideas or the ideas and philosophies upon which they have built their understanding of their environment. To this day people are still looking for ways to justify their attitudes and behavior rather than changing them in healthy ways.

The Gospel of Christ can never be a “smooth thing.” It convicts and challenges everyone toward greater faithfulness to Christ; it is a hard way to go (cf. Matthew 7:13-14)! There are always temptations to make the message smooth–always. Some might make the message smooth by toning down or compromising those parts of the Gospel which work against conventional cultural thinking. Others might make the message smooth by focusing only on the problems, errors, or challenges of others without having to go through the uncomfortable process of looking in the mirror and confronting their own problems and challenges (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). The whole truth of God’s message in Christ proves difficult for everyone!

It is understandable why so many people attempt to make the message smooth: we can read how the prophets, Apostles, and others who faithfully proclaimed God’s message were persecuted, humiliated, injured, or even killed because the people did not like their message (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38). Meanwhile, those who tell people what they want to hear receive accolades, praise, and other benefits (cf. Luke 6:26). We would rather be liked than disliked; loved rather than hated.

Nevertheless, God’s message proves true. There are many false prophets about, just as there has always been, and many will be led astray by them (2 Peter 2:1-4). Yet a day will come, just like it did for Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE, and Jerusalem again in 70 CE, when God will render judgment on all people, and on that day far too many, both “Christian” and otherwise, will recognize how they have been deceived and that it is too late (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Therefore, we must resist the temptation to preach smooth things or to listen to them, and to be willing to deal with the discomfort and challenge that comes from acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Let us heed God’s warnings and prove willing to fully repent and follow after Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Smooth Things