In recent years there has been an increase in Instagram posts and resources encouraging Christians to revert from a Sunday celebration of worship to a Saturday Sabbath. Why is this? To answer this question we have to look at the history of Sabbath and how it transitioned to Sunday worship! The celebration of Christian community and the resurrection of Christ on Sunday has been a standard in the Christian church since the first century, but it’s important to know why the Christians diverged from the Jews on their day of meeting.
In this episode we explore that history and some of the reasons Christians celebrate Christ and community on Sunday.
Resources and Reading
- A History of Sunday by Justo Gonzalez
- 7 Things You Should Know About the Lord’s Day
- When did the Christian church switch the Sabbath to Sunday?
Hello, friends, and welcome back to Verity Podcast. Thank you for joining me in this “Ask Anything Theology series.” We are reconvening the Ask Anything Theology series, which we did last year in 2021, and then paused to do the Marriage series, and we’re starting it back up again, so super excited about that. Our first episode in this series was more specific to cultural commentary. We talked about Redeeming Love, the book and movie, and some things to consider biblically and spiritually with that, and then this week, we are talking about Sabbath and why do Christians observe the “Sabbath” on Sunday. I’m just going to do a real high-level view of this. That’s what we do here at Verity. I’m not going to be able to cover every nuance. I would love to, but I just can’t do it in the 20 to 30 minutes that I have. So, we’re just going to look at a few different passages in Scripture, and then we’re going to read from a couple of sources, particularly an awesome book I have by scholar Justo González called A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation.
Justo González is one of my favorite scholars to read. He has an amazing church history set that I highly recommend called The Story of Christianity. But he also has many, many Bible studies and commentaries available both in Spanish and in English. Shoutout to Justo, because I am his biggest fan. We’re going to talk today about Sabbath, and why Christians observe their worship on Sunday when we know that Jesus was observing a Sabbath on the traditional Jewish day that we now know as Saturday and Saturday, obviously gets its name from the Roman calendar, it would have been the day of Saturn, if you didn’t know that fun fact. Then Sunday, which is the Day of the Sun. All of our days of the week, either come from those Roman names or sometimes Norse names, a combination of the two that are now labeled those Gods, that are now labeled on our calendar. So, we’re going to touch on a little bit of that in this book by Justo.
But before we get to that, I want to look at what Scripture says about Sabbath in general because that’s going to lay our foundation for understanding, what’s happening on this day, why do we worship on Sunday versus Saturday, what does Sabbath mean for the Christian person? We’re going to start in Genesis 2, because this is where we first see this act of setting aside a day for rest. Genesis 2 verses 2 through 3. This is after the chapter one creation narrative says, “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God created and made.” In this instance, that seventh day, final day, seven being the complete or Holy number represents completeness in Scripture is what will one day become the Saturday Sabbath. We first see that set as a creation precedent, where God rests and He says, “Man needs to rest on this day.”
This isn’t really formalized until about Exodus 16:22. We start to see this mentioned, this is after the Exodus from Egypt. Israel is wandering in the desert being brought to the promised land and they’re first exposed to manna, so this bread from heaven to provide for them in the wilderness. This is when God gives them some boundaries on what days they are to gather this bread, and it says, “Now I came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant. Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is leftover put aside to be kept until morning.”
They had to store up enough manna to last them through the Sabbath because there was going to be no manna on the Sabbath. God was not going to be providing it beyond the day that they were gathering. We see this Sabbath observance, officially formalized here in Exodus 20, which lists the 10 commandments. Exodus 20:11 says, “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.” This is the reason why He gives the command Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God. You are not to work, your servants are not to work, your animals are not to work, you are to rest because God blessed that day and He made it holy.
