Apostles & Early Church Observe Sabbath
Following His death and resurrection, Jesus gave not so much as a hint that the Fourth Commandment was no longer necessary, or that the day of rest was changed to Sunday. In fact, it is obvious from the New Testament record that the Apostles and early Christians continued to keep the seventh day of the week according to the Fourth Commandment. There is no evidence they abandoned the Sabbath for Sunday!
Women Rest on the Sabbath
Luke 23.56 describes what the women did after Jesus died, after the veil in the temple was rent in two, after anything that was "nailed to the cross" was nailed there:
Then they [the women] went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
While it would not be surprising that the women observed the Sabbath after Jesus' crucifixion, the way Luke records this fact is quite significant. Luke was undoubtedly a Gentile writing to another Gentile long after the Resurrection. Yet in no way did he qualify his reference to the commandment as having been "old" or "Jewish" or "done away." It was still "the commandment," part of God's spiritual law and will for mankind (See also Romans 3.20, 31; 7.7-14,22; 1 Jn. 5.3; Jas. 2.8).
There is much more evidence that both Jewish and Gentile Christians kept the Sabbath during the New Testament period. The key to understanding this evidence is the Apostles and early Christians' attitude toward God's relationship with Israel.
Early Disciples See Gospel for Israel Only
At the time of Christ, the Jews believed that God was concerned with only one nation on earth-Israel. The promises were for Israel; God's blessings were for Israel; the Messiah would come to save Israel. All other people, they believed, were simply heathen Gentiles-they were dogs whom God would begin dealing with only if they were circumcised and became Jewish proselytes.
With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), the apostles began to realise the spiritual nature of the Kingdom of God; but they still saw Jesus as the Saviour of God's people, Israel. They understood their commission basically in terms of preaching salvation to Israel. Those who repented and accepted Jesus had no thoughts of abandoning the law of Moses. They continued to meet in the synagogues and worship in the Temple. I n fact, when Paul went to Damascus to look for Christians to persecute, he went to the synagogues (Acts 9.2). Even the Romans, at first, considered the Christians a sect of the Jews, like the Pharisees or Sadducees.
The early Church viewed salvation strictly within the context of God's dealings with Israel.
Gospel Preached to Gentiles
It was only after God sent a special revelation that one of the Apostles first conceived of the idea that the Gospel might be for the Gentiles too (Acts 10). Through a vision, Peter was instructed by God to preach to Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
Peter was shocked by God's revelation-but he went and preached to Cornelius' household. The opening words of his discourse reveal both his attitude about associating with Gentiles and the message he received from God:
You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean (Acts 10.28).
Peter's acceptance of the Gentiles was the first major break with the "Israel only" concept-and it came about only as a result of a supernatural vision. Up until that time, and even long afterwards, the prevailing Jewish attitude was that salvation was for Jews only. In fact, when Peter returned to Jerusalem after preaching to Cornelius, he was severely criticised for having gone into a Gentile home (Acts. 11.3).
How does all this relate to the Sabbath?
Simply this! In view of the strong attachment of the Apostles and first Christians to Judaism, can we possibly believe that they had already abandoned the Sabbath for Sunday? Unthinkable!
As the years went by, Paul and others began to preach to more and more Gentiles, hundreds of whom believed. However, many, if not most, of the Jewish Christians just assumed that these Gentiles would be circumcised and become proselytes. They could not conceive of anyone coming into a relationship with God without becoming an Israelite. They continued to discriminate against Gentiles-even against Gentile Christians.
On one occasion, at Antioch, Peter was eating with Gentiles-until certain men from Jerusalem showed up. He was intimidated by their presence and withdrew from the Gentiles, as did Barnabas and others (Gal. 2.11-13). Paul was incensed and corrected Peter publicly- but the incident showed how great their attachment to the law of Moses was. Can we possibly assume that they had already abandoned the Sabbath almost 15 years prior to these events? Hardly! It was not just a man-made custom or Pharisaical tradition. It was the commandment of God!
Paul continued to insist that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and come under the national (Old) Covenant with Israel. However, he did uphold very strongly the spiritual laws of God (Rom. 3.20, 31; 7.7-14, 22).
The controversy over whether or not the Gentiles had to become Israelite proselytes grew to such proportions that a major conference was held at Jerusalem around 49 A.D. to settle the question (Acts 15).
