How, when and why was the Sabbath changed
from Saturday to Sunday?
Many Sunday observers argue that the change of the Sabbath from the seventh
to the first day of the week dates back to Jesus and His apostles. They
assert that Sunday observance replaced the seventh-day Sabbath for most
Christians as early as the first century A.D. and became a fixed custom
by the mid-second century. Therefore, they urge that all Christians today
should regard the seventh-day Sabbath as a Jewish institution that should
not be observed. Since Sunday was the first day of creation week (Gen.
1:5) and the day on which Christ rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark
16:1-9), it should be observed as a day of Christian worship and rejoicing
in accordance with the custom of the early Christian fathers. In fact,
Sunday keepers argue that observance of the seventh-day Sabbath is a highly
legalistic custom that is thoroughly consistent with those Jewish ceremonial
practices abolished when Jesus died on the cross.
This theory raises a whole series of questions in regard to the teaching
of the New Testament and the testimony of history. Did Jesus change the
day from the seventh to the first day of the week? Did the apostles urge
that Sunday be observed as a memorial of the resurrection of Christ? Did
they themselves observe Sunday as a special day of worship? Was first-day
worship a substitute for Sabbath worship for most Christians as early
as the second century A.D.? Was the Sabbath regarded by early Christians
as a purely Jewish institution with no significance for followers of Christ?
What does history have to teach us regarding the reason for the change
of the day from the seventh to the first day of the week? These questions
are vital for Christians today! If it happens to be unscriptural and unhistorical
that Sunday observance was initiated by Christ and the apostles, those
who argue so strenuously for it today are supporting a non-Christian practice.
If Jesus and the apostles observed the seventh-day Sabbath, and Sunday
keeping crept into the Christian Church over a period of centuries as
pagan ideas and practices became more and more acceptable, those who reject
the Sabbath today are spurning one of Christ's commandments and are, therefore,
in grave danger of being rejected by God. To be a Christian is to believe
and act as Jesus did (John 14:15; Rev. 3:21; 12:17; 14:12). To profess
faith in Christ while rejecting aspects of His teaching and refusing to
live and worship as He instructed is to be guilty of serious sin. "Whoever
says, 'I have come to know him,' but does not obey his commandments, is
a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys
his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection.
By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, 'I abide in him,'
ought to walk just as he walked" (1 John 2:4-6).
We will begin with the Scriptures and then turn to history for the answers
to the questions we are asking. A much more complete discussion of the
Sabbath-Sunday question can be found in the book edited by Kenneth A.
The Sabbath in Scripture and History
Review and Herald, 1982).
DID JESUS AND THE APOSTLES CHANGE THE DAY OF WORSHIP FROM THE SEVENTH-DAY
SABBATH TO SUNDAY, THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK?
The word Sunday is not found in the Bible. In the New Testament
the first day of the week is mentioned eight times. In none of the eight
instances is the first day said to be a day of worship, never is it said
to be the Christian substitute for the Old Testament Sabbath, and never
do the texts suggest that the first day of the week should be regarded
as a memorial of Christ's resurrection. Let us briefly consider each of
the eight New Testament passages that mention the first day of the week.
Matthew 28:1, "After the sabbath, as the first day of
the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the
tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake. . . ." Jesus was crucified
on Friday. He rested in the tomb over the Sabbath and rose early on Sunday
morning. The verse indicates that the women disciples returned to the
tomb at the very first opportunity after the death and burial of Jesus.
Because the Sabbath came so soon after His burial, they could not approach
the tomb again until after sundown on Sabbath evening. (The Sabbath began
at sundown on the sixth day and ended at sundown on the seventh day; compare
Lev. 23:32; Neh. 13:19; Mark 1:21, 32) Early Sunday morning was the most
convenient time for them to visit the tomb.
Mark 16:1, 2, "When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene,
and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might
go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the
sun had risen, they went to the tomb." Mark records the same
events as Matthew with the additional information that the women visited
the tomb early on the Sunday morning for the express purpose of anointing
Jesus' body with spices.
Mark 16:9, "Now after he rose early on the first day
of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast
out seven demons." This verse simply records that, after His
resurrection early on the Sunday morning, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene.
Luke 23:54 24:1, "It [the day of Jesus' death
and burial] was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning.
The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the
tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices
and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb,
taking the spices that they had prepared." The Sabbath came a few hours
after Jesus' death on the cross. The women disciples "rested the sabbath
day according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56, KJV). Then very early in
the morning of the first day they visited the tomb to anoint the body
of Jesus. The fact that they observed the Sabbath rest is sufficient indication
that Jesus had never attempted to change the day or to suggest that after
His death the first day would replace the Sabbath. Writing years after
the event, Luke gave not the slightest hint that, even though the women
disciples of Jesus observed the Sabbath, such a practice was no longer
expected of Christians. He simply recorded that the Sabbath day "according
to the commandment," which Jesus' followers were careful to observe, was
the day after the crucifixion day (Friday), and before the resurrection
John 20:1, "Early on the first day of the week, while
it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone
had been removed from the tomb." Mary Magdalene visited the
tomb early the first day of the week. Nothing is said of Sunday as a day
of worship or rest.
John 20:19, "When it was evening on that day, the first
day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met
were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and
said, 'Peace be with you.'" On the evening of the first day of the week
the disciples were assembled behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews."
