Matthew 24:12-13 – Contempt for God's Law and Love Growing Cold
In “De Wekker” of March 13 this year, Rev. J. Jonkman wrote an insightful article, “The Love of Many Will Grow Cold.” These words are found in Matthew 24:12, and are usually understood in the same sense that Rev. Jonkman also wrote about it. It appears to me that his observations represent a legitimate interpretation.
However, there is still another aspect, which becomes clear from the context. It makes mention of false prophets (or “Christs”), who will lead many people astray. Looking at it from that dimension I kindly ask your attention for this other aspect.
Contempt for God’s Law and Orthodoxy
When we read in Matthew 24 about false prophets who will lead astray many people, we can easily start looking in another direction than Jesus wants us to look. Certainly in our time there are many who act as prophet or prophetess, as people who pretend that they possess divine wisdom. Many present themselves as a christ, a saviour. However seriously we may need to warn against such pretenders, from the perspective of Matthew 24 we need to think in the first place of the Pharisees and the scribes.
We need to think of the teachers of the church, not only of heretical theologians, but in the first place the orthodox ones: of them who are pure in their doctrine, but where the (practice of) godliness is missing. This becomes quite clear when we realize that Matthew 23 and 24 are very closely connected. In Matt. 23 Jesus speaks his words of woe to the scribes and Pharisees. He says of them that from the outside they appear righteous to others, but inwardly they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (23:28). Already earlier in the Gospel Jesus had spoken in a similar vein about them. In Matt. 7:13-23 he speaks about the false prophets, about those who will say, “Lord, Lord,” but who refuse to do the will of the heavenly Father. At his return he will say of them that, yes, they prophesied in his name and did many mighty works, but that he has never known them. He calls them “workers of lawlessness.” That’s how it reads in our translation. In reality it says the same as in Matt. 23:28 and 24:12, that they are showing contempt for the law.
Those who show contempt for the law are therefore, in the first place, those who know the law of God but do not act according to it. They are the same people of whom Paul says that they have an appearance of godliness, yet deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5). In that connection Paul makes clear that such contempt ends up in self-centeredness, and not in love for the neighbour. It results in love for pleasure and not love for God. The Law and the Prophets depend on the commandment of love. In Matt. 7:12 Jesus says that the Law and the Prophets testify that everything you want people to do to you, you do likewise to them.
According to Jesus’ judgment, contempt for the law is not only and primarily criminal and a gross violation of his laws. It is in the first place that members of his people and his congregation have only an appearance of godliness. They talk piously, yes, and also about love. Yet the love for the Lord and the neighbour is lacking; self-love fills their heart and determines their actions. It all happens in a very decent way; before the eyes of the people, or in their own eyes, there is nothing to criticize. But the Lord sees through them. It may well be that they are very busy in the service of the Lord. Words about him and his service flow easily from their lips. But it is not living in their heart. Oh yes, we can say, “Lord,” and we can sing about him, but we do not sing in our hearts. There is no amazement and adoration. That is how I understand this word of the Saviour.
From that viewpoint I look around me to the situation of the churches in our country, to our own church life. And now the shivers run up my spine. Who are we? We are Christian, or more specifically, Reformed. But are we, truly? Are we real Christians according to the judgment of Christ? There is a woeful shortage of true Christians. Sure, there is a lot of talk and a lot of preaching about faith. There is no lack of that. But is it not often an abstraction, a meaningless piece of theory, for others, for our children, and for us?
If that is the case, there is contempt for God’s law. We wouldn’t call it that. But that is what the Lord calls it. If in this way the contempt for God’s law is growing in the churches, is it any wonder that it also increases in society around us? It is no surprise, is it, that love grows cold? It can be so chilly in church. Many people carry this chill in their heart, with all appearance of godliness.
When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth? It is certainly beneficial in this context to let this question of Jesus penetrate our hearts and minds. We should not ask this question and look to others, but instead relate it to ourselves. The question needs to be an intensely personal question: when he comes, will he find faith in me? Or am I a believer like the scribes? Am I a person who is sound of doctrine, while being inwardly full of contempt for the law?
Contempt for God’s Law in view of Christ’s Return
The question whether the Son of Man will find faith is asked in connection with his coming again. Matt. 24:12 also has a connection with this last, great act of salvation. Often these words are understood to be a prediction. When you accept this meaning, you will attempt to measure how close we are to the second coming. That happens quite often. In many church periodicals one can read how the return must be rather imminent, because contempt for God’s law is on the increase and love is growing cold. In that connection it is often pointed out what we see happening in the world, or in the lives of others. People focus on the phenomena that will precede Christ’s second coming.
