October 02, 2005 Q & A

Sabbath Day Change - Part 3


I have always wondered how the Sabbath day was changed to Sunday. As Reformed and Presbyterian, I do worship on Sunday, but have always wanted to know specifics of the change.

Obviously, Sunday was the day of our Lord's resurrection, but I was curious to know your position and specific scripture references to back this up.

I have been asked this question by a Seventh-Day Adventist.


What we have seen so far (see the preceding two weeks) may appear to be disjunctive. The Fourth Commandment continues to be God's law for His people to obey (as a matter of sanctification not of justification). But they are not bound to observe the Sabbath. The preceding point contains part of that resolution: what continues in effect is the sign of entering God's rest instituted at creation; what does not continue is what is distinctively Mosaic. The rest of the resolution comes in looking at the new pattern for worship indicated in the new covenant scriptures.

Why do Christian churches observe the first day (Sunday)? How can we explain the divergence of church practice from the Jewish pattern on which it was built?

The New Testament contains no specific precept changing the day from the seventh to the first day of the week. But we do see the pattern of New Testament worship on the first day of the week (cited below). In a church whose roots, leaders, and most members were Jewish, this change could have occurred only with apostolic authority, which is to say, only in obedience to the Lord himself.

What was the reason for this change? The answer emerges from the very things at which we have been looking thus far.

Just as before Christ the Sabbath commemorated the work of God in the first creation and salvation from Egypt, so since Christ the Sabbath commemorates the greater work of God in the new creation, the salvation accomplished by Christ in his death and resurrection. The mighty triumph of Christ's resurrection marks the beginning of all new things (Ephesians 1:19-2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:20-24; Romans 8:10f., 17-23; Colossians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 5:17; etc.). In the resurrection of Christ, the Father vindicated the Son, publicly approving his life of obedience and his atoning death (Romans 4:25, 1:4); from the risen Christ the Spirit of the new age was poured out (Acts 2:32f., on Pentecost, the first day of the week). The new heavens and earth which are coming have their beginning and consummation in the risen Christ (Eph.1:10, Colossians 1:20).

In this light we can see the significance of the practice of the New Testament church in its meeting on the first day of the week, beginning with the disciples and Jesus (John 20:1,19,26) and continuing on in the life of the church (Acts 2:1, 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). The first day of the week is observed as the continuing Sabbath because it is, by virtue of the Lord's rising on that day, "the Lord's Day."

While the passages cited, when looked at by themselves, may not seem to provide a solid basis for changing the day, we do not look at them in isolation. We see them in the context of redemptive and historical developments referred to above.

We also see them in the historic context of the birth and earliest development of the church from Pentecost into the post-Apostolic era. The church that emerges to our view from the womb of apostolic nurture was beset with numerous controversies (many of them having to do with the changes from the old covenant order to the new covenant order) and the beginnings of developments which eventually deviated far from biblical doctrine and practice. It is singularly remarkable, therefore, that one dramatic change from the old order to the order observed by the post-apostolic church, the change in the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, was achieved with apparent unanimity and universal accord and so early in the church's history that the earliest testimony outside of the Bible itself bears witness to it as an accomplished fact (not as a process still under way).

The historian Phillip Schaff states: "The celebration of the Lord's Day in memory of the resurrection of Christ dates undoubtedly from the apostolic age. Nothing short of apostolic precedent can account for the universal religious observance in the churches of the second century. There is no dissenting voice. This custom is confirmed by the testimonies of the earliest post-apostolic writers, as Barnabas, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr. It is also confirmed by the younger Pliny. The Didache calls the first day "the Lord's Day of the Lord." (The opening paragraph of Sect. 60, "The Lord's Day" in Vol. II (Ante-Nicene Christianity) of Phillip Schaff's History of the Christian Church, 1910). This forcefully presents us with a reality that must be explained: the apparently universal and immediate adoption of the first day of the week as the day for Christian worship.

