In 1867 William W. Davies, believing he had received a vision instructing him to do so, migrated to Walla Walla, Washington, and founded a group called the Kingdom of Heaven. While Davis himself claimed to be Michael the Archangel, he identified his newly born son, Arthur, as Jesus Christ, returned to earth. It proved a successful recruiting strategy for Davies, doubling the size of his group.1 However, most believers with a nodding acquaintance of the New Testament descriptions of the glorious return of Jesus would not have been convinced by staring into Arthur’s crib. The claim was outrageous; the evidence, nonexistent.
It is Jesus Himself who predicts the appearance of false christs, a prophecy punctuated by a terrifying warning. Unlike the appearance of powerless infant Arthur Davies, some of these false christs will perform convincing signs and wonders, deceiving many and proving so credible that the fidelity of “the elect” seems at risk (Matt. 24:24). In his culminating sermon in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 24; 25), Jesus focuses on the coming destruction of Jerusalem and on signs of His return, accenting the need to discern and wait for Him, the true Jesus.2
Over the millennia since the first advent of Jesus, many false christs have appeared.
Jesus begins with the warning “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many” (Matt. 24:4, 5).
3 In a section that focuses on His return (rather than the destruction of Jerusalem), the warning reoccurs: “Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (verses 23-27).
Discerning the true Jesus requires day-to-day faithfulness.
Two critical questions emerge as we consider these important warnings by Jesus concerning false christs. The first is “How can we discern the true, authentic Jesus (and avoid endorsing the fake ones)”? The second is equally important, though more subtle: “How can we know ourselves?” How can we measure and weigh our own spiritual condition? How can we avoid becoming discouraged or overconfident, and setting ourselves up to be deceived?
Since it is Jesus who issues the strident warnings about false christs, it makes good sense to ponder the counsel He offers in this final sermon in Matthew, advice that addresses these questions. He tells us that to await and discern His second coming requires alertness to signs pointing to it (verses 29, 30, 32-35), which is especially important since believers have no access to the precise timing of the return of Jesus (verses 36, 42, 44). He provides clarifying descriptions of the manner of His return, which should protect us from chasing false, earthbound christs who appear in some rustic retreat center or a conference room (verse 26): “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (verse 27); “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30).
In addition to this intellectual discernment about the manner of Christ’s return, we should notice carefully that Jesus also advocates a thorough, experiential preparation. Discerning the true Jesus requires day-to-day faithfulness, doing what Jesus has asked us to do (verses 45, 46 and the parable of the talents [Matt. 25:14-30]). Jesus recommends an experiential preparation that includes participating in proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom” as the peerless sign of the Christ’s return (Matt. 24:14; cf. Matt. 28:18-20, [the Great Commission, the ringing conclusion to Matthew’s Gospel]). We learn best the lessons we teach. Entering into the experience of sharing Jesus with others helps bring us to a true, experiential knowledge of Him that will help protect us from chasing any false christ.
Jesus recommends another important experiential component to nourish our fidelity in the time of the end and to respond positively to His warnings about false christs: ministering to Jesus in the person of those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). His final sermon in Matthew reaches its crescendo as Jesus describes the final judgment, accenting afresh the central theme of discerning and awaiting the true Jesus (verses 31-46).
The Son of Man will invite into His kingdom those who have seen Him in hungry, thirsty strangers, in those who are naked, sick, and imprisoned (25:35, 36). Those who have ministered in these ways will hear words of commendation spoken by Jesus Himself: “And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’” (verse 40).
Those who fail to do so hear parallel words of judgment: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (verse 45).
What is especially interesting about Jesus’ sketch of the final judgment is that His true followers, who receive His accolades for discerning Him in those in need, are unconscious of their own ethical and spiritual accomplishment. They protest, asking when they have perceived and ministered to Jesus (verses 37-39). Like “the faithful and wise servant” (Matt. 24:45) and the recipients of multiple talents (verses 14-23), they have simply been doing what Jesus asked them to do as they awaited His return.
Yet while believers are oblivious to the connection, Jesus Himself perceives it: in ministering to those in need, His followers are identifying and caring for Him. Jesus, then, offers this word of inspired counsel to help us respond to His warnings about false christs and His exhortations to acknowledge the true: “As you await Me, minister to those in need. Doing so will sharpen your ability to recognize Me—the Bridegroom—when I arrive in the midst of the world’s moral night and at an unscheduled moment. Entering into the ministry that I Myself have exhibited among you, you experience My own character, the way I treasure and care for others. This is superb preparation for being able to recognize Me and will help inoculate you against worshipping any egomaniac masquerading as Me. For you will know Me as only My followers—those who pattern their lives after Mine—are able to do.”
