cropped-illuminated-h.jpgAll religions sanctify time.  Usually it begins with a founder figure having some type of numinal experience.  Afterward, those who take up the mantle of discipleship celebrate that day or period of time as “holy”.  History teaches that powerful, religious experiences and convictions call for new structures, new ways of being in the world.  Christianity and its celebration of Sunday, “the eighth day,” develop in exactly this way in the wake of powerful experiences with the life, death and new life of a Galilean prophet who was far more than a prophet.  In this article I want to provide an account of how and why the first Christians sanctified Sunday, celebrating it as the day announcing God’s new creation.[1]  I want to consider those practices that first began to shape this new way of life.  At the same time I want to take seriously their received tradition with its focus on gatherings and worship on the Sabbath.  There can be no doubt that the first Christians who gathered to worship on the eighth day inherit a rich tradition of devotion to God, prayer and Scripture study from the synagogue of that day.[2]

The Received Tradition

Christianity originates within the maternal tradition of Second Temple Judaism.  The first Christians therefore already had many religious practices, some that had been in place for centuries.  Chief among these was the observance of the Sabbath day as holy, as a day without commerce, a day of rest.  Within the story of the Old Testament, this divine command is given through Moses at Mt. Sinai only a few months after the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Exodus 20).  This mandate not to work must have sounded strange in the ears of those recently liberated slaves.  Their lives had been all about work.  Now the God who released them in so dramatic a way demanded they remember the seventh day, do no work and allow no one or nothing in their charge to work.  In the future their lives should follow the pattern established by God in creation: six days you labor, on the seventh you rest (Gen 1:1-2:4).  This commandment, more than any, underscored their liberation and celebrated the fact that in this new covenant with God they would be free men and women. 

There is no way to know how challenging the transition from daily work to Sabbath rest was for these beleaguered nomads.  Yet by letting go of daily work and embracing Sabbath rest, they were relinquishing their slavery and, perhaps more importantly, they were receiving the future, a future which depended not on their own work, but on the gracious, sustaining gifts of God.  By letting go of their own labor in favor of God’s new economy, they were declaring their absolute dependence on God to provide their needs from a land they would soon enter.  By observing the Sabbath, they in effect confessed that people do not live by the work of their hands alone, but by the bread and Word that God supplies.  Beyond this Sabbath practice points to another reality that must have seemed odd in its day.  For king and peasant, for farmer and merchant, for alien and Israelite, for all, the Sabbath serves as a regular reminder that every soul stands equal before God.  For six days all labor.  For one day all rest.  This new covenant with God offered a strange, new world to those baptized in the Sea of Reeds.  Not only do they leave behind slavery in a land not their own, but they embrace a God who shows no partiality and dare to imagine a society devoid of difference.[3]

From Moses to the exile we cannot say for certain how faithful the covenant people are to keep Sabbath.  What is clear, however, is that after the exile Sabbath observance becomes a true boundary marker, separating Israel from every other nation, making Israel holy in the world.  Perhaps the most significant development in the observance of Sabbath comes in relation to worship.  Following the exile the people bring Sabbath and corporate worship into direct correlation.  From now one Sabbath takes on a deeper life as not only a day of rest from labor, but also a day to worship YHWH in temple and synagogue. 

In order to take seriously this covenant obligation and privilege, scholars and scribes debated and worked out the basic regulations (halakah) whereby the Jews could keep Sabbath.  For the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls two questions were primary: (1) when did you cease work and (2) what constitutes work.  When did you cease work?   You were to cease work on the sixth day before the sun’s orb reached the gate of the horizon (CD 10.14).  If you ceased on the six day, you could not be found working on the seventh.  This provided a hedge around the Law.  What constituted work or further what activities should be precluded on the Sabbath?  This question, of course, was much more complicated.  The directives included no foolish speech, no fasting, no discussion of future work, no preparation of food, no harvesting, restricted travel, wearing of clean clothes, no cruelty to animals, no carrying of water, among others (CD 10.14—11.21).  The Sabbath regulations of another stream of Jewish tradition, the early rabbinic tradition, distill in the Mishnaic tractate Shabbat.  There one can find directives on how to welcome the Sabbath with the lighting of lamps (2.1-7) along with the thirty-nine classifications of work (7.2ff.).  While some today might frown upon these rules as examples of legalism, we cannot ignore the fact that these covenant people had the audacity to believe that God’s Word mattered and the vitality to do everything imaginable to bring their lives in accord with God’s will.

