Before the war come the fake Messiahs.

Mark 13.5-6, Matthew 24.4-5, Luke 21.8.

After Jesus commented the temple’s eventually coming down, some of his students wanted to know when. So Jesus started talking about the events that preceded the temple’s destruction in the year 70. Historically Christians have called this the Olivet Discourse, ’cause Jesus shared it on Mt. Olivet.

In context, it’s about the Jewish War. The students wanted to know when the temple’d get destroyed; Jesus told ’em about when the temple got destroyed four decades from then. Fake Messiahs showed up and rallied the people to overthrow the Romans; the Romans sent reinforcements; the Judean people decided the End had come and decided to go all in with the false Messiahs, and a bloodbath followed. The Romans slaughtered half the world’s Jews, destroyed the temple, and left Israel without a homeland for 19 centuries.

If you don’t know this history, it’s because Christians downplay it. Certain of us are so desperate for information about Jesus’s second coming—especially about the rumors of wars and pestilence and tribulation which supposedly come before it—they took the Olivet Discourse and claim it’s entirely about that. About our future. ’Cause it’s all about us. You know, the usual reason Christians take the bible out of context. And when they read history books and find Jesus was really speaking of the Jewish War, their knee-jerk response is, “No, it’s the End Times; I always heard it was about the End Times; the Jewish War can’t have been the Great Tribulation; all my favorite End Times prophecy scholars would be wrong!” Well, they are. But all the time and money we’ve invested in their rubbish needs to be justified in our minds; our self-defense mechanisms demand it. So we dismiss reality and history, embrace their dark Christian fantasies, and never notice all the really bad fruit they’re producing in us.

Our first hint Jesus isn’t speaking about our future, but the goings-on in his day, comes from his very first warning to his students. Because this stuff was going on all over the place in first-century Israel. Whereas in the 21st-century United States—or for that matter our entire planet—it’s not. Nowhere near the level it did in Judea in the 30s to 60s. It’s not getting fulfilled anymore. It’s already been fulfilled.

Mark 13.5-6 KWL
5 Jesus began to tell them, “Watch out lest people lead you astray.
6 Many will come in my name saying, ‘I’m somebody,’ and many will be led astray.”
 
Matthew 24.4-5 KWL
4 In reply Jesus told them, “Watch out lest people lead you astray:
5 Many will come in my name saying, ‘I’m Messiah,’ and many will be led astray.”
 
Luke 21.8 KWL
Jesus said, “Watch out lest you be led astray:
Many will come in my name saying, ‘I’m somebody, and the time has come near.’
You shouldn’t go follow them.”

You might’ve heard of a false Messiah here and there; some local religious leader who claims, “I’m Christ; I’m the reincarnation of Jesus Christ; follow me!” and tries to gather followers. But more often they’re false Messiahs who have nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, who claim we should be following them instead of Jesus—and in so doing, they’re clearly not whom Jesus was talking about. ’Cause Jesus said they’d come ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου/epí to onómatí mu, “in the name of me.” They’d claim Jesus sent ’em, or Jesus appointed them his successor.

Yet even the biggest frauds of our day know better than to claim they’re Jesus, or they’re a new Messiah. They claim to be a great prophet, an infallible teacher, a Spirit-empowered healer, an apostle who gets their marching orders straight from Jesus. But they know Jesus’s prophecy, and know better than to claim they’re new Messiahs. They’ll come mighty close though: They’ll say their anointing is exactly like Jesus’s anointing, or claim they’re a modern-day priest-king just like Jesus was (really, still is). But they know better than to claim they’re now King of kings and Lord of lords: They point back to Jesus. Even when they aren’t really following him any.

The other false Messiahs of our day: They don’t come in Jesus’s name. Just their own.

So this prophecy is not being fulfilled in our day. But the End Times prognosticators work around that by usually claiming it’s about the future: At some future point, hundreds of false Messiah will pop up and try to gain our allegiance. And among them will be the one false Messiah they’re worried about most, the Beast.

But whenever they talk about these false Messiahs, for some reason they always skip the one thing Jesus said about ’em in all three synoptic gospels: The false Messiahs will 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’ll pretend to be in collusion with Jesus. None of them describes a capital-A Antichrist who “loves Jesus,” who claims the bible is simply his favorite book. (With The Art of the Deal a close second… but let’s not go there.)

