When Jesus Christ's disciples asked Him what would herald His coming to rule all nations, He answered by first relaying a series of developments that would lead up to the grand climax of the present age: religious deception, wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes (Matthew 24:3-8; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-11).
Jesus said that these were just the "beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:8, emphasis added throughout)—or, as the New International Version better renders this, the "beginning of birth pains." As birth pangs—or labor contractions—get stronger and closer together as delivery approaches, so these trends would appear with increasing intensity and frequency as the end of the age approached.
Let's take a closer look at the first of these trends—religious deception.
"Many shall come in my name . . ."
Just what is the nature of this deception? Notice Jesus' specific warning: "Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5, King James Version).
Modern Bible versions often place quotation marks around "I am Christ," the translators assuming that Jesus was talking about people who would claim to actually be the Christ or Messiah themselves. There have been such people, and Jesus warned later in the same discourse of "false christs" at the end of the age (Matthew 24:24).
Yet there clearly have not been, as verse 5 requires, "many" such individuals who have been taken seriously—much less deceived the "many"—in the two millennia since Jesus said this. And there certainly has not been a great increase in such individuals in recent centuries—while there has been a marked increase in the other prophesied signs.
Some have proposed that Jesus was referring to false "savior" figures like the Roman emperors of New Testament times or Napoleon, Hitler, Mao and Saddam Hussein in the modern era. But this is stretching the concept of "the Christ" or "the Messiah" far beyond what Jesus' disciples would have understood it to mean—the prophesied anointed king of the line of David.
Indeed, notice again that Jesus said, "Many shall come in my name"—His name being Jesus. Furthermore, they would come in His name, not with His name or bearing His name. In other words, they would presume to represent Him—not assume His identity.
So a clearer rendering of what Jesus meant in Matthew 24:4-5 would be: "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many shall come claiming to represent Me, saying that I [Jesus] am the Christ, yet shall deceive many." That is, they would proclaim Jesus as the biblical Messiah and would claim to be His representatives—but they actually would be part of a massive religious deception.
It is these people—false preachers and teachers claiming to be Christian—who would proliferate and deceive ever more people as the end of the age neared.
The apostle Paul later affirmed, in a Christian context, that "evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:13). So not only do they deceive others. These false teachers themselves are deceived.
In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issued the following warning regarding false prophets or preachers: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15). Jesus being the great Shepherd, His followers are portrayed as sheep. Yet these false prophets only appear to be Jesus' followers. Their true nature is one of devouring the lives of the unsuspecting—as a wolf among the flock.
Paul would later warn of this as well. He told the leaders of the church in Ephesus: "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:29-30).
Yet such imposters would be identifiable. Jesus explained: "You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:16-17). By "fruits," Jesus is referring metaphorically to visible results or outcomes.
He then gives us an example of something to look for in our evaluation: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord' [merely acknowledging Him as Lord], shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). Then notice: "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied [preached or taught] in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?'" (Matthew 7:22).
Again, as in Matthew 24, we see such preachers coming in Jesus' name—having done various works in His name. But their lives are not lives conformed to the will of God. Jesus concludes, "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:23).
Practicing lawlessness means living as if God's law is done away or of no consequence. Notice that these individuals are deceived about their own spiritual state. They think they have a special relationship with Jesus—but He ends up telling them they are gravely mistaken. In reality, He doesn't know them at all.
Why? Because they don't honor God by obeying His law. As the apostle John would later explain: "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:3-4).
Jesus is telling these false prophets that He doesn't know them and they don't know Him. For if they knew Him, they would understand what He required—obedience to God's law. As Jesus stated in Matthew 19:17, "If you want to enter into [eternal] life, keep the commandments."
Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "Whoever . . . breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called the least [by those] in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).
Notice that Jesus speaks here of those who would disobey God and those who would teach others to disobey Him. So it's not only a matter of practicing lawlessness —but also of teaching it, whether through word or example.
Exalting traditions over God's law
Jesus applied these principles to the religious leaders of His own day. For instance, Jesus chided the scribes and Pharisees for establishing many legalistic traditions that sidelined God's actual commandments. He said: "Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Matthew 15:6-9).
Thus it is actually possible to worship God in vain—uselessly—in this case by putting the traditions of men ahead of the commandments of God.
Moreover, the scribes and Pharisees went beyond mere false teaching. As Jesus explained, "All their works they do to be seen by men" (Matthew 23:5). He castigated them, "Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (verse 28).
Yet it should be made clear that it's not necessary to be a hypocrite to be a false preacher. A man preaching that God's law is done away may be completely sincere in his belief—yet he is nevertheless a false teacher and certainly not a true representative of Jesus Christ.
Jesus' prophecy of false teachers coming in His name began to be fulfilled even during the era of the apostles. Paul mentioned a number of false teachers. He said a "different gospel" was already being preached (Galatians 1:6).
Paul even identified a heretical system he referred to as "the mystery of lawlessness," which during his ministry was "already at work" (2 Thessalonians 2:7).
This system, he showed, would persist until the end of the age: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10).
The book of Revelation refers to this lawless mystery religion as "MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT" (Revelation 17:5) and shows it appearing with "two horns like a lamb" (presenting itself as Christ-like) but speaking "like a dragon" (Revelation 13:11). The "dragon" in Revelation is Satan the devil, who deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9). So what we're seeing here is an extremely powerful "wolf in sheep's clothing."
What Paul and this section of Revelation are describing is a great counterfeit of the true religion—a world-dominating false Christianity led by Satan and his ministers, who appear as ministers of righteousness (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
As shocking as it may sound, the world religion that now lays claim to the name of Christianity, having nearly 2 billion adherents, is that very lawless mystery system! This is not to question the sincerity of its many followers. Most are motivated by a sincere desire to please God. But sincerity is not the measure of right and wrong. God defines what is right by His laws and commandments, and Christianity in general has rejected many of God's clear instructions.
Early on, this religion shed many important biblical doctrines and commandments in favor of popular pagan concepts and traditions. Christmas and Easter, for instance (the name "Easter" even deriving from the pagan goddess Ishtar), are merely pagan holidays covered over with a Christian veneer—despite the Bible's explicit command that we not worship the true God with pagan customs (see Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
It is just as Jesus said of the Pharisees: "In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men."
The true Christian Church, holding fast to God's commandments throughout history, has remained, in the words of Jesus, a "little flock" (Luke 12:32). In contrast, the popular substitute for Christianity has grown enormous and powerful—just as Jesus foretold in Matthew 24.
The worst yet to come
Recall Christ's warning that false teachers would be on the rise through history, culminating in the vast and powerful deception of the last days. Of the time just before His return Jesus said, "False christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24).
These signs and wonders are the same ones Paul mentioned. They have happened at times throughout history—yet will grow in magnitude at the end of the age, reaching their height with the coming of the great false prophet, who also appears to be representing Christ but in reality is the Antichrist.
All of us need to be wary and watchful. We must examine the fruits of all those who claim to represent Jesus Christ—in the way they live and the doctrines they teach. Do they insist that we are required to obey God's commandments? Or do they preach a message of cheap grace—that we can come to God just as we are without making any fundamental changes in our behavior?
Remember, most of those who claim to represent Jesus actually don't. Moreover, as time goes on, ever more pretenders will arise, however sincere they may be. And finally, bear in mind that the greatest period of deception ever is just ahead of us. "See," Jesus said, "I have told you beforehand" (Matthew 24:25).
He was warning us to be prepared. Are you?