The Bible talks a lot about the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week (Saturday). This was the day that God’s people went to church. Nowadays most Christians go to church on the first day of the week, Sunday. Did God change the day of worship in the Bible?
The average Sunday-keeping Christian might not have given much thought about when to go to church. Since most churches have their services on Sunday, this does not really seem to be a point of debate. Others have heard or seen some Bible verses or thoughts that seem to back up the idea of church on Sunday. We will first go through many of these popular arguments, and then have a quick look at where the Sunday-keeping comes from.
Did the first church keep Sunday?
Three occasions are interpreted to prove that already the first church kept the Sunday instead of the Sabbath. A closer inspection at these verses and their context however, reveal another story. Let’s look at each of them.
The disciples gather on the day of the resurrection
We know that the first day of the week is Sunday. On this particular Sunday, the same Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples were gathered together. People take this fact and conclude that they had started keeping the Sunday as the day for church. But did they have a church service, or did they have another reason for gathering?
Early on Sunday morning Mary, some other women and later a number of the disciples had seen that the tomb where Jesus was laid was empty and they had received information that Jesus resurrected. We don’t need to look far or speculate for why they met that day, because within the very same verse we can read the real reason of their gathering, “for fear of the Jews”. Did they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection? No, in the gospels we can see that they at first didn’t believe themselves that Jesus was resurrected (Mark 16:13, Luke 24:37). Instead, they were scared because they were the once blamed for having taken Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:13). They knew that neither the Jews nor the Romans would be pleased with the story going around of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 27:62-66). The only reason why they gathered on Sunday was because Jesus’ rose on that same day, and the fear for their own lives was a direct result. No church service, no celebration of Jesus resurrection, but simply hiding together in fear.
Paul and the disciples gather
Here believers are meeting on Sunday, but let’s read what it says behind the comma in the same sentence: “ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. …. and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.” Acts 20:7 and 20:11 KJV.
Does the text reveal anything that meeting on Sunday was their custom instead of the Sabbath? No, it doesn’t. It does however present another reason for their gathering together, Paul would leave the next day. In their eagerness to hear as much as possible from what Paul has to say, they want to hear him all night. The fact that they are up all night, in itself already shows that this is a special occasion, as nothing else in Scripture indicates that church services went on throughout the night.
The term ‘breaking bread’ is interpreted as if they are having communion together, suggesting it would be a church service. However, the same term is used in other places to simply mean ‘eating’ (Luke 24:30, Acts 27:35). They were simply being together to hear the wisdom of Paul before he would depart.
Money is to be set aside
This text is interpreted as if they were instructed to have an offering as today is the custom in church services. But is that really what is says? The believers are instructed to set money aside to support the believers in Jerusalem. The money is to be set aside “by him”, which means at home, not at the church service. The fact that they are instructed to do this on the first day of the week does not indicate anything special about the first day, more than that it is the first opportunity after the Sabbath on which financial administration was to be avoided. Nowhere whatsoever in this verse or in the context does it say anything about a gathering of people. Paul wants to make sure that when he is there everyone is ready to give their share and not need to do all their own personal administration, calculations and decision-making which would delay the offering to get to its destination.
Shouldn’t we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday?
I am all for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection and sacrifice. As a matter of fact, Jesus also thought it would be important for us to honor. In Luke 22:19 we can read that Jesus instituted the communion, to share in the breaking of bread and taking of the cup. This is what He instituted as a remembrance of what He did, He never once mentioned anything about shifting the day that He said He is Lord over (Matthew 12:8) to another day. Jesus did not ask for us to gather on Sundays to celebrate His resurrection, He asks that we partake in the communion and His holy day. Even in His death He pointed to the significance of the Sabbath, as He rested in the grave on the Sabbath day (Matthew 28:1), just as He rested on it after creation (Genesis 2:2-3).
Another way we celebrate the death and resurrection is by the baptism (Colossians 2:12). Another act that He Himself instituted and commanded (Luke 3:16, Matthew 28:19-20). We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection in the way that He instructed us, and not by keeping the Sunday instead of His Sabbath.
Did Jesus abolish the Sabbath?
This is perhaps one of the most-used arguments, though Jesus Himself answered the question before it was asked. He literally said we should not think that He came to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-19). He came to fulfill it. Fulfilling here does not mean ‘to make an end to’, as some believe. That interpretation would cause major problems as Jesus also said He came to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15, same word in Greek). Would it make sense if He would say, “Do not think that I came to abolish the law, but to make an end to it.”? What Jesus did was to make the law complete by showing the world the spirit behind the letter, to embody the law so we could understand what the law was truly about (Isaiah 42:21). He made that clear by the verses directly following His statement about not having come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:21-30). He clarified the intentions of the law, that it is it not merely about outward appearance, but the heart within. The Pharisees were good commandment keepers on the outside, but missed the heart behind it (Matthew 23:25, Mark 7:6-9). In that sense Jesus intensified the law for those thinking they could do it without God, but for the humble sinner it would be clear as day that help from God was needed to live up to God’s standard.
