Ellen G. White, in her book The Great Controversy, on page 58, makes the statement:
In the first centuries the true Sabbath had been kept by all Christians. They were jealous for the honor of God, and believing that His law is immutable, they zealously guarded the sacredness of its precepts.
She links the Christian Sunday worship to the decree of the emperor Constantine in 321 A.D. She later states:
Protestants now urge that the resurrection of Christ on Sunday made it the Christian Sabbath. But Scripture evidence is lacking. No such honor was given to the day by Christ or His apostles. The observance of Sunday as a Christian institution had its origin in that “mystery of lawlessness” which, even in Paul’s day, had begun its work (Id. at 60) .
Of course, Ellen White’s statements are not inspired and must be examined in the light of truth.
Nevertheless, her statement that Scriptural evidence is lacking for making Sunday the Christian Sabbath is completely true. Scripture says nothing about changing the Sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday.
The earliest reference to the “Christian Sabbath” is not found until the 12th Century (International Dictionary of the Christian Church, pg. 940). The big change took place, however, during the sixth through the eighth centuries. At the beginning of the sixth century, the church condemned those who sought to impose Sabbath regulations on the Lord’s Day (3’d Council of Orleans, Canon 28). By the end of the eighth century, Alcuin, a scholar in the court of Charlemagne, stated:
Christian custom has transferred the observance of the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Article on the Lord’s Day).
Before the sixth century, with only rare exceptions, the leaders in the church were careful to draw a distinction between the “Lord’s Day,” as Sunday was called by the church from the days of the Apostles, and the Sabbath.
Augustine (354-430), the Bishop of Hippo and one of the most influential persons in the post-apostolic period within the church, distinguished between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday, seeing the Sabbath as the repose of the dead and Sunday as the resurrection of the dead (Letter 55, chapters 12, 13). In Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea (360 A.D.), the church stated:
Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can , resting then as Christians.
These bishops and writers drew a distinction between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. They did not see the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. They were two distinct days.
As we retreat in time before the decree of Constantine, we can trace back the Christian worship on Sunday in an unbroken line to Scripture itself. However, it is impossible to trace in any manner any observance of the Sabbath among the Gentile church. Unless we believe that each of these writers were unaware or deliberately misrepresenting the teachings of the apostles, we must accord their words some weight of authority, especially as they draw closer and closer to the time of the apostles.
Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, writes at the beginning of the 4th century, before the time of Constantine:
We keep the Lord’s Day as a day of joy, because of Him who rose thereon (The Canonical Epistle, Canon 15).
A Syrian document (Didascalia 2), dating to the 2nd half of the 3rd century states:
The Apostles further appointed: On the first day of the week let there be service, and the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and the oblation: because on the first day of the week our Lord rose from the dead, and on the first day of the week He ascended up to heaven, and on the first day of the week He will appear at last with the angels of heaven (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VIII, p. 668).
Tertullian (160-215), a great and holy early church father, who lived within 100 years of the apostles, stated:
We have nothing to do with sabbaths or the other Jewish festivals, much less with those of the heathen. We have our own solemnities, the Lord’s day, for instance, and Pentecost (On Idolatry, ch. 14).
He contrasts the Christian observance of Sunday and the pagan observance of Sunday and suggests that there is a resemblance between the Christian observance of Sunday and the Jewish observance of Saturday (Ad Nationes, Bk. I, ch. 13). This was 150 years before the time of Constantine and less than 100 years after the time of the apostles. All of these church fathers affirmed that the Lord’s Day was Sunday and that it was not the Sabbath Day. The Sabbath Day was for the Jews, not for the church.
But we can back up in time even further. Irenaeus (178), Bishop of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp who was himself an intimate of the apostles, in writing about whether Easter should always be celebrated on Sunday, states:
The mystery of the Lord’s resurrection may not be celebrated on any other day than the Lord’s day (Eusebius, Church History, Bk. V. ch. 24).
Justin Martyr, around the middle of the 2nd century, describes the order of worship “on the day called Sunday” to include the reading of Scripture, a sermon, prayers, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and an offering (First Apology, ch. 67). In another work he explained why Christians do not observe the Jewish sabbath (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 19). In the early part of the second century in a document entitled “Epistle of Barnabas” the author states:
Wherefore we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day on which Jesus rose again from the dead (15:9).
Another document written within 50 years of the time of the apostles, and containing a manual of Christian worship, states:
But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure (Didache, 14:1)
And Ignatius (who died around 117), a disciple of John the apostle, the third bishop of Antioch, in the early part of the 2nd century, describes Christians from a Jewish background as those who
have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death (Magnesians 9:1-3).
(Most of the preceding material comes from the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, editor Merrill C. Tenny . There are several more references in the early church [before the time of Constantine] to the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath, and the distinction between the two.)
From these witnesses, we observe a few key facts. The early church did not see Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, but rather as a special day for the worship of Christians. Second, the Christians did not observe the Sabbath. Third, the Lord’s Day was Sunday, a day celebrated long before Constantine’s decree. And fourth, the church was consistent in its holding to these three points from the earliest times of the church. Was the church wrong? Should we conclude that their statements that this is what the apostles taught are lies? Is there any Scriptural support for their conclusions?
The answer is “yes.” John, in the Book of Revelation, speaks of being in the Spirit on the “Lord’s Day” (Revelations 1:10). The use of that term thereafter by the church to reference Sunday leads us to conclude that the Lord’s Day is Sunday. Otherwise, we must assume that the church had gone astray from its earliest times. Yet, it was these very people who paid for their testimony with their lives. I will side with them. Nevertheless, this use by John does not speak of any special services on that day.