Jesus appeared to them at that time. The passage does not say that henceforth
Sunday was to be the day for worship. Since it was the evening of the
first day of the week that Jesus appeared to the disciples, it was after
sundown. According to Jewish reckoning this was actually the beginning
of the second day (Monday; compare Gen. 1:5, 8). A week later when Thomas
happened to be present, Jesus met with the disciples again (verse 26).
But, writing years later, John records nothing regarding Sunday as a day
of Christian worship. John's narrative gives no warrant for regarding
Sunday as a substitute for the Sabbath or as a day to be distinguished
by Christians above any other day of the week. And there is no indication
in the passage that Sunday should henceforth be observed as a memorial
of Christ's resurrection.
Acts 20:7, "On the first day of the week, when we met
to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended
to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight."
Since the meeting was held at night on the first day of the week, it may
have been Saturday night. According to Jewish reckoning, the Sabbath ended
and the first day of the week began at sundown of the seventh day. If
it were Sunday evening, the event gives no suggestion that Sunday should
be observed as a day of worship. The following verses record that Paul
preached a sermon on Thursday. The next day after the meeting recorded
in Acts 20:7 (Monday), Paul and his party set sail for Mitylene (Acts
20:13, 14). The following day (Tuesday) they arrived opposite Chios (verse
15). The next day (Wednesday) they passed Samos (verse 15), and the day
after that (Thursday) they arrived at Miletus (verse 15). The elders of
the church of Ephesus met Paul at Miletus, and he preached to them (Acts
20:16-36). Because a Christian service was held on Thursday, do we conclude
that Thursday is a day for regular Christian worship replacing the observance
of the seventh-day Sabbath? A religious service on Sunday, Thursday, or
any other day certainly did not make that day a replacement for the seventh-day
Sabbath or a day of regular Christian worship and rest. There is no special
significance in the disciples breaking bread at this first-day meeting,
for they broke bread "daily" (Acts 2:46). We are not told that it was
a Lord's Supper celebration, nor are we told that henceforth Sunday should
be the day for this service to be conducted. To read Sunday sacredness
or Sunday observance into Acts 20:7 is to do violence to the text.
1 Corinthians 16:1, 2, "Now concerning the collection
for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave the churches of
Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and
save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when
I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters
to take your gift to Jerusalem." These verses may be literally
translated from the Greek as follows: "And concerning the collection for
the saints, as I instructed the churches of Galatia, so also you do. On
the first day of the week let each of you place (or 'lay') by himself,
storing up whatever he might be prospered, so that when I come there might
be no collections." (Italics supplied.) The phrase "by himself" (par'
heauto), followed by the participle "storing up" or "saving" (thesaupizon),
rules out the possibility that this is a reference to an offering taken
up in a worship service. The Christian believer was to check his accounts
on Sunday and put by at home the money that he wished to give to Paul
for the support of the church. When Paul arrived, then the offerings of
each individual would be collected.
None of these eight New Testament references to the first day of the
week (Sunday), provides any evidence that Jesus or His disciples changed
the day of worship from the seventh to the first day. Nor is the first
day of the week represented as a time to memorialize the resurrection
of Christ. Whatever special significance was given to Sunday in the later
history of the church, it had no basis in the teaching or practice of
Jesus and His apostles.
As pointed out in the previous chapter, Jesus instructed His disciples
to observe the Sabbath after His death (Matt. 24:20). Jesus' instruction
was incorporated into His interpretation of Daniel 8 (compare Matthew
24:15 ff.). Daniel predicted that the work of the little horn power would
continue until the setting up of God's kingdom (Dan. 8:25). Hence, Jesus'
instruction to flee from the little horn power was not confined to Christians
at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Toward the end
of time, during the great tribulation of Matthew 24:21, of which earlier
tribulations were a type or preview, God's people will be obliged to flee
again. Jesus' instruction that we pray that our flight will not be on
the Sabbath day emphasizes His will that we engage in only those activities
on the Sabbath that are consistent with worship and spiritual rest.
The record of the book of Acts (chapters 13, 1618) establishes
that the apostles consistently kept the Sabbath day as a time for worship
and fellowship. This observance was not merely a means of meeting the
Jews in the synagogue on their Sabbath day. In Philippi, Paul and his
companions met for worship by the riverside. Luke says, "On the sabbath
day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed [or "thought"
or "assumed" : Greek nomizo] there was a place for prayer. . . ." (Acts
16:13). The apostles selected a place by the river that they thought would
be appropriate for their Sabbath worship service, and there they prayed
and witnessed for their Lord.
Jesus and the apostles kept the seventh-day Sabbath and instructed others
to do likewise.
DID THE APOSTLE PAUL REJECT THE SEVENTH-DAY SABBATH?
Despite the evidence that Jesus kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16) and encouraged
His followers to do the same (Matt. 24:20), and despite the evidence that
Paul customarily observed the Sabbath (Acts 13, 16, 17, 18), some Bible
students focus on certain passages in Paul's writings as supposed evidence
that he sought to do away with the seventh-day Sabbath. The two passages
that are usually presented are Romans 14:5, 6 and Colossians 2:13-17.
The Romans passage in context reads as follows:
"Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling
over opinions. 2. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat
only vegetables. 3. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain,
and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God
has welcomed them. 4. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?
It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be
upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5. Some judge one day
to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let
all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6. Those who observe the day,
observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the
Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain
in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God" (Rom. 14:1-6).
