A reader of my book asked me this very good question that many Christians wonder about when reading Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse:
IF the Sabbath is no long in effect (Acts 15) how do we file away this:
Matthew 24:20 – But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the SabbathÂ day:
Is this a Hint for Christians To Keep Sabbath?
Some Christians find Jesus’ mention of the Sabbath in this passage disturbing. It almost seems to be advising us to be careful to avoid trampling the Sabbath.Â For Christians, the Sabbath is a command they associate with the lost legalistic Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the non-believing Orthodox Jews today. Therefore the statement is problematic for them.
On the other hand, Sabbath-keeping Christians often cite this verse as proof of their position that God expects all believers to rest on Sabbath today. “Why would Jesus tell us to pray to not have to leave on the Sabbath unless it was still a day of rest for all believers?” they ask.
Well, that’s an excellent question. They probably are not going to like hearing what the most likely answer is. Yet most Christians will be glad to see how this verse’s plain meaning is in harmony with the rest of the Bible. The exercise will illustrate how many of these verses are best resolved through attention to grammatical, historical and whole Bible context.
Here’s the problem with the common interpretation of this verse. Under the Old Covenant Torah, there was no prohibition against fleeing or even fighting for your life on Sabbath. The only requirement given in the Torah after Israel had entered the land was to rest from your occupational work. (When they were still in tents wandering for 40 years, they had the additional requirement of not even leaving their place; probably only to not be tempted to gather manna – Ex 16:29. See Dt 23:12-13). Therefore, the mention of the Sabbath day causing hardship has nothing to do with believers keeping Sabbath or Sabbath forbidding travel.
A More Probable and Congruent Meaning
To understand the statement, we have to understand what it meant to Jesus’ audience who he spoke it to. In Jesus’ day, their culture was to keep Sabbath. They did this not because it was required by the Old Covenant. They had broken that already. Plus, when it was in effect, prophets continually warned Israel and Judah to stop trampling on it. Yet, those prophets and their warnings ceased with the exile of Israel and Judah (similar to how the shekinah glory left the temple then in Ezekiel 10:18). Instead, they were keeping it as part of their cultural tradition and religion of Judaism that developed out of the Babylon exile. You are probably familiar with some of the many things Orthodox Judaism prohibits on Sabbath, such as ripping toilet paper, carrying money, or turning on a light switch.
They had such embellishments back in Jesus’ day, too, which in several Gospel incidents Jesus is seen in conflict with them on. Examples include the washing of hands, healing or gleaning of grain in fields left for the poor on Sabbath.
They even had a “Sabbath’s day journey” limit on travel (referenced in Acts 1:12 as a distance measurement). Therefore, when Jesus mentioned avoiding Sabbath in the context of the prescribed speedy flight, Jesus’ audience knew immediately what he was talking about. Travel on Sabbath was already problematic back then with the cultural restrictions.
Today in the land of Israel, buses don’t run on Sabbath due to these same traditions. Mostly only Arab-run taxis are available. Therefore, it’s just plain harder to travel in Israel from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset today just as it was back in Jesus’ day. At least in the religious area of Jerusalem, or Judea this was true when I visited. Interestingly, this is the specific area Jesus said we would be gathered to and needing to flee from in the end times (Lk 21:21).
Notice the context as well. Sabbath day is mentioned along with winter and pregnant and nursing women. What do they all have in common? Winter means cold and potentially bad weather that requires more clothing and preparation. It makes travel harder. Being pregnant or having small children means you must go slower or carry a child and stop to nurse him. This obviously makes emergency last minute travel much harder and slower. All these things, like the Sabbath day, present obstacles to fast, unencumberedÂ travel on short notice as will be required. This was the whole point of the context of the Abomination of Desolation warnings. If someone does not listen to the warning ahead of time about what it coming and instead waits until he sees the event happen before his eyes (“I’ll believe it when I seeÂ it”), then he will need to move so fast that he cannot even stop for supplies (Mt 24:15-20). If time is of the essence, then Sabbath day travel friction is a concern.
Other reputable commentaries agree this is likely the meaning:
What Christian Commentaries Say
New American Commentary on Matthew:
This reference to the Sabbath is found only in Matthewâ€™s account. It would be natural for Matthew to include it for his more Jewish audience, but he does not thereby imply, as is often alleged, that he envisions Christians still keeping the Jewish laws. G. N. Stanton (â€œ â€˜Pray That Your Flight May Not Be in Winter or on a Sabbathâ€™ [Matthew 24.20],â€ JSNT 37 : 17â€“30) surveys the various options for interpreting this verse and concludes that the best approach understands that fleeing on the Sabbath would have antagonized the Jews further and increased persecution of believers.
MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Matthew:
Although Palestinian winters are mild compared to those in many parts of the world, even slightly inclement weather could be a hindrance when the Antichrist begins his final aggression against God’s people. Therefore Jesus said, Pray that your fight may not be in the winter.
Those seeking to escape should also pray that they will not have to flee on the Sabbath, when legalistic Jews who are not fleeing might try to stone or otherwise impede those whom they believe to be profaning the Sabbathâ€”just as their forefathers had sought to stone Jesus for breaking their Sabbath traditions.
Jesus’ point was that no possession would be worth the risk of retrieving and no hindrance could be considered small. Because of the imminent unmatched terror, single-minded, undeterred flight will be the only order of the day.
Abomination Happens on A Sabbath in the Winter
What Jesus is implying by his suggestion to pray about the timing of your flight is that those who make the mistake of waiting until the last minute will literally see the Abomination happen on a Sabbath day in the Winter.
That may sound like an outrageous leap, but we can already confirm the Winter season for the abomination using Daniel. Daniel tells us that the Abomination of Desolation happens 1290 days from the end of the Tribulation. We know the rapture happens on the Feast of Trumpets right after the Tribulation (Mt 24:39-31). The Feast of Trumpets is on Tishrei 1, or first day of the 7th month. If you go back 1290 days or 43 months from that you end up in the 12th month of Adar. That’s the Winter!
Was Jesus also telling us ahead of time that the Abomination of Desolation would happen on a future Sabbath day? I think so.
Those who pray and have the faith to flee before they see the Abomination will probably flee before Winter gets bad. They can pick a time that is not on a Sabbath day as well and have an easier time. But to do this will take faith since it means leaving when everything seems fine to the eye.
Whenever we read a cryptic passage like this, we have to resist the temptation to jump to the conclusion that fits in with our doctrinal view. We have to put our bias aside and put on our detective’s hat. The Bible requires clear thinking and careful research. If we start with what the passage would have meant to the person saying it and also to his audience, we have a much better chance of arriving at the correct answer.
Note: If you think that by writing this article it means I do not keep Sabbath or am against keeping Sabbath, then that conclusion would be just as shaky as the one this article argued against. =) This article is not making a statement for or against keeping Sabbath. The point is only to correct a common case of taking a verses out of its context, masking its true intended meaning.
For the record, according to Isaiah 58 the Sabbath is a delight and blessing to keep whether it is required or not. Committing to resting one day a week recharges your batteries, relieves stress, gives space to reflect on the important things in life, and reconnect with your family. Those who can use more blessings from God in their life might optionally try resting on Sabbath. =)