Matthew 24:20 and closed gates on the Sabbath
by Edwin M. Cotto
When Jesus warned the Christians to pray that their escape does not take place on the Sabbath in Matthew 24:20, he was not so much concerned with their Sabbath keeping as with their safety. Nehemiah 13:19 says that the city gates would be closed on the Sabbath which would make it difficult for them to escape.
THE SHORT ANSWER
Actually Jesus really was concerned with their safety but it was because they would have been keeping the Sabbath! When Jesus made his prediction the Jews were accustomed to gathering together in synagogues and homes. Leviticus 23:3 commanded that they gather in “holy convocations.” Because it is easier to take out your enemies when they are gathered together in one place, Jesus hopes that the siege does not take place on the Sabbath. To say that the concern was the closed gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath disregards the fact that Jesus was talking about all of Judea and not just the city. And when you take into account what history actually says took place, you realize that closed gates would probably have not been an issue anyway. Josephus tells us that on one Sabbath the zealous Jews left their posts to fight the Romans outside the city! Had the siege taken place on the Sabbath, no doubt the rage of the Jews would have caused them to disregard the Sabbath again just to be able to fight the Romans. Moreover, God was constantly opening gates during that time anyway. For Peter, He opened a gate to offer him a way of escape (Acts 12:10) and Josephus tells us that the gates of the Temple were being miraculously opened just prior to the destruction! If gates would have truly been a concern, why was God opening them during that time? Could He not have opened the gates on the Sabbath for His people as they sought to escape from the city in response to Jesus’ warning? The fact of the matter is that Jesus’ warning to pray that their flight does not take place on the Sabbath had nothing to do with closed gates. His warning implies that they would be keeping the Sabbath, and having to pray regarding this matter constantly reminded them of the Sabbath for the next forty years, an important point that the critics seemed to have missed entirely.
THE LONG ANSWER
In context of Matthew 24:20, Jesus was talking about the Roman army which would surround and sack Jerusalem.(1) The concern actually was their safety. As the prayer was also for pregnant and nursing women, and for the hope that it doesn’t take place during the winter, both of which would cause difficulty in travel, so the concern was that it would be difficult to escape on the Sabbath day.
But the question is why? Why would it be difficult to escape from the city on the Sabbath? The late D. M. Canright, a former Adventist, promulgated the idea that what would hinder their flight on the Sabbath would be the gates of the city. Modern critics use the same argument, quoting from Nehemiah 13:19 to prove that the city gates would have been closed on the Sabbath.(2) Accordingly, when Jesus warned to pray that the escape does not take place on the Sabbath, He was not so much concerned with the sacredness of the Sabbath as with their inability to escape through city gates.
A FLAWED FOUNDATION
But like most antisabbatarian arguments, the foundation is flawed, which makes the rest of the argument erroneous. It is true that Nehemiah 13:19 commanded that the gates of the city be closed on the Sabbath days. But Nehemiah was talking about the gates of the city. The chapter nowhere commands that any other gates (if there even were any other gates) be close around the country of Judea. The reason why this is an important detail is because Jesus’ comment pertains, not to Jerusalem merely, but to all of Judea!(3) How then would closed gates be a concern? “An assertion so often and so confidently uttered should be well-founded in truth,” said J. N. Andrews, an early Adventist pioneer, and apologist of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, “yet a brief examination will show that such is not the case. 1. The Savior’s language has reference to the whole land of Judea, and not to Jerusalem only: “Let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains.” The closing of the city gates could not therefore affect the flight of but a part of the disciples.”(4) Thus the Lord could not have had closed city gates in mind when he warned against having to flee on the Sabbath day. His concern was for all believers most of which would be outside the city gates.