Referring to verses 5 and 6, R. C. H. Lenski incorrectly comments: "We
see no reason for refusing to assume that the distinction here touched
upon refers to the Jewish Sabbath. What other day would any Roman Christian
judge to be above other days? That self-chosen days are referred to is
scarcely to be assumed. It is not difficult to see that a few Jewish Christians,
some of them who perhaps came from the old mother church in Jerusalem,
still clung to the Sabbath much as the Christians did after Pentecost."(1)
If Lenski is correct, Paul was condoning those who were disregarding
the seventh-day Sabbath? Other Sunday keeping scholars disagree with Lenski,(2)
and he is most certainly in error. In his writings, Paul consistently
accepted the authority of the Ten Commandments as the standard of righteousness.
"Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary,
we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31). Paul identified the law that faith upholds
as the Ten Commandments. "What then should we say? That the law is sin?
By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known
sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said,
'You shall not covet.'. . . So the law is holy, and the commandment is
holy and just and good. . . . For we know that the law is spiritual; but
I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin" (Rom. 7:7, 12, 14). Christ
died "so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,
who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom.
It is inconceivable that one who had such a confirmed respect for the
Ten Commandment law of God should summarily reject one of the commandments
as no longer valid for Christians. Raoul Dederen pertinently comments:
"It is to be noted, however, that the attempt to connect the Sabbath of
the Decalogue with the 'days' mentioned in this passage is not convincing
for everyone.(3) Who could have a divine
commandment before him and say to others: 'You can treat that commandment
as you please; it really makes no difference whether you keep it or not'?
No apostle could conduct such an argument. And probably no man would be
more surprised at that interpretation than Paul himself, who had utmost
respect for the Decalogue, God's law, which is 'holy, and just, and good'
(chap. 7:12). Christ, the norm of all Pauline teaching, was indisputably
a Sabbathkeeper. And Paul himself, who evidently cannot be reckoned among
the 'weak,' worshiped on the Sabbath 'as was his custom' (Acts 17:2, R.S.V.;
cf. Luke 4:16).
"There is no conclusive evidence to the contrary. Paul was in no doubt
as to the validity of the weekly Sabbath. Thus, to assume that when they
were converted to Christianity by Paul, Gentiles or Jews would be anxious
to give up the 'Jewish' Sabbath for their 'own day' is hardly likely.
This could be expected only at some later time in the history of the Christian
church, and for other reasons."(4)
A number of conclusions emerge from a careful consideration of the passage:
(1) Romans 14 is not speaking of moral issues on which we have a clear
"Thus saith the Lord." Verses 1-4 clearly make the point that God accepts
both the spiritually strong who eat any food as well as the weak who think
they should eat only vegetables. Speaking of both groups verse 4 says,
"And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand."
(2) The stronger Christians who use any kind of food are not eating that
which is physically harmful. For them to do so would be a contradiction
of their Christian commitment. Earlier in the epistle Paul instructs:
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,
which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). To deliberately appropriate
as food that which God condemns as harmful (see Lev. 11; Isa. 65:3, 4;
66:15-17) cannot be said to be behavior that God can accept; nor is it
an acceptable application of the Romans 12:1 counsel. In his first epistle
to the Corinthians, Paul seriously warns against defiling the body temple.
"Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells
in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person.
For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple" (1 Cor. 3:16, 17).
But in Romans 14, God accepted the diet of the non-vegetarians. The issue
was not a matter of health. Since God accepted both parties, the dietary
issue among the Roman Christians was a matter of indifference (adiaphora);
it was not a question of right and wrong.
Paul says later in the chapter, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord
Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone
who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what
you eat, you are no longer walking in love" (Rom. 14:14, 15). This parallels
the remark in his epistle to Timothy: "For everything created by God is
good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving"
(1 Tim. 4:4) Are we therefore to assume that slugs and snails and the
kinds of flesh condemned in the Old Testament as unfit for food can now
be eaten because the Christian has been given unrestrained freedom in
questions of diet? Obviously not! What Paul is saying is that everything
that God created as acceptable for food may be partaken of. But
Paul is not condoning the eating of that which would be harmful to health
whether it is specifically mentioned in Scripture or not. Since our bodies
are the temples of the Holy Spirit, imbibing that which is hurtful to
health is a moral issue. The issue in Rome was not a question of health;
it was a question of preference in matters that did not involve right
and wrong in God's sight. But one party did not recognize that the specific
dietary question was a non-issue. Vegetarians today who refrain from eating
flesh for health reasons have a different motivation than did the vegetarians
in the Roman church.
(3) In Romans 14:5, 6, Paul treats the controversy over days in a similar
manner. The question was not a moral issue as it would have been if one
of the Ten Commandments was being questioned. The Sabbath and worship
are not even mentioned in the passage. The observance of the days in question,
whatever days they were, was not a matter of right and wrong. The Lord
accepted both parties, those who observed the days and those who did not.
In the light of Matthew 24:20, the Lord could not have accepted anyone
who did not honor His Sabbath day, as Jesus had honored it during his
life on earth (Luke 4:16) and as Paul himself honored it (Acts 13, 15,
(4) Roul Dederen has pointed out that there seems to have been a clear
connection between the observance of days in Rome and the vegetarianism
of the weaker Christians. Those who were abstaining from eating particular
foods "in honor of the Lord" seem to have been those who were observing
particular days in honor of the Lord (verse 6). Dederen's suggestion is
that there was a party in the Roman church that chose to refrain from
certain foods on certain days which they regarded as religious fast days.
