“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”
Inevitably, when a prediction is made, the first thing we want to know is the timing. Whenwill it happen? And if we can’t be told the precise date, we want to know what the signs are that it is about to happen. Just as inevitable is our appetite for speculation!
“Watch out that you are not deceived.” This is the first thing Jesus said in answer to their question about timing and about signs. It’s another warning. This time not about false teachers who love themselves and mask their selfish greed with polished public performance. This warning is about false messiahs and false timings. And it is a warning about our human capacity for being deceived.
As the old joke puts it, “Hands up who is being deceived!” If we are being deceived, it is in the nature of deception that we don’t know it is happening to us. When it comes to the question of Messiah’s coming and future judgement, the potential for deception is huge.
“Many will come in my name claiming ‘I am he’… Do not follow them.” When I was a student at university in Belfast, I remember an enthusiastic group who sought to persuade me that Messiah had come and was now living in the form of a guru in India. He had amassed quite a following. He’s dead now, his followers scattered. He was not Messiah. When the true Messiah comes, as Jesus had already told them, (see 17:24) his coming will be obvious globally.
“Many will come in my name claiming… ‘The time is near’. Do not follow them.” One of the latest in a long line of such false voices claimed that 23rdSeptember 2017 was the date. Another put the date at 21stMay 2011. When it didn’t happen, he pushed the date back to 21stOctober of the same year. Then he decided to stop making predictions. The disappointing thing was not simply that both of the individuals concerned professed to be followers of Christ. It was that so many were taken in by them.
Fear plays a major part in this deception. As we witness the dark and disturbing events happening across the world, whether they are human-made crises or massive upheavals in nature, our natural reaction is to be fearful. Yet another war, or the threat of war, violent ruptures in the social order, surely this must be the end we wonder. “Do not be frightened”, said Christ. These things will happen. But they are not signs of the end: they are signs that the end is not yet. The end will not be imminent until such time as there is a combination of disruptive events on earth – wars, earthquakes, famines, epidemics – and of massive cosmic disturbances.
One of the consequences of such speculative and false claims is that they help to create an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to have any serious discussion of what Jesus actually said about the future. The belief that Jesus will return is routinely mocked and dismissed in contemporary culture. Even in the church, perhaps as a result of understandable reaction against the sensationalism and speculation the topic has excited in the past, relatively little attention is paid to the detail of what Jesus said.
Yet the fact is that Jesus insisted on talking about the future, for he knew that history is not merely going round in circles: it is headed towards a goal. He also understood how important the future is at the level of real life: our hopes and fears, our choices, our focus in life. Our expectation for the future has a decisive impact on our choices in the present. If we know we are leaving on a trip in the morning, we have to pack tonight. If we have exams in a month’s time, we need to prepare. On a broader level we often talk about the importance of vision and of goals. The future we hope for impacts our lives now.
Governments understand the importance of the future: they employ thinktanks and futurologists to try to predict what the future will look like, taking account of such factors as economic trends, advances in technology and population shifts, so that they can prepare. And when it comes to elections, a great deal of time and money is devoted to presenting a believable vision for the future, which hopefully will inspire sufficient support to win at the polls.
The future is vital. Indeed, if Jesus had nothing to say about the future we would probably wonder if he was worth listening to. The truth is that he had plenty to say. Not all of it is easy to hear, let alone understand. But all of it is important.