CHAPTER 11: Sabbath-keeping after the apostles (2) - The
teachings of the early church fathers and other influential people
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”
“Lord’s Day” 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:
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
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.
Gospel According to Peter, v 12
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:
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
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
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
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:
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].
Epistle to the Magnesians,
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, 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.
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.
Barnabas, chp 15
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
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
Andrews, History of the Sabbath and First
Day of the Week,
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.
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:
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
11.5 The third century
The Didascalia Apostolorum 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”:
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
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
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
Sylvester I (AD 314–335) was among those
who taught Christians to keep the Lord’s Day:
Sylvester instructed the clergy to keep the feriae.
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
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:
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
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:
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.
bk 3, tit 12, 3
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.
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
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:
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
Council of Laodicea, Canon 29
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
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
The Apostolic Constitutions, 7.59
11.7 The fifth century
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. 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
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
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
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:
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
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:
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.
of St. Gregory the Great, bk 13, epist 1
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
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
* 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
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”.
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.
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.
Luther, The Large Catechism, 1529
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
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:
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
Carlstadt, 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:
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.
Carlstadt, [About the Sabbath and
Commanded Holidays], 1524
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.