He writes: "Paul's statement in Romans 14:2, 'One believes he may eat
anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables' (R.S.V.) is curiously
analogous to his thought in verse 5, 'One man esteems one day as better
than another, while another man esteems all days alike' (R.S.V.). He mentions
the two cases together, and later in the chapter he declares that a man
should not be judged by his eating (verses 10-13), which may imply that
Paul is referring to fast days. It appears quite probable from the context
that Paul here is correlating the eating with the observance of days.
Most likely--although it is impossible to ascertain this--the apostle
is dealing with fast days in a context of either partial or total abstinence.
"Here again the Essenes may have caused the problem It is certainly significant
that besides abstaining from meat and wine--at least at times--they were
also very specific in the matter of observing days. They sanctified certain
days that were not observed by the general stream of Jews. . . .
"Some pertinent observations emerge now that could well tie in the matter
of diet with that of esteeming certain days above others. The Essenes
scrupulously abstained from meat and wine--at least at times. They added
certain feast days to the regular Jewish calendar. The discussion over
the point existed in Jewry prior to the advent of Christianity. Could
it be that the controversy was carried over into the Christian church
and finds itself reflected in Romans 14? In this case, the practice of
the weak may be compared with the early Christian custom indicated in
the Didache of fasting twice every week. Is it not significant,
and relevant as well, that we have in this document too a matter of diet
and days connected in a controversial issue?"(5)
The Didache or Teaching that Dederen cites is a late
first- or early second-century document.(6)
It reveals a controversy in the Christian church over fast days. The relevant
statement reads: "Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites.
They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays
and Fridays."(7) The hypocrites are a reference
to the Jews whose fast days were Mondays and Thursdays.(8)
By contrast, Christians were to Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
We know that in Jesus' day there was a controversy over fasting. (See
Matt. 6:16-18; 9:14, 15; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33-35.) In fact, in Jesus'
parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee prayed, "I
fast twice a week" (Luke 18:12). It seems that it would not be unusual
for the fasting controversy of Jesus' day to carry over into the early
Christian church with lively discussion as to which days would be the
most appropriate for fasting.
Some have suggested that the days referred to in Romans 14:5, 6 were
the ceremonial feast days of the Jewish religious year. (See Lev. 23;
Num. 28, 29.) Although this is a possibility, the suggestion seems to
be ruled out by the fact that these days were feast days, not fast days.
Paul's discussion of the controversy over days (Rom. 14) is associated
with his discussion of abstinence from food. Hence it seems that Dederen's
suggestion of the presence in the Roman church of an ascetic group like
the Essenes who were insisting on abstinence from certain foods on certain
days is the most likely explanation.
At all events, the passage gives no warrant for the conclusion that Paul
rejected the seventh-day Sabbath.
A second passage that is often cited as evidence that Paul rejected the
seventh-day Sabbath is Colossians 2:13-17. In the New American Standard
Bible, the passage is translated as follows:
"13. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision
of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us
all our transgressions, 14. having canceled out the certificate of debt
consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has
taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15. When He had
disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them,
having triumphed over them through Him. 16. Therefore let no one act as
your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a
new moon or a Sabbath day-- 17. things which are a mere shadow of what
is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ."
Verses 13 and 14 are speaking of God's forgiveness of the believer's
sins made possible by Christ's death on the cross. Some would have us
believe that the law was nailed to the cross. But this is not what the
text is saying. It was our indebtedness in view of our having
broken the law that was nailed to the cross. Verse 14 may be translated,
"Blotting out the handwriting in decrees which was against us which was
contrary to us, and he took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross."
The "handwriting" (Greek: cheirographon) refers to a bond or
certificate of debt.(9) The certificate
of debt was "in decrees" (Greek: tois dogmasin). God had decreed
that "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). Jesus took the death which was
ours so that we can have the life which is His. (Compare Romans 5:15-21.)
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from
sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed"
(1 Peter 2:24). "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa.
53:6). "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in
him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). It was our
guilt born by Jesus Christ that was nailed to the cross. As we have noted
above, the law remains as the standard expression of God's righteousness.
Christ died "so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled
in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit"
Not only did Jesus suffer for our sins on the cross, he disarmed Satan
and his cohorts and publicly displayed to the world and the universe the
evil demons that they are. "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and
made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15).
Verse 16 adds the corollary: No one can now judge the believer in regard
to ritualistic eating and drinking or in respect to the sacrificial observances
involved in the practice of the ceremonial law. "These are only a shadow
of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (verse 17).
The phrase "a festival [feast] or a new moon or a sabbath" (Col. 2:16,
RSV) is an idiomatic or stylized reference to the ceremonial sacrifices
offered in the ancient Israelite sanctuary or temple. The Old Testament
background is in Numbers 28 and 29 and Leviticus 23, in which the burnt
offerings daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly are listed. There were five
yearly feasts, involving seven ceremonial sabbaths. The seven ceremonial
(1) The first day of the feast of unleavened bread (Lev. 23:7).
(2) The last day of the feast of unleavened bread (Lev. 23:8).
(3) The feast of weeks, 50 days after the feast of unleavened bread (Lev.
(4) The feast of trumpets on the first day of the seventh month (Lev.
(5) The day of atonement on the 10th day of the 7th month (Lev. 23:27-32).
(6) The first day of the feast of tabernacles (Lev. 23:35).
(7) The last day of the feast tabernacles (Lev. 23:36).
