From:  Apocalyptic and History:  Matthew 24                                 Return to Home        

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2013


[Page 154]







(Matthew 24:16-20; Mark 13:14b-18; Luke 21:21-23a)





1.  FLEE TO THE MOUNTAINS (Matthew 24:16; Mark 13:14b; Luke 21:21a) 


            In this verse Jesus shifts to how the disciples should react to the catastrophe enveloping their homeland, “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (identical wording in all three accounts).  Wars and rumors of wars had already washed across the land.  Those could safely be ignored.  But when the danger was clear cut then was the need to flee to safety.[1]  Unlike many previous struggles, cities would not be a place of protection; they would become death traps.[2]

            Mountains were a logical place of refuge for the very reason they were an inappropriate operational locale for armies.  By their very nature mountains tend to be hard to traverse.  There is no "straight line" between two points.  Barring detailed maps (nonexistent in that ancient age and only partially compensated for through the use of local spies or collaborators) guidance from point to point was minimal.  There was no better way for an army to become bogged down and see its [Page 155]   fighting strength dissipate, than to engage in a prolonged campaign through mountainous terrain.  Hence, unless there was an urgent necessity, armies preferred to launch their campaigns against major cities rather than wander in low population areas[3] that would contribute nothing to their ultimate victory.

            Furthermore, since it was the hardest place for an army to function, it was the best place for an individual fleeing from warfare.  Absolute safety it could not guarantee; practical safety was another matter.


            Old Testament precedent.     This use of mountains as a place of refuge was well known in the Old Testament era.  When the spies were successfully hidden by Rahab, she urged them to seek refuge in the mountains until the fervor of their pursuers’ hunt had died down (Joshua 1:15-16). This advice they followed and they escaped the region with their lives intact (verses 22-23).

            When David was being pursued by a bloodthirsty Saul, he took refuge in the "hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph" (1 Samuel 23:14). At times, he was nearly caught and would have been--had not marauding Philistines forced Saul to turn his attention elsewhere (1 Samuel 23:25-28). 

            So common was the use of the mountains as a place of safety that it became a proverbial reference.   The idea of "flee[ing] like a bird to the mountains" was apparently a popular adage in the days of the Psalmist, though  Psalms 11:1 notes that such could become a substitute for taking refuge in God. 

            The ultimate development of the mountain as a place of safety is found in the Isaiahanic description of the Messianic kingdom.  The kingdom is a place of such protection that even the greatest of mankind's enemies would be harmless.  "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord" (Isaiah 65:20.  Cf. 11:9)


            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  Unquestionably prior to the fall of Jerusalem, the opportunity for flight was readily available.  Interestingly, even in Jerusalem itself, the possibility of successful flight opened up even after the [Page 156]   Romans were near.   Cestius waited three days outside the city without attacking.[4]   On another occasion Ananus opened the gates for Cestius to enter but Cestius refused due to fear of a trap.[5]   Finally, Cestius withdrew temporarily for no apparent cause.[6]  Even during the siege by Titus, there were scattered opportunities to escape through the Roman lines, as demonstrated by the fact that many did escape.[7] 




The Flight to Pella



            We have demonstrated the possibility of flight from Jerusalem.  The only documented case of it occurred when Jerusalem Christians fled to Pella.  It is often claimed that this is the event Jesus had particularly in mind.[8]   Eusebius records that this particular flight was in response to Divine revelation, “On the other hand, the people of the church in Jerusalem were commanded by an oracle given by revelation before the war to those in the city who were worthy of it to depart and dwell in one of the cities of Perea which they called Pella.  To it those who believed on Christ migrated from Jerusalem.”[9] 

            There are several indications that this was not the event Jesus had in mind.  One is the geographic argument.  Jesus speaks of fleeing “to” the mountains.  More properly, Pella is “beyond them,”[10]  “in the Jordan Valley,”[11]   “at the foothills,”[12]   or “at the base of low-lying foothills”[13]  --according to which way one prefers to express the same idea..

            There is also a chronological argument that is even more telling.  Eusebius is quite plain in recording that the flight was “before the war;” it is equally clear from Matthew 24 that Jesus had in mind events during the war itself.  Furthermore, there is no hint of special Divine revelation accompanying the decision to flee:  In the Biblical text, the emphasis is upon prudent watchfulness:  when you see this, act!   Presumably, any Christians whose business or other interests required them to be in [Page 157]   or near Jerusalem after hostilities broke out, acted on this common sense injunction.  Explicit, additional revelation was not promised.







            Jesus illustrates the need for prompt action in the hour of urgency by insisting, “Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house.  And let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle” (Matthew 24:17-18, with minor verbal differences, in Mark).  The two most likely places for a person to be were in an “urban” area or in the countryside; if in the city they would probably be in their home, if in the country they would probably be working in the field.

            In ancient society a person normally went from their village, town, or city into the countryside to work rather than actually living on the farm.[14]    Hence, depending upon the time of day, weather, and season, a person might be found in either location.  Mentioning both was an effective means of saying, “whenever it happens--wherever you are--move!”  

            In Luke the text reads,  “And let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.”  Luke omits the garment reference and the stress of quickness in departing from the city.  Instead he emphasizes the insecurity of cities about to be attacked:  get out if you are inside; if you are outside, stay out.  In the Great Revolt they would become death traps.

            You would not be able to out wait this enemy.  Luke’s account emphasizes this element of danger by noting that these would be “days of vengeance.”  This would not be a short term inconvenience.  To use the modern phrase, the enemy would be “out for blood” and the army would not be leaving until it was extracted. 

            This would be in accord with “all that is written,” notes Luke.  This implies that Luke’s reader, Theophilus, knew at least enough about the Old Testament to [Page 158]   recognize that it contained predictions of both short-term and long-term coming wrath for rebellion against God’s will.  We find in such places not only the concept of “days of vengeance,” but also the expression itself.  In particular it is found in the Septuagint of Hosea 9:7 and the singular day of vengeance in Deuteronomy 32:35; Jeremiah 26:10; and Jeremiah 27:31.[15] 


            Old Testament precedent.  Old Testament precedents lead to such immediate action from several standpoints.  The wisdom literature rebukes those who are confident that nothing in the future can hold any real danger, "Do  not boast about the morrow for you do not know what a day may bring forth," warns the Proverbist (27:1). 

            Of more direct application to the dangers produced by war, are the teachings found in Ezekiel.  Ezekiel rebukes those who vainly insist that the real danger is far away even though it is actually imminent (Ezekiel 11:2-3; 12:27-28).  The ceaseless optimist would perish, while the open-eyed realist would survive.


            First century occurrence of such phenomena.   It is undocumented, but inherently probable that this admonition was obeyed during the tumultuous period of the Great Revolt.  Those who did not take advantage of the opportunity to flee most likely died.  Since individual accounts by Christians of the period have not survived, the opportunity to illustrate what happened is impossible.

            The reference to not going down into the house has been interpreted in two ways.  One is that Jesus has in mind flight along the adjoining flat rooftops until one came to the city gate.  Thereby one would escape the congestion on ground level.[16]   Most take it as an instruction to simply utilize the outer stairs of the house itself.[17]  Jesus was interested in the quickness of the flight; either method that accomplished that result satisfied His demand readily enough.

            In our western society, being on a roof is rare and uncommon--except for builders and roofers.  In ancient eastern society, however, the roofs were “usually flat and used for various purposes:  sitting in the evening, eating, celebrating, drying fruits and vegetables, etc.”[18] 

[Page 159]                   The choice between an inside and external stairway seems almost insignificant in itself--how could even the latter speed up departure by more than seconds?  The danger is specified as being that one might have the intent “to take what is in his house.”   It would be natural to want to grab a few select valuables and prized possessions[19]--understandable and even laudable if one had time.  The whole thrust of Jesus’ warning is that danger is so imminent one doesn’t have time.  You may escape with only the clothes on your back, but that is still better than perishing with a backpack of valuable belongings. 

            Jesus’ rhetoric seems to have in mind the individual who has inadvertently found himself or herself in “the wrong place at the wrong time,” where one has no way of knowing how much time is available.  This would normally be even before “the initial stages of the siege,”[20] at a time when the armies haven’t even quite reached their targeted city but they were known to be imminent.

            The farmer in the field doesn’t have the temptation to grab his valuables on the way out of town.  Yet that “mantle” was extremely important and might tempt him to rush back to where he left it instead of undertaking immediate flight.  It was the outer garment that was commonly slept in at night.  In the chilly early hours of the day, it would be worn to keep the worker warm.  As the day grew hotter, it would be laid aside and one would continue to work in one’s undergarments.[21] 

            Yet he was told to flee without it.  This admonition to the country dwelling farmer/farmhand was a very appropriate warning as to behavior in a crisis situation.  It is easy to forget that “people in the open country would be in as great danger as those in the city, the hostile troops doubtless being dispersed on all sides, plundering, burning and slaying.”[22]  A city at least had walls that would delay an army; the countryside did not have any protection at all.  Hence even though the cloak was both desirable and necessary, escaping imminent danger was even a higher priority.[23] 

            Implicit in this verse is a strong element of personal responsibility for oneself:  the farmer is not told to return to the city for family; the family members in the city are not told to wait till the others have returned home.  All are to act [Page 160]   promptly and immediately to save themselves.  Not that they were to be unconcerned with their loved ones, but unless they acted to stay alive, their loved ones would be irrelevancies--they themselves would be dead.  Strong and startling thinking--yet deadly realistic and imperative when one may only have minutes to act in and the decision will determine personal life and death.   




3.  DELAYS TO SUCCESSFUL FLIGHT (Matthew 24:19-20; Mark 13:17-18;

            Luke 21:23a)



            A.  HAVING CHILDREN (Matthew 24:19; Mark 13:17; Luke 21:23a)



            It would be a particularly bad time for pregnant women and those with small children, according to our texts.


            Old Testament precedent.  Two distinct categories are mentioned in the text:  women who are pregnant and women who have small children who are still breast feeding.  Although we have a modern mythology of the woman who sails through pregnancy as if it were only the mildest of hindrances, in real life the situation is usually more complicated.  The well-along woman has trouble maneuvering, feels bloated, suffers from morning or evening sickness and would be more than happy to have it all over with.  Her physical condition makes flight extremely uncomfortable and difficult.[24]

             She can not move fast and the very urgency of Jesus' admonition to move without delay (Matthew 24:16-18) implies that one who is unable to do so may well perish.  Armies might have little or no "professional" elements to them.  In such cases you had untrained troops, hot with the flush of blood and vengeance and quite prepared to act in the most atrocious manner.  Hence we read of how Hazael of Syria would "slay their young men with the sword, and dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their women with child" (2 Kings 8:12).

[Page 161]                   Likewise Menahem targeted cities that refused to surrender with a calculated policy of "ripp[ing] up all the women . . . who were with child" (2 Kings 15:16).  Samaria is warned that she "shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open" (Hosea 13:16).  This was far from unique; it was not uncommon for invading armies to act that way in the ancient world.[25]

            The nursing mother has a different set of problems.  She has a very young child who must be kept warm and secure.  Hence the mother would be anxious not only for her own immediate needs but that of a tiny and totally dependent second individual as well.  Flight may well be slowed down.  The ability to successfully hide is compromised for a baby may burst out crying at any moment.

            Genesis contains an example of the difficulty a woman might have in traveling alone with a small child.  How old Hagar's son was we do not know, but he is described as young enough to be carried on her shoulder (Genesis 21:14) and to apparently be hid by a bush (verse 15).  Here the danger was lack of water and from that alone both mother and child nearly perished (cf. verse 16).  If enemy soldiers were on the prowl the danger would have been even greater.

            The child was faced with the danger of perishing if the mother were killed and his own life was spared.  Who would take mercy and feed him?  (Cf. Lamentation 4:4 of this danger in a non-war setting.)


            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  The dangers described in the Old Testament were not chronologically limited to that day and age.   By the very nature of the situation faced, similar dangers would have occurred during the Great Revolt against Rome.  Oddly enough at least one recent interpreter interprets the Matthew text as permission not to flee due to such women being faced with “circumstances beyond their control.”[26]  Permission to stay, of course, is not what Jesus has in mind:  after all, staying could easily result in death or barbaric treatment at the hands of the conqueror.  Instead, Jesus is stressing the element of practicality:  it may be difficult or even impossible to do what elemental self-preservation demands.


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            B.  WINTER (Matthew 24:20; Mark 13:18)



            Successful flight would be endangered by seasonal conditions and religious connected convictions as well, “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”  In modern calendar terms, the Palestinian winter ran from mid-December to mid-February.[27]  The Sabbath was, on the modern calendar, our Saturday. 


            Old Testament precedent.  The Old Testament mentions two physical phenomena connected with winter that would impede successful flight.  The first is the cold of the season (cf. Genesis 8:22).[28]  Although a person may wear sufficient additional garments to diminish the chill, these slow down one's movement.  When a warring army may be near, the last thing one wants to face is slowed!

            During winter in Palestine, one also faced the rainy season (Song of Solomon 2:11).  This produced swollen streams that could be crossed only slowly and with great caution.[29]  Indeed, stumbling and being washed away was a very real danger.  In addition to the erratically swollen waterways themselves, the rains produced mass amounts of mud on the roads, which slowed travel and even ground to it a halt.[30]  Hence flight during the winter season enlisted nature itself as an enemy.[31]   

            First century occurrence of such phenomena.   Again, weather patterns produced similar phenomena regardless of the century.  Hence the “hardness of the season, the badness of the roads, the shortness of the days, and the length of the nights” continued to impede winter-time flight.[32]  If this were not enough, one would still have to factor in the lack of readily available food from fruit trees or crops, both of which would be present in a different season.[33]   


[Page 163]


            C.  SABBATH (Matthew 24:20)



            In one of those odd incongruities that are thoroughly unexpected if Mark was, indeed, the first written gospel, we find the conspicuous lack of any mention of travel on the Sabbath day.  Yet it would be at the earlier, rather than later date that we would expect there to be the liveliest concern with the presumed inhibitions imposed by the Mosaical code.  Luke passing over the mention makes more sense in light of his intended Gentile audience, whereas it is unexpected that an early work--such as Mark--would lack it.


            Old Testament precedent.  In the centuries before Jesus was born, to the observant Jew the Sabbath posed both internal and external obstacles to successful flight in time of enemy invasion.  The internal obstacles related to prohibitions severely limiting how far one might travel on Saturday (Acts 1:12).  Indeed, The Torah prescribed that a person was not to “go out of his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:30).  Too strictly interpreted, this would have even prohibited Sabbath day worship outside the home.  On the other hand, it is clear that movement was intended to be extremely restricted.  To fill the void left by lack of explicitness, later religious leaders evolved a consensus as to the very limited distance that one could walk upon the Sabbath.   In modern distance calculation, the consensus resulted in a permissible trip of a little over a half-mile.[34]

            Furthermore, might not flight itself be considered "work" and, therefore, in violation of the Mosaical code?  The Sabbath was to be a day of strict rest (Exodus 20:8-11; 23:12).  Doing work on, it was an act of defilement punishable by death (Exodus 31:13-17).  This included even such seemingly minor acts as gathering sticks (presumably for firewood; Numbers 15:32-36). 

[Page 164]                   The external obstacles related to how others might be observing the Sabbath.  Might the city gates be closed to enforce observance (cf. Nehemiah 13:15-22)?  How then was one to escape?  If one were in the countryside, might those one encountered be so ultra-observant that they attempt to hinder one's further progress when one’s intent was obvious?  The region was repeatedly wracked with wars, so these were questions that Jews had to repeatedly ponder.  Whether personally observant or not.


            First century occurrence of such phenomena.  It is common to claim that Jewish Christians continued to observe the various provisions of the Torah and prophets until the destruction of Jerusalem and that this included observing the Sabbath.[35]  At the very minimum, the situation was considerably more complex.  First century Christians observed the first day of the week as their day of worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4).  It is quite likely that--as long as permitted--they also participated in the Sabbath/ Saturday worship of traditionalist Jews.  The outbursts against them recorded in the book of Acts strongly argues that, voluntarily or involuntarily, many or most of them were reduced within a decade or two to Sunday only observance.  

            But scruples existing since youth would still be present.  As already noted, on its own merits, such a concentrated burst of activity as flight might reasonably be construed as labor and work.  Furthermore, if Jesus's disciples could be challenged for "working" due to tearing off a few pieces of field grain to eat (Mark 2:23-28), would not conscious flight be considered a more flagrant violation of the Sabbath's holiness?  Hence there may well have been considerable internal psychological inhibitions for ethnically Jewish Christians.

            This is one credible reconstruction and the one that permits the greatest probability for concern over Sabbath-day flight.  On the other hand, a “minimalist” reconstruction is just as likely, in which the vast bulk of Christian Jews would have had little or no concern with such behavior.  Again, we begin with the events of the personal ministry.  During Jesus’ life, His disciples had followed a course sufficiently lenient that they were accused of violating the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8).  Jesus responded to this charge with an assertion that preserving human life was [Page 165]   more important (verses 3-4).  He emphasized that the prophets of old had insisted that “mercy” was more vital than other important but, comparatively, lesser obligations (verse 7).  

            In light of such teaching we would not expect any rigorous doctrine of Sabbath keeping, if it was “observed” in any strict sense at all.[36]  Indeed, we read of early Christians in widely diverse locations meeting for their worship on Sunday rather than Saturday (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), which argues in the strongest possible terms that Sabbath observance was no longer considered a spiritual necessity.  Paul rebuked those who would judge a person negatively for not observing the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17).  Indeed, the only times we read explicit reference to Christians entering the synagogue in the book of Acts was to preach or teach.  Never is there any indication they attended simply to worship as an end in itself.  Hence neither the behavior of Christ during His life nor the disciples afterwards argues that flight on the Sabbath would raise any questions but those related to expediency and safety.

            The same conclusion is also reached from an examination of the Matthew text within its immediate surroundings.  The verses do not appear to speak of  internal reservations; rather it speaks as if of “external circumstances,”[37] things that would “make flight difficult, not impossible.”[38]  Note how the text it puts it on a parallel with other external limiting phenomena such as winter and childbearing[39] --things would hinder flight rather than totally exclude it.

            And the external factors were such that no matter how non-observant of the ancient traditions a believer might be, flight on Saturday (the Biblical Sabbath) could easily be viewed with special concern.  It would have been difficult to purchase any supplies because most of the population would have been observing the Sabbath rest.[40]   There prolonged travel would have exposed them to the danger of violence or death at the hands of either ultra-orthodox or politico-religious zealots.[41]  The reality of locked gates would hinder both leaving one town and entering any other as well.[42]  How widespread was the practice in the first century is unknown, but Jerusalem’s pivotal central role as cultic center made it one of the most likely places to occur. 

[Page 166]                   The picture was further complicated due to the fact that different elements of society might view the propriety of Sabbath flight dramatically differently; some even joining in it, while others reacting with indignation.  However rigid a doctrine some rabbis may have held, others explicitly recognized the propriety of flight--even on the Sabbath day--in order to save one’s life.[43]  Such divisions were surely present within the remainder of the population as well.






[1]Cf. McGarvey and Pendleton, 621.


[2]Lane, 467.


[3]Cf. J. C. Fenton, The Gospel of St. Matthew, in The Pelican New Testament Commentaries series (New York:  Penguin Books, 1963; reprint), 387. 


[4]Wars II:19:4.


[5]Wars II:19:5. 


[6]Wars, II:19:7. 


[7]Wars V:10:1. 


[8]Lange, 425; E. M. Blaiklock, Commentary on the New Testament (Old Tappan, New Jersey:  Fleming H. Revell Company, 1977), 33.


[9]Ecclesiastical History, III:5.


[Page 167]   [10]Alford, Greek Testament, 239.


[11]Johnson, 543.


[12]Morris, 604.


[13]Gundry, Matthew, 482.


[14]Newman and Stine, 737; Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh,  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, Minnesota:  Fortress Press, 1992), 147.


[15]David L. Tiede, 364.


[16]Adam Clarke, 229.


[17]Alford, Greek Testament, 239; Stock, 367; Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, in the Sacra Pagina series (Collegeville, Minnesota:  A Michael Glazier Book/Liturgical Press, 1991), 337;  John R. Meier, Matthew, in the New Testament Message series (Collegeville, Minnesota:  A Michael Glazier Book/The Liturgical Press, 1990), 283.


[18]Daniel J. Harrington, 337.  Hence the contrast is not between a man of substance who has the time to rest on his roof and the manual laborer in the field (as believed by Robert Gundry, Matthew, 483) but between those facing the crisis in an urban setting versus a rural one.  Cf.  Alexander, 354-355, and Gundry, Mark, 776.    


[19]Owen, 313-314.


[Page 168]   [20]Wilfrid J. Harrington, 240; Stoger, 156; David Gooding, According to Luke:  A New Exposition of the Third Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 327.


[21]Keener, 346; Stock, 367.


[22]Williams, 436.  Cf. Stoger, 156.


[23]Keener, 346.


[24]Beasley-Murray, 153; Filson, 255.


[25]Newman and Stine, 741.


[26]Patte, 339.


[27]Owen, 314. 


[28]Stock, 367. 


[29]Beasley-Murray, 153; Godwin, 107; Gundry, Mark, 743; Daniel J. Harrington, 337; Lane, 470;  Menzies, 234. 


[30]Cf. Garland, 237; Stock, 367.


[31]Cf. Foster, 135.


[32]Adam Clarke, page 230.  On shortness of days also see Jacobus, 243, and Owen, 314.


[Page 169]   [33]Williams, 436.  On scarcity of food also see Garland, 237-238; Godwin, 107.


[34]Boles, 465. 


[35]Broaddus, 488; Daniel J. Harrington, 337;  Obach and Kirk, Matthew,  245; Saldarini, 161; Arthur S. Peake, A Commentary on the Bible (Reprint;  New York:  Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1957), 720; Theodore H. Robinson, The Gospel of Matthew, in the Moffatt’s New Testament Commentaries series (New York:   Harper & Brothers, 1927),  198.  Schweizer, 452, however, argues that it was a very lenient form of observance.  If so, why would the need to “violate” the Sabbath in the interest of self-preservation even be an issue?  One would expect the question to arise only if one were among the strictest Sabbath keepers.  The theory that the reference to Sabbath observance is a sarcastic jab aimed at later Judaizers (J. Enoch Powell, 187) assumes Matthew tampering with Jesus’ original intent.  It also confuses a touch of brutal realism concerning wartime travel with theological saber-rattling. 


[36]Cf. Montague, 267.


[37]Meier, Matthew, 284.




[39]Cf. Meier, Vision of Matthew, 170.


[40]Cf. Foster, 135, and Gundry, Matthew, 483.


[41]In various forms, this danger is stated or implied by Adam Clarke, page 230; Lange,  425; Overman, 334; Stock, 367.


[Page 170]   [42]Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 166; Blomberg, 358; Boles, 465;  Adam Clarke, 230.


[43]For one lengthy midrash on the subject see Klaus Wengst,  “Aspects of the Last Judgment in the Gospel According to Matthew,”  in Eschatology in the Bible and in Jewish and Christian Tradition, edited by Henning G. Reventlow, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, volume 243  (Sheffield, England:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 236.