Should We Change Sabbath Saturday

Jesus healed people in public on Saturdays. To Jewish religious leaders of that day, the political elite of a chosen people, this fact alone was enough to brand Jesus as a revolutionary who had to be eliminated. They could not stand helplessly by and watch Him “break” the Sabbath every week. His healing acts of kindness gave status and meaning to the common people, who had grown accustomed to being disdained as “unclean” by their religious leaders. Such visible and liberating behavior on the seventh day was already inciting the oppressed masses to turn from established authority to a new way.

Significantly, this new way did not alter the established day of rest or make it trivial. It would have been easier for the rabbis to deal with Jesus if He had blatantly denied the Sabbath or changed the day, but He did not. Instead, He revised the meaning of the Sabbath, as they understood it, restoring its designed status as a gift, rather than a mere legal requirement. The day that had come to mean drudgery and restraint He made a day of celebration and joy.

Christ's disciples also loved the Sabbath, and after His resurrection continued to keep it the way their Master had kept it while on earth. They worshiped, healed, rested, and celebrated on that day. They didn't change the day.

But someone changed the Sabbath to the first day of the week. My purpose in this article is not to ask the traditional question, Who made the change? That question is sometimes answered by pointing to heretics in the church who sought power by changing God's holy Ten Commandment law, of which the seventh-day Sabbath is a part. But that's the wrong answer. Those who changed the Sabbath were dedicated, active, loyal Christians. They were not heretics.

The question, then, is not Who, but Why? Why would deeply devoted Christians who loved Christ and His law make such a dramatic change? Why pretend to be able to change one of the Ten Commandments? Framed in these terms, the discussion moves far beyond the realm of petty disputes over Saturday versus Sunday, with both sides marshaling Bible texts to hurl at one another.

Hints From the New Testament

Although the New Testament provides no evidence of a change from Saturday to Sunday, it does contain hints that help explain how a change in attitude toward the Sabbath day could have occurred.

1. Surely Jesus' radical revision of Sabbath meanings made an impact on the populace, especially those Jews who became Christians. After all, the earliest Christian church was made up primarily of Jews. The violent reactions of their esteemed Jewish leaders to the way Jesus kept the Sabbath would tend to confirm in the popular mind that this powerful symbol, the Sabbath, was clearly being altered in measurable and threatening ways. Indeed, in this narrow sense, Christ did “change” the Sabbath. He changed the misconceptions that had grown up around the Sabbath, and it could never again be the same, whatever day was celebrated. And to alter the way the Sabbath was kept might imply justification for later altering the day the Sabbath was kept after Christ had been crucified.

2. In addition to the temporal Sabbath symbol, the Jewish people cherished a physical symbol as ancient as the people themselves. Circumcision, a visible sign of being God's chosen people, shared the symbolic limelight with the Sabbath in the Jewish mind. Although neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul condemned circumcision, Paul did scrap the practice as archaic and unnecessary to the Christian faith. Given the intimate connection of the two symbols in the Jewish mind, it is not totally surprising that early Christians, following Paul's lead on circumcision, might eventually disavow both symbols as superfluous relics of another people. To reject circumcision and the Sabbath, Christians might easily conclude, was merely to reject symbols of a people who themselves had been “rejected.”

3. The words of John in Revelation 1:10, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day,” although providing no evidence of a New Testament change of the Sabbath, do provide language which Christians applied to Sunday after Christ and the apostles were no longer on earth.

Jesus and Paul and John did not set out to change God's law. Christ said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Paul emphasized, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

So the Sabbath was not changed because the New Testament required it. The answer to the question of the change of the Sabbath is not found in the New Testament. And any hint of New Testament “change” can be seen only in reflecting backward through the history of the change of the Sabbath in the first six centuries of Christianity.

What Happened When the Apostles Died?

The Emperor Constantine has been given credit for changing the Sabbath to Sunday in the fourth century after Christ. He made the change, it is said, as a means of making Christianity acceptable to the Roman masses who could accept the Christ of the Jews more readily than they could accept their Sabbath.

But earlier than that, even as early as the second century, the Sabbath was being disregarded by a number of leading Christians. The following quotations from very early manuscripts show how post apostolic Christian leaders felt about the Sabbath. These statements are a curious mix of ideas and language unfamiliar to us today, and yet, many of these early arguments continue to be used today in trying to explain why the Sabbath was changed. The statements are organized in chronological order to reveal progressive shifts in attitudes toward the day.

