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When Jesus Christ's disciples asked Him what would herald His return, He answered by listing a series of developments at the end of this age: religious deception, wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes (Matthew 24:3-8; Mark 13:3-8; Luke 21:7-11).
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.
There have been some who have done this, 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 states, "many" such individuals who have been taken seriously—much less deceived the "many"—in the two millennia since Jesus said this.
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." They would proclaim Jesus as the biblical Messiah and would claim to be His representatives—but they would actually be part of a massive religious deception.
The Apostle Paul warned of this development as well: "...evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:13). These people not only deceive others, but are also deceived themselves. 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).
Jesus explained how these impostors could be identified: "You will know them by their fruits… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:16-17). By "fruits," Jesus is referring metaphorically to the results or outcomes of their teachings.
He went on to warn: "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. 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 7:21-22). But because their lives are not conformed to the will of God Jesus tells 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. These individuals are deceived about their own spiritual state, because they are not obeying God’s law. As the apostle John later explained: "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).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated: "Whoever . . . breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19). He chided the Scribes and Pharisees for establishing many legalistic traditions that sidelined God's actual commandments: "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).
Paul said a "different gospel" was already being preached (Galatians 1:6), referring to an heretical system as "the mystery of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7). The book of Revelation refers to this lawless religion as "MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT" (Revelation 17:5).
Sincerity is not the measure of right and wrong. God defines what is right by His laws and commandments. Christianity in general has rejected many of God's important commandments in favor of popular pagan concepts and traditions. The observance of Christmas and Easter, for example, are merely pagan holidays with a Christian veneer—despite the Bible's explicit command that we not worship the true God with pagan customs (Deuteronomy 12:29-32). The name "Easter" even derives from the pagan goddess Ishtar.
Christ warned false teachers would be on the rise through history, culminating in the powerful deception just before His return (Matthew 24:24), reaching their height with the coming of the great false prophet, who also appears to be representing Christ but in reality is the Antichrist.
The Good News Magazine (Jan-Feb 2004)