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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 11: Sabbath-Keeping After the Apostles (2) - The Teachings of the Early Church Fathers and Other Influential People
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CHAPTER 11: Sabbath-keeping after the apostles (2) - The teachings of the early church fathers and other influential people

11.1       Introduction

From as early as the first century AD, step changes to the Sabbath were being introduced by a number of influential Christians. Their primary justifications were the need for Christians to depart from Jewish practices and a duty to honour the Lord’s Day (Sunday) in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection.

11.2       The term “Lord’s Day”

The term “Lord’s Day”[1] appeared in Christian writings from the first century AD onwards. Many attribute its origin to Revelation 1:10, a verse that records the following words of elder John: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet”. Others trace the term to the Gospel of Peter, although there is some debate concerning the date of its writing, which varies from AD 70–180. In this apocryphal book, it appears in an account about the resurrection:

And in the night in which the Lord’s day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend with a great light and approach the tomb. And the stone that was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.

      The Gospel According to Peter, v 9

And at dawn on the Lord’s day Mary Magdalene, a disciple of the Lord, fearing because of the Jews who were burning with wrath, had not done at the Lord’s sepulchre the things which women are accustomed to do for those that die and for those that are beloved by them—she took her friends with her and came to the sepulchre where he was laid.

       The Gospel According to Peter, v 12

The term is also found in the Didache, a short Christian treatise from the latter part of the first century (or possibly later). The anonymous writer uses it in the course of teaching Christians how to conduct the Holy Communion:

Gather together on the Lord’s day, break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. But do not let anyone who has a quarrel with a companion join with you until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be polluted; for this was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the Gentiles.”

       The Didache, chp 14, vv 1–3

Regardless of when the term first came into use outside of the biblical canon, by the middle of the second century, it was well documented and widely understood to mean Sunday.

However, it is important to point out that the Lord Jesus, His disciples, and the New Testament writers never used the term “Lord’s Day” to refer to Sunday. They invariably called the latter the “first day of the week” (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Among the writers was John who wrote the Fourth Gospel, and it does not seem plausible that he would have created a new term—the “Lord’s Day”—to denote Sunday in the course of writing his other book, Revelation. Therefore, we understand that John must have used the term to mean something else altogether (see chapter 15 for a discussion).    

11.3       The first century 

11.3.1    Ignatius

In the first century, after the passing of the apostles, Christians continued keeping the Sabbath. This fact is evidenced by the literature of that period, including the Letter to the Magnesians, written by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (circa AD 30–107). In it, he acknowledges the practice of Sabbath-keeping, but admonishes his readers not to rest on this day “after the Jewish manner”. Furthermore, he teaches them to celebrate the Lord’s Day after the Sabbath to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus:

Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for “he that does not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). For say the [holy] oracles, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread” (Gen 3:19). But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week].

            Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, chp 9

11.3.2    The Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas, written by an unknown author (possibly an Alexandrian Jewish Christian) sometime between AD 70–131,[2] goes one step further by teaching Christians not to keep the Sabbath at all. His rationale is that, in this present age, believers are in an unholy state and do not have the capacity to sanctify the Sabbath. He argues that they will only be able to do so when Jesus comes again. The writer goes on to make the point that literal Sabbath-keeping is an erroneous Jewish practice and quotes Isaiah 1:13 in an attempt to prove that God does not accept it. He says that Christians need to observe Sunday instead, to commemorate the Lord’s resurrection.

He speaks of the Sabbath at the beginning of the creation: “And God made the works of his hands in six days, and finished on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it”…Furthermore, he says: “You shall sanctify it with clean hands and a clean heart.” If, therefore, anyone now is able, by being clean of heart, to sanctify the day which God sanctified, we have been deceived in every respect. But if that is not the case, accordingly then we will truly rest and sanctify it only when we ourselves will be able to do so, after being justified and receiving the promise; when lawlessness no longer exists, and all things have been made new by the Lord, then we will be able to sanctify it, because we ourselves will have been sanctified first. Finally, he says to them: “I cannot bear your new moons and sabbaths.” You see what he means: it is not the present Sabbaths that are acceptable to me, but the one that I have made; on that Sabbath, after I have set everything at rest, I will create the beginning of an eighth day, which is the beginning of another world. This is why we spend the eighth day in celebration, the day on which Jesus both arose from the dead and, after appearing again, ascended into heaven.                  