It is, however, not the intention of the Saviour that we focus on these phenomena. He wants us instead to focus on him, as the Coming One. In the NT we often read of his imminent coming, “soon.” It is put that way because there is just one act of salvation that still needs to occur. There is only one step between now and the coming of his kingdom. In speaking of his imminent return, it is not meant quantitatively, but qualitatively. Even though we know he will return soon, we do not know when he is coming back. We must not try to determine exactly when or approximately when he is returning. We cannot predict that he is not coming yet because there are some things that first have to happen. And yet the question “when” occupies people all the time. The disciples too asked the Lord about it. He answers them in Matt. 24:36 that no one knows the day and the hour but only the Father. However, before Jesus gives that answer he warns them first that they should not let anyone lead them astray. There has always been temptation, ever since the moment that the serpent tempted Eve until this present time. And certainly in the last days the temptation will be strong. It’s not as if the last days will perhaps occur soon. They have started already – quite a while ago. The last days have started with Christ’s coming; the last hour has begun with his crucifixion and resurrection. Because of his work, everything is highly charged. There is an ongoing, tremendous spiritual battle, taking place right now.
This battle is fought in the first place in and around Christ’s church. In it you see how contempt for God’s law is on the increase. You can see it in dead orthodoxy, in a life where the doctrines are guarded well, yet there is no walk in the ways of the Spirit. It will be as in the congregation at Ephesus: the first love is being abandoned (Rev. 2:1–7).
The love of most people will grow cold. “Of most,” notes Jesus! “It will happen.” Yet we may not interpret this as an unavoidable or irreversible plight that will also affect us. That also appears from the word “most.” The Saviour does not say “of all.” I do not need to follow the majority in their evil way. If I did, the Lord calls me to break with sin. He wants to forgive sin. He wants to help us in our struggle against evil. He himself has fought this battle and has conquered. In him we are more than conquerors. But then it is necessary that we be found in him. Then we need to live out of his love. When we live out of his love, our love for him will be kindled, ever again and ever more.
Also, when we live out of this love of the Lord, we hear this as an urgent appeal. The love of many will grow cold. Many will fall. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). You may be as orthodox and as busy as you can be for the Lord and his service, but the danger is always lurking. It hides in our heart. The temptation is always there. It is very necessary that we be on guard. We need to persevere.
In Matt. 24:13 Jesus continues, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This well-known text is often cited out of context, as with so many other texts. Often it is thought to be a warning that tells us that we need to be on guard for the truth, to the end. In this vein, it would be a command of Christ to be warriors for the truth. I am not saying that we should not fight for the truth or that we don’t have to be alert. But I do want to say this: in the context, Jesus’ words signify especially that he appeals to us to persevere in love, even when the love of most is cooling down. He wants us to keep loving God and the neighbour, even as the contempt for the law is on the rise. Love God and our neighbor, even if all our societal and church life is permeated with love of self instead of love to the neighbour, of love for pleasure instead of love for God. You will be inclined to go along with the flow. That is the easiest. Sometimes you get so tired of all that fighting; that’s especially true when it is also a fighting against yourself.
The Lord Jesus calls us to persevere. He appeals to his disciples to endure to the end. When we hear in this call the voice of the Good Shepherd we will also desire the strength to persevere. In prayer we will receive such strength. We will learn and understand that it matters greatly that we persevere and follow in his footsteps, in order to live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:21–25). It is all about godliness, about keeping God’s law, about a life in and with Christ. We will follow him in all our ways, and live like him. Then we can and shall endure until Christ returns.
In that perseverance lies our salvation. For this perseverance implies that we have a strong bond with him, and remain in him. Nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of Christ. We may and will live in his love. By the power of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit will become known. The fruit of the Spirit is love. This love warms the heart of man. This love results in love for his law and for his Word. This love gives love to him who is the fulfillment of the law, the content of the Word. In this manner the disciples can and must go their way. This is how Christ wants his church to live. To that end he makes his strong appeal to us. He makes us, orthodox people as we are, aware of our lack of love and our contempt for the law. He wants us to be truly orthodox, people who sing the praises of the Lord, because we have understood what we need for our salvation. The Lord’s love is the source of everything good. We need to keep going to that source, for therein lies our salvation.
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.