Look out! Fake Messiahs!

by K.W. Leslie, 09 March
Mark 13.3-6 KWL
3 As Jesus was sitting on Olivet Hill, opposite the temple,
Simon Peter, James, John, and Andrew were asking him privately,
4 “Tell us when these things happen,”
and “What sign appears when all these things are about to end?”
5 [In reply] Jesus begins to tell them, “Watch out.
Anyone ought not lead you astray:
6 Many will come in my name, saying this: ‘I’m somebody.’
And many will be led astray.”
Matthew 24.3-5 KWL
3 As Jesus was sitting upon Olivet Hill, the students came to him privately,
saying, “Tell us when these things happen,”
and “What sign appears of your coming, and of the end of the age?”
4 In reply Jesus tells them, “Watch out.
Anyone ought not lead you astray:
5 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m Messiah.’
And many will be led astray.”
Luke 21.7-8 KWL
7 His students asked Jesus, saying, “Teacher,
so when do these things happen,
and what sign appears when these things are about to happen?”
8 Jesus said, “Watch out.
You ought not be led astray:
Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m somebody, and the time has come near.’
You ought not go after them.”
  • “The Olivet Discourse: The temple’s coming down.” Mk 13.1-4, Mt 24.1-3, Lk 21.5-7
  • God reveals future events for three reasons:

    1. To warn us something’s coming, so get ready.
    2. To give us hope. Either with good news, or with the fact he’ll be right there with us despite some bad stuff.
    3. To confirm prophecy. This is when he gets specific about future events; otherwise he prefers to keep things vague, lest we try to influence, control, or fake these future events.

    The Olivet Discourse is definitely a “Get ready” prophecy, and those of us who know history will immediately recognize it’s about the Jewish War, when the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70.

    Those of us who don’t know history, regularly presume it’s yet to come—probably as part of what “prophecy scholars” call “the great tribulation,” which takes place right before Jesus’s second coming. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it means the second coming isn’t happening yet… which means they’re not getting ready for Jesus’s return; they’re getting ready for tribulation. Build those bunkers and get those guns.

    Jesus presented the Olivet Discourse round the year 30. Hence the Jewish War would take place in these students’ lifetime; not long at all after the gospels were first written down in the 50s and 60s. Probably what helped these gospels spread widely was the fact all this was happening, right then, just as Jesus foretold.

    And it began with false Messiahs. Wannabe revolutionaries showed up, claimed they were Messiah, the true king of Israel, divinely empowered to overthrow the mighty Roman Empire and reestablish the nation to the heights it reached in Solomon ben David’s day. “Make Israel Great Again,” as it were. Hold conventions and rallies, whip the patriots into a frenzy, and get ’em to actually try to overthrow the occupying Roman army. ’Cause God was on their side, wasn’t he?

    Instead the Romans sent reinforcements. Then more. Then their best general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (whom historians call Vespasian), who grew to believe Israel needed to be crushed entirely. The Judean people decided the End had come, and decided to go all in with the false Messiahs. The rest was a bloodbath, as the Romans slaughtered half the Jews on the planet. That’s not hyperbole: There were 4 million Jews in the world at the time, and the Romans killed 2 million.

    And conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and left Israel without a homeland for 19 centuries.

    If you know nothing about this history, it’s because the “prophecy scholars” downplay it as much as possible. “Oh, that wasn’t the great tribulation; what’s coming in our timeline is far worse.” “Oh, the Holocaust during World War 2 was even worse.” (Yeah, as far as numbers of people murdered; of course. But Romans tried to eliminate Jews just as vigorously as Nazis did.) They don’t want the Olivet Discourse to be about the Jewish War; it’s gotta describe a future event.

    Why? Because the coming great tribulation has to be near, right around the corner when you least expect it; and it has to be terrifying. The better to convince pagans to become Christian—“you don’t want to be left behind, and undergo tribulation!” The better to keep Christians in line. If hell doesn’t scare people, tribulation might. It’s become an extremely valuable tool for dark Christians. Fear is a powerful motivator.

    When such people read history books and realize Jesus is really speaking of the Jewish War, their knee-jerk response is denial. “No, Jesus was speaking of the End Times. I always heard it was about the End Times. The Jewish War can’t have been the great tribulation! Everything I believe—all my favorite End Times prophecy scholars—would be wrong!”