Seven Old Testament passages use some form of the phrase "feasts, new
moons, sabbaths" (1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4; 8:12, 13; 31:3; Neh. 10:33;
Eze. 45:17; Hosea 2:11). Consistently these passages refer to the burnt
offerings to be offered weekly, monthly, and yearly. Usually the feasts
specify only the three pilgrimage feasts (Unleavened Bread, Weeks or Pentecost,
and Tabernacles). The sabbaths must, therefore, include the ceremonial
sabbaths--otherwise Solomon, for example, would have failed to offer burnt
offerings on the days of Trumpets and Atonement.
"Then Solomon offered up burnt offerings to the Lord on the altar of
the Lord that he had built in front of the vestibule, as the duty of each
day required, offering according to the commandment of Moses for the sabbaths,
the new moons, and the three annual festivals--the festival of unleavened
bread, the festival of weeks, and the festival of booths [tabernacles]"
(2 Chron. 8:12, 13). If the "sabbaths" mentioned in the passage did not
include ceremonial sabbaths, Solomon would have failed to offer the stipulated
burnt offerings on the feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement, because
the feasts as listed exclude these two ceremonial sabbaths.
The word sabbath (whether singular or plural) in the phrase
"feast, new moon, sabbath" specifies the burnt offerings for
weekly and annual (ceremonial sabbaths). Colossians 2:16, 17 is simply
teaching that the sacrifices offered weekly (sabbath), monthly,
or yearly were a "shadow" pointing forward to Christ (see Heb. 8:5; 10:1),
which lost their significance at the cross. Now no one has a right to
judge those who reject these ceremonial observances which pointed forward
to the sacrifice and heavenly ministry of Jesus Christ. The phrase "feast,
new moon, sabbath" is simply a stylized way of referring to the temporary
ceremonial observances that typified the work of our Savior.
Although the special animal sacrifices commanded for the weekly Sabbath
(Num 28; Lev. 23) no longer have significance, the weekly Sabbath itself
remains as a perpetual memorial of Creation (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11;
Matt. 24:20; Heb. 4:9) and a sign of sanctification (Ex. 31:13) and redemption
The "food and drink" (Col. 2:16, RSV) may refer to the meal and drink
offerings that were presented to God along with the burnt offerings (see
Num. 28:2, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, etc.). Or they may refer to ritualistic eating
and drinking or abstaining from eating and drinking of the kind referred
to in Romans 14:1-6. Or they may refer to eating or not eating food that
had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8).
The force of the passage (Col. 2:13-17) is that, since Christ has died
for our sins, and we have now been forgiven, ceremonial, ritualistic observances
that foreshadowed aspects of his sacrificial and mediatorial ministries
have been done away, and no Christian should allow himself to be judged
in respect to these ceremonial observances. Paul was not abolishing the
weekly Sabbath which, according to the book of Acts, he consistently observed.
WHEN AND WHERE DID SUNDAY OBSERVANCE BEGIN
The history of the early Christian Church establishes that worship services
on Sunday, associated with a progressive rejection of the seventh-day
Sabbath, began in Rome during the second century A.D. While most Christians
around the Mediterranean world were still observing the Sabbath, there
grew up in Rome a veneration of Sunday. Gradually this practice spread
from Rome to other places. By the early medieval period, Sunday observance
of one sort or another was quite common in the eastern empire as well
as in the west. There were three closely related reasons for this development
beginning in Rome and spreading from there to other Christian centers:
1. In the second century the Sabbath was made a fast day, while Sunday
was a feast day.
Among the Jews the Sabbath was never a day of fasting, sadness and gloom.
For them it was a festival occasion. In Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28, the
Sabbath is included among the Jewish feast days. The apocryphal book of
Judith says: "And she [Judith] fasted all the days of her widowhood, save
the eves of the sabbaths, and the sabbaths, and the eves of the new moons,
and the new moons, and the feasts and joyful days of the house of Israel."(10)
The book of Jubiless issues a stern warning to the person who fasts on
the Sabbath: "And every man who does any work thereon, or goes a journey,
or tills (his) farm . . . or whoever fasts or makes war on the Sabbaths:
The man who does any of these things on the Sabbath shall die. . . ."(11)
In the second-century Roman Christian church, the practices of Easter
weekend were gradually transferred to every weekend of the year. Friday
and Sabbath were fast days, while Sunday was a day of feasting and rejoicing
in view of the resurrection of Christ. The result was that the Sabbath
became a day of fasting and gloom by contrast with Sunday which was a
day of joy and pleasantness.(12)
Early in the third century, Tertullian wrote of the Roman Christians:
"Anyhow, you sometimes continue your Station [fast] even over the Sabbath,
-- a day never to be kept as a fast except at the passover season, according
to a reason elsewhere given."(13)
The evidence suggests that toward the end of the second century the Roman
Church had begun to transfer the fasting practices of Easter weekend to
every weekend of the year, by which Friday and the Sabbath were fast days,
and Sunday a feast day. The gradual effect of this was to depreciate the
Sabbath and exalt Sunday.
