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Was the Biblical Sabbath Changed to Sunday?

by Scott Ashley Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

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 repeated the basics of this command in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. He did so again in Leviticus 23:3, prefacing it by declaring the weekly Sabbath day to be one of “the feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts” (emphasis added throughout). Here God explains that the Sabbath is one of His feasts, not just for the Jewish people or ancient Israel, as many assume. He further states that it is a “holy convocation”—or, as some translations word it, a “commanded assembly.”

We see plain statements that the Sabbath is holy—set apart—as declared by God Himself multiple times. It is a day to rest from our normal labors and to gather to worship Him.

Yet in spite of such clear instructions—and the fact that Jesus Christ declared Himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28)—most of what is now called Christianity views Sunday as the Sabbath or think this command no longer matters. But just to be clear, Sunday is the first day of the week, as calendars have shown for ages (though some have recently switched to the business calendar, moving Sunday to the end). The biblical Sabbath lasts from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, as the Bible counts days as beginning at sundown (see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; Leviticus 23:32).

How and when did this switch take place? Who authorized this unbiblical substitution, and why?

A story with a murky past

To understand the story, we must travel back to the first century and understand the powerful forces impacting the Church.

Norbert Brox, professor of early church history at the University of Regensburg, Germany, describes the viewpoint of the early Church before this change: “The first [Christian] communities were groups that formed within Judaism . . . Christians believed as before in the God of Israel: their Bible was the Bible of the Jews . . . They continued to observe (as Jesus did) the Jewish practice of temple worship and law (Acts 2.46; 10.14), and gave outsiders the impression of being a Jewish sect (Acts 24.5, 14; 28.22), not a new religion. They themselves probably also simply thought of themselves as Jews” (A Concise History of the Early Church, 1996, p. 4).

This is clear from a reading of the book of Acts. The early Church members continued the practices they had long known, including following Jesus Christ’s example of worshiping on and keeping holy 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, within a few short decades, things began to change. During the time of the apostles some, claiming to be faithful ministers of Christ, began to introduce heretical teachings. The apostle Paul described such men and their methods: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

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. We are left with little reliable information for the next several centuries.

Persecution leads to changes

Part 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 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 persecution of Jews and Judaism. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), after capturing Jerusalem, razed it and built a new city that Jews were forbidden even to enter. He also banned circumcision and observance of the Sabbath.

Professor Brox describes the effect this had on the 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” (Brox, p. 19).

From the scanty historical records it appears that, during this time of intense persecution of Jews, a significant number of Christians began to avoid any identification with Judaism. The more visible portion of Christianity began a significant transition from the teachings of the apostles to an anti-Jewish religious philosophy.

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 for remaining faithful to the biblical practices followed and handed down by the apostles of Christ.

A very different version of Christianity emerged during this murky time, a version 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).

Constantine endorses a different “Christianity”

Constantine’s reign as emperor (A.D. 309-337) further dramatically changed the direction Christianity would take. Although he was a lifelong sun worshiper, under his rule Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and he was baptized—albeit not until he was on his deathbed.

Under his dominating oversight, at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) the biblical observance of Passover was rejected in favor of the manmade Easter, with its increasing borrowing of pagan customs. Constantine declared that those who refused to follow the Roman church’s lead were heretics and to be excommunicated. His resulting letter showed the depth of his disgust at practices he considered “Jewish”—but were in reality biblical commands.

“It appeared an unworthy thing,” he decreed, “that in the celebration of this most holy feast [Easter] we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul . . . Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd . . .

“Strive and pray continually that the purity of your soul may not seem in anything to be sullied by fellowship with the custom of these most wicked men . . . All should unite in . . . 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 . . . Did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?” (A History of Christianity, 1976, pp. 67-69).

From Sabbath to Sunday

Constantine’s long immersion in sun worship 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 . . . The rest from work on the Christian Sunday was derived from the Jewish sabbath commandment, with which Sunday intrinsically had no connection” (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 as had Jesus and the apostles. This was not to 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.

So when and how did Christianity’s day of rest and worship change?

Admitting the truth about changing God’s commandment

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).

And The Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine gives this concise question-and-answer explanation of the history we’ve covered above:

“Q: Which is the Sabbath day?

“A: Saturday is the Sabbath day.

“Q: Why do we observe Sunday instead of Saturday?

“A: We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church, in the Council of Laodicea, transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday” (Peter Geiermann, 1957, p. 50).

Many Protestant denominations likewise admit that Saturday is the biblical Sabbath day, but the change was made by the Roman Catholic Church and there is no biblical basis for Sunday observance (see the list of such admissions in our free study guide mentioned below).

Yet there remain Christians who faithfully follow God and enjoy the blessings of obeying His commands. They have discovered the “narrow” way of life that few find (Matthew 7:14). With God’s help, may you seek His will and follow it too!

 


How Can You Find God’s True Church?

The above question is one we see regularly at Beyond Today. Readers find themselves on a journey of discovery as they see that their church’s teachings and practices don’t square with the Bible. They naturally look for people teaching and practicing more of what the Bible reveals as truth. 

The reality is that it’s not that hard to find the scriptural identifiers that point to God’s Church. We need only read about its practices and beliefs as shown in the Bible. Read about its commission by Jesus Christ to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all things He has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). Read that the name or title given to it is, as commonly translated in most English Bibles, “the church of God” (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:5).

Read about the biblical descriptions of God’s Church, such as it comprising “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). The Ten Commandments alone narrow the search. Look for church-es that believe and teach them—all of them. When it comes to obeying the Fourth Commandment, to remember the biblical Sabbath day and keep it holy, that alone eliminates well over 90 percent of churches.  

Then you could look at God’s command to not incorporate pagan practices into worshiping Him (Deuteronomy 12:31-32; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Going by those who follow this command, you can eliminate the huge number of churches that celebrate Christmas and Easter, and you’ve narrowed the search by another 3 or 4 percent. 

Then you could look at whether or not a church keeps the biblical festival days God plainly says are His, calling them “My feasts” (Leviticus 23:2). The Gospels and book of Acts clearly show Jesus, the apostles and the early Church affirming and keeping the weekly seventh-day Sabbath (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).

These books and other writings of the apostles also show them observing the other Holy Days and feasts of God (Matthew 26:2, 17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 2:41-42; 22:1, 7-20; John 2:13, 23; John 7:2-14, 37; 13:1-30; Acts 2:1-4; 20:6, 16; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; 11:23-29; 16:8). This eliminates all but a fraction of all churches, and we’re left with a very small fraction of all churches who are doing these things God commanded in the pages of your Bible. 

Keep in mind that Jesus didn’t describe His Church as large and conspicuous, but rather as a “little flock” (Luke 12:32), so it may not be easy to find among the thousands upon thousands of churches claiming to follow Him. 

After going through these scriptural identifiers, there’s a very small pool of churches, denominations or groups from which to choose. Look them up, check them out and examine their beliefs to see whether what they teach and practice aligns with the Bible. (To learn more, read our free study guide The Church Jesus Built.)

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