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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 9: How the Apostles and Early Christians Observed the Sabbath
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CHAPTER 9: How the apostles and early Christians observed the Sabbath

9.1         Introduction

The New Testament Scriptures indicate that, after Jesus’ ascension, the apostles continued observing the Sabbath day. They worshipped in synagogues and other meeting places, taking the opportunity to preach God’s word to Jews and Gentiles alike. The new converts also followed this practice. In short, Sabbath-keeping was the norm for the early church.     

9.2         Two Sabbaths in Pisidian Antioch

Bible passage: Acts 13:14–51

But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.”

As part of his first missionary journey (circa AD 46–48), Paul travelled with Barnabas to Antioch in Pisidia (present-day Turkey). On arrival, they entered a synagogue and sat down to listen to the reading of the Law and the Prophets. Afterwards, the rulers of the synagogue invited them to speak. Taking this opportunity, Paul stood up to preach Jesus Christ. The Book of Acts records the reaction of some of the people: “And 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). In addition, many of the Jews and proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43).

On the next Sabbath, a great crowd gathered: “And the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 13:44–45). 

The response of Paul and Barnabas was to declare that, even though the Jews had the privilege of hearing the gospel first, it would now be preached to the Gentiles. On hearing these words, the Gentiles were filled with joy, and many believed. In contrast, the Jews became angry and stirred up the eminent people of the city, with the outcome that Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the region. The latter “shook off the dust from their feet against them” and moved on to Iconium (Acts 13:51). Despite the hostile send-off, Paul and Barnabas later made a courageous return journey for the sake of the new converts (Acts 14:21–23).

From this episode, we note that Paul and Barnabas observed the Sabbath. Moreover, it was also the practice of the Gentile believers. We see no evidence, either from the Book of Acts or from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (which he wrote to the churches in this region), that the new converts replaced the Sabbath with Sunday worship.

9.3         A Sabbath in Philippi

Bible passage: Acts 16:12–15

In this passage, we see Paul and Silas embarking upon a second missionary journey, during the course of which they came to Philippi in Macedonia: “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there” (Acts 16:13). It was here that the word of God touched the heart of Lydia, a seller of purple cloth from Thyatira. The outcome was that both she and her household received water baptism.

From this event, we learn that the Sabbath was being kept by faithful worshippers in a Gentile land, despite the absence of a synagogue. Pertinently, Paul and Silas—two key workers of the church—upheld the custom, and we see no evidence that they instituted a new practice of Sunday observance.

9.4         Sabbaths in Thessalonica

Bible passage: Acts 17:1–4

This passage records Paul and Silas arriving in Thessalonica: “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:1–2).

Paul attended the synagogue for three Sabbaths in Thessalonica, taking the opportunity to preach the gospel. The result was that a number of people believed, including some devout Greeks and a few leading women.

9.5         Sabbaths in Corinth

Bible passage: Acts 18:1–4

In Corinth, Paul became acquainted with two Jews, Aquila and Priscilla, who were tentmakers. He stayed with them and spent every Sabbath in the synagogue, reasoning with both Jews and Greeks.

9.6         Sabbath observance was the norm in the apostolic church

Bible passage: Acts 15:1–29

For the apostolic church, Sabbath-keeping was normal practice. This fact is revealed in Acts 15 which records an interesting debate.

Not long after the first missionary journey, some Jewish Christians from Judea came to Antioch with an erroneous message for the Gentile converts. The Book of Acts records: “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question” (Acts 15:1–2).

Even with the restrained language of the writer, it is evident that the debate concerning circumcision developed into a major issue. Moreover, it could not be resolved locally and had to be referred to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. It was there that Peter, Paul and Barnabas were called to present their case.

In the end, James made this conclusion:

“Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

            Acts 15:19–21

The apostles and elders followed up with a letter detailing their decision, which was dispatched to the church in Antioch via Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas. 

From this biblical account, we gain some important insights. Firstly, we note that the Jewish Christians from Judea had been arguing about circumcision specifically: they were convinced that this practice was still necessary for salvation and imposed their belief on the Gentile converts (Acts 15:1). However, it is pertinent to note that they had not raised another issue that would have been equally close to their hearts—the Sabbath. This leads us to understand that the Gentile converts were observing the Sabbath at that time; otherwise, its negligence would certainly have caught the attention of the Jewish brethren.  

Secondly, James mentioned the age-old custom of reading from the Books of Moses on the Sabbath day (Acts 15:21), indicating that this was normal practice in the time of the early church. Hence, in the Book of Acts, there are many references to Jews, proselytes (Acts 13:16, 26, 43), Christians (Acts 2:46), workers of God (Acts 13:14, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4) and God-fearing Gentiles (Acts 17:1–4, 12, 17; 18:4) all observing the Sabbath in this manner.  

9.7         Conclusion

In conclusion, the apostles were evidently Sabbath-keepers. They observed this day faithfully wherever they travelled to, whether it was a predominantly Jewish area or a Gentile land, and regardless of whether there was a synagogue or not. Importantly, they led the new Christians converts, including those from Gentile backgrounds, to do likewise. 


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

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