    Well it is. They are. But all the time and money they’ve invested in their rubbish needs to be justified in their minds. Our mental self-defense mechanisms demand it. So these folks dismiss reality and history, embrace their dark Christian fantasies… and never notice all the really bad fruit it produces in them, their churches, their converts, and our nation.

    False Messiahs… coming in Jesus’s name.

    I should point out something that’s hiding in plain sight; something which makes it kinda obvious Jesus is speaking about first-century Israel, not the near-future United States and world.

    Y’see, Jesus’s statement here is not being fulfilled in our day. Not as he describes it.

    Matthew 24.5 KWL
    5 “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m Messiah.’
    And many will be led astray.”

    You might’ve heard of a false Messiah here and there. Some local religious leader might claim, “I’m Christ; I’m the reincarnation of Jesus Christ! Follow me!” And he tries to gather followers and worshipers.

    But these false Messiahs don’t come in Jesus’s name.

    Jesus says they’ll come ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου/epí to onómatí mu, “in the name of me.” And that’s what the first-century frauds did. They claimed Jesus sent ’em. Or that Jesus appointed them as his successor; Jesus was the first Messiah, and now they’re the current Messiah.

    The frauds of our day? If they claim to be Messiah, they don’t claim any connection with Jesus. They claim he wasn’t Messiah; they are. Or that he tried to be Messiah, but died, and they’re gonna succeed where he failed.

    If they claim to be Christian, and try to win Christians to their cause, they know better than to claim they’re a new Messiah. They know Jesus’s warning in the Olivet Discourse, and know Christians will immediately be triggered when someone claims Messiahship: “Hey, that guy’s claiming to be Christ! That makes him the Antichrist!” So they avoid that kind of language.

    Instead they claim to be great prophets. Infallible teachers. Spirit-empowered healers. An apostle who gets his marching orders straight from Jesus. Even “the Lord’s anointed”—a term which means the same thing as “Messiah,” but they’ll never make that connection, and if anyone else does, they’ll deny it even remotely means they’re claiming Messiahship. They’ll come as close to the line of calling themselves Messiah without crossing it: They’ll claim their anointing is exactly like Jesus’s, or claim they’re a modern-day priest-king just like Jesus. But they’ll never claim they’re King of kings and Lord of lords: They regularly point back to Jesus. Even when they aren’t really following him any.

    So Jesus’s prophecy is not being fulfilled in our day. Because it’s not about our day.

    Neither, really, are all the other out-of-context scriptures the End Times prognosticators keep quoting, and claiming are about the future. But some of ’em still insist the false Messiahs are coming: At some future point when all the Christians are taken out of the way, leaving behind a bunch of pagans who won’t know any better, then false Messiahs will crawl up out of the woodwork and try to gain their allegiance. And among them will be the one false Messiah they dread most, the Beast.

    Thing is, whenever these “prophecy scholars” bring this up, they always skip the one thing Jesus said about ’em in all three synoptic gospels: The frauds claim they come in Jesus’s name. I’ve heard many an End Times scenario about the Beast, and not one of ’em claims he pretends to be in collusion with Jesus. None. He’s never a guy who “loves Jesus,” who can’t name a favorite verse yet claims the bible is his favorite book ever. (With The Art of the Deal a close second… but let’s not go there.)

    “I’m Messiah” versus “I’m somebody.”

    Matthew has Jesus say the frauds will say ἐγώ εἰμι χριστός/eghó eími o hristós, “I’m Christ,” i.e. Messiah. But you might notice Mark and Luke record Jesus saying they’ll only claim ἐγώ εἰμι/eghó eími, “I’m [somebody].”

    Now, what did Jesus originally say they’d say? “I’m [somebody],” or “I’m Christ”? If we’re polling Christians, they’d put their bets on “I’m Christ,” as proven by all the writings on the topic—including this one. But if we’re counting the votes of biblical authors, two out of three of them said it’s “I’m [somebody].”

    Bringing this fact up at all is gonna bug certain literalists, who wanna insist every single Jesus-statement in the bible is his literal words. I remind you they can’t be: Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the New Testament’s written in Greek. Every Jesus quote in the bible is a translation of his literal words. This being the case, it’s understandable when the gospels’ translations don’t precisely sync up. They don’t have to.

