Why Do We Attend Church on Sunday When Saturday is the Sabbath?
What about the Sabbath?
The Sabbath is “Saturday”—it always has been; it always will be. Neither Jesus' death and resurrection, nor the Gospel of our salvation by faith through grace, nor the doctrine of the New Testament has changed that. However, since the beginning of the Church in the Book of Acts, Christians have had questions about the Sabbath Laws—it is an extension of the Law vs Grace issue. Let me first lay some foundation with the basic question of “the Law”. Then I will deal with the issue of the “original Sabbath”, the Christian response, and the Early Church’s celebration of the “first day of the week”.
The Dispensation of the Law
The Old Testament Law was meant to show mankind his need for a “Redeemer / Messiah”, a substitute that could perfectly fulfill God’s demands of Holiness. It was meant to show God’s righteousness—how good He is. Mankind, however, used it as a measure of their own righteousness—how good they could be.
Under the Law, God blessed those who followed His commands (recognizing their failures and offering the appropriate sacrifice), or who brought their required gifts in order to obtain blessing (dedications, tithes, offerings, and firstfruits). This was the pattern of the Old Testament. Men had to perform first, then God would bless. It was: Law—Works—Blessing.
The New Testament pattern is totally different. Jesus Christ has performed—perfectly. And, He has offered His perfect life as a substitution for our inability (Grace). Through the agency of faith, we accept His work on our behalf, and thereby receive the blessing of “right standing” with God. And, having received “Blessing from God” we work to declare His glory—not ours. The New Covenant is: Grace through Faith—Blessing—Work.
The Law “required”. The essence of blessing during the dispensation of the Law was fulfilling what God required. The Law established a very intricate, and complicated, system of sacrifices, dedications, feasts, tithes, and offerings. There are literally hundreds of lines of scripture that deal with these subjects. And, all of it was required! The blessings of God’s protection, health, peace, abundance, and provision were directly tied to these “laws / commands”. Oh yes, and the “Law” was not 10 commandments—it was 613 separate and distinct commands, of which over 1/3 applied directly to the offering and presentation of sacrifices. The “Law” literally screamed to mankind, “You cannot please God in your ability! You NEED a Savior / Redeemer / Messiah—a ‘substitute’ who will live perfectly before God, and who will pay the price for your disobedience.”
But, that was not all there was to this system. All of the demands of the Law were inter-related. You could not simply keep the dietary laws and expect to be blessed without also keeping the social laws. Neither could you follow the regulations of the tithe and receive blessing without also keeping the civil, social, ceremonial, sacrificial, and Sabbath laws. There were no special blessings for tithes and offerings that did not also require one to fulfill the whole of the Law.
The Law required absolute obedience to all of the Law, in order to receive any of the blessings. (see Deut. 28:1 and 15)
Christ—the End of the Law
That would be pretty overwhelming if not for the glorious revelation of the Gospel! All the demands of the “Law” necessary to establish a person’s righteousness, and thereby obtain God’s blessing, have been removed—to be replaced by faith in Jesus Christ.
Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the Law [the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to Him Who is the fulfillment of its types, and in Him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in Him] as the means of righteousness [right relationship to God] for everyone who trusts in and adheres to and relies on Him. (Amplified)
This is not the “end” of God’s demands of righteousness, for God does not change. However, the righteousness He demands now is obtained by “Faith in Jesus Christ—believing in His redeeming life, death, and resurrection.”
Galatians 3: 19–26 - Why the law then? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come… 21Is the law therefore contrary to God's promises? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly be by the law. 22But, the Scripture has imprisoned everything under sin's power, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. 24The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. 25But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
The Law was never intended to “make a person righteous”. Rather, it was the Holy “measure” by which a person could see their own unrighteousness—it showed them they were sinners. This “frustration” was designed to bring the person to the place where they “cried-out for a Messiah / Redeemer”. In the Law this was represented both by the animal of the sacrifice, and by the Priest who offered it for them. In all of this, it was not the “performance” of the Law (works) that “saved” them, but it was the “faith” they placed in God’s provision of a “redeemer” (grace). Old or New Testament, we are all, “…saved by grace through faith.”
Now that the true object of this “faith” has come, Jesus Christ the Messiah / Redeemer, we are no longer “under the guardianship” of the Law. His “actual” death has once and for all removed our need to be bound to the “works of the Law”. We accept by faith the offering He has made, and we are declared righteous by God.
Jesus and The Sabbath Laws
Included in these demands of the Law were the Sabbath Laws—not Sabbath observation (more on this later). In the Law, God turned “observation” of the Sabbath into a series of demands enforced by punishment, again, to show mankind’s inability to live righteously before Him. To the Law, the Jewish Priests and Rabbis then added numerous statutes, ordinances, interpretations, and regulations. It is significant to notice that Jesus consistently “tested” these additions during His 3 years of ministry—without ever violating the true intention of the Sabbath. He specifically performed 7 healing miracles on the Sabbath—it almost seems He took delight in doing so. (Listed in chronological order)
1) Mark 1:21–28;
2) Mark 1:29–31 [Luke 4:38–40];
3) John 5:1–17;
4) Luke 6:6–11;
5) John 9:1–25;
6) Luke 10:13–17;
7) Luke 14:1–6.
His purpose is summed up in another passage where he was challenged by the Pharisees regarding their Sabbath regulations.
Mark 2:27 - And He said to them, “The Sabbath came into being for man's sake, and not man for the Sabbath's sake.”
