James Kiefer
Spring, 1990

WCSCC@CUNYVM writes (I paraphrase):

What Biblical authority is there, if any, to change the Sabbath from the Seventh day of the week to the First day of the week?


In Acts 20:7, we read,

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight.


Here Luke gives us to understand that the early Christians were gathered for worship on the first day of the week. (I trust that it is not necessary for me to present evidence that the reference to the breaking of bread is to the celebration of the Lord's Supper, also called the Eucharist.) Now it may be objected that the text simply tells us that they were so gathered on that particular occasion, perhaps because Paul was about to leave the next day and wished to preach a farewell sermon, and that there is no significance in the day. But if this be the case, then why bother to mention the day of the week? Luke does not in general refer to the day of the week, unless it has some connection with his narrative, as when he tells us that Paul preached in a synagogue on the Sabbath, where we understand that he did so because that was the principal day of assembly at the synagogue. Luke does not tell us, for example, that the riot at Ephesus was on the fourth day of the week, since that has nothing to do with the riot. If he here mentions that it was the first day, it is because it was understood that that was the day when Christians normally assembled for the breaking of bread.


Paul writes to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 16:1-2) about a proposed gift of money from the churches of that area to the church at Jerusalem, which (for various reasons I have discussed elsewhere) was in desperate straits. He says:

Now concerning the contribution for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.


If we suppose that the church at Corinth and the church in Galatia regularly met for worship on the first day of the week, then it is natural to understand this as meaning that when they met, each brought a sum of money and placed it in the church treasury, so that when Paul came, the money would be all there in a strongbox waiting to be sent to Jerusalem. Is another interpretation plausible? Perhaps Paul meant that on the first day of each week each householder ought to sit down with his books, calculate his income for the previous week, his expenses for the previous week, budget an amount that he could afford to donate to the Jerusalem Relief Fund, and place this money carefully aside in his own strongbox. But notice the stated purpose of Paul's directions: "so that contributions need not be made (or so there be no gatherings) when I come." Surely a very limited acquaintance with human nature suffices to warn us that if each person were directed to sit down and make the appropriate calculation every week, and set aside the money at home every week, many perfectly well-intentioned persons would put off the task this week, thinking that it would be just as easy to do two weeks at a time the following week, and so when Paul finally did arrive they would be ransacking the house for spare cash at the last minute, which is precisely what Paul hoped to avoid. Let me ask each of you, or at least such of you as are American taxpayers: If no tax deductions were made from your paycheck, but you simply knew in general the amount that you were required to send in by April 15th, would you find every year as that date approached that you had no trouble in rounding up the money, since you had carefully budgeted the necessary funds each week or fortnight or month, and put them aside in a special account marked, "For Tax Payments"? I remind you that many banks run what are called Christmas Clubs, in which the depositor who has agreed to the arrangement is forced to deposit a portion of each paycheck with the bank throughout the year, the accumulated sum being released to him at the beginning of December, so that he may have plenty of money with which to buy Christmas presents. If you consider why the depositor does not simply set aside some money on his own each month for the same purpose, you will see why it would make much more sense for each worshiper to bring with him to church each week the sum of money he felt able to donate, "as he had prospered," so that the money would be set aside in reality, and not merely in good intentions, when Paul arrived. But that implies a weekly meeting on the first day of the week, as we have already noted.


John, in the Book of Revelation, begins his account of his visions by writing (1:10):

I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day....


