When trouble comes, you have two choices: fight or flight. Fleeing is the underrated choice. In these days of belligerence and bullying, the temptation is to fight or die. Yet Jesus told his disciples that there would be times when fleeing is the better option:
Whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next. (Matthew 10:23)
Contrary to what you may have heard, Jesus does not expect you to die for the cause. He died so that you might live, and sometimes that means running for your life. Live a life of authentic Christianity, and you will be persecuted, especially if you preach the gospel of grace. If you decide to fight whenever trouble comes, you won’t last long.
“Endure to the end and be saved,” said Jesus, and the context – believe it or not – was running away.
Consider the Apostle Paul. He experienced trouble almost everywhere he went and his usual response was to move away (e.g., Acts 17:10, 14, 20:1). He heeded the words of the Lord and lived.
Imagine if he hadn’t. Imagine if Paul had been a fighter instead of a runner? He would’ve died in Iconium (Acts 14:5-6). Or Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). Or Berea (Acts 17:13).
We wouldn’t have a New Testament.
Jesus told the disciples to expect trouble, but he also told them how to avoid it. This second part is not well understood. As Christians, we expect blowback and persecution, but we sometimes don’t know what to do when it comes. We have not learned how to live at peace in a hostile world.
The flight option kept the Apostle Paul alive. It also kept the Christians alive when the Romans came to Judea in AD68.
Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:16)
This is the most specific running away instruction in the Bible and the context is the Olivet Discourse. “When you see the Romans coming, it’s time to run, get out, and stay alive.” And this is what the believers did. They fled, they lived. In contrast, the unbelievers – those who did not heed Jesus – put their faith in the walls of Jerusalem and were slaughtered.
Notice that Jesus says flee to the mountains. On the face of it, this makes no sense. The three disciples who were with Jesus when he said it might have asked, “Why the mountains, Jesus?”
At the time they were on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the doomed city. No one in Jerusalem would flee south to the wilderness. (No water.) Nor would they go east to the Dead Sea. (Wrong sort of water.) But why go north to the mountains? (Too cold.) Why not flee west to the coast with its harbors and ships?
The coastal plain was the sensible option. From Jerusalem, it’s downhill all the way. The disciples might have reasonably asked, “Why mountains, Lord? Why not flee to the coast?”
Jesus might have said, “Because the Romans will be there.”
By the late ‘60s, Israel’s coastal plain was crawling with bad guys. Vespasian arrived at Ptolemais on the northern coast, his son Titus marched up from Alexandria in the south, and together they made their headquarters at coastal Caesarea in the middle. All the coastal towns west of Jerusalem, were quickly taken by the Roman invaders.
If you were trying to flee the Roman hordes, the coastal route was suicide. Far better to scoot north out of troubled Judea, stay away from occupied Galilee, and find refuge in the hilly but safe towns of the Decapolis. Which is just what the Christians did.
Jesus told the disciples when to flee, where to flee, and how fast to flee:
Whoever is on the housetop must not go down to get the things out that are in his house. (Matthew 24:17)
In other words, if you’re still here when the Romans are coming, run, don’t walk. Don’t waste time packing your bags. Just grab your kids and go.
The Romans came at Jerusalem from three directions simultaneously. One legion marched from Emmaus in the east, another came up the hill from Jericho in the west, and the rest approached from Mt. Scopus in the north. The smart folks would have left already, but if you were in Jerusalem when the Romans came, there was still time to slip away – provided you legged it.
Pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath. (Matthew 24:20)
Winter was not a good time to travel. The roads were muddy and rough which is why the kings of old waited until spring before going to war (2 Sam. 11:1). Plus the hill country of Israel gets cold. They have ski fields. I have been in the Golan Heights in winter and it was miserable.
Why not flee on the Sabbath? Since long journeys on the Sabbath were forbidden (Ex. 16:29), anyone traveling could expect the gates and doors of the towns to be shut (Neh. 13:19–22). There would be no place to stay.
“Flee to the mountains.” Jesus’ directions would’ve seemed counterintuitive to the disciples, like a faulty GPS, but they proved to be pure gold. As is often the case, choosing to trust Jesus was the difference between life and death.
Adapted and expanded from AD70 and the End of the World.
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