If the early believers did not honor the seventh day Sabbath (as so many say), then it certainly matters very little what day believers gather together. But if they did, and if those gatherings were full of spiritual and prophetic meaning, then the Sabbath is just as important to New Covenant Israel as it was to Old. While it would be strange if it weren’t, given its importance in the Old Covenant scriptures (which is all the church had in the beginning), so many say it isn’t. And what they point to more than any other fact of history is the way the early church observed the first day of the week.
However, what if all these fine scholars have missed something very significant? What if the two days, the Sabbath and the First Day (Sunday), were not in competition for the affection and loyalty of the early believers? What if they actually complemented each other?
Today, Sunday certainly has the sanction of an enormous weight of tradition, but in the first centuries of the church it was something else, something very special. It was the complement of the Sabbath, fulfilling another need in the lives of individual churches and believers beyond the weekly Sabbath rest. The day of the Savior’s resurrection was both festive and instructive, a day clothed with vision of His eternal reign to come.
To understand what we find in these ancient documents, we have to go further back, all the way back to when God called His people out of Egypt. At Mount Sinai, He gave them the Law that established them as a distinct and peculiar people. In that Law, the day itself did not begin at midnight, but at sundown — as one day was ending a new day was beginning.1 This is the basis of all reckonings of time in the New Covenant scriptures, too. Acts 20 records the famous breaking of bread in the city of Troas, where the unfortunate boy, Eutychus, fell out of the upper window sound asleep. The gathering began at sundown, immediately upon the end of the Sabbath. Remember, the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week.
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. (Acts 20:7-8)
The “Teachings of the Twelve Apostles,” a document dating somewhere between 80 and 120 AD, taught this very thing:
But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.2
Not long after this, a new thing developed. Sometimes those in smaller communities would travel to a nearby larger community that could accommodate a “First Day Festival.” We know this from several accounts, the first by Ignatius, who died in 107 AD:
And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s day as a festival, the resurrection-day...3
The Epistle of Barnabas, written around 130 AD, emphasizes the joyful aspect of this festival — and the reason for it:
Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.4
The gathering of believers all around is seen in this quote from Justin, born about 110, and writing this about 150:
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… Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly.5
Obviously, Sunday was not their day of rest, for if it were they would not travel so far to gather together in one place on that day. Sunday was a festival day after the Sabbath, which they also kept. In a story that happened just a few short years after this, the Hebrew reckoning of days is clearly part of the church’s understanding. In Smyrna, Polycarp was martyred, uttering his celebrated words before the Roman ruler of that place in 155 AD:
And when the proconsul pressed him, and said, “Swear, and I will release thee, revile Christ;” Polycarp said, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and in nothing hath he wronged me; and how, then, can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?”6
Immediately before this in the account of his final days, the author notes two key terms relating to the Sabbath: the “day of preparation” and the “great Sabbath.”
Having, therefore, with them the lad, on the day of the preparation, at the hour of dinner, there came out pursuers and horsemen, with their accustomed arms, as though going out against a thief.