By the time of the Spanish Synod of Elvira (c. A.D. 306) weekly Sabbath
fasting was the custom in the West: "We have decided that the error be
corrected, so that we celebrate extensions of the fast every Sabbath day."(14)
In the early fourth century, while various places in the West were treating
the Sabbath as a fast day, this was not the custom in the East. By the
fifth century, the weekly Sabbath fast was a fixed custom in Rome. The
reason is clearly brought out in the following statement of Pope Innocent
"A very clear reason shows why one should fast on the Sabbath. For if
we celebrate the Diem Dominicum to show reverence for the resurrection
of our Lord Jesus Christ not only on the day of Easter, but indeed also
from one weekly cycle to another one, if we assemble together for the
commemoration of that very day, and fast on the sixth holiday, we must
not omit the Sabbath, which comes between the sadness and the joy of that
Just as the Sabbath of Easter weekend was a fast day, so, it was reasoned,
must be every Sabbath day of the year. The result was the denigration
of the Sabbath to the level of a day of sorrow and mourning, by contrast
with Sunday which was a day of Christian joy and rejoicing. The practical
effect on Christians was to lead them to turn away from the Sabbath and
to exalt Sunday as the special feast day memorializing Christ's resurrection.
Samuele Bacchiocchi writes: "That the Church of Rome was the champion
of the Sabbath fast and anxious to impose it on other Christian communities
is well attested by the historical references from Bishop Callistus (A.D.
217-222), Hippolytus (c. A.D. 170-236), Pope Sylvester (A.D. 314-335),
Pope Innocent I (A.D. 401-417), Augustine (A.D. 354-430), and John Cassian
(c. A.D. 360-435). The fast was designed not only to express sorrow for
Christ's death but also, as Pope Sylvester emphatically states, to show
'contempt for the Jews' (execratione Judaeorum) and for their
Sabbath 'feasting' (destructiones ciborum). (16)
"Following the death of Nero, the Jews experienced a setback. Military,
political, fiscal, and literary repressive measures were taken against
them on account of their resurgent nationalism, which exploded in violent
uprisings in many places. Militarily, the statistics of bloodshed provided
by contemporary historians, even allowing for possible exaggerations,
are most impressive. Tacitus (c. A.D. 33-120), for instance, reports having
heard that 600,000 Jews were besieged in the A.D. 70 war. Dio Cassius
(c. A.D. 150-235), states that in the Barkokeba war of A.D. 132-135, some
580,000 Jews were killed in action besides the numberless who died of
hunger and disease."(17)
Bacchiocchi points out that "under Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) both the Sanhedrin
and the high priesthood were abolished; and under Hadrian . . . the practice
of the Jewish religion and particularly Sabbathkeeping were outlawed."(18)
Bacchiocchi writes: "Literarily, a new wave of anti-Semitic literature
surged at that time, undoubtedly reflecting the Roman mood against the
Jews. Writers such as Seneca (died A.D. 65), Persius (A.D. 34-62), Petronius
(died c. A.D. 66), Quintilian (c. A.D. 35-100), Martial (c. A.D. 40-104),
Plutarch (c. A.D. 46-after 119), Juvenal (died c. A.D. 125), and Tacitus
(c. A.D. 55-120), who lived in Rome for most of their professional lives,
reviled the Jews racially and culturally. Particularly were the Jewish
customs of Sabbathkeeping and circumcision contemptuously derided as examples
of degrading superstition."(19)
Christians were motivated to separate themselves from the Jews in the
minds of the populace and rulers. They wrote against Jewish legalism and
began to attack the Sabbath. Writing from Rome about the middle of the
second century, Justin Martyr condemned Sabbath observance and provided
the earliest account of Christian Sunday worship services:
"And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country
gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings
of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader
has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation
of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before
said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought,
and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according
to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen. . . . But Sunday is
the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first
day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter,
made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from
the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday);
and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having
appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which
we have submitted to you also for your consideration."(20)
Thus Sunday observance began in Rome in the middle of the second century
A.D. Opposition to the religion of the Jews was a factor in the depreciation
of their Sabbath and the gradual substitution of Sunday.
3. Pagan sun worship contributed to the development of Sunday veneration
Sun worship was one of the oldest practices in the Roman religion. From
the early part of the second century A.D., the cult of Sol Invictus was
very influential in Rome and other parts of the Empire. The emperor was
regarded and worshiped as a Sun-god.
The planetary week was in common use in ancient Rome from the beginning
of the Christian Era. The days of the week were named from the heavenly
bodies as follows: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn. The
day of the sun began the series and was regarded as the most important
Christian converts from paganism tended to cling to their veneration
of the Sun and, therefore, of Sunday. In early Christian art and literature
the image of the Sun was often used to represent Christ, the true "Sun
of righteousness." "In the earliest known Christian mosaic (dated c. A.D.
240), found below the altar of St. Peter in Rome, Christ is portrayed
as the Sun (helios) ascending on the quadriga chariot with a
nimbus behind His head from which irradiates seven rays in the form of
a T (allusion to the cross?). Thousands of hours have been devoted to
drawing the sun disk with an equal-armed cross behind the head of Christ
and of other important persons."(21)
Bacchiocchi points out that early Christians ceased to pray facing Jerusalem.
Instead they faced the sunrise (East). Christians adopted the pagan feast
of the dies natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the Invincible
Sun), December 25. Most scholars are convinced that the Church of Rome
introduced and championed Sunday. Various Sun cults were present in Rome
by the early second century. Their symbology was soon influencing Christian
literature, art, and liturgy.(22)
The historical evidence establishes quite conclusively that, although
the Sabbath was still kept by many Christians around the Roman world in
the second century, the trend in Rome (and, as we shall see, also in Alexandria)
was toward depreciation of the Sabbath and the exaltation of Sunday. The
three main factors that led to this development were: (1) the Sabbath
fast introduced in Rome in the second century; (2) anti-semitism; (3)
the influence of pagan religion on Christianity, since new converts tended
to retain some of their old attachments to veneration of the Sun and the
day of the Sun.
