Sabbath or Sunday? (Or both?)

This is a long article. But bear with it… the conclusions are important, and I want your feedback!

Someone recently asked me why we don’t hold our services on a Sabbath (that is, Saturday) instead of on a Sunday. That’s a good question! We so often do things in church simply because it’s tradition or it’s convenient, without actually stopping to work out why we are doing what we are doing.

After all, Genesis 2:2 tells us: By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. It’s pretty clear this verse is meant to give us more than a useful piece of information about what God did when He finished His work of creation. It tells us, rather, that a pattern of work and rest is woven into the very fabric of our life.

In the story of the Exodus  – which is about the creation of a people holy to God  – the command to hold to a Sabbath rest becomes part of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:8 tells us: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. This command is reinforced by reference in Ex 20:9-10 to God’s work of creation in six days and rest on the seventh.

Interestingly, the fourth commandment is expressed somewhat differently in the book of Deuteronomy. There is the same command to keep the Sabbath but the reason for Sabbath observance stated there is: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:15). This reminds us that rest on the Sabbath is not simply spare time for us to do as we please. It is time to remember the great act of deliverance by which the Lord saved us.

Because the Sabbath day was fundamental to the identity of God’s people, the penalty for breaking the Sabbath was severe. The penalty for working on the Sabbath was death (Ex 31:15). Later on in the history of God’s people, the prophets were sent to warn of the penalties involved in breaking the Sabbath and the blessings in observing it. Thus, for example, Jeremiah preached at the gates of Jerusalem (Jer 17:19-27) while Amos attacked the attitude which saw Sabbath observance as a nuisance and barrier to fraudulent trade (Amos 8:4-6).

In the New Testament Jesus said clearly in Matt 5:17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Yet by the second century the whole Christian church was worshipping regularly on the Sunday. Ignatius, for example, talks about those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day (Epistle to the Magnetians, chapter IX). Sabbath observance was an issue in early church to which Paul wrote, but this reflected rather the tension between Jewish and Gentile believers, rather than an argument on which day the church should meet (see, for example, Col 2:16).

So what accounted for this change of attitude?

First of all, we need to look at Jesus’ own attitude to the Sabbath. It is worth noting that in one place or another Jesus quoted all of the ten commandments – except the commandment to keep the Sabbath. His attitude to the Sabbath was a major source of annoyance to the religious authorities. He proclaimed Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, as He plucked grain to eat and healed the sick on that day (Mark 2:23-3:6). We read in John’s gospel that when He was accused of healing on the Sabbath He replied: My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working. (John 5:17). It might be argued that the real issue here is not so much Sabbath observance, as the attitude each party had to teach other. Jesus was counteracting the excessive legalism of the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were reacting to His claim to being Lord over the Sabbath. But it seems that the argument is not just about tradition on the one hand or the identity of Jesus on the other. Jesus is challenging the whole concept of what it means to keep the Sabbath.

This leads on the second point, which concerns fulfilment. In what way did Jesus fulfil the law concerning the Sabbath? After all, Jesus rendered obsolete the need for animal sacrifice by His own sacrifice in our place on the cross (Heb 9:11-14). After much discussion and controversy the early church realised that even the sign of the Abrahamic covenant – circumcision – was no longer necessary for believers. It was a yoke that neither we or our fathers have been able to bear (Acts 15:10). What counts for believers is not an outward mark but the inward work of Christ in our hearts (Col 2:11-12).

All this suggests that Jesus brought with Him a new attitude to the Sabbath. This is drawn out in the complex but important arguments in Heb 3:7-4:13 where the key verse is Heb 3:14: We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. Ultimately Sabbath rest is the promise made to believers of their future inheritance, but by participating in Christ now we begin to experience something of this reality now. Our whole existence – and not just one day in seven – should be marked by remembrance of the great deliverance Christ has wrought for us.

This does not however leave us any further forward as to when Christians should meet to worship. Indeed there are no clear instructions about this in the New Testament. I believe this partially comes from the fact that we are no longer under law but under grace, and there is no one pattern prescribed to all believers in every place. The early church after Pentecost, for example, continued to meet daily in the temple courts (Acts 2:42-47).

We have to be honest and recognise that as Christians we have very little direct teaching about the details of how we should worship – but we are given plenty of teaching as to why we should worship. So much of our thinking about dates, Christian leadership, sacraments, buildings etc. etc. comes from church history. Now much of our church history represents the attempts of faithful believers to proclaim the gospel afresh in their culture and their generation, but I also believe that many of these saints who have gone before us would be horrified to learn how their practices have become inviolable tradition.

Of course the reason why Sunday became the time when Christians worship together relates to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Mark clearly tells us in Mark 16:1-2 that the women went to the tomb When the Sabbath was over Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise. The apostle John tells us in Revelation 1:10 that On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit and it is generally agreed this refers to worship on what we would now call a Sunday. In Acts 20:7 Luke records: On the first day of the week we came together to break bread while in 1 Cor 16:2 Paul urges the church in Corinth to set aside a portion of their money on the first day of every week (1 Cor 16:2). These scattered references, when taken together, point to a time for worship which quickly became uniform practice even in the apostolic era. This is not too surprising when you consider our identity as the people of God is founded in the new covenant relationship God instituted through His Son Jesus Christ.

To sum up: all other things being equal, it is has, as we have seen, been the practice for Christians to gather not on the seventh day of the week, the Jewish Sabbath, but on the first day of the week, the day of our Lord’s resurrection. But this is a matter of practice, not of gospel truth. In many Muslim countries, for example, the church has to meet on Friday and the children go out to Friday school!

This does not mean that the Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath has no value. The creation story reminds us that if we are made in God’s image we are called to share in a rhythm of work and rest. This is generally not understood by our culture. Either the principle of rest is ignored, and we wonder why despite our 24/7 work pattern we are not flourishing, or we equate rest with being free to spend our time as we would like. The Old Testament teaches us that rest is a necessary part of our human identity, but rest is to be valued as time to renew our relationship with the Lord, not to be consumed as a leisure commodity.

Which leads to a very practical question – what rhythm of life should we adopt as believers in the Lord? And how can it witness to the new covenant relationship we enjoy with Jesus our Lord and Saviour? Important questions, which we discuss all too infrequently together.

Now over to you…

6 Responses to Sabbath or Sunday? (Or both?)

  1. Here lies your only problem …

    “the first day of the week, the day of our Lord’s resurrection”.

    Matthew 28:1, “LATE ON THE SABBATH … TOWARDS the First Day of the week” — NOT, ‘After the Sabbath … on the First Day’.

    Vanished all problems!

    • LB says:

      Depends on your translation – mine reads ‘After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week … ‘ (NIV ’84) !!

  2. timrev says:

    Dear Gerhard,

    Thank you for your comment. The Greek of Matthew 28:1 is difficult. We could translate the Greek preposition opse as either “late on the Sabbath”, or “after the Sabbath”. I favour the latter reading for the following reasons:

    (a) If we are reckoning by the Jewish calendar then the next day started at dusk. It could be argued that Matthew is trying to adapt the time to the Roman calendar but this is unlikely in view of the Jewish nature of his gospel. Late on the Sabbath would still be daylight, and it would hard to explain the story the soldiers circulated that the body was stolen at night (Matt 28:13).
    (b) If it was simply late on the Sabbath, then the explanatory comment “at dawn on the first day of the week” is unnecessary or inexplicable. Rather this comment tells us when precisely after the Sabbath the women visited.
    (c) Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 all date the women’s visit to the tomb as on the first day of the week. To argue for the primacy of Matthew’s version is difficult.
    (d) Luke adds the comment in Luke 23:56 that the women rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. Matthew does not include this detail, probably because his Jewish audience would have realised this is what the women would have done.

    For further consideration of the subject, I recommend the following article by David Wenham:

    Click to access TynBull_1973_24_02_Wenham_ResurrectionInMatthew.pdf

  3. Colin Teague says:


    Jesus was not crucified on a Friday and was not resurrected on a Sunday (or was He also talking loosely about three days and three nights from Jonah?). He was crucified on a Wednesday and resurrected on the sabbath. Early on the first day of the week He remained in seclusion as High Priest (and could not be touched (by Mary) until He had returned to the Father) until he had fulfilled the offering of the first fruits of those people whose graves had been opened.

    There are no laws in the torah that forbid healing on the sabbath. The Pharisees objected to Him beaking their man made rules and regulations(takenot/ma’assim/tradition of the elders whatever you want to call them), not those in God`s law. Jesus NEVER broke sabbath law. If He did his blood is useless to pay for my sins and yours. Much of the gospels are about this conflict with man made rules and regulations and their attempt at supremacy over God`s law.

    Paul and all the other apostles kept the sabbath. I have no objections to them meeting for fellowship early on the first day of the week. Many jewish people still do this. After studying their bibles they come together for an evening meal/get together to share what they have studied. Nice.

    The reason real that we have ended up with a Sunday is a compromise, agreed and engineered by Constantine and the early Roman Church. They have plenty of literature explaining the the day was changed by them to show their own authority acting as Christ Vicariously.

    Compromise is the heart of the matter. Do we believe in a Jesus who was without sin or do we belive in “another Jesus,” who has “another gospel,” one where God`s laws don`t matter much as long as we kinda get the principle of stuff.

    I`m curious Tim. Do you believe that Jesus ever broke any of the commandments such as the sabbath and permits us to do so to?

    • timrev says:

      There’s so much I could say in response … but I am reminded of Cromwell’s famous words: “Bethinkest thee, by the bowels of Jesus Christ, that thou may’st be mistaken!” All I would say is that the first day of week refers to the day after the Sabbath, and this has been the position taken by the church for nearly two thousand years. It can be so easy to blame Constantine, I think it was Dan Brown who claimed the church invented the divinity of Jesus under his influence!

      At least we can agree why Jesus died, and that is more important than when. I too certainly believe in Jesus who was without sin, and who became the propitiation for our sins. If He had broken any laws, then there would have been reason to crucify Him. I never said that Jesus broke the law about the Sabbath. However I did say He claimed Lordship over the Sabbath, and I take this to mean He claimed the right to perfectly interpret the law as the Son of God.

      As Christians we approach the law through the Son of God in a new covenant relationship sealed in his blood. The role of the law is to convict us of sin and guide our response to God’s grace. But the external markers of the old Jewish religion – food laws, circumcision and Sabbath observance – have been abolished.

  4. Colin Teague says:

    Tim, I really struggle with this. I would sincerely welcome some accurate teaching and some correction to my understanding if I am wrong. These things may be pretty obvious to Cromwell but they are double dutch to me.

    Matthew 12:40; For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

    There are not three days and three nights between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? There never have been and never will be. Is the scripture wrong?

    I sincerely believe I can demonstrate from scripture that Jesus was crucified on what we call wednesday and was resurrected on the sabbath. I cannot find any demotion of the ten commandments, by Jesus or the apostles with specific regard to the sabbath other than Jude1v4. Given Jude1v4 please do not think that I would give primacy to anything taught by the church not founded on scripture.

    I believe in scriptures that say what they mean and mean what they say and contain no idle words though I accept that some of them cover complicated issues that are difficult to understand. Good Friday to Easter Sunday seem like nonsense to me. PLEASE. PLEASE show me where I am going wrong.

    Colin T

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