And when he had finished his prayer, having made mention of all who had at any time come into contact with him, both small and great, noble and ignoble, and of the whole catholic church throughout the world, when the hour of his departure had come, having seated him on an ass, they led him into the city, it being the great Sabbath.6
These two terms are both found in the New Covenant. The day of preparation is the day before the Sabbath, when all is made ready so all can rest on that day. The great Sabbath specifies the Passover, just as in John’s gospel:
The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (John 19:31)
Tertullian again writes of festivals on the first day of the week in about 200 AD:
Others, with greater regard to good manners, it must be confessed, suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east, or because we make Sunday a day of festivity.7
And about fifty years after this, a compilation called the “Apostolic Constitutions” explicitly makes the connection between the two special days:
But keep the Sabbath, and the Lord’s day festival; because the former is the memorial of the creation, and the latter of the resurrection.8
The significance of both days was obviously alive and well in the hearts of the churches. “Keep the Sabbath” and equally so, “keep the Lord’s day festival,” for doing so set their minds on heavenly things and gave them the rest their bodies and souls needed. A few chapters later, the vision they had for the Sabbath is written in the following amazing words:
O Lord Almighty, Thou hast created the world by Christ, and hast appointed the Sabbath in memory thereof, because that on that day Thou hast made us rest from our works, for the meditation upon Thy laws. Thou hast also appointed festivals for the rejoicing of our souls, that we might come into the remembrance of that wisdom which was created by Thee... On this account was there appointed one week, and seven weeks, and the seventh month, and the seventh year, and the revolution of these, the jubilee, which is the fiftieth year for remission, that men might have no occasion to pretend ignorance... For the Sabbath is...the inquiry after laws, and the grateful praise to God for the blessings He has bestowed upon men.9
Sadly, in the face of this revelation, excitement, and encouragement about the Sabbath and the First Day Festivals, and the sense of fellowship that brought them together from their different places, another powerful trend was at work in the early church. It began in only a few places, principally Rome and Alexandria, but they were both centers of imperial power. As such, the wealth and status of the “believers” there tended to exceed considerably the smaller, poorer places. With that wealth went influence, and with the education and refinement of the philosopher-theologians of the second and third centuries went a growing appeal to non-Christians of the same class and outlook — including their negative outlook on the Jews.
Violent Jewish uprisings in the years 66-70, 115-117, and 132-135 had turned the Roman elite permanently against the Jewish people. The respect of the old Republic and even the first emperors towards them and their ways vanished. This was clearly noticed in the church, especially in Rome, where a distaste and then a hostility developed towards the Jews as a people. In a short time, this was followed by a highly negative view towards the sacred scriptures themselves. The Jews faced first mockery from both the Romans and the Christians, then special taxation,10 and with the rise of Christianity as the new religion of the Empire, active persecution. The woes of many centuries began.
Still, more than a hundred years after Constantine made Sunday (the day of the sun god) the official day of rest in the Roman empire, a historian named Socrates could write that everywhere except Rome and Alexandria the Sabbath and First Day Festival pattern endured. He wrote this in about 450 AD:
The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria.11
People just would not lightly give up their allegiance to the wonderful two-day pattern that culminated one week and began the next — not even when the Council of Laodicea excommunicated all these people in 364 AD. They were anathema!
Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.12
In time, the might of the Church, often backed by emperor and king, prevailed, and the well-known pattern of Sunday-go-to-church Christendom became the norm. But consider how long the true pattern endured even long after the purity of first-century church was lost! How tenaciously they held on to that special pattern of Sabbath and First Day, of rest and festivity.
Yes, the love that had once caused them to share all things in common, to lay down the sword, and to live very humble and godly lives before their neighbors had long since been lost. Communal living was clearly a fading memory by the time James wrote his epistle early in the second century. So Constantine was right to take the sign down, for however firmly many held onto the Sabbath, it was only an outward form. They were no longer God’s people, obedient to the gospel.13
However, the very tenacity with which so many held onto the Sabbath testifies to to their confidence that it went back to the apostles and the Messiah Himself. The early church kept the Sabbath until its leaders compromised with the Roman power that hated both the Jews and their religion. That Constantine hated them, let there be no doubt. His words to the churches in 325 AD make this point abundantly clear:
And in the first place, it seemed very unworthy of this most sacred feast, that we should keep it following the custom of the Jews; a people who having imbrued [drenched] their hands in a most heinous outrage, have thus polluted their souls, and are deservedly blind...14
This “most sacred feast” was the Passover of Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23. The same hostility worked in Constantine and his churchmen towards the Sabbath, and to the same end. It was not hard for him to take down the sign of the seventh-day Sabbath in favor of the day of the sun god (Sunday) for his favored, pet religion.15
Once again, in our day, among all of life’s struggles and difficulties, the sign of the Sabbath is being lifted up over a people. It is hanging upon its twin signposts: the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor.16 Those posts are what everything in the Law and Prophets depends on, including the Sabbath, the festivals, and all the prophecies.17 Yes, everything depends on loving God with all of our heart, soul, and strength, and in the same, wholehearted fashion, loving our neighbor. Your neighbors are the ones closest (nigh) to you, your brothers and sisters in the community of faith — the ones with whom you share all things in common.18 Why?
Because you love them!