1. The Epistle of Barnabas, written about A.D. 130, literally explains away the true meaning of the Sabbath and refers to Sunday worship. Notice the unusual interpretations the author applies:

“The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of creation (thus): 'And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.' Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, 'He finished in six days.' This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And he Himself testified, saying, ‘Behold, today will be as a thousand years,' therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. 'And he rested on the seventh day.'

This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day…. Further, He says to them, 'Your new moons and your Sabbaths I cannot endure.' Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.”

2 . Justin Martyr, who died in Rome about A.D. 165, wrote his views on the Sabbath sometime between A.D. 150 and 165:

“Do you see that the elements are not idle, and keep no Sabbaths? Remain as you were born. For if there was no need of circumcision before Abraham, or of the observance of Sabbaths… before Moses; no more need is there of them now.

“But the gentiles, who have believed on Him, and have repented of the sins which they have committed, they shall receive the inheritance along with the patriarchs and the prophets….even although they neither kept the Sabbath, nor are circumcised, nor observe the feasts.

“For we [Christians] too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you, namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts.

“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; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the limitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray…. 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.”

3. lrenaeus, bishop of Lyons, Gaul, wrote Against Heresies around A.D.185. In this work he reflects (as many early Christian leaders believed) the idea that the Sabbath was no more permanent or significant than circumcision:

“And that man was not justified by these things, but that they were given as a sign to the people, this fact shows, - that Abraham himself, without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths, 'believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God.'”

4. Clement of Alexandria, who wrote around A.D. 200, gives a prime example of the remarkable reasoning that was used to justify the change of the Sabbath. The bizarre application of numerology is nearly unintelligible to the modem reader:

“And the fourth word (commandment) is that which intimates that the world was created by God, and that He gave us the seventh day as a rest, on account of the trouble that there is in life… The seventh day, therefore, is proclaimed a rest - abstraction from ills - preparing for the Primal Day, our true rest; which, in truth, is the first creation of light, in which all things are viewed and possessed.

“The eighth may possibly turn out to be properly the seventh, and seventh manifestly the sixth, and the latter properly the Sabbath, and the seventh a day of work. For the creation of the world was concluded in six days…. The pythagoreans, as I think, reckon six the perfect number.”

5. Tertullian of Carthage, also writing around A.D. 200, shows that he is familiar with Colossians 2: 14-17. Tertullian uses this passage to prove that the Sabbath was abolished:

“Now tell me, Marcion, what is your opinion of the apostle's language, when he says, 'Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath, which is a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ? We do not now treat of the law, further than [to remark] that the apostle here teaches clearly how it has been abolished, even by passing from shadow to substance - that is, from figurative types to the reality, which is Christ.”

6. The Emperor Constantine made his famous Sunday Edict on March 7, A.D. 321:

“On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.”

7. At the Council (or Synod) of Laodicea, around the year A.D. 360, the strongest official language yet was used to oppose Sabbath keeping:

“Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord's Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians.”

Loyal Sabbath Keepers

It is important to point out that while these statements might seem to indicate that the Sabbath had been completely forsaken, many early Christian communities continued to keep the Sabbath for hundreds of years after Christ's crucifixion. A distinction must be made between the new teachings of church leaders and the actual practices of the people. In some cases, historical records reveal that both Saturday and Sunday were kept:

8. The Constitution of the Holy Apostles, written by an unknown author around A.D. 350400 admonishes:

“Keep the Sabbath, and the Lord's day festival; because the former is the memorial of creation, and the latter of the resurrection. Let the slaves work five days; but on the Sabbath day and the Lord's day let them haw leisure to go to church for Instruction in piety.”

9. And even in the fifth century, around the date 440, church historian Socrates & Scholasticus wrote:

“Almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries (the Lord's supper) on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians at Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, haw ceased to do this.”

What Does It All Mean?

So for centuries Christians haw observed Sunday instead of Saturday. Why not just leave well enough alone? Why not let sleeping dogmas lie? Because historical evidence cannot supersede biblical evidence, ever. However sincere early Christians may have been, and however helpful it is for us to understand why they made the change, if what they did does not square with Scripture, it is our moral duty to act.

Indeed, we are now brought full circle: Christ radically revised the Sabbath in His time because sincere and godly leaders had strayed from the true meanings of the Sabbath. They had abused the Sabbath for centuries. In order to recapture the meanings of the Sabbath in our time meanings largely forgotten or neglected in a secularized keeping of Sunday - we must once again seek a radical and restorative action: It is time for the Christian world to seriously consider changing Sabbath back to Saturday.


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