In Matthew 24, the signs-of-the-end-of-the-age chapter, Christ repeatedly gave warnings against deception. From what He says in this chapter, these warnings seem to constitute a greater sign of the climax of the ages than any other sign given, with the exception of the worldwide preaching of the gospel. His disciples questioned Him, "When shall these things be?" In reply Christ opened His discourse on the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world with a strong warning against deception. His first remark was "Take heed ['"watch out,"' N.I.V.]* that no man deceive you" (verse 4). It seems significant that Christ connected His warning against deception, not with the secular environment, but with the spiritual realm. In other words, He didn't caution His fol lowers against the massive deceptive practices found in commerce and day-to-day business dealings. He was concerned with spiritual deceptions that would lead multitudes into error and eventual separation eternally from God. His words "For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (verse 5) are unmistakably plain. There is no hidden meaning.
But Christ does not conclude His deception theme at this point. In verse 11, He repeats it. "And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many." Again in verses 23-26 He adds more detail to His warning. He expands His warning about false Christs and false prophets by adding that these "shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." What stronger language could our Saviour have used? If those whom the Lord knows will be saved are almost deceived, what will happen to professed Christians who have little real relationship with Christ, to say nothing of the masses, who make no profession at all? To put it plainly, deception will be rampant, according to our Lord, and almost overpowering even for those whose faith is fastened in Jesus Christ!
This, it seems to me, is a significant point, especially for Seventh-day Adventists, who have long stressed the return of Jesus. Just to know the scriptural details of how Christ will come the second time does not preclude our being deceived. We may understand that He will return with power, glory, clouds, and a retinue of holy angels as they sweep toward the earth on the royal highway of the skies, with "every eye" (Rev. 1:7) watching some with fear and horror, others with love and delight. But this knowledge of itself is no guarantee against deception. Admittedly, without a knowledge of what the Bible says regarding the return of Jesus, deception will be facilitated. We should be most diligent students of the Scriptures to understand all that is given there about His coming. We should protect ourselves as far as possible against deception. But knowledge alone is not enough!
The core of any deception is in the heart. Deception succeeds because our desires and emotions spur it on. We believe what we want to believe. Perhaps Goethe was right when he said, "We are never deceived; we deceive ourselves." Deception is one of the cardinal characteristics of sin and is the quality that gives it success. "For sin . . . deceived me" (Rom. 7:11, N.I.V.), Paul announced. Since all have sinned and are sinners, deception has played a leading role in man's experience. We are all more easily deceived by sin arid Satan than we would like to admit.
Christ referred to the narrow escape of "the very elect." They barely avoid being deceived, but they do escape. How? The main, basic safeguard against deception is conversion and a daily maintenance of that conversion and commitment to Jesus Christ. The difference between the elect ("the picked ones," "the chosen ones") and the non-elect is the new birth experience and all that goes with it. This is fundamental, primary. Without being committed mind, body, and soul to Jesus Christ and led of the Holy Spirit, all the correct knowledge about doctrine will not keep us from being captured by the end-time wiles of the master deceiver. For deception is more a matter of the heart than of the head. Our relationship with Jesus will do more to provide a bulwark against deception than any other thing.
According to Matthew 24, Satan will focus in a special way on deception at the time of the consummation of the age and the second coming of Christ. Here Jesus mingles prophetic descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem with information about the great day of His coming. This discourse had relevance for His followers then, and it has significance for His followers now! Between the time He spoke these words and the destruction of Jerusalem, numerous false Messiahs appeared. And they have continued, and will continue, to appear.
One of the most recent attempts at deception happened this year. Many of you will recall the large, full-page announcements that appeared in certain leading newspapers across the Nation and around the world. On April 25 the bold headline declared, "The Christ Is Now Here." An article in a London newspaper, on June 21, headlined a feature story with the words "Search for Brick Lane Messiah Nearly Over!" The Pope's visit to England and the Falkland Islands crisis upstaged the search for this messiah, but what is happening is exactly what Jesus said would happen! The Scriptures give abundant evidence that the coming of Christ will be visible, literal, and personal. He will come in the clouds of heaven. This is the thrust of the New Testament doctrine on the Second Coming, and especially the Matthew 24:23-27 passage. Christ will not come in any secret or mysterious way. "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be," He said, leaving no room for a mystical return or even a secret rapture. When our Lord returns, no one will have to be told about it! All the senses of men's bodies will explode with either fear or joy when the heavens are split wide open at the catacylsmic event of His second coming.
But there is no doubt in my mind that if this advertised London "Christ," whoever he is, should appear and begin to show "signs and wonders," such as apparently raising one from the dead, myriads would beat a path to his door, in spite of clear Biblical statements regarding the manner of Christ's coming. And I have no doubt in my mind that among those myriads would be a large number of professed Christians. Purported evidence, nearly irresistible, as false as it is, is plaguing and will continue to plague our poor world. Multitudes are being swept into the clutches of every brand of heresy and false doctrine.
The glorious doctrine of the second coming of Christ is not the only Biblical truth that is being perverted to deceive many. There are other deceptions. Sorcery, witchcraft, spiritism, and the occult are deluging our planet. TV and movie screens are saturated with intriguing versions of the supernatural, the extraterres trial, and the unexplainable. I firmly believe that the books, motion pictures, and television programs portraying these intriguing elements are setting the stage for the fulfillment of Revelation 16:14, in which the "spirits of demons performing miraculous signs ... go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty" (N.I.V.). The human race is "deceiving, and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3:13). The arch deceiver, Satan, is busy deceiving "the whole world" (Rev. 12:9). Miracles and wonders are no proof of Tightness. Revelation 13, when studied carefully, reveals that the climax of earth's history involves colossal false miracles and signs done in the name of religion! The apostasy is so great that the term Babylon ("confusion") is used to describe global deception and ruin. "For by thy sorceries were all nations deceived" (chap. 18:23).
To us as ministers and pastors has been given a grand and solemn responsibility. I charge myself and each of you to be spiritually alert in order to give proper shepherding to the dear sheep entrusted to our care. Watchmen on Zion's walls cannot afford to be asleep. A warning sound needs to be made. Our globe is being plunged into horrible disarray. Political, economic, spiritual, and social upheaval is rampant. People are disillusioned, discouraged, and disheartened. We are reaching history's nadir equal to the world's dark condition when our Lord first came and the masses sat in great darkness. With the precious light of the Scriptures focusing on our Saviour, Jesus Christ, this is no time to become disheartened, but rather a time to renew our dedication to Him, a time to lift up our heads, for our redemption draweth nigh (Luke 21:28). The Lord is soon coming, in power, majesty, splendor, and grandeur. The Emperor of the universe is quickly returning to claim His own—let nothing deceive you!—J.R.S.
* Texts credited to N.I.V. are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.