Jesus and the Apostles Observed the Sabbath Day

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Did you know that the two scriptures most often used to support worshiping on Sunday are frequently misinterpreted? Discover the biblical evidence that proves Jesus, His apostles, and both Jewish and non-Jewish believers originally kept the seventh-day Sabbath. Also learn when, where, and why mainstream Christianity abandoned the seventh-day Sabbath.

If you ask most professing Christians whether we are required to keep God’s law, you’ll likely be answered with “No.” If you then ask whether it is okay to worship other gods, use God’s name in vain, bow down to idols, steal, murder, lie, covet, disrespect parents, or commit adultery, you’ll be answered with another “No.” In other words, what it comes down to is that the only commandment most churches disregard as okay to break is the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). In this article, we will see that Jesus and the New Testament Church kept the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week and the only “changes” to that observance were made long after Jesus died—by what would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church. Ultimately, we will see that observing the seventh-day Sabbath is still required for Christians today.

Jesus Christ Kept the Sabbath While He Was on Earth

It is undisputed among Bible scholars that Jesus observed the Sabbath on the seventh day. Even those who believe that the Sabbath should not be kept in the way described by the Ten Commandments understand that Jesus did, in fact, keep it in that way. It might be claimed by those who believe that Sunday is now the correct day for “rest” that He only kept the Sabbath because it was His tradition, because He was a Jew, or because He had not been resurrected yet. Let’s examine what Jesus, the perfect example for mankind, did and said about the Sabbath.

We see that He observed the Sabbath as part of the way He lived His life, both as a young boy and in His ministry. He both observed the Sabbath Himself and preached on the Sabbath. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read…. Then He went down to Capernaum… and was teaching them on the Sabbaths” (Luke 4:16, 31). Though He observed and preached on the Sabbath, He also taught that the Sabbath was not to be a burden the way the Pharisees wrongly kept it, and He condemned them for the strict, unbiblical prohibitions they had added, which made it a burden.

For example, when the Pharisees condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, He rebuked them and said, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). When the Pharisees rebuked Him for allowing His disciples to pick a handful of grain on the Sabbath, He condemned the burdensome, unscriptural prohibitions the Pharisees had added—which were never approved by God—and told them that they were missing the whole point of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–27). He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27). In other words, the Sabbath was made as a gift for mankind, not a burden. Jesus Christ showed and taught how to keep the Sabbath properly. He even called Himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 28). Jesus gave no indication of abolishing the Sabbath, but rather set the perfect example of how to keep it—an example His Church followed—and spent part of His ministry on teaching how to keep it correctly.

Does the New Testament Teach Sunday Observance?

Many teach that after Jesus’ resurrection the Church began keeping Sunday, the first day, instead of the seventh-day Sabbath. Does the Bible prove this? There are a total of eight scriptural passages that refer to the “first day of the week.” Let’s take a look at them.

Six of those scriptural passages simply describe what happened the day after Jesus’ was resurrected as the disciples discovered His empty tomb in the early dark hours of the first day of the week (He was in the grave three days and three nights, from early Wednesday evening to the beginning of Saturday evening). None of them speak of a new day of worship being set aside for the Church.

One of those passages, John 20:19, is treated by a few as a “first Sunday observance.” But is it? The verse reads, “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, 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.’” The meaning here is obvious and explicitly says they “were assembled, for fear of the Jews”—not instantly doing away with one of the very Commandments of God and defying everything Jesus had taught them as “Lord of the Sabbath.” Rather, they were hiding and afraid, because Jesus was not in His tomb and they were being accused of stealing His body (Matthew 28:13–15). This gathering was no more a church or worship service than when they met in the same way on a Monday only eight days later (John 20:26).

And the remaining two passages in no way set the first day of the week apart as the day to rest, worship, and keep holy instead of the seventh day. They are simply descriptions of events.

Acts 20:7–12 is one such reference. Some have claimed that it describes a Sunday worship service—however, if we read carefully, we see that “the disciples came together to break bread” (v. 7). In other words, the purpose of their gathering was to eat a meal together, which is what “to break bread” meant in the first century (e.g., Acts 27:33–35), just as it does today. During and after the meal, Paul spoke to them until midnight. The context reveals that this was after the Sabbath, on Saturday night—by biblical reckoning, the first day of the week—and Paul was going to be leaving first thing in the morning. Many seventh-day Sabbath keepers in the Living Church of God experience this same scenario even today, enjoying dinner together on a Saturday night and continuing their fellowship late into the evening. This was not depicting the first-century Church doing away with the seventh-day Sabbath and keeping Sunday.

The last verse used by many Sunday-keeping churches in an effort to alter the Sabbath command is 1 Corinthians 16:2. The Living Church of God publication Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? contains the following insight:

In 1 Corinthians 16:2, the Apostle Paul requested, “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” This is no endorsement at all of Sunday worship. Notice that the practice was meant to stop when Paul came to Corinth! And notice that these verses say nothing about gathering for a weekly worship service to do this collecting. This was not a collection of money, but of food to assist the poor in Jerusalem suffering from drought and famine (cf. Romans 15:25–28). Until Paul’s arrival, each individual was asked to “store up” his contributions—surely in his home. Paul knew that the collection would be bulky enough that it would take several people to transport it to Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:4)—not what one would expect if money were collected.