Given the principle of religious conservatism and social inertia, without some compelling impulse in a new direction the natural tendency for the early church would have been to continue Jewish practices (as, for example, in so largely adopting the synagogue model for the structure of local churches, and in Jewish Christian believers, including the apostles—even Paul—continuing to worship in the Temple and observe Mosaic feasts). The first churches were entirely Jewish and organized separately from existing synagogues when driven out. Even in Gentile areas many, if not most, of the first church members were Jewish and Gentile "God-fearers" (heavily influenced by Jewish teaching and customs). Finally, the Scriptures inherited by the church after Pentecost (2 Tim.3:15f., referring to the "Old Testament" scriptures first of all) clearly identify the Sabbath with the "seventh day," and the Gospels show our Lord faithfully keeping the Sabbath on that day. With every reason to continue worshiping on the seventh day, what reason could there be for the shift to the first day?

The impetus was not cultural, because Graeco-Roman society did not sanctify either day. If first day observance had been an extra-apostolic innovation, it surely would have provoked controversy. But there was no such controversy. As Schaff points out, the historic evidence shows "no dissenting voice" and can appeal to the universal support of those writers who did reflect on the matter. Schaff is surely correct when he says that such an unexpected, swift, and universally accepted change could not have occurred without apostolic precedent. There is no apostolic word in the New Testament Scriptures clearly directing this change. We must conclude that such a word was spoken, however, for such a remarkable change to have occurred; and such a word from the apostles was a word from the Lord for whom they spoke.

This is a deduction from historic evidence and Scripture together. This deduction is supported by the pattern of "first-day" significant events noted above: the resurrection and resurrection appearances of our Lord, the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, and the few but real indications that churches gathered for worship on the first day. In addition to this pattern of references we can also see great redemptive historical significance in the Lord's changing the day He claims for His special honor. Great as the completion of the first creation was, greater still is the new creation of God, revealing itself in power when Christ rose from death (God's curse on the fallen first creation) on the first day of the week.

This is not an argument based on church authority. The polemic against Rome's asserting doctrines and instituting practices on its own authority does not apply here. This phenomenon is very similar to and parallel to (though at the time apparently much less controversial than) the historic development of the recognition of the New Testament canon. Later church councils publicly recognized the canon which had already and from the beginning been recognized by the churches, not because of apostolic authorship but because of apostolic authorization. Yet no specific verse or collection of passages in the New Testament gives the church an authoritative list of the sacred writings. Despite the Old Testament stricture not to "add to the book of this law" (Deut. 4:2, cf. Rev.22:18), the church readily received these new writings as the very word of God (2 Pet. 3:16), debating only the question of which ones were recognized as apostolical.

Granted the existence of a sufficiently compelling impulse to adopt without known controversy the first day of the week for regular worship, the growing church worshiped in this way alongside Jewish communities who continued in the same cities to observe the seventh day. Naturally the Hebrew word "Sabbath" continued to be attached to the ongoing Jewish observance. This is the background to Paul's statements in Colossians 2 and Romans 14, as noted above.

However, if there was no change of day, then Colossians 2:16f. and Romans 14:5f. give serious challenge to holding that the fourth Commandment continues to require God's people to worship on any certain day at all—because Paul's polemic is not directed only against continuing O.T. ritual aspects of the seventh-day Sabbath, but against the required observance of that day at all.

The continuation of separate Jewish communities into the Christian era alongside the growing Christian church and the development of the heretic Judaizing "Christian" sect explain why in the New Testament already and in the church later there is a separation of "Sabbath" (seen as Jewish and Judaizing) and "Lord's Day".

All of the evidence added together indicates that Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, Himself changed the day for its observance through the pattern of His own redemptive acts and appearances after His resurrection and through the leadership of His apostles ordering the government and worship of His church.

If you wish to pursue this further I can commend to you Joseph Pipa's The Lord's Day (Christian Focus Publications, 1997) and its chapter entitled "The Day Changed; the Obligation Unchanged."

Feel free to come back with follow-up questions. May the Lord bless and guide you.



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