The Sabbath and the First Day of the Week
by Paul K. Williams
The sabbath day given to Israel was the seventh day of the week. According to the way Israel counted time the day started when the sun set on Friday and continued until the sun went down on Saturday.
On that day the Israelites were forbidden to do any work (Exodus 20:10); their family, guests and animals were not to work (Exodus 20:10); they were not to travel (Exodus 16:27), cook (Exodus 16:23,29), or build a fire (Exodus 35:3). On that day Israel was commanded to sacrifice two lambs to Jehovah (Numbers 28:9-10). Anyone who broke the sabbath was to be stoned to death (Exodus 31:13-15).
Given Only To Israel
There is no record that God gave the sabbath to anyone except Israel. Although Genesis 2:1-3 says that God blessed the seventh day, it does not tell us when He blessed it nor for whom He blessed it. This we find in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
The first use of the word “sabbath” is in Exodus 16:23. Israel had left Egypt and were on their way to Mt. Sinai. They had no bread so God gave them manna each morning. “Now it came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, ‘This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’ So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath there will be none’. And it came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day." (Exodus 16:22-30)
From this reading we can see that Israel knew nothing about a sabbath before this event. This was the first time God had given the command to rest on the seventh day.
Made Known On Mt. Sinai
A short while later Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai where God gave the Law. There God told them about the sabbath: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)
Many centuries later Nehemiah recorded this prayer: “Then Thou didst come down on Mount Sinai, And didst speak with them from heaven; Thou didst give to them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. So Thou didst make known to them Thy holy sabbath, And didst lay down for them commandments, statutes, and law, Through thy servant Moses." (Nehemiah 9:13-14) God made known His Holy sabbath on Mt. Sinai. It was not given to other peoples and was not given before Sinai.
God gave this Commandment only to Israel. No other people were present at Sinai. Shortly before Moses died he spoke again to Israel saying, “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today." (Deuteronomy 5:2.3) He then repeated the Law to Israel. Here is how he gave the sabbath command: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male and female servant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day." (Deuteronomy 5:13.15) From this we can see that the sabbath was for Israel only. God gave the sabbath to them because they had been slaves in Egypt.
A Sign Between God and Israel
This is made even clearer by what God said in Exodus 31:12-17. “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you… So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the sons of Israel forever." (Exodus 31:12-13,16-17)
What have we found?
- The sabbath was unknown to Israel until they were separated from Egypt.
- It was given to Israel because they had been slaves in Egypt.
- It was given as a sign between God and Israel.
- There is no record that the sabbath was given to anyone except Israel.
We also found that God commanded the Jews to rest, do no cooking, and build no fires on the sabbath. These commands worked well in a country with as mild a climate as Canaan, but they would be almost impossible to apply in countries with severely cold winters. To build no fires in winter would bring certain death in the colder countries. Thus the sabbath law was suited to Israel but not to all the peoples of the world. It was not intended for all people. It was given to Israel only.
The Sabbath No Longer God’s Law
Jeremiah wrote: "‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.'" (Jeremiah 31:31-32) This new covenant is what Jesus came to bring. “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant." (Hebrews 8:6)
However, God does not have two covenants for the same people at the same time. Therefore the first covenant was taken away. “Then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Thy will.’ He takes away the first in order to establish the second." (Hebrews 10:9)
Nailed To The Cross
The first covenant (the Law of Moses) was taken away when Jesus died on the cross. In Colossians 2:14-17 it is specifically stated that the sabbath day was taken away. Let us read:
“having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ."
The underlined words tell us that Jesus took the Law out of the way when He died on the cross. Since it is no longer God’s law we must not let any man judge us by it—that is, tell us we must not eat pork, must keep the feast days, and must rest on the sabbath. These things were given as shadows (types) of what was to come. We now have Christ and the New Covenant—the substance not the shadow.
The Sabbath A Shadow
God rested from His work of creation on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). The Jew was commanded to rest on the seventh day of every week. This sabbath rest was a shadow of our final rest in heaven.
Hebrews 4:9-11 says, “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Let us therefore he diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience."
This means that when the faithful Christian gets to heaven he will rest from his works on earth the way God has rested from creating the world. Since the way into heaven has been made clear through the blood of Jesus, the shadow is no longer to be kept. We now are waiting for the substance—heaven itself.
The First Day of The Week
Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week (Mark 16:9). After He was raised from the dead He met with His disciples on the first day of the week (John 20:19,26). The Holy Spirit fell on the apostles on the first day of the week (Acts 2:1-4—the day of Pentecost always fell on the first day of the week—Leviticus 23:15-16). When the Holy Spirit came, the church began. Therefore the church of Christ, the kingdom of God, began on earth on the first day of the week.
