Did early Christians have a set day of worship and rest? If yes, was it the biblical Sabbath, the seventh day of the week? Or was it Sunday?
Even a casual reading of Acts shows that the Sabbath is prominent. There are ten occurrences of the word sabbaton, “Sabbath,” as compared with one for the first day of the week. But could it be that Sabbath meetings were opportunistic? That the apostles met on Sabbath only because this was the time when Jews and God-fearing Gentiles would be gathered, and as such afforded an excellent opportunity for ministry?
This short study will endeavor to answer such questions through a look at the relevant texts.
The Sabbath is mentioned ten times in Acts of which eight relate to worship. The noun Sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb sabbat, “to cease, rest,”1 designating a holy day of rest and worship, a memorial of God’s acts in creation (Exodus 20:8-11), as well as His redemptive work on behalf of His people (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
Worship on the “day which is the Sabbath”
The first three Sabbath references appear in Paul’s ministry in Pisidian Antioch: “From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down” (Acts 13:14). The translation “Sabbath” misses the force of the Greek original. Luke (author of Acts) uses the phrase tē ēmēra tōn Sabbatōn, literally, “the day which is the Sabbath”2 (cf. Acts 16:13).
Acts 13:14 is the first mention of Paul’s worship practices and sets the tone for Paul’s subsequent Sabbath gatherings. Paul is not simply meeting on a day when he will find people gathered so that he can minister to them. He is not meeting on the day the Jews consider as Sabbath. Rather, he meets on “the day which is the Sabbath.” As such, this phrase provides the reason for Paul’s Sabbath worship practice: The seventh day is still the biblical Sabbath.
Before departing Pisidian Antioch, the apostles are invited to speak again on the following Sabbath (v. 42). Paul acquiesces. Had Sunday become the new day of worship for Christians, he could have invited them to meet him the very next day. But instead he waits a whole week. “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (v. 44).
Sabbath worship as a custom (Acts 16:13-40; 17:1-9; 14:1)
Our next text is Acts 16:13: “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate [of Philippi] to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”
From Philippi, Paul travels to Thessalonica and there Sabbath worship is mentioned again: “When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was [kata to eiōthos], Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (17:1, 2). This text is particularly interesting because it speaks of Paul’s custom, eiōthos, to go to the synagogue. Why did Paul customarily attend the synagogue? Was it because he kept the Sabbath? Or only because it afforded him opportunity for mission work, as is sometimes assumed?
In Luke 4:16, Luke uses an identical expression in relation to Jesus: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom [kata to eiōthos]. And he stood up to read.”
The statements a) “he went into the synagogue, as was his custom,” and b) “he stood up to read” in Greek are separated by the coordinating conjunction kai, which functions to connect two independent statements.3 This is well conveyed in the NIV by the insertion of a period between the two statements. As such, Jesus’ custom of visiting the synagogue every Sabbath was independent from any preaching or teaching He conducted there. Jesus went to the synagogue because this is what He wanted to do and was in the habit of doing.
The same conclusion is valid for Paul. Just as in Luke 4:16, the first clause of Acts 17:2, “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue,” is separated from the following clause by the same coordinating conjunction kai, again indicating two independent statements.
In Acts 14:1, Luke makes the same inference but in a more subtle way: “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual [kata to auto] into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.” Kata to auto, literally “in the same way,” points back to Pisidian Antioch and the apostles’ custom to attend the synagogue.4 Again the synagogue attendance is separated from the synagogue ministry by the coordinating conjunction kai in Greek and a period in the NIV, indicating two independent statements.
Ongoing Sabbath worship (Acts 18:1-17, 18-26; 19:8, 9)
Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was short, and he moved onward to Berea, Athens, and then Corinth, where he stayed eighteen months (Acts 18:11). While there, “every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (v. 4), a potential 78 Sabbaths.5 Had Paul habitually disregarded the Sabbath, it is unlikely he would have been able to continue synagogue attendance. When the breach with the Jews did come, it was not because of Paul’s Sabbath behavior, but because the Jews opposed Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ (18:5, 6).
