Doesn’t history show us that the first day is the Christian Sabbath?

Point:sabbath day

Some may ask the question, “Since the Sabbath of the Old Testament is a type of the rest found in Christ, why do so many people put an emphasis on Sunday any more than any other day of the week?” The record left to us in the New Testament and in church history shows us that the observance of the first day of the week became common practice since the beginning of the church.


This is absolutely not true! There is no record in the New Testament that the apostles regarded the first day of the week above any other day, nor is this idea demonstrated by church history. To plainly illustrate this fact, please read the following excerpt from the book entitled, History of the Sabbath and First Day of the Week, by John Nevins Andrews:

“But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and sat down.” (Acts 13:14)

By invitation of the rulers of the synagogue, Paul delivered an extended address, proving that Jesus was the Christ. In the course of these remarks he used the following language:-

“For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him.” (Verse 27)

When Paul’s discourse was concluded, we read:-

“And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. [Footnote: Dr. Bloomfield has the following note on this text: “The words, eis to metaxn sabb., are by many commentators supposed to mean ‘on some intermediate week-day.’ But that is refuted by verse 44, and the sense expressed in our common version is, no doubt, the true one. It is adopted by the best recent commentators, and confirmed by the ancient versions.” Greek Testament with English notes, vol. i. p. 521. And Prof. Hacket has a similar note. – Commentary on Acts, p. 233.] Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God.” (Verses 42-44)

These texts show, 1. That by the term Sabbath in the book of Acts is meant that day on which the Jewish people assembled in the synagogue to listen to the voices of the prophets. 2. That as this discourse was fourteen years after the resurrection of Christ, and the record of it by Luke was some thirty years after that event, it follows that the alleged change of the Sabbath at the resurrection of Christ had not, even after many years, come to the knowledge of either Luke or Paul. 3. That here was a remarkable opportunity to mention the change of the Sabbath, had it been true that the Sabbath had been changed in honor of Christ’s resurrection. For when Paul was asked to preach the same words the next Sabbath, he might have answered that the following day was now the proper day for divine worship. And Luke, in placing this incident upon record, could not well avoid the mention of this new day, had it been true that another day had become the Sabbath of the Lord. 4. That as this second meeting pertained almost wholly to Gentiles, it cannot be said in this case that Paul preached upon the Sabbath out of regard to the Jews. On the contrary, the narrative strongly indicates Paul’s regard for the Sabbath as the proper day for divine worship. 5. Nor can it be denied that the Sabbath was well understood by the Gentiles in this city, and that they had some degree of regard for it, a fact which will be corroborated by other texts.

Several years after these things, the apostles assembled at Jerusalem to consider the question of circumcision.” (Acts 15) “Certain men which came down from Judea,” finding the Gentiles uncircumcised, had “taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses ye cannot be saved.” Had they found the Gentiles neglecting the Sabbath, unquestionably this would have first called out their rebuke. It is indeed worthy of notice that no dispute at this time existed in the church relative to the observance of the Sabbath; for none was brought before this apostolic assembly. Yet had it been true that the change of the Sabbath was then advocated, or that Paul had taught the Gentiles to neglect the Sabbath, without doubt those who brought up the question of circumcision would have urged that of the Sabbath with even greater earnestness. That the law of Moses, the observance of which was under discussion in this assembly, is not the ten commandments, is evident from several decisive facts. 1. Because that Peter calls the code under consideration a yoke which neither their fathers nor themselves were able to bear. But James expressly calls that royal law, which, on his own showing, embodies the ten commandments, a law of liberty. 2. Because that this assembly did decide against the authority of the law of Moses; and yet James, who was a member of this body, did some years afterward solemnly enjoin obedience to the commandments, affirming that he who violated one was guilty of all. (Acts 15:10, 28, 29; James 2:8-12) 3. Because the chief feature in the law of Moses as here presented was circumcision. (Verses 1, 5) But circumcision was not in the ten commandments; and were it true that the law of Moses includes these commandments, circumcision would not in that case be a chief feature of that law. 4. Finally, because that the precepts still declared obligatory are not properly either of the ten commandments. These were, first, the prohibition of meats offered to idols; second, of blood; third, of things strangled; and fourth, of fornication. (Verse 29; 21:25) Each of these precepts may be often found in the books of Moses, (Exodus 34:15, 16; Numbers 25:2; Leviticus 17:13, 14; Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17; Genesis 34; Leviticus 19:29) and the first and last ones come under the second and seventh commandments respectively; but neither of these cover but a part of that which is forbidden in either commandment. It is evident, therefore, that the authority of the ten commandments was not under consideration in this assembly, and that the decision of that assembly had no relation to those precepts. For otherwise the apostles released the Gentiles from all obligation to eight of the ten commandments, and from the greater prohibitions contained in the other two.

It is evident that those greatly err who represent the Gentiles as released from the obligation of the Sabbath by this assembly. The question did not come before the apostles on this occasion; a strong proof that the Gentiles had not been taught to neglect the Sabbath, as they had to omit circumcision, which was the occasion of its being brought before the apostles at Jerusalem. Yet the Sabbath was referred to in this very assembly as an existing institution, and that, too, in connection with the Gentile Christians. Thus when James pronounced sentence upon the question, he used the following language:-

“Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God; but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.” (Acts 15:19-21)

This last fact is given by James as a reason for the course proposed toward the brethren among the Gentiles. “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.” From this it is apparent that the ancient custom of divine worship upon the Sabbath was not only preserved by the Jewish people and carried with them into every city of the Gentiles, but that the Gentile Christians did attend these meetings. Otherwise the reason assigned by James would lose all its force, as having no application to this case. That they did attend them strongly attests the Sabbath as the day of divine worship with the Gentile churches.

That the ancient Sabbath of the Lord had neither been abrogated nor changed prior to this meeting of the apostles, is strongly attested by the nature of the dispute here adjusted. And the close of their assembly beheld the Bible Sabbath still sacredly enthroned within the citadel of the fourth commandment. After this, in a vision of the night, Paul was called to visit Macedonia. In obedience to this call he came to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia. Thus Luke records the visit:-

“And we were in that city abiding certain days. And on the Sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither. And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshiped God, heard us; whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” (Acts 16:12-14)

This does not appear to have been a gathering of Jews, but of Gentiles, who, like Cornelius, were worshipers of the true God. Thus it is seen that the church of the Philippians originated with a pious assembly of Sabbath-keeping Gentiles. And it is likely that Lydia and those employed by her in business, who were evidently observers of the Sabbath, were the means of introducing the gospel into their own city of Thyatira.

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul, as his manner was, [Footnote: Paul’s manner is exemplified by the following texts, in all of which it would appear that the meetings in question were upon the Sabbath. Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10,17; 18:19; 19:8.] went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures.… And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.” (Acts 17:1-4)

Such was the origin of the Thessalonian church. That it was an assembly of Sabbath-keepers at its beginning admits of no doubt. For besides the few Jews who received the gospel through the labors of Paul, there was a great multitude of devout Greeks; that is, of Gentiles who had united themselves with the Jews in the worship of God upon the Sabbath. We have a strong proof of the fact that they continued to observe the Sabbath after their reception of the gospel in the following words of Paul addressed to them as a church of Christ:-

“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 2:14)

The churches in Judea, as we have seen, were observers of the Sabbath of the Lord. The first Thessalonian converts, before they received the gospel, were Sabbath-keepers, and when they became a Christian church they adopted the churches in Judea as their proper examples. And this church was adopted as an example of the churches of Macedonia and Achaia. In this number were included the churches of Philippi and of Corinth. Thus writes Paul:-

“And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost; so that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to Godward is spread abroad.” (1 Thessalonians 1:7, 8)

After these things, Paul came to Corinth. Here, he first found Aquila and Priscilla.

“And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them and wrought; for by their occupation they were tent makers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.” (Acts 18:3, 4)

At this place also Paul found Gentiles as well as Jews in attendance upon the worship of God on the Sabbath. The first members of the church at Corinth were therefore observers of the Sabbath at the time when they received the gospel; and, as we have seen, they adopted as their pattern the Sabbath-keeping church of Thessalonica, who in turn patterned after the churches in Judea.

The first churches were founded in the land of Judea. All their members had from childhood been familiar with the law of God, and well understood the precept, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Besides this precept, all these churches had a peculiar memento of the Sabbath. They knew from our Lord himself that the time was coming when they must all suddenly flee from that land. And in view of this fact, they were to pray that the moment of their sudden flight might not be upon the Sabbath; a prayer which was designed, as we have seen, to preserve the sacredness of the Sabbath. That the churches in Judea were composed of Sabbath-keeping members, admits therefore of no doubt.

Of the churches founded outside the land of Judea, whose origin is given in the book of Acts, nearly all began with Jewish converts. These were Sabbath-keepers when they received the gospel. Among these, the Gentile converts were engrafted. And it is worthy of notice that in a large number of cases, those Gentiles are termed “devout Greeks,” “religious proselytes,” persons that “worshiped God,” that feared God and that “prayed to God alway.” (Acts 10:2, 4, 7, 30-35; 13:43; 14:1; 16:13-15; 17:4, 10-12) These Gentiles, at the time of their conversion to the gospel, were, as we have seen, worshipers of God upon the Sabbath with the Jewish people. When James had proposed the kind of letter that should be addressed by the apostles to the Gentile converts, he assigned a reason for its adoption, the force of which can now be appreciated: “For Moses,” said he, “of old time hath in EVERY CITY them that preach him, being read in the synagogue every Sabbath day.” The Sabbatarian character of the apostolic churches is thus clearly shown. (History of the Sabbath and First Day of the Week, by John Nevins Andrews, pages 167-174)

The following chapters in this excellent book point out conclusively that the early Christians, for many years after the death of the apostles, did not regard the first day of the week as anything but a common working day.

Even if church history demonstrated that some early Christians regarded Sunday to be holy, would that be sufficient license to break one of God’s commandments? We can find the history of early Christians believing and practicing many things, but does this fact prove that we must follow their example? Certainly not! The Bible is our authority, not church tradition. Jesus asked, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3) “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)