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From Sabbath to Sunday

When did the Church begin to worship on Sunday instead of Saturday, the Hebrew Sabbath? On this question hinges the conclusion to many arguments with Fundamentalists, especially Sabbatarians (the Seventh-Day Adventists are the best known) who owe their raison d’etre to the conviction that the early Church apostatized when it abandoned observance of the traditional Sabbath. Let’s answer this charge by taking a look at the facts about the Sabbath in the Old and New Testaments. 

The Sabbath in the Old Testament

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). That God’s creation was perfect is implied by the fact that on the seventh day he rested; he had accomplished everything in the way he desired. The Jewish concept that the number seven is the perfect number has developed from the creation story as well as from the Sabbath. That seven is the perfect number is reinforced by the septenary structure in the text of Genesis. Hebrew Genesis 1:1 has seven words and the second verse fourteen. Three nouns (“God,” “heavens,” and “earth”) occur in the first verse and are repeated in the story in numbers divisible by seven: “God” thirty-five times; “earth” twenty-one times; and “heavens” twenty-one times. It is particularly significant that the seventh and last section (Gen. 2:2–3) which deals with the seventh day has in Hebrew three consecutive sentences (three for emphasis), each of which consists of seven words and contains in the middle the expression “the seventh day.”

Sabbatarians (those who worship on Saturday) argue that God’s rest on the seventh day—since God obviously did not need to rest—was setting an example for man. But the word “Sabbath” is not found in Genesis and nothing is said about Adam and Eve resting. Moreover, in Eden God provided everything needed for the happiness of Adam and Eve and there was no work for them to do. Work entered into the world only as a part of the curse of sin: “Because you . . . have eaten from the tree . . . by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:17–19). Prior to their sin, Adam and Eve were in God’s perpetual rest and fellowship; observance of a Sabbath would have been superfluous. 

A more likely reason behind God’s seventh-day rest may be seen in a recurring theme of the creation story: “And there was evening and there was morning, a second day” (Gen. 1:5). This pattern is repeated for the first six days but missing on the seventh day, suggesting that God’s rest was not to establish one day per week of rest (though it did foreshadow the Sabbath), but to institute a time of perpetual rest and open fellowship with himself. In sanctifying the seventh day (Gen. 2:3) God sanctified his creation. He had made the perfect world and he blessed it. 

When then was Sabbath instituted? For this we must go to Exodus 16:23–24: “Moses told [the Israelites], ‘That is what the Lord prescribed. Tomorrow is a day of complete rest, the Sabbath, sacred to the Lord. You may either bake or boil the manna as you please; but what ever is left put away and keep for the morrow.’” Thus, the first mention of Sabbath is in connection with the manna. 

The Sabbath law is restated in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work . . . for in six days the Lord had made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:8–11). In Genesis, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy; in Exodus God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. This verse of Exodus has been used to suggest that the Sabbath was instituted at the time of creation. But if God’s rest on the seventh day is viewed as the beginning of a time of perpetual rest and fellowship with man, this Exodus passage can be seen as ironical: The Sabbath was but an infinitesimal reminder of what man would have enjoyed had Adam not sinned.

There was a list of activities that were forbidden on the Sabbath: Do not go out of your place (Ex. 16:19); do not bake or boil (Ex. 16:23); do not do any work (Ex. 20:10); do not build a fire (Ex. 35:1,3); do not carry a load (Jer. 17:27, Neh. 1:15); do not buy or sell (Neh. 10:31); and do not do your own pleasure (Isa. 58:13–14). Rather on the Sabbath one should keep the day holy (Ex. 20:8); rest (Ex 31:15); observe or celebrate the day (Ex. 31:16); and delight in the Lord (Isa. 58:14). The Sabbath laws given to the Israelites told them to behave very much as Adam and Eve behaved in Eden. It is also interesting to consider that nearly all the prohibitions given in connection with the Sabbath would have been meaningless to Adam and Eve on that first seventh day before sin entered the world. 

The Sabbath in the New Testament

Though the Gospels report that Jesus observed the Sabbath, there are several incidents where he is accused of violating Sabbath law (Jn. 9:16, Jn 7:23, Mk. 3:4). It is interesting that in various passages the Lord restates all of the decalogue except for one commandment. “And Jesus replied, You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 19:18–19). “It is written: ‘The Lord your God shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve’” (Mt. 4:10). Finally, “But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne” (Mt. 5:34). The commandment Jesus didn’t restate? To keep holy the Sabbath.

Our Lord defends his disciples when the Jews attacked them for not observing the Sabbath, ending his comments by saying: “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:1–8). Or again, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). The fact that Jesus rebukes too severe an interpretation of Sabbath law (Lk. 13:10–16, 14:1–5; Jn. 5:9–18, 7:22) suggests that the he was not pleased with the way that the Sabbath was being observed. 