In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul gives instruction for the believers to lay up by them in store on the first day of the week for a contribution to the saints. That Sunday was the day to carry out the religious observance of giving receives some support from this passage. Again, however, there is no reference to meeting on that day.
Acts, however, is not silent on the subject. In Acts 20:6-12, we find the account of Paul at Troas. Verse 6 tells us that he stayed there 7 days. But verse 8 tells us that it was on the first day of the week, the time when the disciples gathered to break bread, that Paul preached to them until daybreak and then departed. This is a clear statement of Scripture that the disciples gathered together on the first day of the week to break bread. While Paul often went to the synagogues on the Sabbath day to interact with people, the church he established met together as a church on the first day of the week.
But is not the Sabbath still commanded for us? Are we not bound to the moral law? The consistent answer from Scriptures is “no.” First, it is important to understand the role of the Sabbath in the law. Covenants of God often are accompanied by signs. The Noahic Covenant had the sign of the rainbow. The Abrahamic Covenant had the sign of circumcision. The Mosaic Covenant (the Law) had the sign of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:17). It is the sign of the covenant between God and Israel. We do not demand circumcision even though arguably we are under the Abrahamic Covenant (the only circumcision we need is found in Christ – Colossians 2:11; Galatians 5:2). If the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant is not for us, then on what basis can we say that the sign of the Mosaic Covenant is for us? We certainly are not under the Mosaic Covenant (Romans 6-7; Galatians 3-5; I Timothy 1; Hebrews 8). That covenant was with Israel, not with the church.
In Acts 15, during what is commonly known as the Jerusalem Council, there were some believers of the sect of the Pharisees who believed that it was necessary for the Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). The answer the church gave under the direction of the Holy Spirit was that the Gentile church was not to be bound by the law (Acts 15:23-29). Again, in Acts 21:24-25, a distinction was made between Jewish and Gentile converts. While Jewish converts still kept the law, Gentile converts were not so required. (The distinction is followed by Paul in this incident although Paul’s epistles argue for no such distinction. I believe the reason Paul went along with the advice was his desire to be in submission and not to give unnecessary offense. His submission led to his imprisonment. Afterwards there is no further Scriptural support for any Christian being under law.)
But some will argue that the law referenced in Acts and the epistles is the ceremonial law, not the moral law. Scripture allows no place for such an argument. In Romans 6, Paul makes the strong argument that we are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14). Paul goes on to describe the law that he has in mind. In Romans 7:7, Paul references the command not to covet (the 10th Commandment) as an example of the law that he has in mind. This portion of the 10 commandments is contained in the law that Paul has in mind, from which we have been freed (Romans 7:6; 8:2)
Again, in Galatians, Paul makes a gallant defense for our freedom from “the law.” He states in Galatians 3:25 that we are no longer under the tutorship of the law. We have been redeemed from the law (Galatians 4:5). He speaks of the Galatians having fallen from grace because they want to live under law (Galatians 5:4). Which law is Paul referencing? Some would go to Galatians 4:10 to state that it is the ceremonial law. But that portion does not make a distinction between different parts of the law. Such is a man-made distinction. Paul tells us the law he has in mind. It is the law that is fulfilled if we love one another (Galatians 5:14). Is the ceremonial law fulfilled by love? The answer is a strong “no.” In Romans 13:9-10 Paul tells us that it is the moral law, or more precisely the whole law that is fulfilled in love. The law Paul has in mind in Galatians is the law fulfilled in love, which includes do not lie, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc. It includes the whole law.
Again, in 1 Timothy 1:7-11 Paul speaks of those who want to be teachers of the law. Paul then states that the law is good, if one uses it rightly. But the law is not for saved people. It is for sinners, and Paul gives a list of sinners to whom the law applies. This law that Paul has in mind bears upon morality. It is the entire law that we are saved from in Christ Jesus, including the 10 commandments. The argument that the ceremonial law is the law Paul has in mind is not supported by Scripture. The law, including all parts of the law, Paul argues, is not applicable to Christians. We have died to the law and we are to live for Christ.
It is precisely because of this freedom from the law that Paul poses the question as to whether we should continue in sin (Romans 6:15). The question has no meaning if Paul believes that we are still bound by the moral law. The answer is an emphatic “no.” Having been freed from sin, we are called upon to serve God. How do we serve God? By keeping the law? Again, the answer is “no.” We serve God by presenting ourselves to Him and transforming our minds so that His Spirit can lead us. We live not by law, but by the leading of the Holy Spirit of God.
If I am not under the Law, then why should I keep the Sabbath? It is certainly not because of Creation. Hebrews 4 tells us that the Sabbath of Creation relates to the church as we find our rest in God. It does not relate to an observance of the 7th day. And the Sabbath of the law I am not under for two reasons: (1) the Gentiles were never brought under the law and I am a Gentile convert, and (2) I have died to the law. Paul writes to the Colossians and asks why, if they have truly died with Christ, they are living as if they are subject to these things (Colossians 2:16-20). He tells them not to let anyone judge them about Sabbath days (Colossians 2:16). I will let no one judge me over Sabbath days.
But then, I will not judge anyone else over Sabbath days. Romans 14 tells us that one person esteems one day above another and another esteems every day alike (Romans 14:5). We are each to be fully convinced in our own minds. But also we are not to judge one another over this matter (Romans 14:4). Nevertheless, I will oppose any attempt to bring Christians back under the Law.
I do not observe the Sabbath because it is not part of any command that God has given to me. I did not become a Jew upon my conversion. My creation Sabbath is Jesus Christ. This is the testimony both of Scripture and the early church. I find Sunday to be a special day of celebration, in practice with the church from the beginning, but it is not my Sabbath.
Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?