Epistle of Barnabas, chp 15

Here, the writer’s view is that the creation week serves as a prophecy of the world week: six millennia followed by the eschatological Sabbath. He argues that the latter is the seventh day that God has sanctified and on which He will finally rest. It is when God will bring the present world to an end and establish the new one. Somewhat confusingly, he also refers to this new age as the “eighth day”, using the term interchangeably with the Sabbath: “Therefore (i.e., because the Sabbath acceptable to God is the eschatological eighth day, the new world), we pass with rejoicing the eighth day on which Jesus rose from the dead, appeared, and ascended to heaven” (Barnabas 15:9).  

11.4       The second century

11.4.1    Justin Martyr

Around AD 150–155, Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher and writer, wrote an apology[3] from Rome, addressing it to Emperor Antoninus Pius. His aim was to defend the Christian faith at a time of persecution. Part of that apology dealt with the matter of worship:

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; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

             Justin Martyr, First Apology, chp 67

From this excerpt, we see Justin Martyr attempting to explain the nature of Christian worship (including the Holy Communion in the manner that it was conducted at that time) and to portray Christians as good and moral citizens. He addressed the matter of Sunday worship, saying that Christians honour this day because God created the world on the first day of the week, and it was the day on which Jesus Christ resurrected.

John Nevins Andrews, a Christian writer, argues that Justin Martyr’s motivation in mentioning Sunday observance was to demonstrate a similarity between Christians and their fellow Roman citizens who honoured the sun:

This statement of reasons for Sunday observance is particularly worthy of attention. He tells the emperor that they assembled upon the day called Sunday. This was equivalent to saying to him, We observe the day on which our fellow-citizens offer their adoration to the sun. Here both “patriotism” and “expediency” discover themselves in the words of Justin, which were addressed to a persecuting emperor in behalf of the Christians.

            J.N. Andrews, History of the Sabbath and First Day of the Week,
            chp 16

Whether Andrews is right in his assertion or not, what we do know from Justin Martyr’s Apology is that, by the middle of the second century, Sunday observance was already established, at least in Rome. What we do not know is how widespread the practice was.

11.4.2    Tertullian

At the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century, there were calls to honour Sunday specifically as a day of rest. They came from people such as the Latin Father, Tertullian, a prolific writer of apologetic works. Like Justin Martyr, his stance was that the Sabbath was a temporary institution and that Christians should now rest on the Lord’s Day:

As regards kneeling also, prayer finds a variety of practice in the action of a certain very few who refrain from kneeling on the Saturday. At the very moment when this difference of opinion is pleading its cause in the churches, the Lord will give His grace that they may either yield or, without proving a stumbling-block to others, follow their own opinion. But we, according to the tradition we have received, on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, and on it alone, ought to refrain carefully not only from this, but from every attitude and duty that cause perplexity, putting off even our daily business, “lest we give any place to the devil.”

            Tertullian, De Oratione, chp 23

11.5       The third century

11.5.1    Didascalia Apostolorum

The Didascalia Apostolorum[4] is a work that purports to originate with the Apostles, but, in reality, was most likely written in the third century. It uses language that is reminiscent of Ignatius to warn believers against “Sabbath idlings”:

If then the Lord, by the gift of His grace, has set you loose and given you rest, and brought you out into refreshment [Ps 66.12 (65.12 LXX)], that you should no more be bound with sacrifices and oblations, and with sin offerings, and purifications, and vows, and gifts, and holocausts, and burnt offerings, and [Sabbath] idlings, and shewbread, and the observing of purifications; nor yet with tithes and firstfruits, and part-offerings, and gifts and oblations, -- for it was laid upon them to give all these things as of necessity, but you are not bound by these things, -- it behoves you to know the word of the Lord, who said:  Except your righteousness abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shalt not enter into the kingdom of heaven [Mt 5.20]. 