Even a cursory reading of the Gospels provides ample evidence Jesus treasured the Sabbath yet also violated its contemporary practice.  His presence in the synagogue on the seventh day demonstrates his endorsement of Sabbath worship (Mark 1:21; Mark 3.1ff; Luke 4:16-31).  Yet the disciples’ harvesting, his healings and pronouncements (Mark 3:1ff.; Luke 13:10-17; John 5:1-18; John 9) created an ongoing conflict with scripture scholars and the religiously powerful.  Indeed the Galilean preacher and healer continued in constant conflict over matters pertaining to how the Sabbath should be observed.  But modern scholarship holds—with good reason—that the Gospel episodes also provide evidence for an ongoing debate in the early church regarding Sabbath observance. For the first Christians, Jesus provided the example of not only where one should be on the Sabbath, but also demonstrated that serving the needs of people and extending mercy and healing were also the way of “the Lord of the Sabbath.”  When confronted with the allegation that he and his disciples violated the Sabbath, Jesus declared: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:28, NRSV).  In effect, Jesus is saying the Sabbath makes a good servant, but a bad master.  The Sabbath, which originally stood as an emblem of freedom to the Hebrew slaves, had become in practice a return to Egypt and slavery.  According to Jesus, Sabbath worship and rest are to serve and bless humanity; not to make their lives more difficult.  But it is the final statement, “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath,” which must have stuck in his opponents’ craw.  As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus lays claim to authority equal to God.  He is the giver and interpreter of the Law (cf. Matt 5:21-48).  From now on Sabbath law must be interpreted in light of Jesus’ Lordship and the entrance of the Kingdom.  From now on Sabbath will take a distinctive, christological shape.  This perspective is quite evident in Hebrews 3-4  which provides christological explanation of the Sabbath.  For the writer of Hebrews Christ himself embodies the eschatological rest that still awaits the people of God, a people fashioned through faith in Christ.

Apparently the earliest followers of Jesus watched him, heard him and took him seriously.  They continued to observe the Sabbath as he did.  The women who attended to his burial did not work on the Sabbath; instead they planned to finish the task on the first day of the week (Luke 23:34-46).  Throughout his Gentile mission, Paul went to the synagogues and places of prayer on the Sabbath (Acts 13:13-44; 16:13; 17:1; 18:1-4) though clearly with the message of Jesus.  The only potentially negative statement the apostle makes regarding Sabbath is found in Col 2:16.  He admonishes the Gentile believers in Colossae not to let others condemn them in matters pertaining to food, drink, festivals, new moons and Sabbaths.  These, he says, are only shadows of things to come, while the substance belongs to Christ (Col 2:17).  These remarks must be interpreted in light of the Judaizing threat that faced nearly every Pauline community at one time or another.  These Judaizers kept insisting that Gentiles live Jewishly in order to participate in the new creation community.  Paul consistently opposed them.  Apparently, he expected Jewish Christians to continue observing the Law, but he did not require the same of Gentiles who were entering the church.  It seems Paul understood Sabbath Law to be part of God’s contract with Israel at Sinai.  It was not universal law, applicable to nations outside of Israel.  What is clear, however, is that for Jew and Gentile Christ was the goal of the Law (Rom 10:4) and so now the Law, including Sabbath Law, must be understood in light of Christ. 