On leaving the synagogue, Paul established meetings in the house of Titius Justus (v. 7), located “next door” to the synagogue. Why there? Ellison insightfully observes that for believers, it would be easier if they were “in or near the Jewish district of the town . . . to avoid seeing idol-figures . . . and to be able to avoid continual insult, when they observed the Sabbath.”6
After Corinth, Paul went to Ephesus (vv. 18, 19), ministered briefly, left Aquila and Priscilla in charge of the new believers, and returned during his third missionary journey, a year or more later.7
During his absence, the believers continued to gather on the Sabbath in the synagogue. On his return, he joined them in synagogue attendance for three months (19:8) until his bold preaching aroused opposition and Paul moved to a nearby lecture hall (v. 9), as had happened earlier in Corinth. Again, his departure was not a personal or theological choice, but was forced by opposition from the Jews to his preaching of Jesus as the Christ.
Two last texts are relevant. Acts 15:21 reads, “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” The context is the Jerusalem Council decision on the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. The fact that synagogue worship services “every Sabbath” are mentioned indicates that Christians attended these services, else the statement would have no relevance.
Finally, Acts 1:12 gives the distance between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives as “a Sabbath day’s walk,” i.e., about 900 meters. Both Luke, the author of Acts, and Theophilus, the recipient of Acts, were most likely of Gentile background. Obviously, both were Sabbatarians. Why refer to a “Sabbath day’s walk” if such a concept was irrelevant?
The first day of the week in Acts
In contrast to the multiple references to Sabbath worship, there is only one to a first day meeting, Acts 20:7, in Troas. Not surprisingly, this text has become the focus of intense attention for Sunday advocates. Witherington writes that “in v. 7 we have perhaps the first reference to the fact that it was on the first day of the week (i.e., Sunday) that Christians met to have fellowship and hear preaching.”8 Are such assertions justified?
Acts 20:7 reads, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” Discussions focus on two points: a) Does the phrase “break bread” refer to the Lord’s Supper or to a common meal? b) Did this evening meeting take place on Saturday or Sunday night?
- a) Lord’s Supper or fellowship meal?
The words “break bread” (klasai arton) appear together another 13 times in the New Testament. Eight times they refer to common meals9 and five to the Lord’s Supper.10 So lexically and interbiblically, either option is possible.
The deciding factor is the context. Here, two things argue in favor of a common meal. First, though the believers and Paul were gathered together to “break bread,” only Paul appears to have eaten: “Then he [Paul] went upstairs again and broke bread and ate” (Acts 20:11).11
Second, we have the following sequence: Paul speaks until midnight (v. 7); Eutychus dies and is resurrected (vv. 9, 10); Paul breaks bread, eats, and then speaks until dawn (v. 11). If this meal was the Lord’s Supper, it was celebrated after midnight, clearly unlikely. The evidence indicates a common fellowship meal to bid Paul farewell.
- b) Saturday or Sunday night?
The next issue relates to the exact time the meeting took place. This was clearly a night meeting (v. 8). There are two possibilities. 1) If the biblical calendar is in view, the day begins at sunset,12 so the dark part of the “first day of the week” is Saturday night. 2) If a Roman calendar is in view, then the day begins at midnight, in which case the evening meeting at Troas took place on Sunday night.
Which calendar did Luke use? The evidence is overwhelming in favor of the biblical calendar. Bacchiocchi in his seminal work From Sabbath to Sunday has provided ample evidence in support of this. He lists Luke’s account of the Crucifixion (Luke 23:54); references to the Jewish festal year and customs (Acts 12:3, 4; 16:1-3; 18:18; 20:16; 21:24, 26); and repeated mentions of the Sabbath, clearly a biblical concept (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4).13 I would add Luke 23:44 and Acts 2:15, which give the hours of the day according to the way Jews counted them. In light of this, the meeting at Troas described in Acts 20 was a Saturday night meeting with Paul departing early Sunday morning.
