The Good News of the Judgment

Was the First Century Christian Church Hostile to the Sabbath Day?
William Diehl

It devolves upon those who wish to discard the seventh day Sabbath as the day of rest for Christians to show that the first century church did NOT observe the Sabbath. The numerous references to the Sabbath day in St. Luke's record of the Acts of the Apostles wherein both the Jews and Gentiles attended corporate Sabbath worship services shows that the early church certainly was NOT hostile to the observance of the seventh day Sabbath. The silence of the new testament scriptures regarding any rejection of the Sabbath is the most obvious point in favor of the continuity of this observance. There is absolutely NO indication in the new testament scriptures that the Gentiles began to observe another day than the Sabbath for corporate fellowship. On the contrary, the obvious conclusion after reading the entire epistle of Acts is that the Sabbath continued as the day for the church to formally meet to worship together.

For first century Christians, the seventh day Sabbath rest even came to be a metaphor for the "rest" that believers have in Christ's finished atonement on the cross (see Hebrews 4). Some translations (TEV etc.) of the New Testament are now translating Acts 20:7 as "on Saturday evening". In Acts, the only reference to a first day of the week assembly of the believers is in the evening after sunset at the close of the Sabbath when the first day of the week commenced. Only the Gospel of John mentions a Sunday evening assembly of the apostles. But this assembly was on the very day that our Lord arose from the dead and they were assembled together because they were hiding "for fear of the Jews" who were seeking to arrest them. They were NOT assembled to observe the first day of the week as a holy day or as a day of fellowship. They had only hours before learned that Christ has arisen from the dead!!

The clearest text in the new testament supporting the fact that the early church did indeed observe the Sabbath is St. John's statement that he was in the Spirit on the "Lord's Day". There is only one day in all the Bible from Genesis to Revelation which could qualify as the "Lord's Day" and that is the seventh day Sabbath. Even the first century Christian catechism, the Didache, mentions the "Preparation Day" as well as the "Lord's Day". This is the clearest indication that the early church observed the day after the "Preparation Day" as the "Lord's Day". Unless there are those who wish to deny that the Preparation Day was the sixth day of the week, then the obvious fact is that the church rested on the seventh day according to the commandment just as the women who wrapped the body of our Lord rested on the Sabbath "according to the commandment".

Notice these verses from Acts, "And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God."

There is absolutely no hostility in these verses to the observance of the Sabbath. This fact is so obvious that it is comical to even suggest that the Christians of the first century ever even THOUGHT of stepping away from Sabbath observance of the fourth commandment. There just is no evidence for any rejection of the Sabbath day as the day of rest "according to the commandment". The SILENCE regarding rejection of the Sabbath is clear evidence that the Sabbath was a day of rest for the church well into the second century AD.

It was the frequent riots and insurrections of the Jews against the Roman rule that forced the Christians to eventually begin to step away from all identification with "Jewish" (as some began to view the Sabbath day) forms of worship. The Romans viewed Christianity as a Jewish cult and thus when the Romans struck back at the Jews for their treason, the Christians were suffering along with the Jews. This was the reason for which the Christians eventually stopped observing the Sabbath and joined with the pagan religions of the day in observing Sunday as the sacred day of assembly. By no longer meeting on the Sabbath the Christians would no longer have to suffer slaughter with the rebellious Jews whom the Romans considered treasonous and objects of scorn.

The Council of Jerusalem

Some wish to point to the advice of the Apostles following the Council of Jerusalem, which was intended to settle the dispute that arose in the early church between the Jewish and Gentile Christians over circumcision and "observing the law" for justification and acceptance before God, as proof that the Gentiles no longer were to observe the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. However, no such conclusion can be accurately drawn.

The ruling of the Council of Jerusalem was a two fold ruling.