Despite this, many Gentiles continued to observe the Sabbath.[4]  Around AD 205 in his treatise On Prayer (23) Tertullian discusses the practice of some who pray kneeling on the Sabbath as if corporate prayer on the Sabbath is commonplace.  In the late fourth century the Apostolic Constitutions (7.23) mentions that Sabbath and Sunday should be kept as festivals to the Lord: the first in honor of creation; the second the resurrection.  But, it continued, there was one Sabbath which should be observed by fasting, the Sabbath before Easter, as a commemoration of that day when the Creator was under the earth.  In other words, Sabbath joy was not to eclipse the churches’ commemoration of the darkness of Jesus’ grave.  This is not to say, of course, that all Christians observed Sabbath.  A growing anti-Judaism in the second century and beyond meant that some Christians intended to distance themselves from Jews and their practices.[5]  Regardless, through the fourth century, there is ample evidence that some Christians, even Gentile Christians continued to observe Sabbath.  Those Christians who maintained this practice took their cue from the Lord of the Sabbath, to whom the substance of the new creation belongs.


Although early Christians continued the observance of their received tradition, the energy at the center of the resurrection community demanded new structures, a particular time set aside to feast on the new life they found through Jesus.  They gathered in homes and at the Temple (Acts 2:46; 5:42) on “the first day of the week” (e.g., Acts 20:7-12; 1 Cor 16:2) to break bread, pray and rehearse the Gospel.  Yet the phrase “the first day of the week” rests on a Jewish way of reckoning and soon a unique, Christian construct emerged, “the Lord’s Day” (e.g., Rev 1:10; Did 14.1). 

Considerable evidence exists to conclude that Christian gatherings on the Lord’s Day began early among Palestinian Jewish Christians and became common practice throughout the church by the mid-second century.  Didache 14.1-3 instructs the church to gather, break bread, and give thanks on the Lord’s Day.  The scriptural warrant for this innovation is provided by Mal 1:11, 14: “in every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice . . . “  In Barnabas 15.1-9, the writer distances himself from the Jewish Sabbath in favor of the “the eighth day,” the beginning of a new world.   It is a day for rejoicing because it commemorates Jesus’ resurrection, manifestations and installation in the heavens.  In his First Apology (67) Justin describes the practice of Christian worship on Sunday.  Believers from the city and rural areas gather to hear the Gospels and Prophets read, to pray, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Justin explains that Sunday was the day of assembly because (1) it was the first day of God’s creation, (2) it was the day of Jesus’ resurrection and (3) it was the day Jesus appeared to his disciples and taught them. 

These writers demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus provided the catalyst for the eighth day innovation in the early church.   But the key to this new practice did not lay in the resurrection itself, an event without human witnesses; it lay in the resurrection appearances of the Lord.  These provided not only the proof of the resurrection—already alternative explanations for the empty tomb were emerging—but also the lively expectation that the risen Jesus would be present with them as they gathered. 

With little exception the NT Gospels indicate the resurrection appearances of Jesus take place on “the first day of the week.”  On that day Mary Magdalene and others encounter an angel of the Lord who rolls back the stone and reveals to them the glorious truth of his resurrection.  Gripped with a joyful fear, they rush to tell the other disciples, and suddenly Jesus meets and greets them.  Matthew tells us that these womanly witnesses recognize and worship him on this “the first day of the week”(Matt 28:1-10; cf. Luke 24:1-11 and John 20:1-10).  Later on the first day Jesus appears to the gathered disciples behind locked doors.  He shows them his wounds, commissions them, breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and instructs them in matters pertaining to forgiveness (John 20:19-23).  Eight days later, namely, the following Sunday, Jesus again appears to the disciples to prove to doubting Thomas he had in fact conquered death.  Thomas responds to the presence of the risen Jesus with the confession and declaration, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-29). 

Oscar Cullmann suggests that the Christian devotion to Sunday as a day of gathering and worship arises from those post-resurrection appearances when Jesus breaks bread with his disciples.[6]  Luke’s account of the risen Savior’s disclosure to his disciples provides evidence and an early model for Christian practice (Luke 24:13-35).  As two disciples make their way to Emmaus from Jerusalem, Jesus approaches them and joins them on their journey.  Initially these deeply troubled souls are not able to recognize him.  He asks what they have been discussing, and they relate the shocking news of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and initial reports of the empty tomb and angelic visitors.  Still hidden to their eyes, the risen Jesus chastises them for their slowness to believe and interprets the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, about the suffering Messiah.  He joins them at the table where he takes bread, breaks it, blesses it and distributes it.  Finally, in the breaking of bread, they recognize the true identity their guest.  Later that same day (the first day of the week), the two disciples return to Jerusalem to tell their story only to hear first that the Lord had appeared to Simon.  As they are celebrating the good news, Jesus appears again to this larger company of disciples, greeting them with “peace” and showing them the marks of his suffering.  With disbelieving joy they watch as Jesus takes fish and eats it in their presence.  Once again the Lord opens their minds to the Scriptures, the law, the prophets, the psalms.  He shows them how the events of that fateful week fulfilled what was written.  He commissions them to preach his message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations and to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of power from on high (Luke 24:36-49).  There can be little doubt that these events and the first Christians’ reflection on them restructure their lives, placing Christ at the center of their religious devotion and establishing that day as his day, the Lord’s Day, the eighth day announcing the new creation.

The addition of Sunday to the weekly practice of Sabbath observance must be seen to result from the generative power of the first Christians’ experiences of Jesus.[7]  As the Gospels indicate, on “the first day of the week” the risen Jesus appears to his gathered followers, eats with them and explains to them the Scriptures.  These “events” give rise to the expectation that when they gather the risen Jesus will be in their midst.  Indeed, the earthly Jesus’ promise to be present where two or three gather in his name (Matt 18:20) may reflect this robust expectation.  The possibility Jesus may appear again brings the disciples back week after week on the first day, this day of new creation.  The churches’ gatherings to read Scripture and share a meal commemorates and imitates what Jesus did when he was with them.  These practices provide the foundation for what later becomes the liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist.  Sunday worship, in both its form and function, originates from the recollection of Jesus’ post-resurrection meal appearances on the first day.[8]


The first Christians inherited a rich tradition of Sabbath observance that involved rest from labor and corporate worship in the synagogue.  Under the influence of Jesus, declared Lord of the Sabbath, the faithful fashioned a theology of rest and worship that took on a distinctive christological shape.  As a result of the resurrection and Jesus’ manifestations to his disciples, the nascent community added a day for gathering to worship the risen and exalted Christ on the eighth day.  There is no evidence, however, that Sunday replaced Sabbath in the early church.  There is also no evidence that Sunday was a day of rest or was associated with the fourth commandment of the Decalogue.  These developments took place gradually through the Middle Ages after Constantine’s decree on 7 March 321 which called for judges, city people and craftsmen to rest on the venerable day of the Sun.[9]  Ultimately, Sunday rest became normative Christian practice, and it became commonplace for believers to refer to Sunday as the Sabbath, attaching to the first day the significance given to the seventh day in Jewish Law.  Earthly and servile work should come to an end and give way to the more important work of the people, worship (leitourgia).[10]

Christians who take seriously their faith and heritage in the twenty-first century will do well to reflect on the significance of the eighth day.  The fatigue we experience in the modern world results from leaving behind the God of Moses and Jesus to embrace our own deities, materialism, consumerism and individualism.  It is regrettable that for many today their vision of ultimate things does not extend beyond commerce and material gains.  For these Sabbath and Sunday will always stand as odd and subversive claims to a deeper reality. 

[1] Dorothy Bass, Receiving the Day, p. 55.

[2] R. F. Buxton, “Sabbath” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. J. G. Davies (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 499-500.

[3] Andrew Lincoln, p. 353.

[4] Bauckham, 259-261, describes the dominant trend of the 2nd century as the rejection of Sabbath observance.  Yet this trend gave way to a rediscovery of Sabbath practice by Gentiles consciously and without coercion in the 3rd and 4th centuries (AD).

[5] No doubt Ignatius (Magnesians 8-10; see also Philadelphias 6.1) reflected and promoted this growing tendency.  He rejected Sabbath observance as outmoded along with just about every other aspect of Jewish religion.  Marcion attempted to discredit the Sabbath by making it a day of fasting.  See Bauckham, 266-68.

[6] Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, 9-12.  See also Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (Oxford: University Press, 1991), 192-3.

[7] Richard Bauckham, “Post Apostolic”, 269ff.  The Ebionites practice of Sabbath and Sunday was likely normative for the Palestinian churches.  See Eusebius EH 3.27.

[8] The post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias in the epilogue to the Fourth Gospel (John 21) contains no time reference.  However, the reader may well be trained to understand this third manifestation as occurring on Sunday since the two previous appearances have taken place on the first day as well.  We should not forget that the composition of this Gospel takes place late in the first century after Sunday worship has become standard practice.  Despite its uniqueness among the resurrection narratives, there are important common features: (1) the early hour of the manifestation; (2) the revelation of the hidden Jesus to the disciples; (3) the meal of bread and fish; and (4) the commission.

[9] James White, Documents of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive Sources (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 19.

[10] Bauckham, “Sabbath and Sunday in the Medieval Church in the West,” 300-303.


  1. I appreciate the studious and careful way you handle this matter. I will be giving this prayerful reflection. Many insights to consider. I agree most with there is no hint of substituting Sunday for the Sabbath in scripture that is unambiguously clear.

    my thoughts for your consideration:

    One point to consider is the followers of Jesus met daily to break bread and celebrate the Lord’s supper. So to assign special significance to this when it happens on the 1st day of the week is questionable since it was a daily occurrence.

    Also the text in 1 Cor 16 about setting aside an offering based on how one prospered during the week before is also not grounds for declaring it a worship service happening on the 1st day. it appears that Paul’s instruction was given so that when he arrives this matter will be completed. because this was famine relief I doubt seriously that it was money being collected. It is more likely produce for food, drink and clothing were what the people of Jerusalem required. Paul states if they set this aside weekly on the 1st day “it will not need be gathered when I arrive.” I am sure gathering produce on the 7th day Sabbath would be considered forbidden..

    I am also not opposed to people gathering to worship on Sunday or any other day of the week for that matter. But it should not be regarded as a substitute for the Sabbath which pointed to Jesus as it’s fulfillment. Note in this regard, the 1st day of the week did not point to any such fulfillment. Jesus gives the true rest of God. I like that you point out the Sabbath is the only full day he spent in the tomb at rest. Jewish thought on Sabbath was if it could be kept perfectly just once, it would usher in the Messianic Age. Jesus’ resurrection did just that. I think there is more to the 7th day Sabbath than many Christian’s realize.

    Because Sunday became a substitute for Sabbath over time, it has led many to justify the tradition they hold reading things into scripture that are not actually there. However if they are secure in Jesus they have the essence of what the 7th day Sabbath is all about.

    May He Bless us all with His gift of God’s rest.

  2. oh I forgot to mention the last gathering Jesus had with his disciples at the Mount of Olives as he was taken up from them in a cloud which is recorded by Luke in Acts 1:1-12. Luke ends with an interesting detail that suggests Jesus’ final departure meeting with his Disciples was on Sabbath. Luke notes in vs.12 that from their location to Jerusalem is a Sabbath Day Journey. This detail would only be relevant if it happened to be on a Sabbath Day. This means Jesus spent either 42 days with the disciples or 49 days. Luke uses 40 days earlier in the text but the likelihood of this departure happening on Sabbath because of the note about a Sabbath’s day Journey leads me to believe 40 days has symbolic overtones rather than being a literal account of the days spent.

  3. in re reading this you mention how the Sabbath took on greater importance to Israel after the exile. One factor to consider is the length of time Israel spent in captivity was based upon how many annul Sabbaths Israel had not let the land lay fallow as God commanded them to do.

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