When is the Sabbath day? Why do people worship on Sunday? Does it really matter? For many, the issue of the Sabbath is one of the first things they encounter when they begin to discover the Hebrew roots of their faith. Family and friends go to church on Sunday. On Saturday they mow the yard or go shopping, or maybe work at their jobs like it was any other day. Is that OK? Shouldn’t we just leave well enough alone?
The church has been doing it this way for almost two thousand years. But there are good reasons for that, right? Didn’t it all change after Jesus came? Let’s see what the Bible – specifically, the New Testament – has to say on this topic.
Most Christians will offer two reasons for worshipping on Sunday:
1. It is the day that Jesus was resurrected.
2. It was the practice of the early church, called “the Lord’s day.”
The resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) is recorded in all four of the New Testament Gospel accounts. Although this story is told by four different writers, they all are quite clear as to what happened. Mary Magdalene, probably accompanied by others, came to the tomb around the time of the sunrise on the first day of the week. They found Yeshua had already risen. All of these passages state historical fact, confirming that Yeshua rose (or at least was found to have risen) on the first day of the week.
Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.
Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.
In addition to the resurrection account, John records Yeshua’s appearance to his disciples later that same day, the first day of the week.
So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)
In all of these details surrounding the resurrection of Yeshua on the first day of the week, there is no instruction to his followers that they should now begin a weekly meeting on this day to commemorate the event. In the next forty days leading up to his ascension, Yeshua never mentions it.
The only mention of the first day of the week in the book of Acts, the story of the early church, is when Paul was speaking late into the night and a young man fell out of a third floor window.
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. (Acts 20:7)
Paul has been travelling. It is sometime after the days of Unleavened Bread (20:6) and before the day of Shavuot (Pentecost, 20:16). He has stopped on the first day of the week at a building with at least three floors, and is eating an evening or late night meal while speaking to a group of people. Some have suggested that this was after dark following the Sabbath – a havdalah service – but we do not know that. It really does not matter. There is nothing to indicate this was a regular weekly home-church meeting or that “break bread” refers to anything other than a normal meal (it isn’t “communion”).
It is often assumed that “When the day of Pentecost had come” (Acts 2:1) it was the first day of the week. Nothing in that story says it was, and in fact it may or may not have been. I discuss that further in my post Shavuot – The Undated Holiday. Even if it was the first day of the week, Pentecost (or Shavuot) is an annual observance and not an indication the early believers regularly met on the first day of every week.
Paul mentions the first day of the week only one time in any of his letters. This is the only other occurrence of the phrase in the New Testament that hasn’t yet been noted. He gives instructions for the collection of funds to be used to assist the believers in Jerusalem where Paul is headed. There is no mention of any meeting or even public collection – “each one of you is to put aside” is an instruction to individuals.
On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.
(1 Corinthians 16:2)
The practice of believers in Yeshua meeting on the first day of the week – Sunday – instead of or even in addition to keeping the weekly Sabbath on the seventh day of the week came about after the books of the New Testament were written. Whether it was a memorial to the resurrection day or an adaptation of existing pagan sun-worship customs is not the issue here. The New Testament does not say this is what that followers of Yeshua did or should do. We only get that idea by looking back at these passages with the practice already in mind.
One other passage is often cited as referring to the first day of the week by the term “the Lord’s day.”
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet…
Again, the practice of calling Sunday “the Lord’s day” started many years after John’s apocalyptic vision and was not the meaning intended at the time he wrote this. The phrase may likely refer to “the day of the Lord,” a prophetic phrase from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Commentary at Bible Study Tools offers more on that thought, which is beyond the scope of this post. This passage does not give any indication that believers met on the first day of the week and called it “the Lord’s day,” or that it should hold any sacred significance.
Any Day or No Day At All
Does it really matter whether we observe the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? Does it matter if we observe any day at all?
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
This passage is often cited to support the idea that whatever day we choose to observe, if we even observe one at all, is our choice and a matter of our freedom in Christ. But there is actually nothing in this passage or its context that mentions anything about the Sabbath.
For the proper context, we must read Romans 14 in its entirety. This chapter deals with food, not with a day of worship. So why are days mentioned? It is in relationship to eating. It was common practice among the pious to regularly fast. When Yeshua told his parable about two men praying, the Pharisee’s prayer includes the boastful line, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). Paul says here that regarding or not regarding a day of fasting is a personal choice. He does not address a day of rest or worship.
While Romans 14:5 definitely is not about the Sabbath day, one passage in Colossians is, but it is a little ambiguous:
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day–things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Here is another place where preconceived ideas come into play. If we read this from the perspective that we no longer need to observe the Sabbath day (and the other commandments mentioned), it says:
Don’t let anyone judge you because you don’t keep the Sabbath day.
If we read this from the perspective that we should keep them, it says:
Don’t let anyone judge you because you keep the Sabbath day.
Even though the New American Standard Bible is my preferred translation, in verse 17 it adds words not found in the Greek text – specifically, the word “mere” and the word “belongs.” Here is how this verse is rendered in Green’s Literal Version (LITV) and in Young’s Literal Translation (YLT):
…which are a shadow of coming things, but the body is of Christ. (LITV)
…which are a shadow of the coming things, and the body is of the Christ; (YLT)
Even the word “is” is not found in the Greek text and is added to these “literal” translations.
In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul says that, among other things, the Sabbath day is a shadow of something that was still to come at the time he was writing, and that it is Messiah (Greek: Christos) who is the one creating the shadow. It is reasonable to assume that the Colossian believers, the “saints and faithful brethren” (1:2), were observing these things that point to something still future in Yeshua Messiah and that he admonished them not to allow themselves to come under man’s judgement for doing so.
As mentioned previously in the discussion about Acts 20:7, Paul kept the Biblical days of Unleavened Bread and Shavuot. There is no reason to think he didn’t also keep the other festivals and the weekly Sabbath. It is highly unlikely that in his letter to the Colossians he would tell them that it didn’t matter whether or not they did.
The Sabbath Day
Does the New Testament instruct believers in Messiah to keep the Sabbath? No, this is not specifically or directly commanded anywhere in the New Testament. It isn’t necessary – it was already a known and practiced commandment from the Hebrew Bible. There are many examples throughout the Gospels and Acts where Yeshua and his followers observed the seventh-day Sabbath. And there are no examples where they did not.
It isn’t just one day a week, or just every seventh day, or some odd calculation based on the phase of the moon. It is the seventh day of the week. And just to make sure there is no confusion as to which day that is, we only need to look to the Jewish people, those “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). Jews have faithfully observed the seventh day of the week, what we call Saturday in English, for millennia. But we need only trace it back to the time of Yeshua, because he never attempted to correct or change the current practice at that time.
When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands?
And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read.
The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord.
And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled.
The Apostle James expected that Gentiles – those unfamiliar with keeping the commandments of God – would learn them as they came to worship every Sabbath.
For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.
This is only a partial list, a small sample.
It does matter which day. It is not sin to gather for worship on the first day of the week. For some, that may be their only opportunity for fellowship and corporate worship at this point in time. However, it is sin – lawlessness (1 John 3:4) – not to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 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 day and made it holy.
Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.
Unless marked otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation