The Sabbath and the Gentiles

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This entry is part 19 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath.

Acts 13:42

By the time Paul ends up in Antioch, everything has begun to change. Peter was sent down to the coast to baptize an uncircumcised Gentile named Cornelius. No one had baptized a Gentile before, because the Jews kept themselves apart from even God Fearersi like Cornelius. Meanwhile Christ called Saul of Tarsus into his service completely apart from the Jerusalem establishment. His commission included rather more than most of the Apostles had grasped up to now.

While Saul lay blind at Damascus, the Lord sent a disciple named Ananias to lay hands on him. Ananias, knowing Paul’s reputation, was hesitant. But the Lord said, “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). So the Gentiles were about to surge into the future of the church. Paul hits the evangelism trail along with Barnabas. Did a change in the Sabbath take place at this time? What would the Sabbath mean to the new converts?

Paul and Barnabas sail out into the Mediterranean and eventually arrive in Antioch in Asia Minor. When they arrived, they did what they always did when arriving in a new city.

[They] went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.” Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen” (Acts 13:16).

There were two categories of people there on this day, Jews and God fearing Gentiles. It was, of course, the Sabbath day. What follows is Paul’s gospel to the Jews. You can read it for yourself, and you will find not a word about a change of Sabbath. Naturally. What would have been the response to such a suggestion? That is not hard to imagine. But when the Jews left that Sabbath day, something strange happened.

So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the Word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul (Acts 13:42-45).

Note well, this uproar was not because of a change in the day of assembly and worship. This was on the Sabbath day. There had been no change. The uproar was about sheer envy. Take another example from much later. A lot of water has gone under the bridge, the Jerusalem conference has taken place, and certain decrees established for the Gentiles. Paul crosses finally from Asia Minor to Greece on his second Journey, and came to Thessalonica “where there was a synagogue of the Jews.”

Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ” (Acts 17:2-3).

Note that at this late date, it was still Paul’s “manner,” his ethos, to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. The word is the same as the word used for Jesus’ custom. Yes, Paul went to the synagogue, because that was where the Jews were, so he could preach to them. But that is not why Luke says he went there. Luke says that going to synagogue on the Sabbath was still Paul’s ethos, his custom.

In the early years of the Christian faith, in all the years that are recorded in the pages of the New Testament, the Christian Church looked, to the outside world, to be nothing more than another Jewish sect. They not only observed the same Sabbath as the Jews, they observed the same holidays. They planned their travel according to the Jewish calendar. On one occasion, Luke makes this calendar notation: “But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days” (Acts 20:6).

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul makes reference to the practices of the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread saying, “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

I know this will be shocking to some people, but it is right there on the page. Paul is exhorting a Gentile church to observe the Feast of Passover, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But there is still more. Paul wrote to the Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking (Colossians 2:16-18).

Parse this passage carefully, and what you see is a church that is observing the festivals and Sabbaths but is being condemned for feasting on food and drink by Gentile ascetics.

So far, so good. There is not a word about a change in the day of worship for Jews or Gentile believers and, if a change was contemplated, something surely would have been said about it by someone, somewhere. But no, nothing like that is found.

I know someone reading this is thinking, “Wait a minute. Didn’t John speak of Sunday as the Lord’s Day in Revelation?” Well, no, he didn’t. Here is exactly what John said:

I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet (Revelation 1:9-10).

There is not a word here to suggest that the Lord’s Day is Sunday. If John is indeed referring to a day of the week, and if we are to use the Bible as our best historical source, the Sabbath is the Lord’s Day. Consider an instance from Jesus’ ministry. Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath day. His disciples plucked some ears of grain to eat (harvesting, according to Jewish law) and rubbed them between their hands (threshing). Here is the exchange that grew out of that incident.

And some of the Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” But Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” And He said to them, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:2-5).

Why would one, then, assume that Sunday is the Lord’s day? I think it is clear enough that in the Apostolic era of the church, there were two Sundays in the year that were observed. One was the day the firstfruits were offered, the day Christ first appeared to His disciples and was presented to God as the first of the firstfruits. It is that singular day in the year called “The first day of the Weeks, ” which was discussed at length in an earlier chapter. The other observed Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost.

Try to put yourself for a moment in the mind of one of the original disciples of Jesus. How would you have been different from what you are today? In the first place, you would have been a Jew. Like Jesus himself, you would have been a regular in synagogue attendance, and you would have been a Sabbath keeper.