Sabbatarians argue that the Lord observed the Sabbath and we should imitate Christ in this. This reasoning, however, fails to consider that our Lord was still under the old covenant when he observed the Sabbath. Indeed, Christ perfectly observed the Sabbath as he did all of the old covenant. However, after he enunciated a new covenant at the Last Supper, his emphasis seems to be on Sundays. Sunday was the day he was found to have been resurrected, and his first two appearance to the twelve disciples were on the following two Sundays (Jn. 20:19, 20:26). Again, five weeks later—on Sunday—the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. 

Throughout the book of Acts, Luke reports mass conversions of the Jews in Jerusalem, and notes that many were devout Jews and priests (Acts 2:5,41; 6:7) who remained “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). There is no suggestion in the New Testament that these devout Christianized Jews gave up Sabbath worship. The church in Asia, with Paul as its teacher, was confronted by Jewish-Christians who insisted that new Christians be circumcised as Old Testament law commanded. The disciples met in Jerusalem in the year 49 to resolve this matter. At that Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:10–21), Peter, James, and the other apostles set aside the law of circumcision, a law that was a sign of God’s covenental relationship with the chosen people and which was an “everlasting pact ” (Gen. 17:13). While there was much debate in Jerusalem on whether or not Gentile Christians should be exempted from circumcision, the council was silent on the matter of Sabbath worship; this suggests that Sabbath versus Sunday worship was not an issue at that time.

Around the year 60, circumstantial evidence suggests that the Roman church began to worship on Sunday. For instance, in the year 50 the Christian church in Rome was considered to be a sect of Judaism; fourteen years later these same Christians were clearly understood to be distinct from the Jews. (Nero blamed the Christians for the fires in Rome in 64.) That such a sharp change could occur in this short span of time suggests that there was a significant external difference in the practices of the two faiths. The change of Christian worship from Sabbath to Sunday would certainly have allowed for this distinction.

The Council of Jerusalem’s decision on circumcision may have changed the way the early Church viewed Sabbath as well. One can almost hear the discussions of the Gentile Christians of the time: “Did not the Council of Jerusalem set aside the ‘everlasting’ law of circumcision? Should not the Church then set aside the other old covenant law—the Sabbath law?” Jewish Christians, similarly. would have questioned how many of the old covenant Sabbath regulations applied under the new covenant, for Sabbath rules were legion and varied from one rabbi to the next. Thus in the era following the Jerusalem Council it seems inconceivable that the apostles were not asked about the observance of the Sabbath.

It is not surprising then to find several New Testament comments addressing this matter. Let us begin with Colossians 2:17–19: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” This verse has been vigorously debated. What is meant by “Sabbath day”? How are we to understand “Let no man judge you”?

The Old Testament usage of the terms listed in Colossians 2:16 (“festival,” “new moon,” and “Sabbath”) make clear beyond question that Paul is referring to the weekly Sabbath. In the Old Testament, Sabbath convocations—that is, the list of Sabbaths (days), new moons (months), and fixed festivals (seasons)—were listed in ascending or descending order. The ascending order of 1 Chronicles 23:31—”. . . and whenever burnt offerings are offered to the Lord on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them”—is echoed in 2 Chronicles 2:4, 8:12–13, and 31:3; whereas a descending order—”And it shall be the prince’s part to provide the burnt offerings, the grain offering, and the drink offerings, at the feasts, on the new moons, and on the Sabbaths, as all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel”—is used in 1 Chronicles 23:31. In Colossians 2:16–17 Paul uses the same structure as the Old Testament writers, allowing us to be sure that he is writing about not only the yearly and seasonal Sabbaths, but also about the weekly Sabbath. 

When Paul writes “Let no one pass judgment on you,” the text suggests that the ones who were doing the judging were the Jewish Christians who were practicing the old covenant convocations and other dietary aberrations of Christianity. Finally, Paul writes that the Sabbath is a shadow of things to come, and that the substance is in Christ. It is clear from this text that Paul, like the Old Testament writers, considered all the Old Testament convocations as inseparable; indeed, in saying that all three are a mere shadow of things to come, he makes no distinction between the first two terms and the third. Paul concludes that the reality lies in Christ. The Greek literally reads: “but the body is of Christ,” meaning that all of our lives and all of our energies need to be submitted to Christ who is ever present to us and that the old covenant convocations such as the Sabbath are no longer binding.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, written around 57–58, he says, “For one person considers one day more important than another, while another person considers all days alike. Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind. Whoever observes the day observes it to the Lord” (Rom. 14:5–6). The apostle is speaking here about the day which is being observed to the Lord, i.e., the day of worship. He notes that this is up to each person to decide. It must be noted, however, that Paul does not specifically mention the Sabbath here. 

From these texts it seems clear that Paul considered Sabbath observance a matter of personal conviction that was not important in itself. Moreover, since Paul was presumably responding to the churches in Colossae, Galatia, and Rome about matters which concerned them, it seems clear that some Christians were worshiping on days other that Sabbath in Rome and in Asia Minor around 54–58. 

Around the years 80–90, Christians were thrown out of the synagogues. This may have provided further stimulus for Christians to change their worship from Sabbath to Sunday. The apostle John wrote his gospel in this same time frame, significant because it provided for Christians an explanation of how God could change an “everlasting” law. John wrote how the world had been symbolically created anew in Jesus. One implication of this is that with the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ one eternity had ended and another had begun. God could therefore abrogate an everlasting law and still not contradict himself. 

The Sabbath in the Post-Apostolic Age

In Syria, following the death of the last apostle, a guide for the teaching of Christians was written called the “Doctrine of the Apostles,” or the Didache. Its use was reported by church historians but the document itself was lost for centuries. It was found around 1900 in a manuscript dating back to the year 1000. The Didache taught: “On the Lord’s own day, gather together and break bread.” This is a clear reference invoking Christians to worship on Sunday written around the year 100.

In the year 110—only twelve years after the death of the last apostle—Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, calls the Sabbath “antiquated.” The full passage of the letter of Ignatius to the Magnesians, reads: “Do not be led astray by other doctrines nor by old fables which are worthless. For if we have been living by now according to Judaism, we must confess that we have not received grace. The prophets . . . who walked in ancient customs came to a new hope, no longer Sabbatizing but living by the Lord’s day, on which we came to life through Him and through His death.”

There is widespread belief among Christian scholars that the institution of Sunday worship occurred in the apostolic or post-apostolic age in commemoration of the Resurrection. The New Testament itself never calls Sunday the day of the Resurrection but consistently “the first day of the week.” Moreover, nowhere does the New Testament suggest that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection. Neither do the earliest post-apostolic writings invoke the Resurrection as a reason for Sunday worship. 

The Epistle of Barnabas (A.D. 130–135) is the first explicit mention of Lord’s day worship being based on the Resurrection. Barnabas writes: “Finally He [God] says to them: ‘I cannot bear your new moons and Sabbaths.’ You see what he means: It is not the present Sabbaths that are acceptable to me, but the one that I have made; on that Sabbath day, which is the beginning of another world. This is why we spend the eighth day in celebration, the day on which Jesus both arose from the dead and, after appearing again, ascended into heaven.”

In the year 135 Jerusalem was sacked and the Roman emperor Hadrian prohibited Sabbath worship throughout the Roman Empire. Hadrian also prohibited anyone of Jewish descent from living in Jerusalem. A new Christian community was recruited for Jerusalem from other nations, and the bishops of Jerusalem until the mid–third century bore Greek and Roman names. Thus, after 135, even the Jerusalem Church worshiped on Sundays. Hadrian’s prohibition against Sabbath worship spelled the end of the Sabbath-or-Sunday problem for the early Church. Another council was not necessary.

Justin Martyr confirmed the non-issue of Sunday worship in 150, writing: “On Sunday, we meet to celebrate the Lord’s supper and read the Gospels and Sacred Scripture, the first day on which God changed darkness, and made the world, and on which Christ rose from the dead.” It is worth pointing out that the unity of intent in the writings of the apostolic fathers speaks to the worldwide acceptance of Sunday worship between 100–150.

In the year 321 the emperor Constantine made a new edict known as the Sunday decree: “All judges and city people and the craftsmen shall rest upon the venerable Day of the Sun. Country people, however, may freely attend to the cultivation of the fields, because it frequently happens that no other days are better adapted for planting the grain in the furrows or the vines in trenches. So that the advantage given by heavenly providence may not for the occasion of a short time perish.”

At the time this law was instituted Sunday worship had been universally practiced in the Church for at least 170 years. The significance of the law, however, was that in sanctioning Sunday as a day of rest the emperor implicitly recognized Christianity as the state religion. (Constantine refers to Sunday as the “Day of the Sun” according to the Roman tradition.)

In her book Cosmic Conflict, published in 1844, Seventh-Day Adventist prophetess Ellen White argues that the early Christian Church became apostate at the time of the decree of Constantine (p. 551–554). This opinion is refuted by current scholarship even from Seventh-Day Adventists. S. Bacchiocchi, a leading sabbatarian SDA scholar, writes in From Sabbath to Sunday (1997) that the change in worship days began around the year 60 in Rome but was not generally accepted until after the decree of Hadrian in 135 (p. 303–321).

There is a glaring inconsistency in Mrs. White’s belief that the church apostatized in 321: She accepts specific doctrines approved by the Catholic Church after the date of alleged apostasy. Three examples will suffice to make the point: (1) the canon of the New Testament was approved in 393 at the Council of Hippo; (2) the doctrine of the Trinity was defined in 325 at the Council of Nicea; and (3) the doctrine of the true manhood true Godship of Jesus was defined in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.

Sabbatarians hold that the Sabbath is part of the decalogue, which is the immutable law of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the ten commandments are “fundamentally immutable” (no. 2072). However, the Church considers the Sabbath to have two.aspects: an essential part to worship the Lord on one day per week and a ceremonial part as to the exact day.

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