Jesus warned his disciples—and, by extension, us—of what to expect before his return.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9-13).
What should we make of his linkage of lawlessness to a loss of love among members of the believing community—the “many” who “will fall away”? From the beginning there have been both martyrs and apostates among those who identify with Jesus. Was Jesus warning that in a coming time of tribulation the number of those willing to be martyrs would decline while accommodation and apostasy would be much more common? It seems so.
And what about “cold” love? Christ tied this deformed love to the oppression to come. Is it because the love of his followers at that time won’t be authentic? That instinctive self-protection will supersede a superficial love? Or is it because the power of social compliance is so great that the resistance of a hostile community can carry even believers away from their first love—perhaps like those whom Jesus warned in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4?
It’s also useful to ask what this “lawlessness” represents, given that every age has been spiritually lawless in some measure. Paul even identified the entire world as Satan’s realm of disobedience—under whose rule “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh” (Ephesians 2:3). So is Jesus promising an age to come when this chronic reality becomes uniquely acute?
Some have argued, for instance, that Jesus was promising an age when the church will have been supernaturally taken up from the world—so that her fabric of faith will be missed by those newly awakened to God by the dramatic events of that time. It’s easy to read Christ’s broader discourse this way—yet other interpreters are dismissive of this reading.
But I digress. The ins and outs of the last times are not what I mean to chase here. Instead let’s look at the function of love: how it stands behind what Jesus promised. Can a growing hatred for God’s ways cause love to grow cold among Christians today?
A day of major reversals—of spiritual lawlessness—is here already. Biblical beliefs that for centuries guided the Western world in forming the boundaries for life and death and the mores of sexuality and marriage have been effectively challenged. Proponents of revised and reversed views suddenly found traction through media promotions and judicial activism.
And with that momentum the work of political assimilation is now alive. The enduring, broad, and deep resistance to values that flourished in ancient Rome—before Christianity arrived—is now fading. And with that shift any of us who still embrace Bible teachings are beginning to face hostility from post-Christian and secular neighbors. In time we should also expect judicial punishments for failing to embrace their new values.
There are other even more ominous challenges emerging in the world. Christians have been beheaded for their association with Christ in some places today. And Christian faith has been losing momentum in the Western world as secularism and institutional skepticism prospers. So Christ’s warnings were—dare I say it—prophetic.
So let’s shift gears here. Rather than bemoan the lack of faith now—or in the future—let’s ask about gaining a love for Christ that can endure “to the end.” In other words we aren’t looking for a stoic determination to make the difference.
Instead the battle Jesus describes is located in the affections. Nations will “hate” followers of Christ. And those who apostasize will come to “betray” former companions and to “hate one another.” False versions of faith will also prosper—necessary, no doubt, to accommodate the demands of a fallen culture.
So what is the ultimate protection Christians have when the world turns more hostile than ever? Jesus offered the answer in Matthew 22:34-40 when he restated the great calls to love of the Old Testament: “Love God” and “love your neighbor.” There is no type of law—biblical or secular—that is greater in weight or more effective in function than this pairing.
Yet in each case the power of love relies on the focus of love. It begins when Christ captures our hearts. And it can only be sustained by gazing on Christ—not in self-protection or by efforts to navigate a broken world.
The writer of Hebrews captured this just after he wrote his chapter on faith—a faith that led some to give up their lives: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”