The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people

The signs of the End Times, you say? Sure, I can list a few! Earthquakes, wars, famines, pestilence! Persecution, false Messiahs, false prophets!

Indeed, and they are right there in the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25).[1]

What’s more, beyond the actual teaching of the New Testament, there exists an entire industry of people working double shifts, vainly calculating the identity of the Antichrist, the role the USA plays in prophecy, where are they hiding that giant computer in Belgium, Obamacare microchips and so forth. But even these prophecy experts go blank over one “sign”: for among Jesus’ words, hiding in plain sight, is a characteristic of the End that seems to be consistently missed or minimized, that during tribulation

…many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another…the love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:10, 12 ESV).

"The End is Nigh!"

“The End is Nigh!”

“Fall away” indicates that these are professing believers. Persecution comes, and Christians, feeling the pressure, turn on each other. As I have argued elsewhere (click HERE),  against conventional wisdom, tribulation as such does not make Christians more caring or more unified – when human nature has its way, people will betray each other in order to survive. As one commentator says about these verses: “What only outsiders had done previously is now said of members of the church: they too will ‘deliver up’ Christian brothers and sisters. Hate, the way the world relates to the church, will also surface in the church.”[2] This Love Recession will not grab the headlines that a war or an earthquake would, but our Lord thought it important enough to warn us about.[3]

In 1-2 Thessalonians Paul “bounces off of” Matthew 24-25, mentioning many of the features found specifically in that gospel and applying them to the harassed Thessalonian church. There is a parallel between the texts when he keeps mentioning the love that Christians must have for each other.

1. 1 Thess 4:9 Paul notes with approval that “Now concerning brotherly love (in Greek, philadelphia) you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God.” This is language taken directly from the New Covenant prediction, who gives his Holy Spirit to the believer (4:8, alluding to Ezek 36:27 – “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules”) and who immediately and directly teaches the believer to love, alluding to Isa 54:13 (LXX): “I will make all your sons taught by God.” The love of one Christian for another, the first-named product of the Spirit’s work (Gal 5:22), is that ability to give oneself for the other, just as God in Christ did for us. It is supernatural and therefore not reproducible by the mechanisms of human psychology. People without the Spirit – unbelievers or apostates – have the unfortunate tendency of “biting and devouring one another” (Gal 5:15).

2. 1 Thess 3:6, Timothy “has brought us the good news of your faith and love” (see also 1 Thess 1:3).

3. Again, in 2 Thess 1:3, “the love of every one of you for one another is increasing,” even as he directs the believers to contemplate the present and future tribulation, the antichrist and the great apostasy of the End Times.

4. But in 1 Thess 3:12-13 he shows himself very concerned that they keep loving one another, even as the Second Coming draws closer: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”[4]

There are other passages as well:

5. In 2 Tim 3:1-3 Paul reflects once again upon the same forgotten sign: “There will be terrible times in the last days: People will be lovers of themselves…without love” – or as BDAG has it, hardhearted, unfeeling, without regard for others.

6. Later on, in Revelation, the theme reasserts itself. In Rev 2:19 the church in Thyatira was living properly in the light of Jesus’ coming: “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance.” But in Rev 2:4, Ephesus receives a rebuke: “you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The church is active in God’s work, but the loss of love between its members will inevitably lead to heated friction and internal warfare.[5]

To summarize the Bible teaching: the End Times, while not necessarily imminent, are drawing ever closer; the Christian must hold firmly to love for other believers; we should pray to that end, asking that the Spirit continue to make us and our fellow Christians more loving; in the End love in the church will badly unravel.[6]

When the great apostasy comes (Matt 24; 2 Thess 2:3), those who to the human eye are genuine believers will turn away from New Covenant faith. And when apostasy comes to town, all bets are off: “ex”-Christians and phony Christians will shed the fruit of the Spirit like a dirty T-shirt, to look out for Number One in a world grown hostile. What starts out as coldness toward each other will evolve into gross survivalism once they figure out that they can turn others in to buy themselves fleeting hours of safety. With their rejection of the New Covenant, then will come the darkest of Gentile sins: idolatry (the worship of God’s enemy, the antichrist), fornication, hatred, deception (Rev 21:7-8).

Love manifests itself in the day-to-day life of God’s people. It is not a product of club membership or shared interests: it is a miracle. If our love seems to be choked by bitterness, revenge, one-upmanship; or poisoned by gossip, greed or self-interest, then Jesus’ words on love grown cold should frighten us to the core.

Related Post – “Four Blood Moons” and a False Prophet

NOTES:

[1] What is the relationship between Matt 24:3-8 and the rest of the chapter? Our view is that Jesus is speaking of signs that will continue throughout the age of the church, even though the end is “not yet”; also, that they will be heightened in the final days. This is also the program laid out in 2 Thessalonians and Revelation.

[2] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg), 194, emphasis added.

[3] The parallel verses in Mark and Luke emphasize division within blood families, of a type that occurred from the earliest days of the faith, rather than division within the church: Mark 13:12-13 – “And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Traditionally the Jews as well anticipated end-time strife within families (Jubilees 23:16, 19) and also, as in Matt 24, between “friends”: “At that time friends shall make war on friends like enemies, the earth and those who inhabit it shall be terrified…” (2 Esdras 6:24).

[4] For the same dynamic between the Second Coming and love, see also Rom 13:8-11 – “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Also in Ephesians 3-4.

[5] The Bible versions typically do not expand on the meaning of “first love”. An alternate interpretation is that they had lost their love for God (so the Good News Bible; French version BFC); but since the cooling of love for other believers is the theme of much eschatology; and given the emphasis that other Johannine literature places on it; and given too that the Ephesian church is still active for God; for these reasons the theme seems to be “brotherly love” (so Nicholl; also Roloff); Wall and the NLT think it is both love for God and love for others. Strangely, Aune offers detailed observations on the syntax but says nothing about “first love”.

[6] The Apostolic Fathers vouched for the same truth. Of prime importance is Didache 16.3-4, since it is early and clearly echoes Matthew: “For in the last days the false prophets and corrupters will abound, and the sheep will be turned into wolves, and love will be turned into hate. For as lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another.” In the sermon commonly labeled the Second Epistle of Clement we read, “Therefore let us love one another, that we all may enter into the kingdom of God.” (2 Clem. 9.6). The Martyrdom of Polycarp shows how that saint went willingly to the stake and would not allow himself to be delivered while others perished in tribulation: “For it is the mark of true and steadfast love to desire not only that oneself be saved, but all the brothers as well.” (Mart. Pol. 1.2). All quotes taken from the Holmes edition.

“The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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  5. Gary,
    An excellent and timely reminder of our need to fully grasp the love of Christ in these ever increasing apostate days that we live in.
    To the world it would certainly appear that Christianity is a very divided institution. We shouldn’t be surprised though as Matthew 13.30 alludes very strongly to this. Sadly there are many Scriptures you have quoted above that confirm love will indeed grow colder among professing Christians; so much for those who believe in revival, or claiming the kingdom for Christ?
    The level of hatred and infighting among those with opposing views in Christianity seems also to be intensifying in these “last days”.
    A case in point is the often vitriolic language used against those who hold to the doctrines of grace so-called: In this regard I have even heard the word “blasphemous” used on far too many occasions.
    Very sad.
    We all should daily pray to God as the publican did in Luke 18.13.

    • Thanks Colin! Probably because I run in Reformed circles, I hear it directed against Arminians too.

      One site starts off: “Arminianism is absolute blasphemy against the work of Christ.” Another: “Free-Willism, Legalism, Arminianism, Blasphemy and Idolatry are some of the parts which combine to form the body of a dreadful and monstrous beast which runs fiercely and defiantly through the church.”

      John MacArthur basically just called all 500 million Pentecostals and charismatics unbelievers.

      • Gary,
        Yes I am very aware of that charge against Arminianism from many of your “colleagues” who are Reformed Protestants so to speak, some of who believe that the Reformation stopped with Luther and Calvin etc. MacArthur, I understand is now labeled a “New Calvinist”, he has befuddled many by holding to Dispensationalism as opposed to traditional Covenant Theology. MacArthur should wake up and smell the coffee, as there is much apostasy within Reformed Protestantism. My problem with Pentecostals and Charismatics is their worst excesses and the fact that they believe healing is in the Atonement.
        I believe that Charles Spurgeon once famously said that he believed the first man he would see in heaven would be John Wesley! (I have meant to study exactly what he meant by this quote, because I understand that Wesley’s Arminianism wasn’t what is commonly believed today?)
        I have come to learn recently that there are many self-styled Biblicists who claim that they are neither Calvinists (maybe 2 or 3 pointers at most!) or Arminians, but can this situation really be so; In reality there is no “middle ground”?


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