28. Therefore, the Son of Man is also LORD OF THE SABBATH.
The True Intention of the Sabbath
What was the true intention of the Sabbath? In its origin, it was declared to be a day when mankind would rest from his labor, as God had rested from creation. God did not rest because He was tired—He was DONE!
Gen 2:2 By the seventh day, God completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.
3. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from His work of creation.
Man was to set aside a day to recognize that life, peace, blessing, wholeness—all that he needed—came from God. It was not established as a day for man to do things for God—but to receive from Him! There were no rules, regulations, or activities to be performed for God. In fact, the activity of attending “Sabbath meetings” was not enacted until the time of the Babylonian captivity—when the nation of Israel was absent from their land.
Healing, delivering, helping, restoring, and forgiving were acts that ministered “wholeness” to man— that was God’s intention. The Messiah came to restore mankind to the place of perfect relationship with God. He would bring a “true Sabbath rest” for those who would accept Him.
Hebrews 4:9–12 - It follows that there still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GOD.
10. For He who has been admitted to His rest, has rested from his own works, as GOD did from His.
11. Let it then be our earnest endeavor to be admitted to that rest, so that no one may perish through following the same example of unbelief.
This passage from Hebrews establishes that the true “Sabbath” was not as much a “day” as it was an “attitude of acknowledging dependence upon God”. Certainly, the people of the Old Testament kept the day—and all the regulations added with the Law— but, for the most part, they missed the true Sabbath, as Hebrews says, “…but the message they heard did not benefit them, since it was not mixed with faith in those who heard it”. The “true Sabbath rest” is an attitude of faith in the promise of God—accepting His “finished” work of salvation as presented in His Word.
Keeping a “day” without true “faith” is meaningless—and actually is an offense to God. The full passage from Hebrews 4:1–13 declares God’s desire for our acceptance of His Word / His Promise: we are to labor (exert all effort necessary) to enter into the rest of absolute trust (faith) in Him. Anything less is “unbelief”.
New Testament Believers—The Sabbath—The First Day of the Week
So, what does all of that mean to us as “Believers” today? How did the Early Church, and the New Testament writers deal with the question of “keeping the Sabbath”? Has Sunday replaced the Sabbath (Saturday) as the day to honor God? Is it wrong to celebrate on Sunday?
First of all, remember, the Laws of the Sabbath have ended. So there is no “violation” of the Law involving the Sabbath. What we must be careful to observe is the “spirit” of the Sabbath. The New Testament Church in Jerusalem continued to worship as they had during the time before Pentecost—they met daily at the Temple for times of prayer and worship where they also began to receive the teachings of the Apostles, instead of the instruction in the Law from the Rabbis. Although it is not recorded, it is assumed they also continued to meet on the Sabbath. But instead of attending synagogues they met in the court of the Temple.
However, outside of Jerusalem, we have no direct record of the time of their meetings until the writings of Paul. If the Church met on the Sabbath it was not enforced. In Acts 15, when the Apostles met in Jerusalem to take up the question of Gentile converts, they discussed the issue of whether all believers had to submit to the “Law” as given through Moses. The decision of James, the acting head of the Jerusalem Church, is given in Acts 15:19–29. The concluding judgment was thus given:
Acts 15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things:
29. that you abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which, if you keep yourselves, you shall do well. Be prospered.
In this final decision, there is no mention of “keeping the Sabbath”, even though Moses and the reading of the Law on the Sabbath is mentioned as a practice of the Jews in verse 21. If some of the Churches / communities did so, that was, of course, commendable—if celebrated from the proper perspective. But, it was not required or even suggested.
There are several passages where the Sabbath is mentioned in Paul’s life or writing. We are told in the Book of Acts that Paul would go to the synagogues in the foreign cities on the Sabbath. His purpose was to speak to the assembled Jews about the Messiah, and salvation through Jesus Christ. As a Rabbi of esteemed training and position, this was his right. Yet, in almost every case we are informed the leaders were not open to this “new” message, and Paul and his team were sent away from the synagogue. Yet, the Church in those cities continued to grow. When did they meet? Daily! And, “on the first day of the week”:
Acts 20:7 On the first day of the week, we assembled to break bread. Paul spoke to them, and since he was about to depart the next day…
1 Cor 16:2 On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save to the extent that he prospers…
This transition seems to have been a natural response to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on, “the first day of the week”. Nowhere in Paul, Peter, James, or John can we find any reference to a commandment to worship on a given day. They did take up the habit of “the first day of the week”, but it was not an absolute commandment to the Churches. In fact, in two passages Paul mentions the issue of observing certain days.
Romans 14:5 One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind.
6. Whoever observes the day, observes it to the Lord. Whoever eats, eats to the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is to the Lord that he does not eat, yet he thanks God.
Col 2:16 Therefore don't let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.
17. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Christ.
Notice the “tension” between these two passages. If someone “desires” to observe a “day” that is acceptable, as long as they are operating in an attitude of faith toward God. Yet, no one is to be allowed to place a demand (a judgment) on us to observe a certain “day” as a sign of spirituality. For, the true fulfillment of all the demands of the Law is Christ, himself!
So, what about the Sabbath?
1. The true Sabbath is entering into the rest of God’s completed work of salvation through Jesus Christ
2. If we set aside a day, it is to be given to celebrating what God has done for us—It is not a day to “labor for Him” but to “receive from Him”
3. The “Sabbath” is, and always has been, Saturday
4. The “Laws of the Sabbath” are fulfilled in Jesus Christ
5. The Church celebrated the resurrection of Jesus by meeting for instruction and partaking of the Lord’s Table on the First Day of the Week.