            Didascalia Apostolorum, chp 9

Here, the writer equates resting on the Sabbath with bondage to Jewish tradition. Like Ignatius, he exhorts believers to observe the Lord’s Day as a matter of priority:  

Since therefore you are the members of Christ, do not scatter yourselves from the Church by not assembling…And make not your worldly affairs of more account than the word of God; but on the Lord’s day leave every thing and run eagerly to your Church; for she is your glory. Otherwise, what excuse have they before God who do not assemble on the Lord’s day to hear the word of life and be nourished with the divine food which abides for ever?

            Didascalia Apostolorum, chp 13

11.6       The fourth century

11.6.1    Pope Sylvester I

Pope Sylvester I (AD 314–335) was among those who taught Christians to keep the Lord’s Day:

Pope Sylvester instructed the clergy to keep the feriae.[5] And, indeed, from an old custom he called the first day [of the week] the “Lord’s [day]”, on which light was made in the beginning and also the resurrection of Christ is celebrated.

             Rabanus Maurus, Liber Computo, chp 27

By this time, Sunday worship was already an established custom. However, it appears that the pope went one step further: Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz, Germany (AD 776–856) claims that he decreed the transfer of the Sabbath rest to this day:

Moreover, the same pope decreed that the rest of the Sabbath should be transferred rather to the Lord’s day, in order that on that day we should rest from worldly works for the praise of God. 

             Rabanus Maurus, De Clericorum Institutione, bk 2, chp 46

11.6.2    Constantine’s Sunday decree

One of the most significant developments that promoted Sunday worship occurred in AD 321. Emperor Constantine, who had earlier converted to Christianity, legislated the turning of Sunday into a civil day of rest within the Roman empire and outlawed all work except farming:

On the venerable day of the sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.

            Codex Justinianus, bk 3, tit 12, 3

One may well question whether Constantine was motivated purely by a desire to promote the Christian faith. This is because we note his reference to Sunday as the “venerable day of the sun”—a hint, perhaps, of a past faith not quite relinquished. In light of this, it is possible that the decree of AD 321 was more of a political move—one aimed at uniting pagans and Christians in the empire.

While Constantine did not actually establish the custom of Sunday observance, as it was already in place by his time, he gave it the force of law. Later, in AD 386, Emperor Theodosius I and Emperor Gratian Valentian built on Constantine’s decree and stipulated other Sunday prohibitions, including the hearing of court cases and the payment of debts.

11.6.3    The Council of Laodicea

The next landmark event was the Council of Laodicea (in Phrygia Pacatiana) in AD 364. This was a meeting of around thirty clerics from Asia Minor. Out of it came a number of resolutions, including one that stipulated as follows:

Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring 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.                

Council of Laodicea, Canon 29

It is worth noting that the council acknowledged both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day—evidence that Christians were still observing the Sabbath at that time. However, the position of the clerics was that Christians should not be resting on this day. They issued a severe warning that if anyone was found “judaizing”—that is, resting on the Sabbath in the manner of the Jews—they would be “anathema from Christ”. The latter presumably meant that they would be ex-communicated from the church.

11.6.4    The Apostolic Constitutions

Around the close of the fourth century saw the appearance of the Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of eight books compiled in Syria (or elsewhere in the east), whose teachings were purportedly those of the twelve apostles. They exhorted Christians to worship morning and evening on the Sabbath, and also to keep the Lord’s Day in remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection:

[B]ut assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day. And on the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent Him to us, and condescended to let Him suffer, and raised Him from the dead. Otherwise what apology will he make to God who does not assemble on that day to hear the saving word concerning the resurrection, on which we pray thrice standing in memory of Him who arose in three days, in which is performed the reading of the prophets, the preaching of the Gospel, the oblation of the sacrifice, the gift of the holy food?  

            The Apostolic Constitutions, 7.59

11.7       The fifth century

In the fifth century, the Greek historian Socrates noted that all Christians kept the Holy Communion on the Sabbath, except in Rome and Alexandria where they had their own local custom.[6] John Cassian (circa AD 360–435), a theologian and writer, wrote that the monks in Egypt worshipped on both the Sabbath and on Sundays, but they also had a custom of holding the Holy Communion at 9 am on the latter:

Wherefore, except Vespers and Nocturns, there are no public services among them in the day except on Saturday and Sunday, when they meet together at the third hour for the purpose of Holy Communion.