TO WHAT EXTENT WAS THE SABBATH OBSERVED AS A SACRED DAY OF WORSHIP BY
Kenneth A. Strand provides very convincing historical evidence that,
although in Rome and Alexandria the trend was to replace weekly Sabbath
worship with Sunday worship services, elsewhere in the Roman Empire the
Sabbath was observed along with Sunday until the fifth century.
Strand writes: "The situation in Rome and Alexandria, however, was not
typical of the rest of early Christianity. In these two cities there was
an evident early attempt by Christians to terminate observance of the
seventh-day Sabbath, but elsewhere throughout the Christian world Sunday
observance simply arose alongside observance of Saturday."(23)
The evidence Strand presents is very impressive. Some of it is given
1. Two fifth-century church historians, Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen:
"For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the
sacred mysteries [the Lord's Supper] on the sabbath [Saturday] of every
week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some
ancient tradition, have ceased to do this. The Egyptians in the neighborhood
of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebais, hold their religious assemblies
on the sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner
usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied
themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings
they partake of the mysteries."(24)
"The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together
on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom
is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria. There are several cities and
villages in Egypt where, contrary to the usage established elsewhere,
the people meet together on Sabbath evenings, and, although they have
dined previously, partake of the mysteries."(25)
Strand comments: "Thus, even as late as the fifth century almost
the entire Christian world observed both Saturday and Sunday
for special religious services. Obviously, therefore, Sunday was not considered
a substitute for the Sabbath."(26)
2. In the late second or early third century, Origen, the famous Alexandrian
Church Father wrote of the proper kind of Sabbath observance:
"Forsaking therefore the Judaic Sabbath observance, let us see what kind
of Sabbath observance is expected of the Christian. On the Sabbath day,
nothing of worldly activity should be done. If therefore desisting from
all worldly works and doing nothing mundane but being free for spiritual
works, you come to the church, listen to divine readings and discussions
and think of heavenly things, give heed to the future life, keep before
your eyes the coming judgment, disregard present and visible things in
favor of the invisible and future, this is the observance of the Christian
3. The fourth-century compilation known as the Apostolic Constitutions,
probably produced in Syria or elsewhere in the East, urged that both Sabbath
and Sunday be observed.
"Have before thine eyes the fear of God, and always remember the ten
commandments of God. . . . Thou shalt observe the Sabbath, on account
of Him who ceased from His work of creation, but ceased not from His work
of providence: it is a rest for meditation of the law, not for idleness
of the hands."(28)
"But keep the sabbath, and the Lord's day festival [Sunday]; because
the former is the memorial of the creation, and the latter of the resurrection."(29)
"Oh Lord Almighty, Thou hast created the world by Christ, and hast appointed
the Sabbath in memory thereof, because that on that day Thou hast made
us rest from our works, for the meditation upon Thy laws. . . . We solemnly
assemble to celebrate the feast of the resurrection on the Lord's day,
and rejoice on account of Him who has conquered death, and has brought
life and immortality to light."(30)
"Let the slaves work five days; but on the Sabbath-day and the Lord's
day let them have leisure to go to church for instruction in piety. We
have said that the Sabbath is on account of the creation, and the Lord's
day of the resurrection."(31)
4. Gregory of Nyssa and Asterius of Amasea:
"Gregory of Nyssa in the late fourth century referred to the Sabbath
and Sunday as 'sisters,' and about the same time Asterius of Amasea declared
that it was beautiful for Christians that the 'team of these two days
come together' -- 'the Sabbath and the Lord's Day.' According to Asterius,
each week brought the people together on these days with priests to instruct
5. John Cassian:
"In the fifth century John Cassian makes several references to church
attendance on both Saturday and Sunday. In speaking of Egyptian monks,
he states that 'except Vespers and Nocturns, there are no public services
among them in the day except on Saturday and Sunday, when they meet together
at the third hour [9:00 A.M.] for the purpose of Holy Communion."(33)
The historical evidence establishes that the Sabbath was kept by most
Christians until at least the fifth century. Although Sunday was observed
along with the Sabbath as a day for worship services, in most areas of
the Roman Empire it did not replace the Sabbath. The trend in Rome and
Alexandria, however, was for Sunday to replace the Sabbath. As we shall
discover, in later centuries Sunday was treated as a day of rest, and
Sabbath observance, although not discontinued by all Christians, was neglected
IV. WHEN DID SUNDAY OBSERVANCE REPLACE SABBATH OBSERVANCE IN THE PRACTICE
OF MOST CHRISTIANS?
Sunday gradually became a rest day. Although in the early Christian centuries
Sunday worship services were held in Rome and Alexandria, and increasingly
in other places, Sunday was not regarded as a day of rest required by
the fourth commandment. The development toward regarding Sunday as the
complete substitute for the seventh-day Sabbath was a gradual process
from the fourth to the twelfth century.
1. Constantine made Sunday a civil rest day.
His famous Sunday law of March 7, 321 reads as follows: "On the venerable
Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest,
and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged
in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because
it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing
or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations
the bounty of heaven should be lost."(34)
Kenneth Strand comments: "This was the first in a series of steps taken
by Constantine and by later Roman emperors in regulating Sunday observance.