Paul’s stay at Troas
A reconstruction of Paul’s stay at Troas is now helpful. Paul remained at Troas for seven days (20:6). Since he left Troas on Sunday morning, he must have arrived the preceding Monday.
What Paul did from Monday to Sabbath we do not know, but he probably spent his time encouraging believers (e.g. Acts 20:31) and planning his onward travel (Acts 20:5). On Sabbath, according to his custom (Acts 14:1; 17:2) he would have visited a synagogue or held an alternative meeting with believers. Sabbath fellowship customarily extended into the afternoon or even evening.14 Sometime after sunset on Saturday night, the believers and Paul met again to fellowship in word and meal and say farewell to Paul. Paul preached until midnight (Acts 20:7), raised Eutychus (vv. 8-10), ate (v. 11), preached until dawn, and departed for Assos (v. 13). Departure on Sunday morning would have been unthinkable if Sunday had become a holy day. By contrast, any Sabbatarian pastor who has been involved in traveling ministry can easily identify with the above reconstruction: intense Sabbath ministry and departure on Sunday.
We have looked at a plethora of texts — multiple references to Sabbath worship that is intentional, customary, ongoing, and independent of any missiological considerations; one reference to a first day of the week meeting, which actually takes place on Saturday night, because Paul is to depart early in the morning.
All the above are congruent with the belief that the early Christians were seventh-day Sabbatarians and continued to see the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. But they are incongruent with the suggestion that Sunday had replaced the Sabbath, or that the Sabbath had been abolished altogether.
Kim Papaioannou teaches New Testament and chairs the Ph.D. program at the Asia Adventist Theological Seminary in the Philippines. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
- William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), s.v.
- Kim Papaioannou, “Naming the days of the week: Overlooked evidence into early Christian Sabbatarian practice,” Ministry, Jan 2015, 25-28.
- Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 293-302.
- F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1951), 324.
- At some point, he had to leave the synagogue, but how soon this happened the text does not indicate. Clearly he stayed in the synagogue for a considerable amount of time as the Greek kata pan Sabbaton indicates. C.f. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 104-7.
- H. L. Ellison, “Paul and the Law – ‘All Things to All Men,’” in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 197.
- Schnabel 104, 107, places Paul’s first arrival in Ephesus in the late summer of ad 51 and second visit in the summer of ad 52. Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible, vol. 31 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 633, places the conclusion of the second missionary journey sometime in ad 52 and the beginning of the third missionary journey in the spring of ad 54, making the gap between Paul’s two visits to Ephesus about two years long.
- Ben Witherington III, The Act of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 606. See also Paul K. Jewett, The Lord’s Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 61.
- Matthew 14:19; 15:36; Mark 8:6; 8:19; Luke 24:30; Acts 2:46; 20:11; 27:35.
- Of the five times, four refer to the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the upper room (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). There the act of breaking bread was not on its own of cultic significance, but rather a normal part of the Passover meal. As such, there is only one reference, 1 Corinthians 10:16, where the phrase “to break bread” clearly refers to the Lord’s Supper as a distinct Christian celebration.
- The assertion of Thomas Walker’s Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids MI: Kregel, 1984), 469, that the phrase “broke bread and ate” (Acts 20:11) entails a Lord’s Supper (“broke bread”) and not a common meal (“and ate”) stretches credulity unnecessarily. Both verbs are in the third singular without any hint that Paul a) shared the bread out or b) others partook of food.
- See Robert Leo Odom, The Lord’s Day on a Round World (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1970), 20-26.
- Samuelle Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (Biblical Perspectives, 1987), 105-6.
- Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 1:29-32; 2:23-28; Luke 4:38-40; 14:1; Acts 13:43; 16:14, 15.