Was the Sabbath only for the Jews?
You might only know the Sabbath from the ten commandment given to Moses on mount Sinai. What you maybe didn’t know is that the Sabbath was actually already instituted in the garden of Eden, before sin entered the world (Genesis 2:3). There were no Jews there, only Adam and Eve. Abraham kept the laws of God before they were even given to Moses on mount Sinai (Genesis 26:5). The Israelites received manna from heaven on all days but one, the Sabbath. Instead they got a double portion on Friday and through a weekly miracle the manna was preserved for the Sabbath (on other days it rotted the same night). Here the Sabbath was kept by the people (Exodus 16:23), even though the ten commandments had not been given yet. Furthermore, God refers to the Sabbath day as His day (Isaiah 58:13, Ezekiel 22:8), not the day of the Jews.
It can be confusing when the Sabbath is mentioned as a sign between God and “them” (Ezekiel 20:12). But in the verse before it says that all the rules were given to “them” (Ezekiel 20:13). Chances are that you are not Jewish, so does that mean that you are ‘off the hook’ and can lie, cheat, steal and murder? I hope you don’t think so. Christians today still believe we ought not to lie, worship other gods, take His name in vain or covet. Does it make sense to believe that God expects Christians to keep nine of the commandments, but set aside the Sabbath commandment because that one would only be for the Jews? That does not make sense.
The “them” it refers to is not bound to blood-lineage only. The “them” are all who want to be God’s people. The Israelites obeyed God while the rest of the world did not, making it a sign between “them”. In the commandment about the Sabbath we can read that the stranger can be included in this sign (Exodus 20:10). Christians today believe we are under the new covenant and God’s law is written on the heart. However, what we might not realize is that the new covenant was made with the same people as the old covenant was made with, the house of Israel and Judah, God’s people (Hebrews 8:8)!
God loves all people and wants all to be saved and He does not show favoritism (1 Timothy 2:4, Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34). We can be part of the new covenant, because we can be grafted into the spiritual Israel (Romans 11:11-31). God’s promises have always been to those who chose to do His will, not on the color of your skin, your background or the blood flowing through your veins. The new covenant is based on better promises (Hebrews 8:6-8), not by our promises to God can we obtain salvation (Exodus 19:8), but because of His promise to us. It does not mean we no longer need to do what God tells us to. It is not to be saved that we want to keep the commandments, it is because we are saved (Romans 3:31, James 2:17, Romans 2:13, 1 John 2:4, John 14:15)!
Is the Sunday called the Lord’s day?
Somehow the Christian world has interpreted the term ‘Lord’s day’ to be Sunday. However, there is not evidence whatsoever to back up that claim, because this phrase is used one time in Scripture. There are two scenarios that are more reasonable.
The day that God claims to be His day is the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13, Ezekiel 22:8). Even Jesus claims this day as His (Matthew 12:8). When talking about the Lord’s day, the Sabbath is a lot more probable than the Sunday which was a day set apart for sun worship, hence the name, Sunday.
Another possible interpretation is since John had a prophetic vision, that it is talking about the future day of His coming. This day too is called the day of the Lord (Jeremiah 46:10, Acts 2:20, 2 Peter 3:10, etc.). Interpreting this term to mean the Sunday is not at all Biblically supported.
Is the Sabbath commandment repeated in the New Testament?
The Sabbath commandment is the fourth of the ten commandments written on the tables of stone. There are claims that this is the only one of the ten commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament and therefore no longer valid. It is true that the Sabbath commandment is not explicitly repeated as some others are. But is it really the only one? Actually, you will not find a verse where the third commandment is repeated, yet do we believe it is now acceptable to take the Lord’s name in vain? No. If we do not disregard the third commandment even though it was not repeated, would it make sense that we disregard the commandment after it because it is not repeated? No, of course not.
That the commandment was not repeated is because there was no need to repeat it, as no one doubted its validity. The Pharisees were continuously watching Jesus and with every little thing that Jesus did on the Sabbath that was not according to their man-made traditions, they were there to “bust” Him and openly confront Him about it. The fact that we know that these situations happened two thousand years ago, is because the authors of the gospels thought it was important to write down. Just imagine that Jesus or the first church, did not only heal someone (Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17) or pick grains on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23), but changed the day to Sunday or told people to stop keeping the Sabbath, would you think that those rigorous Jews would simply accept that? All hell would have broken loose and there would not be a chance that this would not be recorded for us to read about too. In other words, if the charges for small “violations” of the Sabbath are recorded, then how much more would the charges be written down if they taught to disregard the Sabbath altogether?
