In Old Testament times, one thing that marked out the Jewish people, in contrast to other nations, was observance of the Sabbath day. The Sabbath was the seventh and last day of the Jewish week, and it lasted from sunset on the day we call Friday to sunset on what we call Saturday. Every week, this 24-hour period was set aside as a time of rest.
Actually, for much, if not most, of the Old Covenant era the Jews failed to observe the Sabbath as they were supposed to. But even so, it is right to think of Sabbath observance as a distinguishing mark of the Jewish people in Old Covenant times.
In the Christian era, the very first Christians were all Jews, and there is no doubt that these believers continued to observe the Sabbath. However, we know too that by the early second century it was much more common for Christians to regard the first day of the week as a special day. This day corresponded exactly to the day we know as Sunday, beginning and ending at .
Exactly how and when Sunday began to be observed as a special day within the church is the subject of a big debate. This is not something that will concern us in this article.
What we are interested in here is what Christians should do today. Should we treat one day of the week as a special day? Or are we not under any obligation to do this?
Christians vary widely in their views on this issue. Broadly speaking, there are four positions:
(1) A few claim that it is wrong for us to observe any day of the week as a special day.
(2) Another rare viewpoint is that we should all observe the Jewish Sabbath.
(3) Many say that we should all observe Sunday as a special day.
(4) Another common view is that we are under no obligation to observe any day of the week as special, but that we are free to observe one if we choose.
TURNING TO THE BIBLE
To reach a conclusion on this issue, we need to turn to the Bible to see what it has to say.
As we do this, we must be careful not to read Scripture through the lens of church tradition. Even in evangelicalism, with its emphasis on the Bible as the authority for the church, unbiblical traditions often develop and become entrenched. So it is essential that we allow Scripture to speak freely.
ARGUMENTS FOR OBSERVING THE JEWISH SABBATH
To begin with, let’s look at passages used by those who say that all Christians should observe the Jewish Sabbath.
I will deal with these texts quite briefly, because, as we will see later in the article, there are other texts that are more important for the issue we are discussing.
In Genesis 2:2-3 we read:
“2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version, except where stated.)
Note how v. 3 says that God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.
Those who claim that Christians should keep the Jewish Sabbath see this as a key passage. They say it shows that observing the Sabbath is something that should apply to all people of all eras. They point out that these verses are part of the creation account. And they also point out that the text refers specifically to God blessing the seventh day and making it holy.
On the face of it, this argument is a very plausible one.
Nevertheless, we should note carefully that the passage doesn’t clearly say that God’s blessing the seventh day and making it holy means that all people must observe the seventh day of the week as a special day.
The Ten Commandments
Those who say that Sabbath observance should be practised by Christians often appeal to the Ten Commandments, listed in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. I will refer to the passage in Exodus, although the same points could be made about the text in Deuteronomy.
In Exodus 20:8-10 we read:
“8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: 9 You are to labor six days and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
It is said that the Ten Commandments continue to remain in force in the Christian era, and that v. 10 specifically mentions the seventh day as the day to be observed.
It seems a mistake, however, to view the Ten Commandments as still being in force. Of course, these Commandments contain many moral principles that still apply today. But the clearest New Testament passages on the subject are best understood as teaching that the whole law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, has been superseded in the Christian era (e.g., Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:23-25). In Galatians 6:2 Paul refers to the new principle in operation today as “the law of Christ.”
Importantly, it is not necessary to think that the law of Christ matches the Ten Commandments in every respect.
In Mark Jesus says:
"The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” (International Standard Version)
It is sometimes said that this implies that the Jewish Sabbath is a day that all people should observe.
The words can be interpreted differently, however. In this verse Jesus is speaking to Jews at a time when the Mosaic Covenant is still in operation. We can understand Him to mean simply that the Sabbath was made for the Jewish people living under the Mosaic Covenant, rather than these people for the Sabbath.
In Matthew 24:20 Jesus instructs His disciples, and by implication later disciples too:
“Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”
Jesus is implying that flight would be more difficult on a Sabbath than on other days.
Those who claim that Christians should observe the Jewish Sabbath often say that this verse implies that believers should do this throughout the Christian era.
Again, however, this verse falls far short of proving this. Jesus may just be referring to how non-Christian Jewish customs could cause problems for fleeing Christians. Even if He is referring to a situation where some Christians observe the Sabbath, the verse still doesn’t prove that every Christian must do this.
