At the very beginning of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for people who will appear claiming to be the Messiah (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ χριστός) (Matt 24:2-5). Similarly, in Matt 24:10-13 he warns against pseudo-prophets (ψευδοπροφῆται) and in 24:23-28 both false messiahs and false prophets (ψευδόχριστοι καὶ ψευδοπροφῆται). In each case, these false prophets/messiahs will cause people to wander (πλανάω), a verb usually denoting deception. It is used often for Israel’s “going astray” in the LXX (Deut 4:19; Isa 17:11, for example). In Jer 23:32 the people of Israel are led astray by “those who prophesy lying dreams” and these false-prophet’s “lies and recklessness.”

Not the MessiahIn the literature of the Second Temple Period, false prophets are associated with the eschatological age. In the post-Maccabean text Testament of Judah 21:9, “Like a whirlwind shall be the false prophets: They shall harass the righteous.” Following this prediction Judah says “each other and conflicts will persist in Israel…until the salvation of Israel comes, until the coming of the God of righteousness, so that Jacob may enjoy tranquility and peace, as well as all the nations” (22:1-2).

Qumran community had experience with false teachers and prophets, although most of these refer to the Temple aristocracy from whom they had separated. For example, in a commentary on Isaiah 9:13-16, the prophet, the Teacher of Lies is “the tail” cut off by the Lord in judgment, and “[Those who lead this people lead (them) astray, and those who are led by him are swa]llowed up.” In the Apocryphon of Moses (4Q375 Col. i:4), false prophets were to be punished harshly: “However, the prophet who rises up to preach [apostasy] to you, [to make] you [tu]rn away from God, shall die.” The Temple Scroll also warns of false prophets who will try and turn the community from the Lord.

The Temple Scroll (11Q19) Col. liv:8-13 If among you there arises a prophet or a dreamer of dreams and gives you a sign or an omen, and the sign {and} /or/ the omen comes to you about which he spoke to you saying: “Let us go and worship other gods whom you do not know” do not listen to the word of that prophet or of that dreamer of dreams because I am putting you to the test, in order to know whether you love YHWH, the God of your fathers, with all your heart and all your soul.

In the seventh Sibylline Oracle (late second century, possibly Christian), prior to the restoration of the world false prophets will attempt to persuade the righteous:

Sib. Or. 7.132–138 But they will endure extreme toil who, for gain, will prophesy base things, augmenting an evil time; who putting on the shaggy hides of sheep will falsely claim to be Hebrews, which is not their race. But speaking with words, making profit by woes, they will not change their life and will not persuade the righteous and those who propitiate God through the heart, most faithfully.

Jesus’ warning concerning false prophets and messiahs is therefore consistent with other warnings from before and after Jesus. But the presence of false teachers, prophets and even messianic pretenders is not an indication the end is near. What is important here is Jesus warning to not led astray by people who claim this war or that earthquake is a sign of the end, since they are not signs at all, but the normal course of life until tine final judgment happens.

There are quite a few ways to use this warning to evaluate contemporary preaching and teaching on the end times. I often agree with the general point a writer makes, but I become very skeptical with they “set dates” or claim an event somehow fulfills prophecy. How should we apply Jesus’ warning to “not be deceived” today?