The Sabbath, you must remember, was more than just another commandment, more than a mere doctrine. It was a matter of religious identity. The Sabbath was the identifying sign that answered the question, “Who is your God?” To change the Sabbath to another day would not merely have been a change in doctrine. It would have been tantamount to changing their God.

So if you had been one of the original disciples of Jesus, the Sabbath would not merely have been another doctrine to believe or not believe. It would have been the irrevocable sign of the identity of your God.

Now how and when did all that get changed? Why would you, at some later time, abandon the observance of the Sabbath in favor of Sunday? And what would have been the consequences of that change? Would you have expected Jesus to say something about it, to explain the change? For there would have had to have been a moment when the change came into effect, right? And being good Jews, you or some of your close friends would have wondered at the change.

It is very hard to imagine that one week the entire body of the disciples of Jesus (who were all Jews at the time) kept the Sabbath and the next week observed Sunday instead, with no explanation, no comment, not a ripple. So what did happen?

The conventional wisdom is that the crucifixion and resurrection changed everything. However, we must face up to the fact that there is nothing in the New Testament that says so. You would really expect that a change of this magnitude would be explained somewhere; that there would be a passage that gives us, not merely the change, but the reason for the change. The Sabbath had a theology that went with it. It identified who your God was. You were a worshiper of Jehovah, not Baal, and it was the Sabbath that established that identity.

So there should be a statement just as strong as the original statements about the Sabbath to explain who our new God is. No such passage exists. And, of course, there was no change in their God. And no change in their Sabbath.

There is a general presumption among Christians who do not keep the Sabbath, that the church began meeting on Sunday immediately after the resurrection of Jesus, and they did it because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday morning. This is based in its entirety on eight New Testament texts that appear to mention the first day of the week. The superficial impression is that the Church was meeting regularly on Sunday, the first day of the week. But this is entirely misleading. Six of these scriptures refer to the same events on the same day – the day of Jesus first appearances to his disciples after his resurrection. So that only leaves two other passages that might lead one to this conclusion.

And there is something else you should know about these passages. There is no Greek word for “week” in any of them. In fact, there is no Greek word for “week” found in the New Testament at all. In every case where the word “week” is found, the word for it in Greek is Sabbaton, a transliteration of the Hebrew word, Sabbath. Take this instance for example; it is in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:10-12).

Literally, the Pharisee says, “I fast twice of a Sabbath.” It is genitive singular and an idiom that refers to the period between the Sabbaths, for no Pharisee would fast on any Sabbath apart from the Day of Atonement. The very idea of “week,” to a Jew, was based on the Sabbath.

Now, about the eight instances where the expression, “the first day of the week” is found. First, you should know that the Hebrews (and all Jesus’ disciples at this time were Hebrews) did not identify days of the week in that manner. The Hebrew manner of designating Sunday would have been to call it “the morrow after the Sabbath.” Second, you should know that in every case, the word for “week” is “Sabbaths” in the plural, and the word “day” is missing altogether – in every one of these eight instances.

Here is how the first instance reads: “Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1). And here is how it reads literally: “Now after the Sabbath, as the first of the Sabbaths [plural] began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.” That is an odd expression since we know it was not a Sabbath that was dawning, but a Sunday morning. What does it mean?

First, it is probably correct to insert the word “day” as virtually all translations do in this passage. And if we understand the plural of the word “Sabbath” as used here to refer to “weeks” (not the singular “week”), then what we are looking at is “the first day of the weeks.” How does that help? Well, there are seven weeks, seven Sabbaths, between this day and the Feast of Firstfruits, Pentecost. The day that is being referenced here is the first day of the 50 day countdown leading to Pentecost. It was the day when the first of the firstfruits were offered to God.ii It was also the day of Jesus’ presentation to the Father as the first of the firstfruits from the dead.iii So this was not merely a day of the week. It was a special day of the year – the day that began the spring harvest.

But I said there are eight of these references to “the first day of the week.” Maybe one of the others will clarify matters. Here are the next five, each of them using exactly the same idiom for the first day of the weeks leading up to Pentecost:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week(s), they came to the tomb when the sun had risen (Mark 16:1-2).

Now when He rose early on the first day of the week(s), He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons (Mark 16:9).

Now on the first day of the week(s), very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared (Luke 24:1).

Now on the first day of the week(s) Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb (John 20:1).

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week(s), when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

As to the last of these being a meeting, there is nothing here to suggest that anything new was going on. They were frightened and confused and did the natural thing. They huddled together trying to make sense of what had happened.

So we have found nothing here about a new custom of meeting on Sunday vs. Sabbath, have we? If I were one of the disciples of Jesus, I would have found nothing here to change anything concerning the Sabbath day. Would you?