Circumcision too was an important issue for the Jews. Today we can read a lot of clear instructions that circumcision is no longer required (1 Corinthians 7:18-19, Romans 2:29, Galatians 2:1-3, Galatians 5:2, Galatians 6:15, Colossians 2:11, Philippians 3:2-3). This was a big change for the newly converted Jews, so they needed to get clear instructions about it, to make sure they heard and understood it right and that their questions and concerns would be satisfied. The Sabbath was even more important to them, yet we do not read any of those clear instructions about a change in the Sabbath law anywhere from how God instructed it. The fact that we can only read the discussions about how to observe the Sabbath and not whether to observe it or not, proves that the commandments validity was never questioned and hence did not need to be repeated. The problem was not that they did not keep it, they overdid it. This commandment needed not to be repeated, but restored to its original intent, and Jesus did that by challenging their man-made traditions (Matthew 15:3, Matthew 15:8-9).
Did Jesus break the Sabbath?
Jesus was a Sabbath keeper, not a Sabbath breaker (Luke 4:16). There are some that misunderstand John 5:18 and say that Jesus broke the Sabbath commandment. Think about the implications if that were true. The Bible tells us that sin is to break the law (1 John 3:4). If Jesus broke the law, what would that mean? That would mean that Jesus was a sinner just like us. Now that sounds like blasphemy does it not? It would be a great contradiction with all the Bible verses speaking of His sinlessness (1 Peter 2:22, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 3:5, etc.). Moreover, He would then be a liar as He Himself said that He kept all His Father’s commandments (John 15:10). Jesus did not break the Sabbath commandment, but was accused of doing so, just as He was accused for making Himself equal to God, being demon possessed (John 10:20) and a glutton and drunkard (Matthew 11:19). What Jesus did was that He restored it to its original intent. In the old testament the Jewish people were exiled, because they broke the sabbath commandment (Ezekiel 20:24). To prevent this from happening again the Jews had made a whole bunch of man-made rules for Sabbath-keeping. These rules actually went against the very spirit of the Sabbath. That is why it was necessary for Jesus to show them what it was truly about, which meant to break their man-made customs. Even those who had been taught by Jesus kept the Sabbath, as they did not even finish Jesus’ body for burial because of the Sabbath (Luke 23:56) and waited until the Sunday to finish the burial work.
Since the Sabbath was made for man, can we decide what to do with it?
Jesus tells His hearers that the Sabbath is made for man (mankind), not the other way around (Mark 2:27). Many take this verse to say that they can themselves decide whether to keep that day or not and how to keep it. Though it is true that the day is made for man, that does not make it ‘the man’s day’. The Bible is very clear, even in the commandment itself, that the Sabbath is God’s day (Exodus 20:10, Isaiah 58:13, Ezekiel 20:12, Leviticus 23:38). In fact, Jesus Himself claims that day as His own, calling Himself the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). We are not to pursue our own pleasures, but His. The fact that it is made for us, does not mean it is everything we think we want it to be. God tells us how we can experience the blessing that He put on that day (Genesis 2:3), by putting aside all work and worries of daily life and spend the entire day -sunset Friday to sunset Saturday- with Him. God instituted the Sabbath in creation week and rested, not because He was tired, but to set an example for us. He knew that it would benefit His entire creation to have a day of rest. He also knew we would forget that day and to acknowledge Him as creator and savior, and that is why the commandment starts with the word “remember”. Is that not ironic, the only commandment that has the word “remember” in it, is the only one forgotten. The commandment also tells us to reflect on Him being our deliverer from bondage -as the delivery from Egypt represents God’s ultimate delivery for His people, the one from sin. When we honor the Sabbath day, we rest from our own works, acknowledging that He is the creator and redeemer, without any work from our part. Keeping the Sabbath day is therefore a sign that we believe in salvation by His grace alone, not our works.
Did Paul speak against Sabbath keeping?
Paul is often quoted to support the idea of God having done away the law and the Sabbath. Before we look at the debated verses, I want us to notice what Paul has to say about the law.
Paul’s position on the law
The position of Paul towards the law seems quite clear in these verses: keeping of the law is what matters, he delights in the law, he doesn’t make void but establishes the law, and he calls the law holy, just and good. That does not really sound as if he advocates the idea that the law is done away with. Of course it is no longer the source of salvation, as salvation comes by grace. However, out of that grace we are not to make void the law, but to establish it. Keep this in mind as we review three of his most misunderstood verses concerning this topic.
Blotting out and nailed to the cross
The Old Testament talks about two different laws: the ceremonial and the moral law. These are treated differently and many do not separate these two when reading the above verse. Before we get into it a bit deeper, please think about this. Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). If it is made for man, how then can it be against us? Why would it need to be nailed to the cross, if it was a gift to us? Jesus said He was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). How come He needed to triumph over something He was Lord of? God instituted the Sabbath in creation week (Genesis 2:3), before sin entered the world, according to His perfect design. How then can that be a shadow? If we know that none of the other nine commandments are against us, but rather lead to good relationships with each other and God, why would the fourth one that starts with ‘remember’ be bad? It does not make sense at all that the ten commandments would be nailed to the cross. But what then?
It was the “handwriting of ordinances”. It says that the ceremonial law was written by Moses’ handwriting and God makes a clear separation between His holy law and the statutes and ordinances written by Moses (2 Chronicles 33:8, Deuteronomy 4:13-14, 2 Kings 21:8). The handwritten ordinances that made up the ceremonial law, those were placed on the outside of the ark of the covenant, so that they would testify against the people (Deuteronomy 31:26). They would make them aware of their sinfulness and its consequences. Here the ceremonial law that contains the sacrificial system is called a shadow (Hebrews 10:1). A shadow because these ordinances pointed forward and found their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The Sabbath days it talks about are the yearly Sabbaths that are part of the ceremonial law, that pointed to Jesus, not the weekly Sabbath.
Billy Graham has this to say about it:
Esteeming one day above another
Some believe that the “day” it is talking about is the Sabbath day. However, that is not what it says. Even more, the word Sabbath is not even used at all in the book of Romans. There is no support for interpreting this as talking about the Sabbath. The “day” that Paul talks about here are fasting days that the Jews held (Luke 18:12, Luke 5:33, Matthew 6:16). This interpretation is evident based on the context. The entire chapter is about food and drinks and things related to fasting, it is not a discussion about whether to keep the Sabbath or not.
Ye observe days
When reading the letter of Galatians as a whole, it becomes clear that the Galatian church has started to shift their attitude about where salvation comes from. Instead of accepting the gift of salvation by faith, they returned to the rites of the ceremonial law that had found their fulfillment in Christ. They had begun to walk and live in the Spirit, but have now shifted again to works of the flesh (Galatians 3:3). They started observing the ceremonial sabbaths and new moons (Numbers 10:10, Leviticus 23:4), appointed seasons for festivals (Numbers 28:2) and years of jubilee (Exodus 23:10-11).
The term “days” does not refer to the weekly Sabbath. Nowhere in scripture is that term used to refer to the seventh day Sabbath, neither does Paul mention the word Sabbath in this entire letter. On top of that, since God created the Sabbath in creation week and kept it Himself (Genesis 2:2-3), Paul would then here suggest that God put Himself in bondage on that first Sabbath before sin entered the world. That does not sound right does it?
Should we not keep every day holy?
This was my personal belief for quite some time, until I found that even though it sounds wonderful, Scripture does not agree with this reasoning. In the commandment God clearly tells us that six days are to be treated as common and the seventh day (not ‘a’ seventh, but ‘the’ seventh) is made holy. Holy means set apart, if all days would be holy, it means they are all the same, therefore none would be holy, or set apart. Now don’t get me wrong, I strongly endorse worshipping God every day (Colossians 3:17), but that is not the same as keeping a day holy. God outlines a certain manner in which the day is to be kept holy, for example to not work. You understand it would cause some issues if we then would treat everyday as that type of holy day.
In Leviticus 10:1-2 we can read about two sons of the priest who used ‘common’ fire for a ritual in the temple instead of the ‘holy’ fire that was set apart, that God commanded them to use. It did not end well for the two. Mixing what God has called common and calling it holy and vice versa is not something God approves of (Ezekiel 22:26). So, worship Him every day, and keep holy the day He told us to keep holy.
How can the majority be wrong?
Open the Scriptures and see when the majority was ever right. It was the majority that was unaware that the flood would come (Matthew 24:39), that danced around a golden calf (Exodus 32:8), that bowed before Nebuchadnezzar’s image (Daniel 3:7) and that killed Jesus (Luke 23:21). Jesus tells us that the road to life is narrow, and the majority will unfortunately not be on that road (Matthew 7:13-14). No matter what the majority does, we are to act on what God says (Acts 5:29).
Can we know that the seventh day is Saturday?
There are claims that we can no longer know which day was the original seventh day, and therefore cannot keep the Sabbath. The Jewish people have been given the knowledge of the right seventh day (Romans 3:2) and have been faithful throughout the years to keep track of it. Jesus confirmed this several times by observing the Sabbath as well. As Lord of the Sabbath, He of all people would know which day the right one was (Matthew 12:8, John 1:14). Would the Lord of the Sabbath not know or keep the wrong day for Sabbath? Highly doubt that.
When in 1582 the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, the dates changed, but the seven-day weekly cycle was not impacted. In the same way once every four year we have a leap year, which changes the dates, but leaves the days intact. Tuesday still comes after Monday, and the Saturday is still the seventh day of the week, no matter the date given. We can be confident that the seventh day Saturday that we have now is the same as in the beginning.
Can we keep both Saturday and Sunday?
Can one serve two masters?
Jesus tells us that we cannot (Matthew 6:24). God has made one day, and one day only holy, the seventh day Sabbath (Saturday). The Sabbath commandment not only instructs us to keep holy that day, but also to treat the other days as common. We are required to choose (Joshua 24:15) whether you will obey God or the traditions and doctrines of man (Matthew 15:9).
We are to keep the seventh day Sabbath holy and if possible gather together with other believers on this day (Leviticus 23:3, Hebrews 10:25). On top of that, of course we can worship God and meet with other believers on other days too (Acts 2:46-47. Acts 5:42, Acts 17:11), but not instead of on the Sabbath and not in the same holy way as on the Sabbath.
How to relate to Sunday keeping churches?
It is important to keep in mind that whether ignorantly or willingly Sunday keeping churches are violating God’s commandment. The Bible teaches us to come out of systems that disregard God’s commandments (Revelation 18:4, Ephesians 5:11, 2 Corinthians 6:17, Jeremiah 51:45, Joshua 23:12-13). This includes any activity or support, as this would contribute to glorify the doctrines of man, rather than God’s.
We believe that a visit of a Sunday keeping church on occasion is up to the conscience of the believer. It is important that these kind of decisions are made through prayer, having truthfully sought the wisdom of the Lord. I can personally testify to the importance of seeking the Lord in such decisions, as part of my own testimony is that I disregarded the Sabbath truth I had because I enjoyed the services of a particular church that kept the Sunday.
Why do Christians go to church on Sunday?
We have seen that none of the popular arguments for church on Sunday support this idea. But it was not the misinterpretations of these Bible verses that led to the church to start keeping the Sunday instead of the Sabbath. The actual reason why churches today keep the Sunday is because of a tradition that comes forth from paganism.
The Roman religion in the 4th century was the worship of the sungods. They had their own temples, priesthood, robes, statues, etc. We get the name Sunday from day of the sun, the moon became Monday, Saturn became Saturday. When Roman emperor Constantine saw a vision of a flaming cross in the sky with the Latin words under it translated as “in this sign conquer”, he professed to be a Christian. The two popular religions blended together, introducing pagan ideas and mindsets into the Christian church. On the seventh day of March, 321, Constantine gave the decree for the observance of the day of the sun as day of worship. “It was Constantine who first made a law for the proper observance of Sunday and who appointed that it should be regularly celebrated throughout the Roman empire.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
A little while later in 364 the council of Laodicea passed a law forbidding Christians to keep the Sabbath. “CHRISTIANS must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.” Canon 29, Council Of Laodicea. This doctrine of the Sunday keeping was enforced throughout the dark ages, and Christians who did not recognize the church’ solemn authority and doctrines, which included Sunday worship, were persecuted and put to death. The Catholic church followed the course from Constantine and reinforced Sunday keeping at council after council, and they are not hiding, rather boast in the role they have played in this change.
One more statement that sums up this blog post.
Find more quotes from historians and Catholic sources about this topic here. And read more here to understand why this is so important in light of a much bigger picture.
The call to respond
The Sabbath was instituted in creation week, according to God’s perfect plan, the Israelites kept it, Jesus kept it, the apostles kept it, the early churches kept it and we will keep it in the new Jerusalem for eternity (Isaiah 66:23). By Sunday keeping we follow the traditions and doctrines of man, not of God. Jesus tells us, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15 KJV. The Sabbath is one of the commandments. If we love Jesus, let’s embrace the Sabbath, the day of the Lord. Keeping the Sabbath is not a burden, but a blessing (1 John 5:3). The Pharisees made it a burden with their man-made rules, but God gave this day so that it may go well with you and your family (Deuteronomy 5:33). Let’s keep holy the Sabbath day, and worship the One who created us and the world, and saved us from slavery of sin.