First, it settled the issue of whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and observe the "law" for justification. The ruling of the Council states that the Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised and they did not have to obey the "law" justification. To infer from this that the Gentile Christians could feel free to disregard any or all of the Ten Commandments is sheer folly. By the term, "law", the apostles were referring to the Levitical laws which separated the Jews from the Gentiles. No Jew would worship with an uncircumcised Gentile. The ruling of the Council was that these Levitical rules which divided the Gentiles from the Jews were no longer binding upon any Christian. These symbolic rites which separated Jew from Gentile were abolished by Christ's incarnation and atonement upon the cross. Circumcision for all Christians was now a matter of the heart and not a matter of the flesh. For all Christians, baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of the righteousness that is by faith for all those who are of the faith of Abraham.

Paul makes reference to these Levitical laws in his epistle to the Ephesians, "For He is the peace between us, and has made the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law." Eph 2:14,15

From these texts, we can see that it is the "rules and decrees of the Law" which were no longer to be enjoined upon the Gentiles. To infer from the decree of the Council of Jerusalem that the Gentiles were henceforth free to disregard any of the Ten Commandments is to completely miss the reason for which the decree was issued. The Sabbath was NOT the issue. The issue was circumcision which had always separated Jews from Gentiles. This "cutting of the flesh" was swept away by the Council of Jerusalem as binding upon the consciences of all Christians both Jew and Gentile.

However, with the passing of a few years after the council of Jerusalem, the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians had to again address this issue of circumcision for Christian. This group came to be called "Ebionites" who insisted upon circumcision and had by then had come to completely reject the cross of Christ as the atonement for sin and had begun to teach that justification came to Christians by "keeping the Law" perfectly in the same way that Christ had kept the Law perfectly. For this "circumcision party" Christ was merely our "example" of how to be saved and they rejected the teaching that Christ was our divine Substitute who bore the punishment for the sins of the entire world on the cross of Calvary. Paul showed that observing the "works of the Law", circumcision, the Levitiacal rule and regulations, and even the entire moral Law of the Ten Commandments, cannot save anyone without the blood of Christ to cover us. Thus the Galatians had lost sight of the cross of Christ as the meritorious atoning cause of our justification before God.

The second part of the ruling of the Council dealt with the fact that many of the Gentile Christian believers were continuing to participate in the pagan temple rituals. This fact was shocking to the Jewish Christians who abhorred the fact that many of the Gentile Christians were continuing to go to the Pagan Temples and have sexual intercourse with the temple prostitutes and partake in the rituals of these temples which included eating in these temples the sacrifices and food offerings made to the gods. These offerings were usually strangled and their blood was eaten in worship of these deities. Thus the apostles warned the Gentile Christians to cease these abhorrent practices which were so shocking to the Jewish Christians. Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthian believers (I Cor 6:9ff), rebukes those Gentile Christians who saw nothing wrong with having sex with the temple prostitutes since they believed that sin was merely a matter of the "spirit" and not a matter of the "body". Thus they ignorantly believed that fornication with a temple prostitute did not constitute sin. Here is text of Paul's counsel; from it we can see that the context is as I have described:

"....but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. 'All things are lawful unto me', but all things are not expedient: 'all things are lawful for me', but I will not be brought under the power of any. 'Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats', but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by His own power. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith He, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. 'Every sin that a man doeth is without the body', but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."

Thus within the setting of the Gentile Christian's immature belief that to visit the temple prostitutes and partake of their services was not sin, we can clearly see why the Council of Jerusalem issued the second part of its ruling.

So, the first part of the ruling dealt with the errors of the Jewish Christians in wishing to make the Gentiles obey the Levitical law of circumcision. The second part of the ruling dealt with the errors of the Gentile Christians who were continuing to partake in the services of the pagan temple rites and the sacrifices, meals, and fornication associated with these temples.

Thus with a clear understanding of the historical background surrounding the Jewish/Gentile dispute, we can see that the issue of observance of the Ten Commandments was not even a part of the dispute and the Sabbath of the fourth commandment was in no way an issue of controversy. (see also: (see also:

Best regards,

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