NOTHING HINDERED THEIR FLIGHT
Some critics make the assertion that the flight of the disciples would have grabbed the attention of the zealous Jews who were guarding the gates of the city. But it is likely that neither Jews nor closed gates would have been an issue because the zealous Jews would easily disregard the Sabbath in order to fight with the Romans! Notice the historical record:
“But when Cestius had marched from Antipatris to Lydda, he found the city empty of its men, for the whole multitude were gone up to Jerusalem to the feast of tabernacles yet did he destroy fifty of those that showed themselves, and burnt the city, and so marched forwards; and ascending by Betboron, he pitched his camp at a certain place called Gabao, fifty furlongs distant from Jerusalem.”(5)
All males were required to appear at the city during the feast (Deut. 16:16), and thus the land itself was left without Jewish hindrance. But notice how the quote then continues by saying that the zealous Jews actually discarded with the Sabbath altogether, in order to attack the Romans:
“But as for the Jews, when they saw the war approaching to their metropolis, they left the feast, and betook themselves to their arms; and taking courage greatly from their multitude, went in a sudden and disorderly manner to the fight, with a great noise, and without any consideration had of the rest of the seventh day, although the Sabbath was the day to which they had the greatest regard; but that rage which made them forget the religious observation [of the sabbath] made them too hard for their enemies in the fight: with such violence therefore did they fall upon the Romans…”(6)
A few days later the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, giving the disciples the sign Jesus told them to look for, and the record says that after an unsuccessful attack on the wall, the Roman general “retired from the city, without any reason in the world.”(7) Guess what the zealous Jews did? The same thing they did a few days before! They “ran after the hinder parts of his army, and destroyed a considerable number of both their horsemen and footmen…”(8) Thus the way was opened for the disciples to flee from the city unhindered. “Had the flight of Cestius happened upon the Sabbath,” Andrews perceptively notes, “undoubtedly the Jews would have pursued him upon that day, as under less exciting circumstances they had a few days before gone out several miles to attack him upon the Sabbath. It is seen, therefore, that whether in city or country, the disciples were not in danger of being attacked by their enemies, even had their flight been upon the Sabbath day.”(9) We see therefore that the issue of closed gates would not likely have formed a problem for the fleeing disciples anyway and actually that in the providence of God, the way was opened for them to flee unhindered.(10) Had gates been a true concern for the Lord, he probably would have said so.(11)
NOTHING WRONG WITH FLEEING FOR SAFETY ON THE SABBATH
Critics make a big deal about having to flee on the Sabbath. But why would Jesus think it wrong for people to flee for their safety on the Sabbath, while He constantly healed people on the Sabbath? Didn’t He rebuke the Pharisees in Matthew 12:11 for thinking it is better to save an animal who falls into a pit on the Sabbath, and not a man with a withered hand? Did he not tell them that it was permissible or “lawful” to do good on the Sabbath (verse 12)? So then, why would He now be concerned that they would have to do something to help themselves when they see the army approaching, while He constantly taught them the importance of saving life on the Sabbath days? It is true that the Jews had certain restrictions regarding the amount of traveling that could take place on the Sabbath (Acts 1:12) but the Law of Moses did specify how much one can travel, nor did Jesus practice it when he constantly traveled on the Sabbath to preach and heal people. This was one of the dozens of restrictive Jewish customs added to the Law which He ignored because they subjugated man while upholding legalism(12). These leaders were ignorant of the “weightier matters of the law” which Jesus said was to be “judgment, mercy and faith” while not leaving the keeping of the law “undone” (Matt. 23:23). Doing whatever it takes to save a life, even on the Sabbath, is not so much a violation of the Sabbath as it is in keeping with the very purpose of the Sabbath. It was made “for man” not against Him, and Jesus’ Old Testament example of David and the shewbread and the priests on the Sabbath prove that works of mercy are both necessary and commanded to be done on the Sabbath days!(13)
WHY DID HE TELL THEM TO PRAY REGARDING THE SABBATH?
The reason is very simple. By this time the Jews were accustomed to gathering together in assemblies on the Sabbath in accordance with God’s command to do so.(14) They would have been occupied celebrating the day, calling the Sabbath “a delight, the holy day of the Lord” not doing their own things, “nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words.”(15) It is easier to take out your enemies when they are all in one place. This simple fact implies that they would still be keeping the Sabbath! And as a concern for their safety, knowing that they would still be observing the day, Jesus asked them to pray that their flight did not have to take place on the Sabbath because the risk of capture would have been increased. Moreover, Jesus’ request would have reminded the disciples about the Sabbath for the next forty years! This point has incidentally escaped the minds of the critics.