Here John speaks of the Lord's Day. What does he mean by this? Some say that the term denotes no particular day, that every day is the Lord's day. But in that event, John's statement means only that he was in the Spirit, with no indication of when. Surely he mentions the Lord's Day with the intent that we shall understand which day he means, and surely he does so because the day is significant, because it is a particularly appropriate day for him to be in the Spirit, a day especially set aside for prayer and praise and rejoicing in the Spirit. Some say that he refers to the Sabbath. But in that event, why does he not simply call it the Sabbath? This would be clear, and it would be standard Jewish custom. It has never been the Jewish custom, in John's day or before or since, to call the Sabbath the Lord's day. However, as we shall see, Christians have consistently used the term to denote the first day of the week. Indeed, I venture to say that, whenever the term is used, and it is clear which day is meant, it is clear that the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, is meant. Now someone may object that I am here appealing, not to the Holy Scriptures, but to the practice of the post New Testament Church, and that this is not a legitimate authority. To this I reply, that when we wish to know the meaning of any Greek or Hebrew word found in Holy Scripture, we do not hesitate to admit as evidence the use of that word in other authors of that time or shortly before or after. Consider (to take the first example that comes to hand) the words byssos and byssinos, which occur a total of six times in the New Testament, and are translated "(fine) linen". As far as I can see, there is no way to determine, simply by examining the words in their Scriptural context, that they refer to linen rather than, say, to silk. Yet no translator hesitates, because the meaning of the words is well known to us from numerous references in ancient, or for that matter not so ancient, Greek writings. I fail to see why we should not apply the same principle to determine the meaning of the expression, "The Lord's Day," determining its meaning as used by John by noting how other writers of Greek in that age and that corner of the world, and moreover of that faith, used it.

Let us now examine some early references to Christian practice.


Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, reported AD 112 to the Emperor Trajan on the growing sect of Christians and his efforts to suppress them. He says:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft, and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called on to honor it; after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.


The last clause refers to the popular rumor that Christians held cannibal feasts. The letter does not name the day of meeting, but a pre-dawn hymn to Christ would be most appropriate on the day of His resurrection.


When Ignatius of Antioch was being shipped in chains from Antioch to Rome to be put to death there in the arena, he wrote letters to various Christian churches along the route, six of which have been preserved. (A seventh is to an individual, Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the apostle John.) The date is given in most reference works as about 110 AD. Since the emperor was Trajan, the date would have to be 98-117 AD. In chapter 9 of his letter to the Magnesians, he writes:

We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope, so that they have given up keeping the Sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord's Day instead the day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death.


Here Ignatius speaks of the Lord's Day, and clearly means a day different from the Sabbath, and expects his readers to have no doubt which day he means, and no doubt that this is the day on which Christians worship. Either, at least in Antioch and in Asia Minor, there has been a complete change from Saturday observance to Sunday observance, or else there has been by about 110 a complete change from Saturday observance to XXX day observance, followed within the next 40 years (as we shall see) by a complete change from XXX day to Sunday. Absent any evidence for the double change, it seems probable that around AD 110 the Christians of Syria and Asia Minor observed Sunday, and certain that they did not observe Saturday.

Justin the Martyr, at that time residing in Rome, in his Apology (Defense of the Christians) addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 148-155), appeals to the emperor for a repeal of those laws that prescribe the death penalty for being a Christian. He describes Christian worship, assuring the emperor that the rumors of evil orgies are false. In chapter 67 he writes:

The day of the Sun is the day on which we all gather in a common meeting, because it is the first day, the day on which God, changing darkness and matter, created the world; and it is the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Kronos, and on the day after that of Kronos, which is the Day of the Sun, He appeared to His Apostles and disciples, and taught them these things which we have also submitted to you for your consideration.

Note: Kronos is the Greek equivalent of the Latin Saturn. Hence the day of Kronos and the day of the Sun are Saturday and Sunday respectively. For the history of the names of the days of the week, the relevance thereof to Bible study, and other matters, send the message, "GET GENESIS PART1 to LISTSERV@UCF1VM".


Here there is no doubt that Justin is saying that Christians meet regularly on the first day of the week, the day called Sunday, the anniversary of the Resurrection.


Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, wrote a letter between 166 and 174 AD to Soter, Bishop of Rome, fragments of which are preserved by the fourth-century historian Eusebius, including the following:

Today we have observed the Lord's holy day, in which we have read your letter.


