In speaking to His disciples about a coming time of great destruction, Jesus mentioned what happened to Lot’s wife and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Remember Lot’s wife!” He said. “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it” (Luke 17:32–33).
The story of Lot and his wife is found in Genesis 19. God had determined to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness (Genesis 18:16–33), and two angels warned Abraham’s nephew Lot to evacuate the city so he and his family would not be destroyed. In Genesis 19 we read, The two [angels in the form of] men said to Lot, ‘Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the LORD against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it’” (verses 12–13).
At dawn the next day, the angels hurried Lot and his family out of Sodom so they would not be destroyed with the city. When Lot hesitated, “the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the LORD was merciful to them. As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, ‘Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!’” (Genesis 19:16–17).
As the family fled, “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens” (Genesis 19:24). But, then, in disobedience to the angel’s command, “Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (verse 26).
Lot’s wife lost her life because she “looked back.” This was more than just a glance over the shoulder; it was a look of longing that indicated reluctance to leave or a desire to return. Whatever the case, the point is she was called to desert everything to save her life, but she could not let go, and she paid for it with her life. In Judaism, Lot’s wife became a symbol for a rebellious unbeliever.
Jesus cites this story in Luke 17, as He describes a future event: “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it” (verses 28–33).
When “the Son of Man is revealed,” it will be time for people to flee. There will be no time to take anything along. If you see the sign when you are on the roof (a rooftop deck with exterior stairs was a common feature of houses at the time), you should not even take time to go into the house to gather up your possessions. You need to get out and “don’t look back.” Lot’s wife is the example of what will happen if you do. If you try to save your life (that is, your things that your life is made up of), you will lose everything. Leave it all to save your life.
The scenario is similar to a person who wakes up in the middle of the night to find the house in flames. That person might be tempted to run around and gather up valuable items, but the delay might prevent escape—all the things will be lost, as well as the person’s life. It is better to leave it all behind and get out with your life. The principle is clear, but the exact referent is more difficult to discern.
The revelation of the Son of Man is the event in view in Luke 17. Mark 13:14–16 records much the same message without the mention of Lot’s wife. There, the sign is “the abomination that causes desolation” (see also Matthew 24:15–18). Finally, Jesus mentions a similar situation in Luke 21:20–21: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.”
The above passages are open to several different approaches to interpretation, centered on when this will take place. If we are correct that all of these passages describe roughly the same event(s), it would seem that “the day the Son of Man is revealed,” “the abomination that causes desolation,” and “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” all refer to the signal that it is time to flee.
Outside of Luke 17, the warnings to flee are found in the context of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (see Luke 21:5–7 and Mark 13:1–4). In Matthew 24:1–3, Jesus also deals with the destruction of the temple, except there the disciples also ask specifically about “the sign of your coming and the end of the age.” So, at least some of the prophecy was fulfilled in the first century with the destruction of the temple, but that does not preclude a future, fuller fulfillment at the second coming. The wording in Luke 17, in which Jesus speaks of the revelation of the Son of Man, certainly seems to suggest the second coming (see Colossians 3:4).
Jewish believers in the first century faced persecution from Rome, often at Jewish instigation. As long as Christians were considered a sect of Judaism, they enjoyed religious freedom as Jews. However, as they were denounced by Jewish leaders and no longer considered part of Judaism, the full force of Roman expectations applied to them, including the requirement to affirm the creed “Caesar is Lord” and offer sacrifices to Caesar. If Christians failed to do this, they could be punished, imprisoned, or even killed. As a result, believing Jews faced continual pressure to “go back to the temple.” The book of Hebrews encourages believing Jews to remain true to Christ and not return to the Old Covenant system of the temple, priests, and sacrifices. Hebrews explains that the Old Covenant has passed.
There may have been some believing Jews in Judea who still had some attachment to the temple. In Luke 17, Jesus warns that there will come a time when they see a symbol of impending judgment, and they will need to get out of the area as quickly as possible. Just as God rained down wrath on Sodom and Gomorrah, He will judge Jerusalem. The coming wrath is no time for divided loyalties. While many believed that God would never allow the temple to be destroyed, Jewish Christians knew that the usefulness of the temple had passed and its days were numbered. They could stay on in Jerusalem and witness of the resurrected Christ, but when they saw that judgment was about to fall, they knew to get out. Eusebius in his Church History records that they did escape. By abandoning everything and getting out of the city, the Christians not only saved their lives but also gave testimony to the fact that the Old Covenant had been replaced by the New.
A similar sentiment is expressed by Jesus in other contexts, although Lot’s wife is not mentioned. Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). In context, Jesus is talking about people who want to follow Him but are hindered by their concern for other things. It is not just that they look back, but they have divided loyalties, like Lot’s wife.
Jesus also used the statement “whoever wants to save his life shall lose it” in a number of different contexts (Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24; 17:33). Regardless of the specifics of the context, following Jesus requires turning our backs on the “life” that this world offers. Attempting to “save your life” is the same as “looking back.” Attachment to our “old life” will cause us to lose our lives, and Lot’s wife is the illustration and example that we would do well to remember.