When Nehemiah commanded that the gates be closed on the Sabbath he was not talking about any other gates except those of the city. So there certainly were closed gates on the Sabbath in the city, but Jesus was not just talking about the city. From all over Judea, when it was seen that the Romans surrounded the city, they were all to leave everything and “flee to the mountains.” It does not make sense for closed gates to form a concern for the Lord when He was also warning those disciples who lived outside those gates.
The historical record tells us that gates were not a hindrance to the disciples anyway. The very moment the Romans surrounded the city, they suddenly retreated, and the zealous Jews left their posts to go after them. Since they had done this before on the Sabbath, it goes to show that closed gates would not have been a problem for them had the attack taken place during Sabbath hours.
Finally, there would have been nothing wrong with fleeing on the Sabbath if they had to. It was lawful to do good on the Sabbath and to save lives, as Jesus constantly taught them. His prayer was not because He didn’t want them traveling on the Sabbath in order to save their lives. Rather, it was because they would have been occupied in sacred assemblies, and their diligence to observe the day would have left them surprised if the attack took place on the Sabbath.
In the process of attacking the Sabbath, it doesn’t dawn on the critics that Jesus’ warning implies that it would still be kept and that for forty years the disciples would constantly be reminded of it. The fact of the matter is that Matthew 24:20 affords strong evidence that the Sabbath was by no means abolished at the cross and that it continues “till heaven and earth pass” just as the Lord had said.
1) See the parallel passages of Mark 13:14, Luke 19:41-44, 21:20-21-24.
2) One such critic is former Adventist Dirk Anderson.
3) Matt. 24:16, Mark 13:14, Luke 21:21.
4) History of the Sabbath and the First Day of the Week, page 75. Canright was likely aware of Andrew’s defense because Andrew’s book was published in 1873, about 16 years before Canright made his arguments public in his book, “Seventh-day Adventism Renounced.” And yet Canright deliberately made the statement on page 271 that the gates of “all the villages through which they must pass would be closed.”(4) But such a statement is not candid. It is clear that in the context of Nehemiah 13 only the gates of the city are referenced, not “all the villages” or of all of Judea like Jesus said.
5) Titus Flavius Josephus, “War of the Jews,” book II, chap. 19, para. 1-2.
6) Ibid, para. 2.
7) Ibid, para. 7.
8) Ibid, para. 7.
9) History of the Sabbath and the First Day of the Week, page 75, last paragraph. I am indebted to Andrews for providing his readers with these historical sources. To read Josephus’ account for yourself, you may visit this link: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/josephus/works/files/war-2.htm
10) In fact, God was opening gates all the time. For Peter, He opened a gate to offer a way of escape (Acts 12:10) and Josephus documents that “the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple” was “seen to be opened on its own accord” (see: http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/war-6.htm, para. 3). The Jews wrote that the miraculous opening of the doors of the temple was taking place during the last forty years before the destruction of the temple (see Yoma 39b: http://halakhah.com/rst/moed/15b%20-%20Yoma%20-%2028a-61b.pdf) and they understood this as a sign of its impending destruction. If gates would have truly been a concern, why was God opening them during that time? Could He not have opened the gates on the Sabbath for His people as they sought to escape from the city in response to Jesus’ warning?
11) Dirk Anderson, a critic of Adventism, says on his website that there are other difficulties with fleeing on the Sabbath as well. “Since the Jews did not buy or sell on the Sabbath,” He says, “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.” But this is pure speculation. Who knows if after 40 years of praying about this impending emergency the disciples were already prepared for such a need. The assertion moreover shows little faith in God’s ability to provide for their necessities as they heeded the command of His Son.
12) See Mark 7:8, Matt. 15:3.
13) See the chapter entitled “Mark 2: The Sabbath made for man, not Jews.”
14) Lev. 23:3.
15) Isaiah 58:13