             John Cassian, Institutes 3.2

11.8       The sixth century up until before the Reformation

From the sixth century onwards, there was an increasing drive on the part of the Catholic Church to enforce Sunday as a sacred say of rest—in effect, turning it into a Christian Sabbath. The Third Council of Orleans (AD 538), for example, stipulated the following in its twenty-ninth canon:

The opinion is spreading amongst the people, that it is wrong to ride, or drive, or cook food, or do anything to the house, or the person on the Sunday. But since such opinions are more Jewish than Christian, that shall be lawful in future, which has been so to the present time. On the other hand agricultural labor ought to be laid aside, in order that the people may not be prevented from attending church.

             Third Council of Orleans, 29th Canon

It was the opinion of the council that Christians should stop doing all farm work on Sundays to make time for worship; but it did not go as far as to prohibit other types of work, to avoid emulating Jewish practices. However, not long after, in AD 585, when the bishops convened in Burgundy, they finally decided to prohibit all works on the Lord’s Day:

Notice is taken that Christian people, very much neglect and slight the Lord’s day, giving themselves as on other days to common work, to redress which irreverence, for the future, we warn every Christian who bears not that name in vain, to give ear to our advice, knowing we have a concern on us for your good, and a power to hinder you to do evil. Keep then the Lord’s day, the day of our new birth.

             Second Council of Macon

Following this, in AD 586, the Council in Narbon decreed that all freemen were to be fined for working on the Lord’s Day, while servants were to be punished with lashings.

At the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory (AD 590–604) castigated those Christians who persisted in upholding the Sabbath day. He argued that literal Sabbath-keeping was no longer necessary since Christians observe it in a spiritual sense through faith in Jesus Christ:

It has come to my ears that certain men of perverse spirit have sown among you some things that are wrong and opposed to the holy faith, so as to forbid any work being done on the Sabbath day. What else can I call these but preachers of Antichrist, who, when he comes, will cause the Sabbath day as well as the Lord’s day to be kept free from all work. For, because he pretends to die and rise again, he wishes the Lord’s day to be had in reverence; and, because he compels the people to judaize that he may bring back the outward rite of the law, and subject the perfidy of the Jews to himself, he wishes the Sabbath to be observed…On the Lord’s day, however, there should be a cessation of earthly labour, and attention given in every way to prayers, so that if anything is done negligently during the six days, it may be expiated by supplications on the day of the Lord’s resurrection.

              Epistle of St. Gregory the Great, bk 13, epist 1

Pope Gregory called those who advocated resting on the Sabbath day “preachers of Antichrist” and urged Christians to rest solely on the Lord’s Day in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Despite their best efforts, it took a long time for the church leaders to enforce the Lord’s Day as a day of rest. This is evidenced by the fact that further decrees ensued over the centuries:

*    In AD 791, Charles the Great summoned the bishops to Friuli in Italy where they decreed that all Christians should honour the Lord’s Day.

*    In AD 826, at a synod in Rome, Pope Eugenius, instructed parish priests to warn those who failed to go to church on Sundays about the prospect of calamities.

*    In AD 928, King Athelston of England banned all trade and civil hearings on Sundays.

*    In AD 1244, at the Council of Lyon in France, church leaders warned the people to cease their work on the Lord’s Day at pain of “ecclesiastical censures”.

*    In AD 1322, at the Synod in Valladolid in Castile, Spain, church leaders told people to refrain from husbandry and any mechanical employment on the Lord’s Day.

*    In AD 1533, the Council of Tours decreed that Christians failing to observe the Lord’s Day and other holy days would face excommunication.

11.9       The Reformation

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther had the prime opportunity to tackle the Roman Catholic Church’s deviation from the biblical Sabbath, alongside the other doctrinal issues, if he had been so inclined. However, he did not do so. In August 1520, when Luther published his treatise, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, which set out a programme of reform, it was clear that he did not see Sunday observance as a matter for debate. In Article 18, Luther stated, “All saints days and festivals should be abolished, keeping only Sunday”. 

In 1529, Luther published The Large Catechism, a manual for clergymen, whose contents comprised the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar (i.e. the Holy Communion). It revealed that Luther was of the opinion that the Sabbath was no longer relevant to Christians, and that all days were the same. Moreover, while he acknowledged that Sunday observance was a man-made custom, he did not see the need for change.

