Did God Change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?

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“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8)
“But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” (1 Timothy 1:8)

In our last message, we asked these questions:

  • “What does the Bible teach about the Sabbath and the Christian?”
  • “Has God changed the day of worship from Saturday, the seventh day of the week, to Sunday, the first day of the week?”
  • “If so, did the early church recognize a transference of the Old Testament principles of Sabbath observance to Sunday? In other words, Did Sunday become the Christian Sabbath?”

In “Part 1” of our message published last month we began a discussion of these questions and listed sixteen biblical facts every Christian should know about the Sabbath. In this message, we continue our discussion.

17. Paul did not abolish God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy when he wrote Colossians 2:16,“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.”

First, it is important to note that the Greek text does not have the word “day” following Sabbath and also that the word “Sabbath” is not singular but plural—literally “Sabbaths” (sabbaton). Paul is saying, “Let no one act as your judge in regard to Sabbaths.”

Second, observe that the context lists “food,” “drink,” “festivals,” and the “new moon” in connection with the term “Sabbaths.” It is therefore likely that Paul is not referring to the weekly Sabbath day at all! Rather, by the use of the plural term “Sabbaths,” he is speaking of the Sabbath days that were associated with the Jewish feasts, Sabbaths which did not fall on Saturday (e.g., the “Sabbath” on the Day of Atonement, Lev. 16:31, was observed no matter which day of the week it fell on).

Third, Paul is teaching that as important as the Jewish ceremonial laws were to Jewish Christians who were just starting to understand the differences in the New Covenant from the Old Covenant, the keeping of the ceremonial law was not required for Gentile Christians (see Acts 15).

No one is to evaluate another person’s relationship with Jesus Christ on the basis of observance or non-observance of any of the ceremonial laws of the First Covenant. Such ceremonies were fulfilled in Christ. Further, Paul insisted that strict observance of food laws or any other ceremonial law will not merit any person salvation.

Fourth, even if Paul were referring to the weekly Sabbath day, this verse would not teach that the Sabbath has been done away with. It is simply teaching that one’s relationship with Christ cannot be judged on the basis of whether or not a person observes a certain religious rite.

18. In Romans 14:5, Paul did not teach that a believer is permitted to choose any day of the week he wishes to be his Sabbath day.

Paul’s statement, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5), is not teaching that if Sunday is not convenient for you, you may choose any other day of the week to be your Sabbath, just as long as you do honor one day a week as your Sabbath day.

First, read the passage carefully and note that Paul does not mention the term “Sabbath” or “the Lord’s day” in his discussion. There is no evidence that Paul had the weekly Sabbath in mind.

Second, the context suggests that Paul is probably addressing the issue of “holy days” in general (like Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, etc.). His point is similar to that of Colossians 2:16. Our salvation does not stand or fall on whether we all esteem the same holy days. Rather, we must all stand before God and give an account for ourselves (Rom. 14:10, 12).

Therefore, we should do all that we do for the Lord (Rom. 14:6-8).

19. When Paul said in Romans 6:14 that New Testament Christians are not under Mosaic “law,” but under “grace,” He was not annulling the Mosaic law.

In Romans 6:1-14 Paul speaks of the union believers have with Christ in His death to sin and His resurrection to new life (Rom. 6:1-4). As a result of this union, believers are delivered from the bondage of sin and enabled to walk in the Spirit (Rom. 6:6-14). The Spirit does not lead believers contrary to the truth of Scripture that the Spirit Himself has inspired (2 Tim. 3:16).

Rather, the Spirit empowers the believer to live in harmony with moral principles in the Mosaic law. They are no longer “law-breakers” who live under the condemnation of God and God’s law. Listen carefully to Paul in the following verses:

  • Romans 3:31: “Do we then nullify the [Mosaic] Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”
  • Romans 8:4: “That the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled [is fulfilled] in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
  • Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Believers are no longer under the law in the sense of being “condemned” for their violation of God’s law. Through the Spirit, believers live in obedience to God’s law so that the just requirements of the law are fulfilled in them (Rom.8:4). This does not mean that nothing in the Mosaic Law was changed in the New Covenant.

However, none of the moral precepts that reflect God’s unchanging purposes of mankind were changed. Part of this unchanging moral code is the requirement to keep the Sabbath day holy (Exod. 20:8; Deut. 5:12).

20. The transition from Saturday to Sunday as the Sabbath of the Lord for the New Testament Church occurred under Apostolic leadership.

Dr. Philip Schaff, author of the authoritative History of the Christian Church and recognized as the Dean of American Church historians, has traced the transition in the Christian Church from the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday to the Christian Sabbath on Sunday. He writes:

The celebration of the Lord’s Day in memory of the resurrection of Christ dates undoubtedly from the apostolic age. Nothing short of apostolic precedent can account for the universal religious observance in the churches of the second century.

There is no dissenting voice. This custom is confirmed by the testimonies of the earliest post-apostolic writers, such as Barnabas, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr. It is also confirmed by the younger Pliny. The Didache calls the first day “the Lord’s Day of the Lord. [1]

He concludes,

…viewed in the light of the universal and uncontradicted practice of the church in the second century it may be inferred that the annual celebration of the death and the resurrection of Christ, and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, originated in the apostolic age. [2]

The transition from Saturday to Sunday worship was gradual, just as the transition from synagogue to church was gradual. Luke records that the believers who experienced the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, continued participating in Temple and synagogue services as well as daily house-to-house services (Acts. 2:42, 46).

Gradually, as the Jewish community grew more and more antagonistic to Christians, the Christians were forced to leave the synagogues and meet separately. The Spirit helped them to see that the need for animal sacrifice was no longer necessary, and in Christ all the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law were fulfilled.

In like manner, the Holy Spirit gradually led the Church to abandon the Jewish Sabbath day (Saturday) and to cleave to the Christian Sabbath day (Sunday).

21. The testimony of Ignatius attests that the separation between the Jewish practices and the practices of the Christian church had not yet fully taken place by the end of the first century AD.

Ignatius, a convert and disciple of the Apostle John, who lived and ministered in the latter half of the first century AD, became the pastor of the church at Antioch about 69 AD, approximately 36 years after the resurrection of Jesus. He was martyred by Roman Emperor Trajan in AD 109.

Ignatius wrote,

Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner…but let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law…After the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week].

Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day,” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ…

This reference reveals that the phrase “the Lord’s Day” was well known and revered in the first century AD by Christians. It also indicates that Ignatius believed that anyone who did not keep the Lord’s Day holy in honor of the resurrection was not a friend of Christ.

22. The testimony of Justin Martyr attests that early in the second century AD the transition from Saturday to Sunday as the Christian Sabbath had occurred.

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) wrote to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius less than fifty years after the death of the Apostle John. He said,

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…

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 Savior 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. [4]

Please note, that when Justin says, “having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things,” he dates the keeping of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath back to the time when Jesus appeared to his assembled followers just after the resurrection!


Notes

[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910, II, 201-202.
[2] Ibid., I, 480.
[3] “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 9: Let Us Live With Christ” in Schaff, P. (2000). The Ante-Nicene Fathers (electronic ed.)
(Vol. 1). Garland, TX: Galaxie Software.
[4] Chapter 67: Weekly Worship Of The Christians Schaff, P. (2000). The Ante-Nicene Fathers (electronic ed.) (Vol. 1). Garland, TX: Galaxie Software.

Allan Brown
Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.
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