As a boy, I loved reading comic books. My favorite was Batman (old school Detective Comics) largely because he was not a superhuman with superpowers. Bruce Wayne (Batman) was just a guy trying to help. That resonated with me. It still does, and, given the overwhelming popularity of the super-hero genre today, it must resonate with countless others as well.
Even more to the point, when the film Man of Steel was released, it reimagined the Superman origin story. Filled with breathtaking special effects and nonstop action, the movie drew box-office-busting crowds to theaters around the world. Some said that the film’s appeal was rooted in the technology required to produce such a project. Others attributed it to the enduring appeal of the “Superman mythology.” Amy Adams, who played Lois Lane in the movie, had a different view of Superman’s appeal. She said that it was about a basic human longing, asking, “Who doesn’t want to believe that there’s one person who could come and save us from ourselves?” That is the right question.
This genuine human longing, however, can cause us to look for rescue in the wrong places. Jesus’s next blepete warning targets that danger, stressing something hinted at earlier (v. 6):
“And then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ’; or, ‘Behold, He is there’; do not believe him; for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance.” (mark 13:21–23, emphasis added)
As it was in Jesus’s day, we are constantly looking for someone to rescue us from the darkness of this world. But following a false messiah has devastating results, as was discovered by over 900 people (more than 300 of them children) who committed themselves to Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of The People’s Temple. Leaving homes, families, and careers, these folks migrated to the jungles of Guyana in South America to establish a community in honor of their deeply flawed, deeply disturbed leader. Jonestown was the result. On November 18, 1978, it became the site of a mass suicide demanded by Jones and carried out at gunpoint. One of the great tragedies of the late 20th century was the byproduct of embracing a false Christ. And Jonestown was not an isolated incident. The Heaven’s Gate cult leader, Marshall Applewhite, claimed to be Jesus. In 1997, thirty-eight of his followers committed suicide with him. Many others currently claim to be Jesus—often proclaiming messages that at first glance sound deceptively similar to things Jesus might say. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals them to be frauds or deluded.
The danger of false messiahs, however, is not only in the potential for a Jonestown-like disaster. Those false Christs cannot meet the needs of the hearts that follow them. These leaders are inadequate to provide what their followers are longing for, so that their ultimate thirst is never truly met. Such false Christs divert those hungry hearts away from the living Christ who alone can meet those deep heart needs. Although on a much more personal and much more intimate scale, this still results in tragedy. Be on your guard, indeed.
Thoughts for Reflection:
Jesus’s warning about false messiahs has great value today. Why do you think people are drawn to false teachers, leaders, and/or Christs? What are they looking for? How are they deceived?
It has been said that the best way to recognize counterfeit money is by constantly handling genuine money. Applying that idea here, consider immersing yourself in the Gospels, so that you can grow even more attuned to the heart of the true Christ. If you read three chapters a day, you can read all four gospel accounts in a single month. After several months spent in the Gospels, your awareness of the spirit and person of Jesus will be greatly strengthened.