Now, keep in mind here that this is a law given to Israel specifically, but it’s part of the 10 commandments, and the truths of the 10 commandments, while fulfilled in Christ still carryover in principle and theological principle to Christians today. If you’d like to have more resources on this, I have an eBook on this. It’s completely free, that can help you process through why the 10 commandments apply to us today, but how they apply in light of Christ, and how we understand them in light of Christ. Another really great resource that is an actual book written by the wonderful, Jen Wilkin is Ten Words to Live By, which talks more about the 10 commandments. Those are two great resources to dive more into that.
We see that now the Sabbath is formalized. It’s set as a creation precedent. Now, God formalizes it for Israel, who are His representative on earth. They act as this visual representation of what it means for humanity to dwell with God. God is dwelling with Israel. They create the tabernacle, so God may dwell with them, and remain with them, and they can be a light to the nations as this foreshadowing of what the church will be as the light to the nations, where God is dwelling within and with us. These themes of God dwelling with man that carries through the whole Bible different revelations of that dwelling, but keeping in mind at this point in history, and how God is interacting with Israel, he has decided to utilize this very specific Sabbath observance.
Let’s go forward to Exodus 31:17, which says that, “The Sabbath is to be celebrated throughout generations as a perpetual covenant between Me and the sons of Israel forever. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” In this passage, and then also in Ezekiel 20:12, we see that the Sabbath is a lasting sign between Israel and God. Without getting too much in the weeds, this does bring up the question that’s really at play here. Is Sabbath observance on a Saturday in the sense that Judaism observes the Sabbath applicable to Christians today? Do we need to observe it in the Jewish manner or do we not? The real question that is being asked is, it was this Sabbath, a covenant, a specific and perpetual covenant between God and Israel or between God, and Israel, and the church? Is the church supposed to be living in the exact same way as Israel was living with God? That’s really the question that’s being asked unconsciously here.
There are different approaches and answers to that question depending on the church environment that you’re in. If you are Jewish, I think the answer is pretty obvious that you have this heritage from the Lord as a Jewish believer, a truly messianic believer, where you have this perpetual covenant that is both fulfilled in Christ, but also carries with it this beautiful tradition and heritage. This is why if you have Jewish Christian friends, who are Christian Jews, you would see them observing this rich heritage, and the Jewish festivals and the Sabbaths while also affirming Jesus as Messiah. The real question here is, like I just mentioned, is the Sabbath observed in this Jewish way for all believers including non-Jews or is it just for the Jews? I touched on this a little bit in the episode on Easter is Easter pagan and talking a little bit about Christians adopting Passover and practicing Passover or even practicing other Jewish feasts. Just some things to consider and be cautious with when thinking about that topic. So, I will refer you to that episode for more on that.
But let’s go forward. We’re going to look at Deuteronomy 5:15, where Moses talks about the reason for the Sabbath’s, why they were instituted. He says, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm, therefore, the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.” Here he’s reiterating the 10 commandments, but he’s adding this commentary and saying, observe the Sabbath because of the Exodus. I think this is a persuasive point that the Sabbath in its observance as we know it in the Old Testament was very specific to the Jewish people, because the Exodus was very specific to the Jewish people. While we as, I’m a gentile, I’m a non-Jewish Christian, we as gentiles can look to that example and take away the theological principles of the Exodus, learn from them. The Exodus itself is not a part of my specific heritage, it’s not a part of my ethnic legacy, and it is a part of the Jewish legacy, it’s a part of their liturgy, it’s part of their festivals as we know throughout all of Scripture. As we look at this interesting comment by Moses, and then as we continue through Scripture and look elsewhere at what said about Sabbath and Sunday, that’s something to maybe consider one perspective on it.
