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  • Writer's pictureShannon Makujina

Sabbath - Part Two

The history of Sunday worship and its implications for the church

The observance of Sunday worship was a gradual development, starting with a slow departure from worshipping on Saturday. Since many of the early Christians were Jews, worshipping on Saturday was the most natural thing in the world for them, with many continuing to attend their synagogues till they got excommunicated as Christianity spread.

It seems to have been a source of contention for the early believers, along with issues like circumcision and eating unclean food. Paul addresses it in Romans, making it clear that Sabbath keeping is a matter for Christian liberty. “One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind,” Paul says (Romans 14:5).

By 110 A.D, Pliny writes to Trajan that Christians were observing a ‘fixed day’ of worship, but never specifies what that day is. The earliest we see churches establishing Sunday worship is 150 A.D. with Justin Martyr writing that it was a common practice, in honor of the resurrection.

Martyr says in his First Apology: “But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior in the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”

However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Christians who were meeting on Sunday saw it as a replacement of the Jewish sabbath or a day of rest. They simply were meeting for church. After all, Roman slaves had to work on Sunday. Early church fathers like Barnabas and Ignatius pushed back hard against Sabbath keeping, with no inkling of swapping the day out with Sunday as an equivalent.

Ignatius writes, “For if we still go on observing Judaism, we admit we never received grace…. Those, then, who lived by ancient practices arrived at a new hope. They ceased to keep the Sabbath and lived by the Lord’s Day, on which our life as well as theirs shone forth, thanks to Him and his death, though some deny this…. It is monstrous to take Jesus Christ and to live like a Jew.” (Magn. 9).

Martyr says something interesting in his Dialogue with Trypho. He is talking about the Sabbath and says, “The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath….” He then goes on to lament how one day of rest is not sufficient for this.

The ‘new law’ is the New Covenant, but what is the perpetual sabbath he is referring to?

Barnabas, in his epistles, also writes in a similar vein, quoting from Isaiah 1:13-17 to say that the Jewish Sabbath is now unacceptable to God, in fulfillment of this verse. Barnabas takes an escitalogical view of the Sabbath, viewing it as a state of newness and perfection in the future kingdom, but he also rejects the idea that keeping the Sabbath for New Covenant believers has anything to do with a particular day, but is rather a state of being.

The start of Sunday keeping as a replacement for the Jewish Sabbath began under Constantine, as a political move. He issued an edict in March 321AD that made all businesses close on the “venerable day of the Sun”. This was the start of Sunday keeping. 4 years later, at the council of Nicaea, the Catholic Church (heavily influenced by Constantine) made Sunday an official day of rest.

Shortly after that, Augustine, writes in 400AD that “the holy doctors of the Church have decreed, that all glory of the Jewish Sabbath is transferred to it [Sunday]. Let us therefore keep the Lord’s Day as the ancients were commanded to do the Sabbath.” 

The Catholic Church started to enforce Sunday keeping and what had been a joyful celebration for the early church turned into a legalistic ritual to keep or be excommunicated over, much like the Jewish Sabbath.

The Puritans continued this trend, setting up the infamous “Blue laws” in America when they came in the 1600’s and 1700’s. Not working on Sunday and going to church because an issue of morality and the Puritans would refer to Sunday as ‘the Sabbath’. Sunday School was originally called ‘Sabbath school’ and till the past 75 years or so, Sunday was regularly referred to as the Sabbath.

Sabbatarianism is the term used to refer to the belief that the moral obligations of the Jewish Sabbath are transferred to Sunday. Sadly, this belief, though not founded in early church history or Scripture, has had a dramatic influence on Western society, with many businesses in the American South (which I hail from) still being ‘closed on Sunday’. Till recently, in my home state of South Carolina, it was illegal to buy alcohol on Sunday.

While blue laws are falling out of observance, the issue of observing Sunday is still a matter of great contention among Christians, especially more conservative sects. Most Fundamental Baptists hold to some form of Sunday observance as the ‘Lord’s Day’ that involves not working or participating in secular activities. Recently, a Reformed pastor in my hometown was making waves on Twitter for insisting that America’s political decline was due to our country not observing the Sabbath (using it to refer to Sunday keeping).

So, if there is no Biblical precedent to say that the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday, what do we do about the Sabbath? Is one out of the ten commandments just non-applicable?


The New Covenant Sabbath—a promise fulfilled

So what happened to the Sabbath? Did one of the ten commandments just disappear, one less rule for us to worry about?

Not exactly. To understand what it means for us to keep the 4th commandment as Christians, let’s break down Hebrews 4:1-10. It’s a little complicated, but hang with me, this is the good stuff.

The passage starts out by ascertaining that rest does indeed remain and warns believers against failing to rest (vs. 1). “Since the promise to enter his rest remains, let us beware that none of you be found to have fallen short.” The word promise is interesting, because it involves something to be fulfilled in the future, implying that the rest the Israelites have in the Sabbath is not complete.

The previous chapter is a discussion about the Israelites in the wilderness and how they hardened their hearts against God, refusing to believe and thus not sharing in the promise. Heb 4:2 is referencing this previous situation when the author says, “For we also have received the good news just as they did. But the message they heard did not benefit them, since they were not united with those who heard it in faith.” Whether the Israelites who did not believe in the wilderness, or the present day Judaizers, the Gospel cannot benefit anyone who will not believe in it.

But the next verse gets more interesting. “For we who have believed enter the rest…” (vs 3).

What does it mean to rest? To believe the good news (vs. 2).

The author starts recounting the history of the Sabbath and the Israelites disobedience to God.

“For somewhere he (God) has spoken about the seventh day in this way: And on the seventh day God rested from all his works. Again, in that passage he says, They will never enter my rest. Therefore, it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news did not enter because of disobedience, he again specifies a certain day—today. He specified this speaking through David after such a long time: Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

The seventh day is very clearly mentioned as the day God rested from all his works. However, the Israelites disobeyed God in this matter and many others, so God did not allow them to enter into the promised land and allowed the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness instead. The author references Psalm 95:7-8 &11, which has the quotation “today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”.

Vs. 6 says it remains for some to enter it, which is a fancy way of saying that there are people who have still not entered into this rest. It says those who formerly received the opportunity did not take it because of disobedience. For those who yet remain to enter it, God again specifies a certain day—today. Instead of being the seventh day of the week, the day abruptly changes to today. The author is telling the people of Hebrews that today is the day to enter into this rest that remains for the people of God.

He further explains this (vs 8). “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day.” The seventh day Sabbath that the Israelites were commanded to follow by Joshua and Moses was only a temporary rest. If it had been able to give them rest, God would not have specified a different day later—today.

The conclusion? “Therefore, a Sabbath rest remains for God’s people. For the person who has entered his rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from his” (vs. 9-10).

If you believe the Gospel, if you believe in Jesus’s finished work on your behalf, you are resting from your works (your efforts to earn your salvation) and entering into God’s rest (what Jesus offers you freely as gift-righteousness). If you believe the Gospel, you are keeping the Sabbath.

Jesus’s blood payment for sin was the fulfillment of the Sabbath—a perfect work that was completed. Now we get to rest in it—not as a one-time thing—but as a perpetual Sabbath, like Justin Martyr said. We are commanded to constantly believe in the good news of Jesus finishing the work on our behalf. Jesus did the work—we get to rest in it.

Paul knew this also. After a powerful recounting of the Gospel, Paul writes, “Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ(Col 2:16-17).

The Sabbath was a promise of the Gospel from the dawn of the world, and its promise has been fulfilled through Jesus. Are you resting?


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