These are six of the eight occasions where the New Testament refers to “the first day of the week.” But these all refer to the events of the same day. That thins out considerably the argument that a new custom had started in the Church. There are only two references left with which to establish a new day of worship on the first day of every week. Perhaps the most familiar of the two is the following, appearing on offering envelopes at a lot of churches:

Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week(s) let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).

There are a couple of important things to notice here. First, this is precisely the same idiom we saw in the previous six instances. It is a reference to the first day of the seven weeks of harvest, and therefore is the first opportunity they will have to store up grain for the “collection for the saints.” This was famine relief for the saints in Jerusalem. Paul discusses it again at length in the second letter, and it is evident that there is a major effort involving the churches in Macedonia and Galatia, to put together grain for Paul and his men to take to Jerusalem. Something similar is described in Acts, where a prophet arrives in Antioch with a message of impending famine. The church put together food and sent relief to the saints in Jerusalem by the hand of Barnabas and Paul (see Acts 11:27-30).

Notice the instruction that each of them was to “lay something aside” for his offering of grain so it would be ready to go when Paul got there. Further, that means that “the first day of the weeks” was not a day of worship – it was a work day for gathering the harvested grain for shipment to Palestine. The use of this passage as an excuse for taking up an offering every Sunday is ludicrous to anyone who understands what was actually going on. The NIV renders the verse thus: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

And there is not a thing here about a church meeting.” This in spite of the fact that there is no Greek word for money in the passage. Moreover, money is of little use when there is no food to buy. They were sending grain not shekels.

That leaves us with only one more instance of “The first day of the week” in the New Testament:

Now on the first day of the week(s), when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight (Acts 20:7).

This is the only passage in the New Testament that suggests that the Church met on ‘the first day of the week,” and even here it is Saturday night, not Sunday, per se. It is also precisely the same idiom we have seen previously.iv

Now here is our problem. We have the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence that the Church met on the first day of the week, except for Pentecost. What we have is incidental, that is to say that it is an isolated incident, not a custom of the Church. At no point is it said to be the ethos, the custom of the Church to meet on Sunday.

We have to explain how the earliest Jewish Christians abandoned the observance of the Sabbath and substituted Sunday. We have to explain when they did it, why they did it, and how they dealt with the certain fact that the Sabbath day was the identifying sign of their God. And we have to find all this in the New Testament.

The idea is that it was the Sunday resurrection of Jesus that prompted the change. But we have an even greater problem with that. Are you ready for this? No one in the New Testament bears witness to the time of Jesus’ resurrection for the simple reason that no one witnessed it. We have an abundance of witnesses that he was alive from Sunday morning on, but no witnesses as to the actual time he opened his eyes and left the tomb. See chapter seven of this book for a complete analysis of what happened.

One of the strangest things about the Christian faith is that somewhere in history Christians forgot that Jesus was a Jew. Not only that, but that all His original disciples were Jews. Moreover, during the entire time covered by the New Testament writings, the Christian Church looked very much like another Jewish sect.

Everywhere, especially in the East of the Roman Empire, there would be Jewish Christians whose outward way of life would not be markedly different from that of the Jews. They took for granted that the Gospel was continuous with the faith of Abraham; for them the Christian Covenant, which Jesus had established at the Last Supper with his disciples and sealed by his death, did not mean that the covenant made between God and Israel was no longer in force. They still observed the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; they also continued to be circumcised, to keep the weekly Sabbath and the Mosaic regulations concerning food. According to some scholars, they must have been so strong, that right up to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 these observant Jews were the dominant element in the Christian movement.

From the beginning of the New Testament all the way through the 12th chapter of Acts, the Church was composed entirely of Jews and circumcised proselytes. And there is not a word of any major change in practice during this entire time. For example, when Saul went hunting for Christians to arrest, where did he look?

Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).

It is probably surprising to the modern reader to realize that the Christians in Damascus didn’t have a church of their own. Why were they still in the synagogues? And if they were still attending synagogue, they were still keeping the Sabbath. When Paul was arrested, he made a revealing remark to his fellow Jews:

Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a trance and saw Him saying to me, “Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.” So I said, “Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You” (Acts 22:17-19).

My job is to report and let you decide, but I find it impossible to believe that in these early years the Church had made any change in its days of worship. There is not a hint about Christmas or Easter and no suggestion that the Church had ceased observing the Seventh Day Sabbath. So if it didn’t take place within the time frame while the New Testament was being written, when did it happen?

