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(Last Updated: 28 Nov 1999 )
I have some good Christian friends who are Seventh-Day Adventists. One of the distinguishing features of their church is a strict adherence to keeping the original Sabbath day holy, as specified in the Ten Commandments; in other words, worshipping on Saturday rather than Sunday. This article discusses why almost all of the rest of Christianity worships on Sunday, and how this practice developed.
IntroductionWe know that the Apostles attended the Synagogue on the Sabbath day (Saturday), one reason being presumably because that was when they could find God's people gathered together and share the Gospel with them (see e.g. Acts 13:14, 17:2 and 18:4). Also Christianity was for a while considered to be simply a sect of Judaism, made up of those Jews who had found the Messiah, so they would have participated in Sabbath worship anyway, at least initially. As an example, Eusebius's History of the Church, Book 2, Chapter 23 says that the Apostle James "was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people" (Eusebius lived about AD 260-341).
However we also know that Christians met separately for their own liturgy. Acts 20:7 describes the Apostles getting together for communion on the first day of the week (Sunday), something which I guess they could not do in the Synagogue, and 1 Cor 16:2 has Paul directing the churches to take up a collection on the first day of the week.
Christianity Becomes Distinct From JudaismIt seems like Judaism was fairly diverse up until the destruction of the temple, with sects of various beliefs like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Christians, but after the calamity following the temple destruction around AD 70, unity became more important. Rabbi Gamaliel and his associates, perhaps at the Council of Jamnia shortly before the end of the first century, modified the Jewish Synagogue liturgy, which involved changing the twelfth blessing of the Shemonesh 'Esreh (The Eighteen Benedictions of The Daily Prayer) to contain a condemnation of Jewish Christians, as follows:"And for apostates let there be no hope; and may the insolent kingdom be quickly uprooted, in our days. And may the Nazarenes [Christians] and heretics (minim) perish quickly; and may they be erased from the Book of Life; and may they not be inscribed with the righteous".For more on this, see these articles: one from A Christian Think-Tank, and one from Jews for Jesus.
Anyway, now Christians couldn't worship with the Jews without calling down curses on themselves, so Christianity became distinctly a new and separate religion, and there were not the same reasons to worship on the Sabbath. Some other very relevant Bible verses to consider are Gal 4:9-11 and Col 2:16-17, where Paul tells Christians that now that Jesus has come, they are no longer bound to the ritual observances of the Law. These passages, along with the the fact that Jesus is "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt 12:8 and Luke 6:5, for example) indicate that early Christians did not necessarily see themselves as bound to the Jewish Sabbath, and were free to celebrate the day of Christ's resurrection (Sunday) as their day of worship and rest instead.
The Practice of the Early ChurchSince there is not really that much information on the issue in the Bible, one way to confirm whether this was in fact the understanding of the early Church, based on the Bible and teachings passed down from the Apostles, is to look at the writings of the Church Fathers. These guys, although obviously not inspired, can give us a lot of information about how the Church understood the teachings they received from Jesus and the Apostles, especially since some of them were writing before the NT was completed. The ones that I am aware of that have a bearing on the Sabbath issue are below. Any emphasis in italics has been added by me.
The Didache is probably the oldest patristic document, from about AD 70 (before some of the NT was written). Its full title originally was The Lord's Instruction to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles and it says the following:"But every Lord's day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned."
The Epistle of Barnabas was written about AD 74. Some people think it was by Paul's fellow missionary (Acts 13:2). Chapter 15 is called The False and the True Sabbath, and includes the following:"He [the Lord] says to them, "Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure." [Here he is referring to Isaiah 1:13]. Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead."
In AD 110, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a number of letters as he was being shipped to Rome to be executed. Ignatius may have known Peter and Paul personally. He was Bishop of Antioch and some traditions say he was appointed by Peter himself. In his Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 9, he says:"...those who were brought up in the ancient order of things [i.e. Jews] have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day..."
These are the earliest quotes I have found. If you want to do some more research, check out the Catholic Answers page on the Sabbath in the early Church. This page provides more citations from people like Justin Martyr (AD 155), Tertullian (AD 203), Origen (AD 229), Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 312), Athanasius (AD 345), Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350), John Chrysostom (AD 387), and Augustine (AD 412).
I believe the decision to worship on Sunday became "official" (as opposed to being simply universal Christian practice) at the Council of Laodicea some time around AD 360. Canon 29 of this council says:"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."
ConclusionSince then, Sunday worship has continued to be universal Christian practice, apart from within some groups like the Seventh-Day Adventists. It is difficult to fault someone for wanting to zealously conform to the Ten Commandments, one of which is of course to keep the Sabbath day holy. However we know that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; that Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28); and that he delegated the power to bind and loose to the Church (Matthew 16:18 and 18:18). The understanding that the Christian Sabbath obligation is fulfilled by worshipping on Sunday, the Lord's day, is one that has been consistent since the time of the apostles.
Scripture ReferencesActs 13:14
but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia. And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. (Back)
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, (Back)
And he argued in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded Jews and Greeks. (Back)
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Back)
1 Corinthians 16:2
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come. (Back)
but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have labored over you in vain. (Back)
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Back)
For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath. (Back)
And he said to them, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” (Back)
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. (Back)
And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Back)
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. (Back)
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Back)
Verses from The Revised Standard Version, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.) 1973, 1977.
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