As we move over to Acts 15, we are jumping way ahead, right? Well, a lot of the Bible in between Deuteronomy and Acts talks about the Sabbath, tons of discussion of Sabbath in the gospels, but we’ll talk about that in a second. In Acts 15, we see the Jerusalem Council, where the apostles are trying to decide what do we do with all these gentile, non-Jewish converts? What do we teach them, how do we get them started in the life in Christ? They decide that after they’re taught the basics, baptized, brought into the church that they need to focus on three main principles that need to be taught. They need to teach them sanctity of life, and the expression of this was to refrain from eating or drinking blood. Sanctity of worship, to refrain from idol worship, keep God as your only God, which would have been difficult in Roman and Greek society because there were many Gods and those Gods were very much a part of the culture. Sanctity of worship God is the only God and then sanctity of sex refraining from sexual immorality, which under the biblical narrative that would include extramarital sex, premarital sex, homosexual sex, pedophilia, bestiality, anything of that type would have fallen under sexual immorality. So, anything outside of a man and woman in covenant marriage expressing their sexuality would have fallen under sexual immorality.
These were the three principles that were being taught to new converts. At this point, we see the church is gathering to break bread together. The original church began to grow in the synagogues. Jesus would go to the synagogues and teach and after that the apostles would go to the synagogues and teach to the Jewish people, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies in Jesus. Now, if you’ve read the book of Acts, you know that this was not always very well received to the point that eventually Paul goes to the gentiles instead of to the Jews, and Peter continues to minister to the Jews. I’m saying all this to set the stage for what changes in the observance of worship from beginning in a synagogue on a Saturday to worshiping on a Sunday.
In Acts, the Jerusalem Council says, “Okay, we need to start teaching these people these basic principles.” There begins to be gatherings of the church beyond just the weekly synagogue meetings. Beyond that set Sabbath, when everyone would meet at the synagogues to study the Torah to meet together, the Christian church would meet outside of that. We know that because in Acts 27 it says that the church was meeting on the first day of the week. It also says this in 1 Corinthians 16:2. They’re meeting on the first day of the week. Here is what Justo González has to say about this. “Whenever a particular day of the week is singled out for this Christian gathering, this is usually called either the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week or in texts addressed to gentiles, the Day of the Sun. The earliest such text appears in the New Testament in Acts 20. Paul is in Troas preparing to take ship next morning and the narrator tells us on the first day of the week, literally, the first day after the Sabbath, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them. But this gathering takes place in the evening for Paul goes on talking until midnight and lamps are needed.
In the Jewish tradition, days were not counted from midnight to midnight as we do, but rather from sunset to sunset. Thus, the evening of what today we call Saturday would be the beginning of what we now call Sunday. This was not a Sabbath meal but it did take place in the evening of Saturday, which to Jewish Christians was already the first day of the week, the Day of Resurrection. Taking all of this into account, it would seem that these early Jewish Christians after attending Sabbath worship in the synagogue, when they were still allowed to do so would gather in the evening of the same day, which to them would be the next day in order to break bread. This would have been particularly convenient for Jews, who through the passing of generations had found ways to observe the Sabbath, either by working at trades where they could determine their own schedules, such as the tent making that Paul and Aquila practiced, or by amassing sufficient resources to be independent of the usual pressures of society in the marketplace as was the case with Philo of Alexandria and his family.
But it would be much more difficult for the increasing number of gentile Christians, many of whom were economically dependent as slaves, wives, clients, or employees on people who had no reason to give them special treatment on a particular day of the week. For these gentile Christians, it would be more feasible to gather not in the evening when there were still chores to be attended, but very early in the morning, before dawn brought the usual and inescapable tasks and obligations. The growth of the gentile membership of the church also brought another important change. Romans did not count days from sunset to sunset, but from midnight to midnight. This would mean that for most gentiles, the evening of the seventh day would still be the same day and not the first of the next week. For Jewish Christians, on the other hand, the first day began with a sunset on the Sabbath and continued until the next sunset. Since, as we shall see, there was much significance to the practice of gathering on the first day as the proportion of Jews in the church decreased and the proportion of gentiles increased, there was a tendency for the breaking of the bread to be celebrated very early, usually, before dawn on the morning after the Sabbath.”
What he’s pointing out here is that really this shift here to a Sunday observance was integrally connected to the growth of the gentile church. In the episode on Easter, I talk about that as well, that so much of the change in the church happened not necessarily because the church was anti-Jewish, but simply because it was predominantly gentile in a culture where as Justo González points out, the majority of the people in the church are slaves, or wives, or people without power, people who can’t ask for a Sabbath off, or in a position culturally or in a community that facilitates that. There was this shift to an observance of the Lord’s Day, the Resurrection Day, Sunday, that had both to do with theology, but also to do with convenience with the only time that they could gather to be taught. It’s interesting to see this shift happening very early during the writing of the New Testament, after the writing of the New Testament. In the first few hundred years, we have documentation showing that the Day of the Sun was when Christians gathered for worship, and it wasn’t until the 300, 313, when Constantine legalized Christianity that we then see Sunday become this official day of worship.
Constantine was not the one who came up with the idea. He just legalized it, he just put it on paper. It was already a practice in existence before that time. What do we do with this information? One of the things that we see over and over in the gospels is an argument between Jesus and the Jewish leaders about the Sabbath observance. Now, it’s important to recognize that the Pharisees were not all bad guys. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, and there’re a lot of other members of the Sanhedrin that we know possibly were followers of Jesus, though secretly based on things we see in the gospels. But what we do see in these discussions between the Jewish leaders, who oppose Jesus, and Jesus himself is a debate over the particulars of the Sabbath. For instance, when Jesus is walking with His disciples, and they’re hungry, and they pick the heads of grain, and the Jewish leaders see it, and they say, “You’re harvesting on the Sabbath.” Jesus points out that, “King David himself allowed his men to eat the holy bread from the tabernacle when they were in need.”
When he has these conversations, he’s not saying, the law that God gave you was wrong or I’m just here to overturn all of your ideas. He was drawing them back to the principle of Sabbath. They were missing the forest for the trees, and losing the principle of Sabbath and the details that they had worked out, and they had broken down to observe the Sabbath. In trying to observe the Sabbath, they missed the heart of the Sabbath. Jesus was drawing them back to that, which is why in Mark 2:27, He says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, “You’re elevating the Sabbath almost to the level that you worship the Sabbath, instead of seeing that this was made for rest for man. It is a gift to man. It is not meant to be something that you worship in place of God Himself or that you elevate above the people it’s meant to bless.” Jesus did not scorn the Sabbath, He observed the Sabbath, but He also would not allow people to misconstrue the Sabbath. Sometimes, what I’m seeing happen on Instagram and in some other places online is a subtle theology that’s, I would say, teetering on legalism. It begins with our recognized need for rest, and the lost art of observing rest and observing for lack of a better word, Sabbath. We start there.
But what can happen is, we then think, “Oh, I need to tack on all of these extra particulars and I need to make sure that I’m observing it in this very particular way.” In a sense, we begin to go backwards out of our freedom in Christ, out of the Sabbath rest that Christ is, and we say that we need to add all of these certain and specific things to our Sabbath in order to do it correctly. That misses the point of the rest that Christ brings us. According to Matthew 11, Romans 4 and Hebrews 4, “We have entered into a rest from our labors because of Christ. Christ is the fulfillment of Sabbath for us.” The church fathers wrote about this, and Justo González comments on it in the middle of his book, A Brief History of Sunday. I’m going to read this passage to you as well. “It is important to note, that Ambrose, church father, is not saying that the Lord’s Day, Sunday, has come to take the place of the Sabbath. What has come to take that place is a new order that has dawned in Christ. The second Sabbath that has become first is not a different day of the week but rather a different way of relating to God.”