The Day of Meeting
In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 Paul gave the brethren at Corinth instructions about collecting money for the poor saints at Jerusalem. They were gathering money together so Paul and others could take it to Jerusalem. Here is what he wrote to them:
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections he made when I come."
From these instructions we can see that there was a regular meeting of the church on the first day of the week. Paul did not want collections made when he got there, therefore he was writing about putting the money into the church treasury—on the first day of every week. To do this they must have gathered together.
The Reason For The Meeting
The primary reason for the meeting was not so the brethren could give their money. The primary reason is given in Acts 20:7:
“And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight”.
If you read the verses before and after you will find that Paul and his companions arrived at Troas seven days earlier on the second day of the week. Meeting with the disciples on the first day of the week delayed Paul and caused him to walk to the next town instead of leaving with the ship from Troas. It is clear that the main reason for the meeting was “to break bread,” that is, eat the Lord’s supper, and that Paul took advantage of this opportunity to preach to all the brethren.
They did not come together to hear Paul; they came together to break bread. Commentators are nearly unanimous in saying that these verses show that the church at Troas gathered together each first day of the week to eat the Lord’s supper. This is what you can see if you will study the passage.
This explains why Paul commanded the brethren at Corinth to give on the first day of the week. The first day of the week was the day on which they gathered together to eat the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Day
It is no wonder that the term “the Lord’s day” came to be applied to the first day of the week. John wrote, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day." (Revelation 1:10) From that day to this Christians have referred to the first day of the week as “the Lord’s day.” It is the day of His resurrection. It is the day we meet to remember His death by eating the Lord’s supper. It is His day.
The Early Church
Some make the claim that the day of worship was changed from Saturday to Sunday by the Emperor Constantine in about 325 A.D. This is an untrue claim as can be seen by quotations from Christians who wrote much earlier than that. These writings establish that from the time of the apostles the church has met on the first day of the week to worship God.
Barnabas, A.D. 120: ‘Incense is a vain abomination unto me, and your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure. He has, therefore, abolished these things.” Barnabas says, “Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day, also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.”
The Teaching of the Apostles, A.D. 125: This was not written by the apostles; yet its date is very early. Some place it as early as A.D. 80. Professor Harnack of Berlin says many place it between A.D. 90 and A.D. 120. Chapter fourteen of the Teaching of the Apostles says, “But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving.”
Justin Martyr, A.D. 140: “And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ, our Saviour, on the same day rose from the dead. For he was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the sun, having appeared to his apostles and disciples, he taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.” (The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 67)
Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, A.D. 170:“We passed this holy Lord’s day, in which we read your letter, from the constant reading of which we shall be able to draw admonition.”
Bardesanes of Edessa, Syria, A.D. 180: (He belonged to the gnostic sect.) “On one day, the first day of the week, we assembled ourselves together, and on the days of the reading we abstain from (taking) sustenance.” All parties, orthodox or heretic, met on Sundays as early as A.D. 180.
Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, A.D. 194: “He in fulfillment of the precept, keeps the Lord’s day when he abandons an evil disposition, and assumes that of the Gnostic, glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in himself.” Book 7 chapter 12.
Tertullian of Africa, A.D. 200: “Let him who contends that the Sabbath is still to be observed… teach us that for the past time righteous men kept the Sabbath.” “God originated Adam uncircumcised and inobservant of the Sabbath.” “We solemnize the day after Saturday in contradistinction to those who call this day their Sabbath, and devote it to ease and eating, deviating from the old Jewish customs, which they are now very ignorant of.” Tertullian’s Apology, chapter 16.
From the New Testament and from the preceding quotations we see clearly that the day of worship was not changed by Constantine in A.D. 325. Christians have been meeting on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, since Jesus was raised from the dead!
Sunday Not The Sabbath
The sabbath has not been changed—it has been taken away (Colossians 2:14-17). Sunday is not the sabbath; Sunday is the Lord’s day. Those who call Sunday the sabbath are confused.
The New Testament is full of passages showing that the Old Testament law of Moses is not the law for Christians today. The diligent student will want to study the following:
- 2 Corinthians 3:1-16
- Galatians 3:23-25; 4:21-31
- Ephesians 2:14-17
- Colossians 2:14-17
- Hebrews 8:6-13; 9:15-17; 10:8-10
God does not command the sabbath today. “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind." (Romans 14:5) If God commanded the sabbath, no man could be right in regarding every day alike.
Therefore let no man judge you in regard of a sabbath day (Colossians 2:16). Instead, obey the commands of the New Testament. Meet on the first day of the week to eat the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7) and to give to the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
In fact, this you must do in order to please God. If you obey part of the Old Testament because it is the Old Testament, you must obey all of it (See Galatians 5:14) and try to be justified by it. But if you do that, you will be fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4).
We have been set free from the Law. Let no man judge you by it. We now stand under Jesus Christ. Obey Him.