Jesus addresses our second question: As we face the end, how can we know ourselves? in His parable of the ten virgins, five of the bridesmaids represent those who have prepared in advance for Christ’s return, and five represent those who have neglected to do so (Matt. 25:1-13). In the anguishing conclusion to the parable—which provides a most poignant warning for those living at the time of Christ’s return—the five unprepared bridesmaids knock at the festal door crying out “Lord, Lord, open to us!” (Matt. 25:11).
The Bridegroom Himself responds with the haunting verdict, “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you” (verse 12). Jesus, moving outside the narrative of the parable, applies the lesson directly to His audience and to us: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (verse 13).
Because we do not know with any precision the time when Christ will return, we dare not delay in tending and mending the quality of our relationship with Him. That lack of precise knowledge of timing seems to be by divine design! To know the day and the hour might well invite a fatal somnolence. Our relationship with Jesus, this most valuable element of discipleship and of life, demands constant and consistent monitoring. We dare not hit the pause button, assuming there will be time to recover our lapse.
The two groups of bridesmaids in the parable are differentiated by whether or not they bring extra oil for their lamps, indicating their level of preparation for the coming of the bridegroom. In the Bible, oil can serve as a symbol of abundance (e.g. Deut 32:13, 14; Job 29:6; Joel 2:24).
We do well to give full consideration to one simple fact: This sermon of Jesus is filled with warnings.
Our campus church at Walla Walla University has established a highly appreciated beginning-of-the-year tradition, “The Longest Table.” We close down one of the streets that bounds our campus and fill it with conjoined tables as far as the eye can see. And our campus pastors have cast a vision of welcoming students to campus with a grand abundance. Not only are we to provide a plentiful feast on well-decorated tables—we send students back to their dorm rooms with arms filled with Tupperware. Leftovers!
God offers to believers a rich, abundant, spiritual prosperity. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit and through His Word, Jesus becomes present in our lives, becomes the light of our world (John 8:12). With David we may testify, “You are my lamp, O Lord, and my God lightens my darkness” (2 Sam. 22:29, ESV).4 As is true of the New Jerusalem, the Lamb becomes our light (Rev. 21:23).
Believers have a responsibility to treasure and tend this abundance, to value it enough that we monitor its presence in our lives. We value Christ as the lamp of our lives so much that we invest in regular times of Bible study, prayer, and public worship. We are alert to the dimming of the lamp, the depletion of the oil. And we take immediate steps to trim the lamp and augment the supply of oil. We treasure the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit in our lives as much as the householder of old treasured the presence of the light of an oil lamp in the darkness of night, or a traveler the light of a lamp upon the rough road ahead (Ps 119:105).
As we look back over the final sermon of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, it seems marked by a great deal of negativity. The juxtapositions are stark. On one hand false christs appear, working profound wonders that deceive many (Matt. 23-26). On the other hand, Jesus Himself appears “as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west” (verse 27). Vultures gather over corpses and earthlings wail (Matt. 24:28, 30) while a victorious trumpet blast cues angels to begin the global gathering of the elect (verse 31). More frequently, Jesus shares the positive narrative first, reserving the corresponding negative story as the punchline.
The wise servant who is promoted to the top spot is compared to the wicked servant who is “cut . . . in pieces” (verses 45-51, ESV; cf. the parable of the talents [Matt. 25:14-30]). Five bridesmaids gain entrance into the bright joy of the wedding feast while five are left outside, bereft, in the dark of night (verses 1-13). Those who in the final judgment are applauded for having ministered to Jesus by caring for those in need are contrasted with those who failed to do so and receive the dire judgment “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41, ESV).
We do well, though, to give full consideration to one simple fact: This sermon of Jesus is filled with warnings. The sermon could be described aptly as one long, loud warning. It is not a report offered after an event has occurred, but a warning about the future. Warnings sound rather negative. But because they are delivered in advance of the threatened crisis, they are very positive communications. To shout “Don’t touch that!” to someone about to reach for a hot stove or a hot wire is negative in tone, but positive in purpose. Warnings are not positive in their tone, but they are marvelously positive in their purpose—to keep as many as possible safe from the impending threat.
We should then judge this final sermon of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel not by its frequently negative tone but by its ultimate and positive purpose. No one who attends to these warnings of Jesus need suffer the doom He so graphically portrays. By spurning any false savior and embracing the abundance of a relationship with the true, we may experience the positive purpose of the warnings of Jesus about false christs and look with hope and joy toward His return.
John McVay is president of Walla Walla University in Walla Walla, Washington.