Now, in the Old Testament, God separated the seventh day, and appointed it for rest, and commanded that it should be regarded as holy above all others. As regards this external observance, this commandment was given to the Jews alone, that they should abstain from toilsome work, and rest, so that both man and beast might recuperate, and not be weakened by unremitting labor…However, this, I say, is not so restricted to any time, as with the Jews, that it must be just on this or that day; for in itself no one day is better than another; but this should indeed be done daily; however, since the masses cannot give such attendance, there must be at least one day in the week set apart. But since from of old Sunday [the Lord’s Day] has been appointed for this purpose, we also should continue the same, in order that everything be done in harmonious order, and no one create disorder by unnecessary innovation.

            Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, 1529

These views were reiterated in the famous Augsburg Confession, a document written by Philipp Melanchthon in response to Emperor Charles V’s demand for an explanation of the religious convictions of the German rulers and free territories. It was informed by the Torgau Articles, a summary of faith drawn up earlier by Luther, Jonas, Bugenhagen and Melanchthon. The Augsburg Confession was read out before the emperor at the Diet of Augsburg in June 1530. Part of its content addressed the issues of the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath.

Of this kind is the observance of the Lord’s Day, Easter, Pentecost, and like holy-days and rites. For those who judge that by the authority of the Church the observance of the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath-day was ordained as a thing necessary, do greatly err. Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath-day; for it teaches that, since the Gospel has been revealed, all the ceremonies of Moses can be omitted. And yet, because it was necessary to appoint a certain day, that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears that the Church designated the Lord’s Day for this purpose; and this day seems to have been chosen all the more for this additional reason, that men might have an example of Christian liberty, and might know that the keeping neither of the Sabbath nor of any other day is necessary.

            Augsburg Confession, Article 28, 57–60

Similar views were later expressed by the English reformer, William Tyndale, and the French reformer, John Calvin. The latter, for example, wrote:

It is true that we are not limited to the seventh day, nor do we, in fact, keep the same day that was appointed for the Jews, since that was Saturday. But, to show the liberty of Christians, the day was changed because the resurrection of Jesus Christ set us free from the bondage to the Law and canceled the obligation to it. That is why the day was changed. Yet, we must observe the same regulation of having a specified day of the week. Whether it be one day or two is left to the free choice of Christians.

             John Calvin, Institutes, 1555

Andreas Carlstadt,[7] a contemporary of Luther, was in a minority for arguing the need for a seventh day of rest. However, even he stopped short of committing to a specific day:

If servants have worked six days, they shall be free of service on the Sabbath. God says, without distinction, “Remember that thou keep holy the seventh day.” He does not say that we ought to take Sunday or Saturday for the seventh day. Concerning Sunday, one feels uneasy, because men have established it. Concerning Saturday, it is a disputed question. But so much is clear, that thou shalt keep holy the seventh day, and give the servants rest when they have worked six days.

            Andreas Carlstadt, [About the Sabbath and
            Commanded Holidays], 1524

11.10     Conclusion

In conclusion, Sunday observance was the result of step changes in church doctrine. After the passing of the apostles, influential Christian leaders and writers began teaching believers to observe Sunday in addition to the Sabbath, then as a day of rest, and finally, as the complete substitute for the Sabbath. By the time of the Reformation, people such as Martin Luther, Tyndale and Calvin taught that the Sabbath was a redundant tradition, and that Christians were no longer bound by the requirement to observe any particular day. Such views have left a lasting legacy, for we find many Christians today using the same arguments to counter those who uphold the seventh day Sabbath.


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Greek, kyriake hemera, later rendered simply kyriake.

[2]      Ladeuze, P., “Epistle of Barnabas”, The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 2 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907). Retrieved December 2008.

[3]      Greek, apologia, meaning “a speech for the defence.” The period from AD 130–180 is commonly known as the era of the apologists.

[4]      A treatise purportedly written by the Apostles at the time of the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15), but is more likely to have been a composition of the third century. 

[5]      “Day of celebration”.  

[6]      Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, bk 5, chp 22.

[7]      Also spelt “Karlstadt”.

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