It is understandable why the above passages are used to argue that all Christians should keep the Jewish Sabbath. If we only had these passages to go on, a strong case could be made for this view.
However, these texts fall a long way short of proving that we should all keep the Sabbath. And as we will see, there are other passages that point much more strongly in a different direction.
ARGUMENTS FOR OBSERVING
SUNDAY AS A SPE CIAL DAY
Next, we need to look at biblical passages used by those who say that all Christians should treat Sunday as a special day.
Again, I will discuss these texts quite briefly, because they are not the most important ones on our topic.
Genesis 2, the Ten Commandments and Mark 2
Many who claim that we should all should treat Sunday as special appeal to some of the passages we looked at above to try to make their case. It is said that Genesis 2:2-3, the Ten Commandment texts in Exodus 20:8-10 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, and Mark 2:27 support this view.
However, each of these passages refers, explicitly or implicitly, to the seventh day of the week, not the first. Given, then, that they fall short of proving that Christians must keep the Jewish Sabbath, which was the seventh day, much more do they fall short of proving that Christians must observe Sunday as a special day.
In Acts 20:7 Luke tells us about Paul’s visit to the church in
“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until .”
When Luke says that the church in
Troas gathered on the first
day of the week, he is probably referring to a custom of that church. If this
was a one-off meeting that just happened to be on the first day of the week,
there would seem to be no reason to mention what day of the week it was.
It is likely, then, that the church in
Troas had made a decision
to regard Sunday as a special day. And if they had done this, other churches
had probably done the same.
Paul’s visit to
Troas can be dated to the mid-late
50s of the first century. So this verse stands as a significant piece of
evidence that by this time some Christians were treating Sunday as a special
Many claim that the verse shows that today we should all treat Sunday as special.
It is true that, as a general principle, we should aim to follow the example of the early church. However, sometimes we find that there was variety in what early believers did. So before we jump to any conclusions about whether we should follow the example in Acts 20:7, we need to look at the other relevant passages on this topic.
In Revelation John tells his readers about the context of his visionary experiences:
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, . . .”
There is some debate about what John means by “the Lord’s day” here. However, the majority view of scholars is that he is referring to Sunday, viewed as a special day, and this seems the most likely interpretation.
John clearly assumes that his readers know what the Lord’s day is, and he seems to imply that they would typically have taken the same attitude to this day that he took. Importantly too, Revelation was addressed to seven different churches (Revelation ), meaning that its target audience would have been a significant number of believers. Furthermore, it makes sense to think that if these churches typically treated Sunday as special, other churches would very probably have done the same.
Therefore, if “the Lord’s day” is a reference to Sunday, the verse suggests that many Christians at the time treated Sunday as special.
Revelation was probably written towards the end of the first century. So this verse provides evidence that at this time many believers regarded Sunday as a special day.
Again, we will need to look at other passages before deciding whether we must follow the example in this verse.
1 Corinthians 16
In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 Paul instructs the church in
“1 Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of
, so you also are to do. 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 there will be no collecting when I come.” Galatia
Note in v. 2 the reference to the first day of every week.
There are two main alternative ways of understanding this passage:
(1) Paul is referring to a custom of the Corinthian Christians of gathering on Sundays. He is telling them that when they meet each Sunday, they should contribute money to a common fund.
This interpretation makes good sense of the reference to the first day of the week. On the other hand, however, “each of you is to put something aside and store it up” more naturally sounds as if it is a private collection that each person has.
(2) Paul is not referring to gatherings of the Corinthian church. Instead, he is simply telling the Corinthians to personally put aside money every week. He mentions the first day of the week as a day that can easily be remembered as a time to set money aside.
This interpretation makes good sense of “each of you is to put something aside and store it up.” However, we would more naturally have expected Paul to tell his readers simply to set money aside “once a week” rather than to specifically mention the first day of the week.
The pros and cons of these two interpretations seem to be quite evenly matched. A balanced conclusion is that this verse may suggest that at the time of writing – the mid 50s of the first century – some churches treated Sunday as a special day.
The combined weight of the above passages makes it highly likely that many Christians in the first century treated Sunday as a special day.
There are good reasons for thinking that the first believers to do this would have been Gentiles. First, Gentile Christians would not have had the attachment to the Jewish Sabbath that Jewish Christians had. And second, the verses in Acts, Revelation and 1 Corinthians that we have just looked at all apply to places where most of the believers would have been Gentiles.
Before we decide whether we should follow the example of early Christians who treated Sunday as special, we will need to look at other passages that are relevant for our topic.