“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