Before I talk about that, there was one major change that was made by the early Church and even that one is not very well understood. There were two Jewish practices that particularly identified the Jews in the first century: The Sabbath and circumcision. And circumcision became a major bone of contention while the Sabbath did not. This is what makes the silence regarding the Sabbath so significant. When a major change was contemplated, it made waves.

As I remarked earlier, up through Acts 12, the Church is entirely Jewish and none of these questions had been raised. But God had no intention of being the sole property of the Jews, and in Acts 13, a momentous beginning is recorded. For the first time, a serious effort was made toward unbelieving Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas launched their first “Missionary Journey.”

Wherever they traveled, they went first to the synagogue in every city, and when the Gospel was rejected by most in the synagogues, they turned to the Gentiles. And the Gentiles began to be baptized in droves. With this great success in hand, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch. They rehearsed all that God had done with them and how God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.v

But as word spread, there appeared a fly in the ointment. “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1).

There was a fundamental difference in world view of those involved in this dispute. Those who were making this argument, we learn later, were Pharisees who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Now can you imagine this group of people not being Sabbath keepers? It is inconceivable. Why, then, was the Sabbath not an issue while circumcision was? The answer is simple enough. There was nothing in Paul’s work with the Gentiles to change anything regarding the Sabbath.

The Pharisees rightly saw circumcision as a matter of national identity. But they assumed that God was only the God of the nation of Israel. To serve God, you had to join the tribe by being circumcised.

But there was a fundamental difference between circumcision and Sabbath observance. Circumcision identified the Jews. The Sabbath identified God. This is a major point of confusion among many people to this day.

So how did this conflict play out? “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” And thus was convened the great Jerusalem conference described in Acts 15.

After Paul and the others had declared all that God had done with them, “there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). This was pretty hard for Paul to take, since God had been giving the Holy Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles right and left. Even Peter stood to take exception to this idea since he had been the very first to take the Gospel to a Gentile and to see with his own eyes that God had done the very same thing that Paul was describing:

And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (vv. 7-10).

Now this is an odd thing to say, for the Jews had borne circumcision easily enough for generations. Peter is implying that believing Pharisees were raising the bar higher for Gentiles than they had for Jews. We have to recall at this point, that the Pharisees were demanding circumcision and obedience to the law to be saved. Peter makes it clear enough that these had never been the condition for salvation. The conference finally reached a conclusion:

They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”; to whom we gave no such commandment (vv. 23-24).

Now there is an absurdity beckoning in this passage. The temptation is to say, “See there, the Gentiles did not need to keep the law.” The absurdity is that this would suggest that the Gentiles were free to kill, lie, cheat, steal, and commit adultery. The issue was not mere obedience to the law, but the law as an instrument of salvation. The issue is stated in the first verse of Acts 15: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.”

What is important to know about this section is that circumcision was not abolished. Nothing was changed, in fact. Circumcision was a matter of national identity, not of spiritual identity. It always had been and continued to be. There is not a hint here that the Apostles stopped circumcision for Jewish Christians. Paul identifies the core issue in his letter to the Galatians when he addresses the issue of this conference:

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me. And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain. Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you (Galatians 2:1-5).

The issue was not merely circumcision and law keeping. It was a question of whether the Gentiles might receive the Gospel or not. According to the believers who were Pharisees, circumcision and full participation in the Jewish community was required for salvation. Otherwise, salvation wasn’t available to Gentiles.

In any case, circumcision was not abolished for Jews. There is another remarkable instance related to this.

Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted to have him go with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek (Acts 16:1-3).

This is truly remarkable. The Jewish mother of Timothy made him a Jew. And it was necessary for him to be circumcised. Why am I telling you this? Because it all takes place in utter silence on the other major issue – the Sabbath.

As I mentioned previously, for an argument from silence to carry any weight, the silence must be shown to be significant. In this case, we have met that requirement. The silence speaks louder than words. The fact is that all through this time, the entirety of the Christian Church observed the Sabbath day, the same Sabbath as the Jews. Jewish and Gentile Christians all observed it and felt no need to comment on it. The Sabbath was taken for granted in the New Testament.

So if the change from Sabbath to Sunday didn’t take place in Apostolic times, when did it take place, and why? There is an interesting little aside in Acts 18: “After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them.” The story is told remarkably well in Samuelle Bacchiocchi’s seminal work, From Sabbath to Sunday.