It is obvious that this first Sunday law was not particularly Christian
in orientation. We may note, for instance, the pagan designation 'venerable
Day of the Sun.' Also, it is evident that Constantine did not base his
Sunday regulations on the Decalogue, for he exempted agricultural work--a
type of work strictly prohibited in the Sabbath commandment in Exodus
2. Theodosius I and Gratian Valentinian
in A.D. 386 ruled that legal cases should not be heard on Sunday and
that there should be no public or private payment of debt. Laws also forbad
Sunday circus, theater, and horse racing.(36)
3. Ephraem Syrus
(c. A.D. 306-373) wrote that the law requires rest for servants and animals
on Sunday. The law is a reference to the Old Testament Sabbath commandment
(Exod. 20:8-11).(37) Hence, by the second
half of the fourth century some Christians were treating Sunday as a rest
day in place of the seventh-day Sabbath, and they were justifying their
practice by appealing to the fourth commandment.
4. The Council of Laodicea about A.D. 364
The council showed respect for the Sabbath as well as Sunday, but Canon
29 stipulated: "Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday but
shall work on that day; but the Lord's day they shall especially honour,
and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day.
If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ."(38)
While such fourth-century documents as the Apostolic Constitutions
were urging that both Sabbath and Sunday be observed, the Council
of Laodicea and certain influential church leaders were attempting to
substitute Sunday for the Sabbath as the day of rest.
5. In medieval times the Sunday "Sabbath" displaced the Saturday Sabbath
throughout Europe. (39)
i. Pope Gregory (Pope from A.D. 590-604) demanded that all secular activities
should cease on Sunday so that the people could devote their time to prayer.(40)
ii. The Arian rulers must have accepted Sunday as a day of rest and worship,
for the Visigoths were defeated by the Romans in A.D. 543 because they
refused to fight on Sunday.(41)
iii. Pepin III, known as "the Short" (714-68), the Frankish king, Charlemagne
(c. 742-814), the first Emperor (from 800) of the 'Holy Roman Empire,'
and their successors attempted to enforce rest on Sunday.(42)
iv. "By the twelfth century, Sunday had become quite fully the church
substitute for the seventh day. The rest began at sunset and lasted until
the next sunset. All secular work was strictly prohibited under stern
ecclesiastical and civil penalties, for nothing except very stringent
necessity was allowed to interfere with church attendance (though dispensations
could be granted by ecclesiastical authority). This concept of Sundaykeeping
was spelled out clearly by the great decretalists. In his collection of
1234, Gregory IX, for instance, collated a decree from the Synod of Mayence
from the early part of the ninth century and a letter from Pope Alexander
III to the Archbishop of Trondheim in Norway teaching how Sunday must
be kept. Although those were local documents, they acquired a much greater
authority when they were included in a major canonic collection."(43)
6. One notable exception to the above trend was the Christian Church
...which observed both Sabbath and Sunday throughout the Middle Ages
and has continued to do so until the present.(44)
7. In every Christian century, even during the Middle Ages, there have
been faithful observers of the seventh-day Sabbath.
Daniel Augsburger concludes his chapter, "The Sabbath and Lord's Day
During the Middle Ages," by writing: "But also, all throughout that period
there were groups of people who, either through the example of the Jews
or because of their study of the Scriptures, attempted to keep the day
that Jesus and the apostles had kept. For obvious reasons we know little
about their number or their names, but their presence shows that in every
age there were some who attempted to place the Word of God above the traditions
of men."(45) He mentions, for example,
the Passagini in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1420 a group
of Sabbathkeepers in northern France were dealt with by the authorities.
Also some of the Bohemian "Picards" were Sabbathkeepers. In the fifteenth
century some of the English Lollards (followers of John Wycliffe) and
certain Christians in the Scandinavian lands kept the Sabbath.(46)
The trend from the fourth century on was away from observance of the
Sabbath by most Christians and the substitution of Sunday as the day of
worship and rest. Even so, in every century there were those who resisted
the trend by adhering faithfully to the seventh-day Sabbath of the Scriptures.
We now summarize this article by reiterating that Jesus and the apostles
observed the seventh-day Sabbath. There is no evidence in the New Testament
for Sunday as a day of rest and worship. The New Testament nowhere invites
or instructs Christians to observe Sunday as a memorial of Christ's resurrection.
The apostle Paul did not attempt to abolish the seventh-day Sabbath. He
consistently observed it. The Sabbath was neglected and depreciated in
second-century Rome and Alexandria. Sabbath observance was progressively
replaced by Sunday observance in the centuries that followed. But time
and tradition to not abolish the law of God. Jesus said, "Whoever breaks
one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same,
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and
teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19).
John wrote, "Whoever says, 'I have come to know him,' but does not obey
his commandments, is a liar, and in such person the truth does not exist;
but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached
perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, 'I
abide in him,' ought to walk just as he walked" (1 John 2:4-6).
Dear Friend, do you love Jesus enough to walk as He walked? Do you love
Him enough to keep His commandments? Jesus said, "If you love me, you
will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). That includes the Sabbath commandment.
Are you sure that your life is in His hands and that your name is written
in the Lamb's book of life (Rev. 21:27)? Now is the time to make a decision
for Him and for eternity. God is waiting longingly to take you into His
arms of love and pour the Holy Spirit into your heart. Believe Him, accept
Him, and follow His will in everything. Then you will have life and joy
© Copyright 1997 by Erwin
R. Gane, All Rights Reserved. This document may be freely distributed
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