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Changes in the Sabbath Law--Part 1

May 22, 2010

I have already mentioned how the Feast-day Sabbath practices were necessarily changed from the Old Covenant to the New. But what about the change from Saturday to Sunday? This is a very heated topic, one which I usually avoid in order not to make anyone angry.

The statement is often made that Constantine changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. The fact is, however, that Constantine legalized the long-established Christian practice of keeping Sunday. He changed Roman law to accommodate the Christians.

Another statement is also made: "The Pope changed the Sabbath." To support this statement, quotations are made from later Roman popes making that claim. To a non-Catholic Christian, the assumption is usually that the specific Roman Pope making this change was Pope Sylvester, who was the Roman bishop during the reign of Constantine. But the popes who have made such claims mean something quite different. They believed that Peter was the first pope, and that the change was made by Peter himself.

There is no evidence that Peter did any such thing, of course. This is an extrapolation of the fact that early Church writings indicate that by the late first century and early second century, the change had already been made in all the churches, with the exception of some Palestinian (Jewish-led) church movements known as the Nazarenes and the Ebionites.

By the time of Constantine and Sylvester, the practice of meeting on Sunday was already well-established. The papal claim of changing the Sabbath day, then, assumes a role for Peter that cannot be proven.

Before dealing with the biblical study on which day is the lawful day for the Church to observe, let us look at the actual history of WHAT the Church did in the early centuries before Constantine legislated Sunday into Roman law. Once we establish an accurate history of this change, we can then ask ourselves if the change was justified, or if it represented a violation of biblical law.

The New Testament mentions it only in 1 Cor. 16:2 and Acts 20:7, where we are informed that the disciples met on "the first day of the week." With no need for explanation, it is assumed that every reader would be familiar with this practice. In Acts 20:7, they gathered to "break bread" (communion), while in 1 Cor. 16:2 it is the time of gathering offerings, specifically for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

To this we might add Rev. 1:10, where John says that He was "in the spirit on the Lord's Day." Some identify this with the OT "day of the Lord," while others say the event occurred on a Sunday, which in those days was commonly known in Roman and Greek culture as The Lord's Day and Sunday.

Whatever the case, the Didache (about 65 A.D.), or "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," says in chapter 14,

"On the Lord's Day of the Lord come together and break bread. And give thanks (eucharist), after confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure."

Likewise, the Epistle of Barnabas devotes an entire chapter on this change, concluding,

"Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joy, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead."

The Epistle of Barnabas has long been considered to be written in his name by a later unknown person either 115 or as late as 140 A.D. The more recent re-discovery of the Codex Washingtonensis at the Smithsonian Institute shows that Barnabas, the Levitical scribe from Cypress in Acts 4:36, was the primary scribe for this first-century Codex. His knowledge and use of gematria in the marginal notes of the Codex matches well with that found in the Epistle of Barnabas, lending weight to the assertion that the real Barnabas was indeed the author of the letter. If so, then it was written in the middle of the first century.

Yet even if this Epistle was written as late as 140 A.D., it still shows that the common practice of the Church was to "keep the eighth day with joy." Further, the reason for such observance was that this was the day of Christ's resurrection. I will have more to say about this when looking at the biblical justifications for the change found in the law itself.

Ignatius of Antioch also mentions the observance of Sunday. Ignatius was martyred in 113 A.D. He was born about 30 A.D. and was reputed to be the "child" in Matt. 18:2, 3. As a child, he was one of the 500 witnesses who saw Jesus after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6).

He later became the bishop of Antioch, the church which had become the main center of Christianity outside of Jerusalem. Ignatius was a long-time disciple of the Apostle John, who died around 100 A.D. Ignatius wrote this in his Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 9,

"If, therefore, 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, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death..."

Ignatius points out the distinction between Jewish and Christian practices. It is noteworthy also that he points to Jesus' resurrection as the reason for Sunday observance. None of his letters could have been written after his death in 113 A.D. Nor is it feasible to believe that as a loyal disciple of John until the apostle's death in 100, that Ignatius would have practiced something different from what the apostle himself taught.

Some decades later, Justin the Greek philosopher was converted to Christ and wrote in his First Apology of Justin, chapter 47,

"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 (Sunday), having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things which we have submitted to you also for your consideration."

Some have tried to undermine Justin's testimony on the grounds that he had been a pagan philosopher and was therefore still influenced by his past. However, Justin did not establish Sunday as the day of worship. He merely reported what had already been well established long before his own time. If Justin had been the one making the change, then we might have reason to suspect his motives. But this is certainly not the case, as we have shown.

There are others, such as Tertullian (200 A.D.), who made mention of Sunday as the commonly-accepted day of worship. The Church Council of Elvira in 300 A.D. was perhaps the first Church Council to make a direct statement about Sunday. The decree read,

"If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected."

By the year 300, the Church had obviously become quite legalistic. As I pointed out in my book, Lessons from Church History, the definition of "Church" had evolved from being the Body of Christ (1st century) to one submitting to the organizational structure and the local bishop (2nd century) and finally to one in submission to the Roman bishop (3rd century).

It is plain, then, that Sunday was well established long before Constantine or Pope Sylvester.

This is the first part of a series titled "Changes in the Sabbath Law." To view all parts, click the link below.

Changes in the Sabbath Law

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Category: God's Law
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones