Does Matthew 24:20 Command Sabbath Observance?

By Brother Anderson

In the Desire of Ages Mrs. White makes the following statement about Matthew 24:20:

"'Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter; neither on the Sabbath day,' Christ said. He who made the Sabbath did not abolish it, nailing it to His cross. The Sabbath was not rendered null and void by His death. Forty years after His crucifixion it was still to be held sacred. For forty years the disciples were to pray that their flight might not be on the Sabbath day."1

Mrs. White implies that in this passage Jesus was making a statement about the sacredness of the Sabbath day and the Ten Commandments. In effect, He was commanding His disciples to pray that their escape from Jerusalem would not take place upon the Sabbath because "it was still to be held sacred." Apparently, in Mrs. White's view, an escape from Jerusalem on the Sabbath day would violate the sacredness of the Sabbath, and thus Jesus was imploring early Christians to pray that they would not need to escape upon the Sabbath so that they would not break the fourth commandment.

Is this the message Christ intended? Was He attempting to impress upon His disciples the utter sacredness of the Sabbath day--a day so sacred to God that they needed to pray repeatedly for the next 40 years that their flight would not occur on Sabbath so that they could avoid desecrating the sanctity of the day?

The Message of Matthew 24:16-20

There are five points that must be understood in this passage. First, Jesus' warning is to those living "in Judea." In Matthew 24:16, Jesus begins by addressing a particular group of Christians--"them which be in Judea"--indicating this message is not intended for the greater body of Christ, but is directed specifically to a group living in the region of Jerusalem that would be in imminent danger in the near future.

Secondly, departure from Judea was to be immediate. In verses 17 and 18 Jesus warns Christians not to bother packing, but to leave with haste:

Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. (Matt. 24:17,18)

The reason they were to leave immediately was because soon after the Roman armies departed temporarily, and people began leaving Jerusalem, Josephus tells us that Jewish zealots began stopping anyone from leaving the city:

"...those that were at Jerusalem were deprived of the liberty of going out of the city, for as to such as had a mind to desert, they were watched by the zealots"2

"So all hope of escaping was now cut off from the Jews, together with their liberty of going out of the city."3

Third, Jesus warned pregnant and nursing mothers of the difficulties facing them:

And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! (Matt. 24:19)

The reason for this warning is obvious. Traveling in haste on foot or on a donkey in the late terms of pregnancy or with a small child is extremely difficult. Here Jesus was emphasizing the physical difficulties Christians would face while fleeing.

Fourth, Jesus warned about winter, asking his disciples to pray that their flight would not be "in the winter" (Matt. 24:20). Here again, fleeing in the winter would present many physical obstacles. Cold weather and winter storms would make travel hazardous, especially for women and children. In our day of automobiles and roadside inns it is hard to imagine the difficulties of walking all day and sleeping in the open air at night. Freezing rain and snow could make travel in the winter nearly impossible. In addition, heavy rains in winter could make streams impassable.4

Fourth, Jesus warns about Sabbath travel. Jesus asks the disciples to pray that their flight is not "on the Sabbath day" (Matt. 24:20). Again, just as pregnancy and winter presented physical obstacles to travel, so did the Sabbath. Following are some reasons that Sabbath travel was difficult in Judea in the first century:

1. Sabbath journeys were prohibited by the Jews - Josephus wrote:
"Nor is it lawful for us to journey, either on the Sabbath day, or on a festival day."5
If the Christians violated this prohibition, they could likely suffer trouble:
"Journeys were prohibited by the law of the Sabbath, Ex. 16:19. The law of Moses did not mention the distance to which persons might go on the Sabbath; but most of the Jews maintained that it should not be more than two thousand cubits. Some supposed that it was seven furlongs, or nearly a mile. This distance was allowed, in order that they might go to their places of worship. Most of them held that it was not lawful to go farther, under any circumstances of war or affliction. Jesus teaches them to pray that it might not be on the Sabbath, because if they should not go farther than a Sabbath-day's journey, they would not be beyond the reach of danger, and if they did, they would be exposed to the charge of violating the law."6
2. Gates of Jerusalem were closed on Sabbath - God prohibited the Jews from carrying any loads through the gates on the Sabbath:
Thus says the Lord, "Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. And you shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers." (Jer 17:21-22)
People starting out on a journey would almost certainly be carrying food and provisions for their journey. Such an act of disrespect for the Sabbath would no doubt incur the wrath of the Jewish zealots guarding the gates of the city. Furthermore, it is likely that most, if not all, of the gates to the city would have been closed on the Sabbath day. The practice of closing the gates of Jerusalem during the Sabbath and having authorities stationed at the gates to check for loads was established during the days of Nehamiah and still practiced, to some extent, after the death of Christ:
And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and [some] of my servants set I at the gates, [that] there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day. (Neh. 13:19)
3. More Difficulties of Sabbath Travel - It is highly unlikely that a large group of Christians fleeing with their belongings, their food, their water, and other provisions would escape the attention of the Jewish authorities guarding the gates of the city. But, even if they could have done so, Sabbath travel had other difficulties. Since the Jews did not buy or sell on the Sabbath, it would have been difficult for the travelers to obtain any food or provisions during the Sabbath day itself. It would also have been difficult to rent any animals or wagons needed to transport the elderly or children.7

Was Jesus emphasizing a Sabbath Commandment?

Jesus' statement about the Sabbath is set within the context of the hardships of travel (pregnancy, nursing women, winter). As noted above, there were several physical hardships associated with Sabbath travel. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Christ was referring to the difficulties of Sabbath travel, not the holiness of the day, when He asked Christians to pray that their flight would not be upon the Sabbath day. But how can we know that for sure?

In light of Christ's teachings regarding the Sabbath, would it make sense for Him to enforce a restriction on Sabbath travel to escape certain death at the hands of a brutal enemy? When Jesus was condemned for healing on the Sabbath, He posed this question to the Jews:

And He said to them, "Which one of you shall have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?" (Luke 14:5)

It was permissible under Jewish law to rescue someone whose health or safety was in danger, even when it was an animal. Jesus never rebuked this practice, but instead, He used it as a defense for His own conduct on the Sabbath. If Jesus would allow the saving of an ox or donkey on the Sabbath, why would He not also permit Christians to save their own lives and their family members' lives on the Sabbath? Is the Sabbath day so holy that one cannot even take measures to save their own life? We would be forced to conclude so, if we were to believe Ellen White. If we were to believe that Jesus warned Christians about fleeing on the Sabbath because it was a violation of His Sabbath law, then that would imply that Jesus did not look favorably on anyone attempting to save their lives by fleeing on the Sabbath day. This would imply that the letter of the law was more important to Jesus than mercy. Of course, this is absurd.

For Jesus to refuse Christians the right to flee for their lives on the Sabbath is contrary to everything that Jesus taught about the Sabbath. When the disciples were condemned by the Pharisees for breaking the "letter of the law" by eating grain on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-2), Jesus responded by quoting Hosea 6:6:

But if ye had known what [this] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matt. 12:7)

Jesus placed human needs above the "letter of the law". It is ludicrous to claim that Jesus warned against Sabbath travel because it would be a violation of the Sabbath commandment. If Jesus would permit healing of the physical body and feeding of the physical body on the Sabbath, then why wouldn't He permit the saving of the entire physical body by allowing people to escape on the Sabbath? Jesus taught that the life of a human is more important than Sabbath restrictions (Mark 2:27, Matt. 12:8).8

God permits Israel to engage in military campaigns on Sabbath

When the Israelites were commanded by God to march around the city of Jericho, the priests and soldiers marched each and every day for a week, including upon the Sabbath. The military operation at Jericho was not even a defensive action, but an assualt. Why would God would permit His army to engage in an offensive military operation on the Sabbath and yet refuse to permit civilians from engaging in a withdrawl to save their lives?

If the Israelites refused to engage in battle on the Sabbath, how long would their nation have survived? In the historical book of Maccabees there is recorded one incident where a group of Jews were hiding in the mountains and refused to defend themselves upon the Sabbath. In the ensuing attack, 1,000 "obedient" Jews were slaughtered. After that event, the leaders made the following declaration:

At that time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the sabbath day, we will fight against him: neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places. (1 Maccabees 2:41, Septuagint LXX)

There is no evidence that God ever forbid Israelites from engaging in military operations on the Sabbath. Evacuating civilians before the arrival of an oposing attacking army could certainly be considered a military operation, and there is no justification whatsoever for Jesus to evoke the Fourth Commandment as a reason for them not to evacuate on the Sabbath.

Do Seventh-day Adventists permit travel on the Sabbath?

Even Seventh-day Adventists allow their hospitals to operate on the Sabbath. Physicians and nurses work even though the commandment forbids work. Ambulances journey out to pick up patients and bring them back to the hospital, and Adventists seem to have no difficulty accepting this form of Sabbath travel. If it is okay for ambulance workers to go out and rescue people on the Sabbath day, then what, pray tell, is the problem with people evacuating a city to save their lives on the Sabbath?

When a massive hurricane is moving toward the shore, ready to strike a city on the Sabbath day, do Seventh-day Adventists warn their members in that city to stay in their homes because it would violate the Sabbath commandment for them to flee on the Sabbath day? No, of course not! That would be absurd! Likewise, it is equally absurd to suppose that Christ would forbid Christians from traveling on the Sabbath to save their lives.


Mrs. White took a Bible passage that had nothing to do with Sabbath observance by Christians and used it in a manner that is inconsistent with the context of the verse, and inconsistent with the teachings of Christ regarding the Sabbath. The context of the verse is clearly pointing to the physical difficulties of traveling:

  • Travel for pregnant and nursing women would be very difficult
  • Winter cold and storms would make travel extremely difficult
  • Travel on Sabbath would be difficult because of....
    • Closed city gates
    • Laws against carrying burdens
    • Laws against traveling more than 1 mile
    • Laws against buying and selling

It would be totally contrary to the teachings of Christ for Him to forbid Christians from fleeing from Jerusalem on Sabbath to save their lives. Jesus repeatedly stressed the importance of placing human necessities above Sabbath restrictions. It would make no sense for Him to bring up the Sabbath commandment in this context. Even in the Old Testament God permitted various military operations on the Sabbath. The only reasonable explanation of Jesus' reference to the Sabbath is that He was concerned with the difficulties His believers would face if they were forced to leave Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.


1. Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 630,

2. Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, Book 4, Chapter 9, Section 1.

3. Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, Book 5, Chapter 12, Section 3.

4. See note on Matt. 24:20 in People's New Testament Notes, Online Bible Millennium Edition: "Because the streams were then impassable torrents from the heavy rains and the weather cold and wet, hard on homeless people."

5. Josephus, The Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 13, Chapter 8, Section 4.

6. Barnes, New Testament Notes, Matt. 24:20, Online Bible Millennium Edition.

7. Animals, wagons, and food could possibly have been obtained the next day in surrounding towns, but those smaller cities would not have had the same supply of these items that Jerusalem had. Because of the shorter supply, they most likely would have been more expensive, and perhaps some items would have been difficult or even impossible to find in the surrounding towns.

8. Paul went on numerous missionary journeys, some of which took weeks to complete, and thus had to extend across Sabbath days. How could it be acceptable for Paul to take journeys on the Sabbath, and yet wrong for people to save their own lives upon the Sabbath?

Category: Bible vs. Mrs. White
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