The attempt to use these three verses to support Sunday observance is nothing more than an effort to justify a practice that was instituted by men in the centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, if we honestly examine the Bible’s approximately 170 references to God’s Sabbaths, we can understand His perspective on the subject.

The First-Century Church Observed the Sabbath

The reality is that the book of Acts, the inspired, primary record of the first-century Church, shows clearly that Christ’s followers continued to systematically keep the seventh-day Sabbath—never Sunday. For instance, Acts 13 says that Paul “went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down…. Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand” he began to preach the Gospel to them (vv. 13–16). But notice what happened next. “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). So, what did he do? Did he take this perfect opportunity to set the record straight and proclaim that the Church of God now keeps Sunday and they could hear him again the very next day? No. Rather, it is recorded, “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (v. 44).

We see this over and over again. When Paul started the Gentile church at Thessalonica, “as his custom was, [he] went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). Then, in the Greek city of Corinth, “he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). Paul, Silas, and Timothy baptized people on the Sabbath day (Acts 16:13–15). Thankfully, we also have some of Paul’s teaching about the Sabbath recorded in Hebrews 4. The record shows that the first-century Church continued to observe and actively teach the seventh-day Sabbath, even to new Gentile, non-Jewish converts.

Sunday Was Ordained by Men to Replace the Sabbath—Not by God

So, why do most Christians today observe Sunday? The primary reason is that it was forced on Christianity by the church at Rome in an effort to accomodate pagan practices and bring more pagans into the fold. The church at Rome believed that if it observed Sunday instead of the “Jewish” Sabbath, more of the pagans who already observed Sunday would be willing to convert to Christianity. History shows that this was done centuries after Jesus and the Apostles died.

Research for this is highlighted in Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? Here is an excerpt:

Renowned historian Will Durant writes, “The serious temper of the Jewish Sabbath was transferred to the Christian Sunday that replaced it in the second century” (The Story of Civilization, vol. 3, p. 599, 1972).

How did this happen? A Roman Catholic study course tells us that “The [Catholic] Church simply transferred the obligation from Saturday to Sunday” (“Session 19,” Father Smith Instructs Jackson). The Catholic Mirror agrees: “The Catholic Church... by virtue of her Divine mission, changed the day from Saturday to Sunday” (September 23, 1893). In fact, the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome publishes a book by Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, a non-Catholic scholar, which proves this very fact! Its preface is written by Vincenzo Monachino, chairman of the university’s Church History department. He writes, “We [the Roman Catholic Church] gladly mention the thesis that Bacchiocchi defends regarding the birth-place of Sunday worship: for him this arose most probably not in the primitive Church of Jerusalem, wellknown for its profound attachment to Jewish religious traditions, but rather in the Church of Rome. The abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, are the result of an interplay of Christian, Jewish and pagan-religious factors” (From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity, pp. 5–6, 1999, emphasis added).

Richard Ames writes the following in “Who Changed the Sabbath to Sunday?,” appearing in the July–August 2020 Tomorrow’s World Magazine:

The first-century Christian Church worshipped on the seventh day of the week, which we now call Saturday. But when Roman Emperor Constantine, a pagan sun-worshipper, enforced his own version of Christianity in his empire, he mandated Sunday worship. He gave the following edict in 321 AD: “Let all magistrates and people of the city… rest on the venerable day of the Sun” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, “Roman Legislation for Sunday,” vol. XI, p. 147).

Just a few years later, the Roman church also passed a startling decree in the Council of Laodicea, declaring, “Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s day they shall especially honour, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing [keeping the seventh-day Sabbath], they shall be shut out from Christ” (A History of the Councils of the Church, vol. 2, p. 316). In other words, Christian Sabbath-keepers were declared heretics.

In short, the Sabbath commandment was never changed by God, and it is to be kept by His Church. In fact, according to the Bible, the Sabbath is one of the very signs of God’s people.

The Sabbath Is a Sign Between God and His People

God places great value on remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. He has built it into His perfect “law of liberty” and emphasizes the importance of the Sabbath throughout Scripture. God calls the Sabbath, ordained at creation, a sign of His people.

God says in Exodus 31:13, “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.” He continues in verses 16–17, “Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”

But that is not the only place where He calls the Sabbath a sign. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God says, “Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them…. ‘I am the LORD your God: Walk in My statutes, keep My judgments, and do them; hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God” (Ezekiel 20:12, 19–20).

These promises were not limited to the people of Israel. God extends the same blessing of recognition to Gentiles and those excluded from Israel when they “keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me” (Isaiah 56:1–8).

The Sabbath was observed by the Church that Jesus began in the first century, and while many have made attempts to change it or abolish it (Daniel 7:25), the Church of God has continued and will continue to observe it, even in the face of persecution. The Sabbath day was set apart as holy at creation (Genesis 2:1–3). Its observance is commanded as one of the Ten Commandments. It was observed by Jesus, His apostles, and the Church of God found in Scripture. And we see from the above passages in Exodus and Ezekiel that it is the seventh-day Sabbath, not Sunday, that sets God’s people apart.

But there is an additional detail found in the above passages that needs to be noted. Notice that they often say, “Sabbaths”—plural. God did not just set apart the seventh day to be observed; there are also seven annual Holy Days and Festivals that God commanded His people to observe forever. You can learn the details of these seven festivals in the next article.

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