    So Jesus’s literal statement was likely אָנאָ/aná, “I [am],” and that’s how Mark and Luke interpret it… but Matthew decided to nail down just exactly what Jesus meant by this statement. The false Messiah wasn’t merely saying, “I am,” or “I’m here!” or “Lookit me!” He’s claiming to be the somebody. The one Israel’s been waiting for. The Messiah.

    Jesus didn’t fling around the title “Messiah” casually, y’know. He definitely is Messiah, but he didn’t want anybody prematurely assassinating him over it, so he tended to say things that’d suggest “Messiah” without specifically saying the word. (Although he did actually say the word on a few occasions.) So when he gave this warning to his students, he didn’t literally say, “They’ll claim to be Messiah,” but “They’ll claim to be… y’know, that guy.” But since not all Christians tend to be as bright as Jesus’s students, Matthew spelled it out for the slower Christians sitting in the back.

    Ancient fake Messiahs sometimes did the same thing. They didn’t call themselves Messiah; their followers did. Gave them plausible deniability: When the Romans caught and tortured these revolutionaries, and demanded to know whether anyone ever claimed to be Messiah, everyone could truthfully say, “No, nobody ever said such a thing.” (But only to a point. When you torture people, they’ll ultimately say anything you want.)

    Still, we’d do well to heed Jesus’s warning against people who merely claim to be somebody. We got lots of those. There are plenty of false “somebodies” in Christianity, and always have been. If it weren’t for the hristós in Matthew’s gospel, we might find more Christians watching out for false “somebodies” who might arise and mislead people. Jesus did warn us about such people elsewhere in the gospels—

    Matthew 7.15-20 KJV
    15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

    —for all the good it does us.

    Imagine if Jesus hadn’t warned us of false Messiahs.

    Beyond a warning about all the false Messiahs of Jesus’s day, his warning also preemptively kicks the legs out from under anyone who tries to claim they’re his successor. ’Cause you know people would’ve tried that. Some still do.

    “Jesus ascended to heaven, and he’s king in heaven, but he made me king on earth, so I’m in charge now.” Every single “Christian” king, every head of state in an officially-Christian nation, has tried to make this claim in one form or another. And certainly many a pastor and pope has. After all, where’s Jesus to defend his kingship? Yeah, he’s returning someday… but he hasn’t yet, and meanwhile somebody’s gotta take the reins. So in the meanwhile, people do. And regularly do a whole lotta damage in Jesus’s name.

    This prophecy makes it clear Jesus has no successors. He lives forever; he’s king forever.

    For the most part his warning works. Very few false Messiahs have been able to pull off their claims of being Jesus’s successor, for long periods of time or over large territories. Maybe outside Christendom, like within a cult where they can suppress the gospels. That’s about it.

    It’s a useful reminder we’re always gonna have fakes try to seize power among us Christians. Fake Messiahs, fake apostles, fake prophets, fake teachers, fake faith healers, fake tongues-speakers, fake everything.

    People crave power. They crave our worship. They crave our money. They crave sex (as seems to be the case with most of the fake Messiahs out there, who keep getting mixed up in illicit sex). They want followers, or want to get away with sin, and have found the best way to do it is to claim divine authority. They love to remind us the End is coming, capitalize on our fears and worries and ignorance and paranoia, and hope it’ll let ’em get away with as much fraud as they can commit. They’re not wrong: Phony beliefs and interpretations of the End Times have made a lot of con artists a fortune.

    So we Christians need to be on our guard! Let’s not naïvely trust anyone who claims a divine anointing. Let’s wisely take Jesus’s advice and look at their fruit, Mt 7.15-20 and when they lack it, don’t follow. Get away from such people. Warn others away from them too.

    Frauds will claim these “attacks on their character” should have no bearing on their message or claims. Rubbish. Jesus tells us to look at their character. Paul advised Timothy and Titus anyone in Christian leadership ought to have an exemplary reputation, even among pagans. 1Ti 3.7, Tt 1.7 Fakes don’t stand up under scrutiny. True, sometimes legitimate followers of Jesus don’t stand up under scrutiny either—but legitimate followers will repent, whereas frauds never admit they’re wrong.

    There are many frauds in the world, already trying to sucker us as well. So be on your guard!