The conclusion reached at this meeting was that Paul was correct; circumcision was unnecessary for the Gentiles. However, the leaders did write letters instructing the Gentile Christians to abstain from fornication, from blood, from things strangled, and from foods polluted by idols; these were laws from the Old Testament that were apparently considered of particular importance to the Gentiles (Acts 15.20).
Remember, the whole conference had to do with Gentiles. At that time there was no thought of the Jews forsaking the law of Moses. And in that context, it is obvious that they were not keeping Sunday instead of the Sabbath. It should also be noted that the decision of this conference in no way excused the Gentiles from the moral and spiritual laws of God, including the Sabbath. The issue was whether or not Gentiles had to become proselytes, symbolised by circumcision.
Paul Participates in a Temple Ceremony
As Paul and others continued to preach to Gentiles, more and more turned to God without becoming Jews. At the same time, however, thousands of Jews continued to be "zealous for the law" (Acts 21.20-21); and many of them kept on harassing the Gentiles about being circumcised.
Rumours began to spread at Jerusalem that Paul was even beginning to teach the scattered Jews to abandon Moses (Acts 21.21). So when Paul returned to Jerusalem, the Apostles there asked him to co-operate with them in proving that these rumours were false. He was to go into the temple and join in a purification ceremony. "Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law" (Acts 21.24).
Of course, the plan "backfired" and Paul ended up in prison. But the incident demonstrates clearly that the Apostles-and even Paul-were still very much in tune with their Jewish heritage. There is simply no way they were keeping Sunday instead of the Sabbath!
But what about the Gentiles? Were they taught to worship on Sunday?
Paul Worships with Jews and Gentiles on Sabbath
Throughout the book of Acts, Paul consistently used the Sabbath for teaching both Jews and Gentiles "as his custom was" (Acts 17.2; also 18.4). In Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas went into the synagogue on the Sabbath where they were asked to speak (Acts 13.14-15). When they had finished, some of the listeners asked them to return the next Sabbath at which time "...almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord" (vv.42-44).
Notice that Paul waited a whole week for another meeting. If Christians had been observing Sunday, there would have been no reason to wait; they could have met the very next day. This passage shows clearly the orientation of both Jews and Gentiles, yes, even "the whole city," to the Sabbath.
Acts 18.4 describes Paul's stay in Corinth, where he worked as a tentmaker during the week. And when did he rest from his physical labour to teach Jews and Greeks? On the sabbath, not on Sunday.
Another indication of Sabbath observance by both Jews and Gentiles is the fact that the churches in many cities were mixtures of both groups. They met regularly, often in private homes, often in Jewish homes (Rom.16:3-5; 1 Cor.16:19). Now, given the conclusive evidence that the Jewish Christians continued to rest on the Sabbath according to the commandments, it is also quite obvious that Gentile Christians did so too. For the Apostles and early Christians-Jews and Gentiles alike-the Sabbath was part of God's will for mankind. They continued to observe the seventh day of the week-not just because it was a Jewish tradition-but because it was made at Creation for all men. It was one of God's commandments. It was observed and taught by their Saviour. And while the Gentiles, and even the Jews eventually, did not abide by all the civil and ceremonial laws and traditions handed down from the time of Moses, they did continue to live by the spiritual and moral laws, including the Sabbath.
Sabbath Observed into Second Century
Following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the death or scattering of many of the Apostles, the churches of Judea continued to be administered by Jewish Christians. Post-biblical church writers Eusebius (260-340 A.D.) and Epiphanius (315-403 A.D.) record that the church at Jerusalem was led by 15 bishops "of the circumcision" until 135 A.D., when Emperor Hadrian besieged the city. Strong Jewish leadership and influence continued at least until then-, and in that context, there is simply no way that Sunday keeping could have arisen among Christians there during the First Century.
Of course, Sunday keeping did arise in the church-but not because of apostolic teaching. Rather it began in post-biblical times. It began because of severe anti-Jewish attitudes in the Roman world, because of strong pagan influences, and because of political pressures under the godless emperors. Those pressures caused the early post-apostolic church leaders to move as far away as possible from anything that could be considered Jewish-to move toward the customs and traditions of the pagan Roman world. In the process, the teachings of the Word of God, of Jesus and the Apostles, were severely compromised.