Dionysius does not explicitly tell us which day he means by the Lord's day, but he is in touch with the Roman church, which (as we see from Justin) was accustomed, at least a few years earlier, to observe Sunday. Assuming a similarity of tradition between the two we have probable cause to suppose that the Romans, who we know observed Sunday, called it the Lord's Day, and that the Corinthians, who observed a day they called the Lord's Day, did so on Sunday.

Thus we see many reasons to suppose that the change from Saturday to Sunday as the day of the week particularly devoted to the glory of God, a change that has certainly occurred, was one that took place already in New Testament times, backed by the approval and example of Paul the Apostle and John the Revelator. Moreover, if this change did not have the approval of the Apostles, if they taught the early Christians to keep the Saturday Sabbath, we must account somehow for the fact that the change occurred, that it was universal, and that there is no trace whatsoever of any protest made against the change, or of any individual or group that refused to go along with the change. We find from a very early time disagreement on how to calculate the time at which Easter should be celebrated, with different calendars in use from the second to the fourth centuries, renewed differences in Britain lasting until the late seventh century, and still more differences beginning with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. But never before the sixteenth century do we hear of any Christian group that did not require Gentile Christians to be circumcised but did require them to observe a Saturday Sabbath.

Having seen that the Scriptures point to the fact of such a change, and to Apostolic approval of such a change, do they give any sign of the reason for such a change?

One reason why such a change might be reckoned fitting is the difference between Law and Grace. Under the Law, where men are rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad ones, we work for six days and then are rewarded for our efforts by a day of rest at the end of the week. Under Grace, where our well-being is not earned but is a free gift of God, we are given spiritual food and drink on the first day of the week, and are blessed and filled with the Spirit of God, and this makes us so joyful and energetic that we rush out and spontaneously devote the remaining six days of the week to good works.

Having observed that the change from the seventh day to the first is in accordance with the general spirit of each of the Two Covenants, let us consider some explicit Scriptural references to the matter.


Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy....for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Ex 20:6,11)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17)

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Is 65:17)


The first Sabbath was given in honor of the first creation. But the Resurrection of Christ accomplishes a new creation, more glorious than the first, and the first creation is no longer to be commemorated, for joy in the second.


You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Dt 5:15)

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, "As the LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt," but, "As the LORD lives, who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them." ... O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to thee shall the Gentiles come from the ends of the earth. (Jer 16:14-15,19)

And now the LORD says:... "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (Is 49:5,6)


The Sabbath was given to Israel to commemorate the deliverance from Egypt. This is most plausibly understood by supposing that the Israelites' first day of freedom, of deliverance from bondage, was kept by them as a Sabbath, and every seventh day thereafter. (The Sabbath is not mentioned between Genesis 1 and Exodus 16, but those who suppose that the Sabbath was kept in an unbroken cycle from the Creation to the Exodus will not find this inconsistent with the supposition that God arranged the emergence from the Red Sea to occur just before the Sabbath.)

But Our Lord Jesus Christ accomplished a far greater deliverance when He rose from the dead, leading captivity captive. If the day on which the Israelites emerged from the Red Sea into freedom deserved to be commemorated as a day of deliverance, the day on which all the ransomed of Christ are delivered from the bondage of sin and death deserves to be commemorated with a glory that far eclipses the former deliverance from a merely temporal bondage.


The stone which the builders rejected has become the headstone of the corner. This is the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:22-24)


What is the stone of which the Psalmist speaks? We are plainly told that it is Jesus Christ (1P 2:7; Mt 21:42 ; Mk 12:12 ; Lk 20:17). When did the builders reject Him? on Good Friday. How was He made the headstone of the corner? by being raised from the dead on the following Sunday (Ac 4:10-11). Accordingly we read, "This (that is, the Resurrection) is the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This (Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of the Resurrection of Our Lord) is the day that the LORD has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Amen! Alleluia! Praise the Lord! May you all have a blessed Easter now and every Sunday of the year.


James Kiefer
4998 Battery Lane
Bethesda, MD 20814

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