In another passage in the same commentary, referring now to the woman whom Jesus healed on a Sabbath in Luke 13, Ambrose once again speaks of the Sabbath as being superseded. Not by another weekly observance, but rather by a different relationship with God. The observance of the Sabbath in the law is a sign of the future life for all who have fulfilled the law and lived in grace will be freed by Christ’s mercy from the misery of their sick bodies. Thus, the reality of sanctification was given to Moses as a sign to the future exercise of sanctification and for spiritual observance by abstaining from the works of the world. Shortly after St. Augustine wrote, “Christ freed us from the very heavy yoke of so many observances, so that we no longer have to be circumcised in the flesh or sacrifice animals nor follow the sabbatical cycle, so that every seven years we would have to cease all necessary work. Rather we already keep all these things in a spiritual manner and leaving aside the shadows that pointed to truth. We are to keep these laws according to a spiritual understanding.”
Now, I will say, Augustine at times in his writings would divide things along pretty firm spiritual and physical lines instead of combining the spiritual and the physical in the way that we see the Old Testament do. They do think I would add unnecessary caution that while this is a spiritual observance that Christ is the rest that we enter into that we are not required to observe a Sabbath in a specific way. There still is a true benefit to the observance of rest on Sunday or on a day of the week that you have available as someone who is working in the world. We’ll talk about how our family does that at the end of this episode. Justo goes on to say, “Again, it’s important to note that these texts do not say that while Jews keep the Sabbath, Christians keep the Lord’s Day. It’s not a matter of substituting one day for another. It is rather a vision in which the observance of the Sabbath was a sign of a promised order, and in which that order has now come at least in part in Christ. Therefore, the new observance, which most of these writers connect with spiritual peace is not a matter of a particular day of the week, but rather of the New Day that has dawned in Christ.”
This should be a very freeing reality. However, one thing to know is that, as church history moved forward, there were morphs and changes over time, and eventually, especially among the Puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries, you see this rise of a strict Sunday observance that really mimicked the Jewish Sabbath in many ways just on Sunday. Justo González is pointing out here is that, “We’re not meant to adopt a strict understanding of this day when based on what we see in Acts. And in the New Testament, that’s not necessarily carrying over to us as gentile Christians at least. For non-Jewish Christians, what was happening in the early church was gathering to break bread, to listen to the apostles teaching, and to be devoted to prayer.” That’s what was happening. It was happening early in the morning on the first day of the week, which is Sunday. That’s not because God said, “It must be Sunday, but because that was the day that the Lord was raised from the dead. That was the Resurrection Day, it was a day to gather and learn together.” It wasn’t legalistically done. It was done out of joy, it was done out of seeking the Lord’s face and growing together as a community.
In Romans 14:15, Paul writes, “One man considers one day more sacred than another, another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” It goes on in that passage to say that we’re not to quarrel and be in dissension over how to observe these days or these holidays. We are to be at peace with one another and follow our convictions on issues like this. If you see an Instagram post that’s saying that, “You’re not going to be blessed, if you do not observe in this way or one of the reasons the church is the way it is today is because they don’t observe the Jewish festivals in the Sabbath.” I would just encourage you to do more research, grab this book by Justo González. It’ll be in the show notes on the blog. Do your research into the church history, because what’s going to happen a lot of times online in these theology spaces, as people will use the portions of church history that best serve them to advance their argument. You can tell history any way you want to tell it if you want to support your argument.
Again, this is only a 20-to-30-minute episode and I hope that you’re discerning through what I’m teaching as much as you discern through anyone else. But I’ve read a substantial amount of material from the first 300 years of the church looking and looking to see what is it supposed to look like when it comes to Sabbath observance and it keeps coming back to this issue of for non-Jewish Christians is a strict Saturday Sabbath required and I cannot find evidence in Scripture, I can’t find evidence in the early writings of the Church Fathers. In fact, they argue the opposite. Before I read the epilogue that Justo González wrote in this book, because I think it’s really profound. Let me share what we do for our “Sabbath.” The word, “Sabbath” is tossed around a lot. It’s become a catchphrase because people recognize their need for rest in this hustle driven culture. It’s a restless culture. I think it’s only going to become more restless, more anti-rest. In that sense, because Christ is our true rest, that spiritual rest is going to translate to physical rest, and boundaries, and saying no to things, and creating space to truly have community and disciple. I think that’s how God’s rest translates to real life.
