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UCG-A Bible Insights Thursday, June 20 2024

Was the biblical Sabbath changed to Sunday?

In spite of the clear instructions contained in the fourth commandment, and the fact Jesus Christ declared Himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28), most churches disregard this and observe Sunday as the Sabbath day.

God’s command regarding His Sabbath day is quite clear: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work ... .For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-11).

God then repeated the basics of this command in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, and again in Leviticus 23:3, proclaiming the Sabbath to be a “holy convocation” and one of “the feasts of the Lord,” not just for the Jewish people or ancient Israel, but for all who want to obey their Creator by worshiping Him according to His instructions, and resting on that day from their normal activities.

Sunday is the first day of the week, as calendars show (though some have recently switched to the business calendar, moving Sunday to the end of the week). The Bible defines days as beginning at sundown and ending at sundown the next day (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; Leviticus 23:32). The biblical Sabbath takes place from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. It is clear from the book of Acts that the early Church members continued the practices they had long known, including following Jesus Christ’s example of observing God’s Sabbath day (Matthew 12:8; 24:20; Mark 1:21; 2:27-28; 6:2; 16:1; Luke 4:16; 13:10; 23:56; Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:1-3; 18:4).

However, even during the time of the Apostles some, claiming to be faithful ministers of Christ, began to introduce heretical teachings (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), and the damage caused by these false teachings spread far and wide. The Apostle John, near the end of the first century, wrote of one false minister who had risen to such power that he was boldly rejecting John’s own messengers and excommunicating faithful Church members (3 John 9-10). When John finished his writings late in the first century, the books and letters that would form what we call the New Testament were complete. With his passing, however, trustworthy eyewitness accounts of events and changes in the Church largely ceased.

Some of the lack of information about this time stems from persecution of the Church. Under Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), Christians in Rome were blamed for burning the city and many were martyred. Later the Roman emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96) demanded that all citizens of the empire worship him as a god. Christians and Jews who, in obedience to God’s commandments, refused to comply with the edict were viciously persecuted.

Over the following decades and centuries, waves of bloody persecution engulfed Christianity and Judaism. In the first and second centuries, the Jews of the Holy Land revolted against Roman rule. The second rebellion in particular brought severe persecution. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), after capturing Jerusalem, razed it and built a new city which Jews were forbidden to enter. He also banned circumcision and observance of the Sabbath.

Norbert Brox, professor of early church history at the University of Regensburg, Germany, describes the effect this had on the early Christian Church: “The Jewish Christians in Palestine had been driven out in the First Jewish War (66-70) but then had returned to Jerusalem; however, after the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Second Jewish War against the Romans (132-135), they had to leave the land because, as Jews, they had been circumcised, and all Jews were now banned on pain of death. So for the moment that meant the end of this [Jerusalem] church” (A Concise History of the Early Church, 1996, p.19).

From the scanty historical records it appears that, during this time of intense persecution of Jews, a number of Christians began to avoid any identification with Judaism, and a significant transition from the teachings of the Apostles to an anti-Jewish religious philosophy began. Former practices held in common with Judaism—such as resting and worshiping on the weekly Sabbath day, and keeping the God-ordained festivals found in the Bible—rapidly began to wane as new customs crept into the Church.

Few summoned up the courage to face continual persecution by remaining faithful to the biblical practices handed down by the Apostles. As a result a very different version of Christianity emerged, headquartered in Rome with distinctly different worship practices. By the end of the second century, bishop Victor I of Rome (A.D. 189-199) issued an ultimatum that all were “to follow the Sunday [worship] practice of the Roman church” (Brox, p. 124).

The Emperor Constantine (A.D. 309-337) further dramatically changed the direction Christianity would take. At the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) the biblical observance of Passover was rejected in favor of Easter, a festival which borrowed heavily from pagan customs. Constantine declared those who refused to follow the Roman church’s lead were to be excommunicated as heretics for following practices he considered “Jewish”—but were in reality biblical commands. He decreed, “that in the celebration of this most holy feast [Easter]...Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd…avoiding all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews” (quoted by Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525).

British historian Paul Johnson summarizes how Constantine’s approach of merging religious practices produced a corrupted Christianity that meshed paganism with biblical elements: “Many Christians did not make a clear distinction between this sun-cult [Mithraism] and their own. They …held their services on Sunday, knelt towards the East and had their nativity-feast on 25 December, the birthday of the sun at the winter solstice ....” (A History of Christianity, 1976, pp. 67-69). Constantine’s long immersion in sun worship also led him to formalize a change in the weekly day of rest for Christianity to Sunday, the day of worship of the sun. “In 321 Constantine introduced Sunday as a weekly day of rest… and on it no work was done…” (Brox, p. 105).

For a time, some in what was now a largely transformed Christianity continued to keep the seventh-day Sabbath and other festivals, following the example of Jesus and the Apostles, but this did not last. Robin Fox, lecturer in ancient history at Oxford University, states: “In the 430s, the Christian Council of Laodicea ruled in detail against Christian observance of the Jewish Sabbath… and their keeping of Jewish festivals” (Pagans and Christians, 1987, p. 482). The Council’s edict regarding the Sabbath stated: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring [Sunday]; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema [cut off] from Christ.”

What followed were centuries of persecution from a now-combined church-state power. Observance of the seventh-day Sabbath was largely eradicated—except for a small and scattered minority who continued to faithfully follow God’s commands. Cardinal James Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore in the early 20th century, admits the truth about the substitution of Sunday for the biblical seventh-day Sabbath: “You may read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and you will not find a single line authorizing the sanctification of Sunday. The Scriptures enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify” (The Faith of our Fathers, 1917, p. 89).