“I’m Messiah” versus “I’m somebody.”

Mark and Luke, y’notice, record Jesus saying the false Messiahs will claim ἐγώ εἰμι/eghó eími, “I am [somebody].” Whereas Matthew has Jesus say they’ll say ἐγώ εἰμι χριστός/eghó eími o hristós, “I am the Anointed,” i.e. Messiah or Christ.

Probably Matthew figured adding the word hristós would clear things up about what Jesus meant by “I’m somebody.” 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 he’s Messiah, without ever specifically saying the word. (Although he did, on a few occasions, actually say the word.) So when he gave this warning to his followers, he may not have literally said, “They’ll claim they’re Messiah,” but “They’ll claim they’re, you know, that guy”—and since this isn’t quite obvious enough, Matthew spelled it out for the slower Christians sitting in the back.

And yeah, I know this explanation is gonna bug certain Christians who hate the idea of Matthew, or anyone who wrote bible, adjusting certain bible quotes, especially Jesus quotes. They wanna insist every last Jesus statement in the bible is his literal words. So I gotta remind ’em they can’t be: Jesus spoke Aramaic, and almost every Jesus quote in the bible consists of a translation of his literal words. This being the case, it’s understandable if Matthew wanted to fill in a blank when the other gospels didn’t. And I’m quite sure Matthew’s interpretation isn’t wrong: When the false Messiahs claimed “I’m somebody,” what they actually meant was “I’m Messiah.”

Or they might, as con artists sometimes do, have tried to not say they’re Messiah; have tried to never literally say they’re Messiah. But they certainly wanted to give everybody the impression they’re Messiah without ever actually saying the words. Gives you and your followers plausible deniability: When the Romans catch and torture you and your followers, and wanna know whether anybody ever claimed to be Messiah, everyone could truthfully say, “No, nobody ever said they were Messiah,” and there y’go. Heck, the fake Messiah could even claim, “I’m just one of Jesus’s apostles. One of his top apostles. But no, not Messiah; I never claimed that. Just that I’m somebody.”

And we all know there are a lot of false “somebodies” in Christianity. Always have been. So if it weren’t for the hristós in Matthew’s gospel, we might find more Christians paying extra-special attention to Jesus’s warning that false “somebodies” were gonna arise and mislead people. Then again, he did do that elsewhere in the gospels, and nobody pays adequate attention to those warnings.

Now it may be—because both Mark and Luke record Jesus saying, “I’m he” instead of Matthew’s “I’m Messiah”—that Matthew’s addition of the word khristós was a mistake on his part. (Or, for those of you who hate the idea of errors in the bible, a mistake on a copyist’s part.) Possibly Matthew figured adding the word khristós would clear things up about what Jesus meant by “I’m he.” So now we know which “he” Jesus meant: Christ. Problem is, if that’s not what Jesus was talking about, Matthew made it clear as mud. “I’m he” doesn’t automatically mean this person, supposedly coming in Jesus’s name, was claiming to be Jesus. After all, he came in Jesus’s name. And who comes in Jesus’s name? Apostles. Or any of Jesus’s other ministers: “I’m he” would be interpreted, “I’m a Christian; you can trust me.” But since they aren’t really from Jesus, they can’t really be trusted. We all know there are a whole lot of fake apostles in Christianity. Always have been. So if it weren’t for that khristós in Matthew, this strikes me as the most reasonable interpretation. But khristós is there in the text. And we can’t just go around declaring any inconvenient word in the bible to be a scribal error, much as we might want to, much as it might simplify things. So much as I may like this interpretation, I don’t get to do this. I can only put it out there as a possibility. And I can remind you that Jesus did warn us about fakes, elsewhere in the gospels.

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 often 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.

And for the most part this prophecy has worked. 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. And because the End is coming, they’ll take advantage of our fears and worries, and claim they’re a component of the End Times, hoping our ignorance and paranoia about the End will let ’em get away with their fraud. 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 told 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 won’t stand up under scrutiny. True, sometimes legitimate followers of Jesus won’t stand up under scrutiny either—but legitimate followers will repent, whereas frauds will never admit they were wrong.

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