In the year A.D. 49 the Emperor Claudius . . . expelled the Jews from Rome since they rioted constantly at the instigation of Chrestus (a probable erroneous transcription of the name of Christ). The fact that on this occasion converted Jews like Aquila and Priscilla were expelled from the city together with the Jews (Acts 18:2) proves, as Pierre Batiffol observes, “that the Roman police had not yet come to distinguish the Christians from the Jews. Fourteen years later, however, Nero identified the Christians as being a separate entity, well distinguished from the

By this time, Christianity in Rome was taking on a rather different cast from Christianity in the east, particularly in Palestine. The political structure of Rome gave both Jews and Gentiles good reason to separate themselves from one another, something that had not happened elsewhere. This suggests the possibility that the abandonment of the Sabbath and adoption of Sunday as a new day of worship may have occurred first in Rome as a part of this process of differentiation from Judaism. vii

Toward the end of the first century, relations between the Jews and the Roman Empire had deteriorated drastically. The Romans had previously recognized Judaism as a legitimate religion and had even shown a level of respect and even admiration for the religious principles of the Jews. But the Jewish wars that began about A.D. 66 changed all that.

Militarily, the statistic of bloodshed as provided by contemporary historians, even allowing for possible exaggerations, is a most impressive evidence of the Romans’s angry vengeance upon the Jews. Tacitus (ca. A.D. 33-120), for instance, gives an estimate of 600,000 Jewish fatalities for the A.D. 70 war. . . Besides military measures, Rome at this time adopted new political and fiscal policies against the Jews. Under Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) both the Sanhedrin and the office of the High Priest were abolished and worship at the temple was forbidden. Hadrian (A.D. 117-138). . . outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion and particularly the observance of the Sabbath.viii

Such circumstances invited Christians to develop a new identity, not only characterized by a negative attitude toward the Jews, but also by the substitution of characteristic Jewish religious customs for new ones. These would serve to make the Roman authorities aware that the Christians, as Marcel Simon emphasizes, “liberated from any tie with the religion of Israel and the land of Palestine, represented for the empire irreproachable subjects.” This internal need of the Christian community to develop what may be called an “anti-Judaism of differentiation” found expression particularly in the development of unwarranted criteria of Scriptural hermeneutic through which Jewish history and observances could be made void of meaning and function.ix

As you might suspect, the change took place over a rather long period of time. Pope Innocent I, about 417 A.D., wrote a decretal which became canon law that the church should absolutely not observe the sacraments on Friday or Saturday. Which reveals, of course, that up until this time, a lot of people did. Two contemporary historians, Sozomen (about 440 A.D.) and Socrates (about 439 A.D.) confirm this.x

So as late as the fifth century, those who did not keep the Sabbath were in the minority of Christian Churches. It is not saying too much to say that the Roman Church was determined to inhibit Sabbath observance. They ordered fasting on the Sabbath and this practice continued among some until after 1000 A.D.xi

There is really no question that the entire New Testament Church, through the period in which our New Testament was being written, observed the Sabbath on the day we call Saturday. And there is no question that most of the visible church changed their day of worship to Sunday after the last of the Apostles were dead. The question we must answer is whether that change was somehow authorized or whether it was unjustified and unwarranted.

The next question is what modern man must do about the Sabbath once he realizes what it is all about. I can make this suggestion. Take your Bible in hand and read the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8-11. Pray and ask God to help you incorporate the Sabbath into your life. As much as lies within you, step aside from your ordinary work and require no one else to work on your behalf. In other words, give all the people for whom you are responsible the day off.

Use the Sabbath day for rest and recuperation. Sleep late Saturday morning. Spend some time in Bible study. Spend extra time with your family. Take some time to think about life and about what God might have in mind for you. Don’t allow yourself to feel restricted by the Sabbath. But do hold this day apart for God. After all, it is His day, the day that reminds us who our God really is.

i. “God Fearers” was the term applied to Gentiles who had accepted the Jewish faith, but had stopped short of circumcision.

ii. Leviticus 23:10 f.

iii. John 20:17.

iv. It is worth noting that this occasion falls about a week after the Days of Unleavened Bread. This is at variance with the custom in Jerusalem where the “first day of the weeks” usually occurred within the festival. The reason for this is probably because the harvest had to begin later in Asia Minor due to their being in a more northerly latitude. They had to wait for the harvest in order to have the shipment of grain for the saints in Judaea.

v. Acts 14:27.

vi. Samuelle Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 167 f.

vii. Ibid. page 169.

viii. Ibid. Page 173.

ix. Ibid. Page 183.

x. Ibid. Page 196.

xi. Ibid. Page 193

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Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca