Sometimes Christians prefer to worship on the Sabbath (Saturday) for personal reasons, or they have a desire to reach out to Jewish people. Although we respect the motivations of these brothers and sisters, we must emphasize that Sabbath observance isn’t required of us today.
Sabbath-keeping was part of a covenant with Israel that is not a moral obligation for the church. Even when Christians worship on the Sabbath, they aren’t “keeping the Sabbath.” To “keep the Sabbath” as it was required in the Old Testament would involve compliance with stringent regulations (e.g. Exodus 16:23; 35:3; Leviticus 23:32; Jeremiah 17:21 ) that were strictly enforced.1
The early Christians may have worshiped on the Sabbath, along with other days of the week. It would be natural for them to do so, because most of them were Jews continuing to associate with their Jewish brethren. When Paul traveled from synagogue to synagogue in the Mediterranean world preaching the gospel, he often preached on the Jewish Sabbath. This was a matter of necessity. After all, Sabbath was the day Jewish congregations met and Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles associated with the synagogues were the natural recipients for the gospel message. However, Scripture ( Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 ) and the writings of the church fathers show that the primary day for worship in the Apostolic church was not the seventh day of the week, but the first.
Ignatius, the Apostolic church father who was probably born during the time of our Lord’s ministry and was, along with Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, said this about the Sabbath and Sunday worship:
If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death—whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith . . . . (Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 9).
Justin Martyr, a disciple of Polycarp (mentioned above) wrote:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. 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 on 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 (Comments on weekly worship from chapter 67 of First Apology).
Along with Ignatius and Justin Martyr, many other Apostolic and early church fathers clearly declared Sunday the Christian day of worship. This was long before the centralization of church authority in Rome and the “Christianization” of the Roman Empire under Constantine.2
Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and other church fathers attribute Sunday worship to the fact that Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week. This isn’t surprising, not only because of the symbolism involved with the day of our Lord’s resurrection, but because the Lord Himself emphasized Sunday rather than the Sabbath by choosing it as the day in which He met with His disciples in His post-resurrection appearances (Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20:19-29 ). Further, Sunday was the day the Holy Spirit manifested Himself and the church was born (Acts 2 ).
While the moral principles underlying the other nine commandments are repeatedly expressed in the New Testament, not once does the New Testament instruct Christians to keep the Sabbath commandment. To the contrary, Colossians 2:16-17 states that we should let no one judge us regarding a Sabbath day. In Romans 14:1-6 the apostle Paul made it clear that he opposed controversy on “disputable matters.” He declared, “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” (v.5).
God gave the Sabbath to Israel as a sign of His special covenant with His chosen people. It was part of an elaborate system of sacrifices, rituals, and offerings (Exodus 31:13-17; Nehemiah 9:13-14 ). The Epistle to the Hebrews makes it clear, however, that the coming of the Messiah invalidated these regulations (Hebrews 10:1-18 ). It emphasizes that the Old Testament has been replaced by a new covenant (Hebrews 8:7-13 ). Paul warned the church in Galatia about legalism relating to the Mosaic law, saying:
How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! ( Galatians 4:9-10).
When the Jerusalem counsel met to establish the obligations of Gentile believers in respect to Old Testament law, it concluded that the only “requirements” were to “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29 ). Circumcision was rejected, and Sabbath-keeping wasn’t even mentioned.
No longer do we need to linger in the shadows of Old Testament law. The New Testament—not the Mosaic law—is our standard. For Christians, the significance of the Mosaic system has been abolished. Its rules and regulations have authority only when they coincide with the unchanging moral principles affirmed in the New Testament.
Because the New Testament makes it clear that Sabbath-keeping is neither essential to salvation nor a crucial aspect of Christian living, we consider any insistence that Sabbath worship is essential to the Christian walk as legalistic and divisive. We respect fellow Christians who have personal reasons for preferring to worship on the Sabbath, and we consider their choice a matter of Christian liberty. We also recognize that there may be profound spiritual benefits involved with setting aside a day for rest, worship, and meditation—whether that day be Saturday, Sunday, or another day. But bitter controversy over the Sabbath serves only to interfere with the proclamation of the gospel of God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus.
If you are interested in reading more on this subject, contact the Department of Biblical Correspondence at RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids MI 49555-0001 and request a copy of Sunday: The Lord’s Day.
- “Violating the Sabbath was a serious offense, and the person who worked on the Sabbath was to be ‘cut off from among his people’ (Exodus 31:14 ). During their wandering in the wilderness the Israelites brought to trial a man found gathering wood on the Sabbath. He was stoned to death according to the commandment of the Lord for profaning the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36 )” (D. A. Rausch in Evangelical Dictionary Of Theology). Back To Article
- Evidence that Apostolic Christians began observing the Lord’s Day—the first day of the week—is so strong that Michael Green, F. F. Bruce, and other church historians cite it as important evidence for the resurrection. Back To Article