What do we do, so on Sundays, which is our day of rest? On Sundays, we attend church as a family. Sometimes, Josh or I serve at the church, and then we come home, and we take a break from media from eight in the morning until after five, usually, after six evening. That means we put our phones away, we don’t watch TV, we don’t play games on iPads. It’s just no media from the morning until the evening. We do LEGOS, we play games, we nap, we read, we go for walks, we have people over to lunch, we do all sorts of things that are non-media related, and it’s just a blocked-out day of complete rest for us. Now, does that mean I don’t cook, or do dishes, or change diapers? No, I do all of those things and that’s the beauty of the freedom we have in Christ is that, His presence is our rest, and we are not required to not cook or I’m not in sin for making the meal for my family, et cetera. Lighting the fire in my home, if you will. There are some people who will be convicted not to do those things and that is wonderful. You are totally free to do that. But Paul saying in Romans 14, we cannot say that it must be observed in this very specific way.
I will say that setting aside this day as what we call media Sabbath and just spending time together in community is beautiful. It’s a wonderful way to start the week. It’s so refreshing. I would encourage thinking about how you can set aside a date for rest, whether that’s Sunday or whether it’s another day of floating Sabbath as some people like to call it, but a day to walk out that spiritual rest in presence as a single person, with your friends, your roommates, as a married person, with your family to do it in community. I wanted to read this last passage from Justo González on this topic where he says, “When looking at the entire history I have just recounted, I’ve tried to discern what the future may bring. I would be inclined to say that at the same time that in society at large, Sunday will be ever more secularized. Within the church itself, it will regain its significance. At a time when most Christians live in the bonds of poverty and oppression, Sunday will serve as a reminder that the one who rose on this day is also the one by whom all things were made, and the one who was working a new creation. Therefore, Sunday, evermore neglected by society at large will become ever more cherished by those who believe.”
This book was written in 2017 and I think that’s really profound and perhaps prophetic because in those five years, I think I’ve seen more books written about Sabbath and rest than I have been any of the years before. I think he’s pointing out a real truth that, yes, Sunday will be more secularized, it will be more and more treated as a work day. But for Christians, it can become all the more dear. This time of gathering with the church family, with the community of faith, learning, devoting ourselves to the teaching, this is important, and this is a bit of an aside, but sometimes, I get messages from people asking, “Well, why do I need to actually go to a church? Why can’t I just be church with my Christian friends?” If we’re looking at Acts as our model, as you should be looking to the Word of God as your model for what church is. They were gathering to break bread, communion, and eating together. They were gathering to be devoted to the apostles teaching, which is Scripture, accurately taught and to prayer. Those three things must be present.
It’s important to note too that the apostles for teaching. They were the ones dividing out scripture. This is someone who knows the Word of God, who is teaching with authority, who is equipped to guide you, and communion is happening and prayer is happening. Those things have to be happening for something to constitute a church to have a structure, have sacraments, be gathered together to be educated and lead. Sunday is the day that we do that. Now, obviously churches are moving to having other days of the week to do that. They have done that historically. That’s great, too. That’s the beauty of the freedom we have in Christ. But the significance of resurrection day, that first day of the week celebrating and learning together, it can’t be underestimated. No matter what our culture does to Sunday, other than worrying about them and what they think of it, what they do to it, we can instead be the church, be the Christians, who cherish Sunday, who enter into the spiritual rest of Christ, and who live out that rest and our habits, our boundaries, our relationships, out of the freedom, not the legalism. That is our Sabbath.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Verity. You can connect with fellow listeners by following me on Instagram @phyliciamasonheimer or on our Facebook page by the same name. Also, visit phyliciamasonheimer.com for links to each episode and the show notes.