What did Jesus mean:
"Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath" (Matthew 24:20)?
If Sabbath observance was not a concern for Christians when Matthew wrote his Gospel, why did he mention Jesus’ words about fleeing on the Sabbath? Some people claim that this implies that Christians ought to keep the Sabbath rest. Is this true?
We begin by noting an important point. If we carefully read his words in Matthew 24:20, we find no command from his lips for Christians to observe a Sabbath rest. He simply advises Christians that for circumstantial reasons, they should pray that the need to flee will not arise on the Sabbath or in winter. Why it would not be prudent to flee in winter is obvious. Adverse weather conditions would hamper flight and put those fleeing at risk from the elements. But why would fleeing on the Sabbath day be a problem?
Here is where we have to be aware of Jewish customs and practices regarding the Sabbath. Jesus gave his warning to the disciples because of the possibility that Jewish people in Jerusalem and Judea would have prevented Christians from fleeing on the Sabbath. Note that the warning was given “to those who are in Judea” (verse 16), not to disciples in other parts of the world. It is preserved only in Matthew’s Gospel, which was probably written to Jewish Christians.
Thus, the passage tells us more about the religious practices and social regulations regarding the Sabbath of non-Christian Jews in Jerusalem and Judea, than what the church would be doing. The context in which the warning about fleeing is given leads us to conclude that it has nothing to do with any supposed command for Christians to keep the Sabbath rest. Jesus gave his warning not because the church would be keeping the Sabbath, but because Christians in Judea and Jerusalem might find it difficult or impossible to flee on this day,
Since the Jews honored Moses’ laws, they believed it was wrong to take long journeys on the Sabbath. They even had a measurement for the maximum distance to be traveled on this day, which was called a “Sabbath day’s walk” (Acts 1:12). This was a short distance. In Luke’s example it was the distance between the Mount of Olives, on the perimeter of Jerusalem, and the city itself. But Jesus’ warning was given in the context of a catastrophe on the city and Judea, which would have required getting much further out of the area than a limited “Sabbath day’s walk” might allow.
Further, the gates of Jerusalem were locked on the Sabbath day, which would have prevented people from fleeing the city. The Jews also had authority to police their own people regarding certain religious matters. The zealots would have tried to prevent fellow Jews from taking long journeys on the Sabbath. They would have tried to prevent anyone from fleeing Jerusalem and Judea while the war with the Romans was in progress (A.D. 66-70). Such fleeing would have been considered a traitorous action by the Jews battling the Romans.
But Jesus said that people who were in Judea at the time of the crisis at Jerusalem would need to immediately flee far away into the hills. Jesus gave the warning in Matthew 24:20 because he knew that the Jews would not allow the kind of escape in troubling times on the Sabbath that his warning required. His warning was not a command to rest on the Sabbath any more than it was a command to rest in winter. These were simply inconvenient times to flee.
Warning for the future?
Those who interpret Matthew 24 as applying only to a future time claim the warning in verse 20 has nothing to do with the practices of Jews in the first century. Thus, Jewish customs with regard to the Sabbath would not have any relevance for explaining this verse. They note that Jewish authorities today – an example for the future, they believe – would not prevent people from fleeing the city or the area of ancient Judea. Matthew 24, they claim, is a warning for the future “time of the end” of the world. In this context, they teach that verse 20 is, indeed, a implicit command for the Sabbath to be kept.
Does this theory have any validity? This idea of a future context to the warning in verse 20 is fraught with difficulties. Let’s briefly look at some of the problems.
First, we have no idea what Jewish authorities might or might not allow during an unknown future time when it is claimed that all of the Holy Land will be in the throes of military, social and natural destruction and upheaval. Today’s modern military power is overwhelming in its ability to pinpoint, corner and destroy. When Israel invaded Palestinian territory in April 2002 to prevent suicide bombers from killing Israelis, there was no escape for groups of people from any town, and certainly not from the area. We have no way of knowing what might or might not be possible in terms of fleeing an area to safety – and any escape seems doubtful.
Second, leaving this hypothetical argument aside, we need to repeat that there is no command in Matthew 24:20 for Christians to keep the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t say, “Keep the Sabbath holy.” He says that those who are in Judea should hope they don’t need to flee in winter or on the Sabbath day. That is not a command to keep a rest day; it is advice about adverse conditions for fleeing. Jesus taught that it was permissible to help people on the Sabbath, to save lives. It would not be wrong to flee on a Sabbath—but it would be inconvenient if society was enforcing a Sabbath rest.
Third, if the warnings given throughout Matthew 24, including those about fleeing on the Sabbath, were meant only for some future “end times,” then they would have had no meaning for the Christians to whom they were originally spoken, and then written. The hearers would have been confused by the meaning of such assertions. The existence of these warnings – in a future scenario – would require an explanation to the effect that Jesus was talking only to people living in some distant “end time.” But no such explanation is evident in Matthew 24:20. The disciples who first heard these warnings are addressed throughout the chapter. In fact, Jesus says the following after giving such warnings: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (verse 34).
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in the late 1990s and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Fourth, the idea that Matthew 24 refers to specific events in some future “end time” is speculation. Christians have been trying to understand how to interpret this chapter without great success or agreement for 1900 years. Some Christians believe that all the events mentioned in Matthew 24 were fulfilled before A.D. 70 and have no application for the subsequent history of the church, or for the future. The interpretation that these events are yet future is by no means proven.
We cannot use one speculative assertion (that Matthew 24 refers to a future time) as the basis for a dogmatic assertion about another unproved claim (that the Sabbath should be kept). Verse 20 contains no command to keep the Sabbath. One can read the New Testament from Matthew through Revelation and not find a single instance in which the church is commanded to keep the Sabbath as “holy time.”
Given all the above considerations, we can only conclude that Matthew 24:20 was a warning to Christians living at the time the book was written, and not specifically to Christians living in a supposed future time of “the end” of the world. The warning was given to Christians of that day living in Judea and Jerusalem because they would find it difficult to flee on a Sabbath day. There is no command in this verse to keep the Sabbath as “holy time.”