It has been taught that Jesus established Sunday as the day of worship, a memorial of His resurrection. According to this view, He taught by example, meeting with His disciples on the first day of the week for communion and worship. Some have gone so far as to suggest that every time Jesus met with His disciples after the resurrection was on a Sunday.

The first meeting was early on the morning of the first day with Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Matthew 28:9,10, Mark 16:9-11, John 20:11-18). After resting in the tomb on Sabbath, Jesus took the very first opportunity to meet with those who were seeking Him, even before He ascended to heaven (John 20:17). He gave them work to do for unbelievers—“Go to My brethren and say to them, I am ascending to My Father and your Father.” “And when they [the other disciples] heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe” (John 20:17, Mark 16:11).

Later that afternoon Jesus met again with two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35, Mark 16:12,13). Although they had heard the report of the women, they still did not believe. He rebuked them (“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” Luke 24:25) and gave them a Bible study (“Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself”, v. 27). As soon as they recognized Him “He vanished from their sight” (v. 31) before they had a chance to worship Him or even eat with Him.

Later that night[1] Jesus appeared to His disciples (John 20:19-23, Luke 24:36-49, Mark 16:14-20) in the upper room “where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). Notice that they were not assembled for a worship service. “He rebuked their hardness of heart because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen” (Mark 16:14), and proved to them that He was alive by showing them His hands with the marks of the nails. “But while they still did not believe” He asked for food and ate in their presence in order to prove that he was not “a spirit” (Luke 24:36-43). Then He gave them their job description: “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). There is no record of any worship, prayers or communion service in any of these three meetings with His disciples on the day of His resurrection.

“After eight days,” presumably also on a Sunday night,[2] Jesus met again with His disciples. But rather than instituting a new day of worship, His visit was for the purpose of meeting with the one disciple who was still an unbeliever—Thomas. Because he had been absent on the previous occasion, he had declared, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails…I will not believe” (John 20:25). After seeing with his eyes and feeling with his fingers, Thomas expressed his belief, “My Lord and My God!” But Jesus, in a rebuke which sums up his attitude toward all the unbelievers He met with on each of His “Sunday meetings,” said “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (vs. 28,29).

The picture that emerges is that the meetings with His disciples on Sundays were 1) the earliest opportunity He had to meet with them after His resurrection, 2) Not a meeting of those who in faith believed, but rather a meeting with unbelievers, 3) Not a time of worship, prayer or communion, but rather to rebuke their lack of faith and prove that He was alive, 4) A time to give them their instructions for the work He wanted them to do.

Besides these meetings on Sunday Jesus met with His disciples several other times on other days. He met with them on an unspecified day in Galilee at “the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them” (Matthew 28:16). There is nothing in the text or context that would hint that this was on the first day of the week or any other specific day. This is the first time that it is recorded that His disciples worshiped Him[3]—“When they saw Him, they worshiped Him” (v. 17). He then gave them “all authority…in heaven and on earth” and told them to go to “all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 19).

Jesus also met with His disciples on a beach in Galilee (John 21:1-23). Again the day is not specified, but this meeting would certainly not support the idea that Jesus changed the Sabbath to Sunday and met on that day, since the fishing, hauling in of heavy nets, building fires and cooking were all forbidden on the Sabbath.

Jesus’ final meeting with His disciples was the day of His ascension (Acts 1:1-11). This meeting took place forty days after His resurrection (v. 3) so it was probably on a Thursday and definitely not on a Sunday. According to this account, “He presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Very few of these meetings are recorded in the scriptures, but there is the clear implication that they were throughout the period of time and not limited to the five Sundays during that period. This is supported by John’s comment that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).

The statement that “every time Jesus met with His disciples was on a Sunday” is simply not in harmony with the facts of scripture. Moreover, it is an attempt to establish a doctrine by Biblical examples, rather than clear scriptural teaching, and in fact it is not even in harmony with the clearest Biblical exampes. Paul himself had a meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19, 22:1-16, 26:9-18). Although in three places he describes this meeting in detail, even telling the place and the time of day,[4] he says nothing about it being on the first day of the week. John is the other apostle who had a meeting with Jesus, while in exile on Patmos. He did specify that it was “on the Lord’s day,” but there is nothing in the Bible that would indicate that this was the first day of the week. In his gospel, which he apparently wrote at about the same time, he consistently refers to “the first day of the week” (John 20:1,19), not the “Lord’s day.” It is true that in the second century the church began to apply this term to Sunday, along with many other imaginative ways they used to try to distinguish themselves from the Jews and thus avoid persecution.[5] However, in the Bible this phrase finds application either as the Sabbath (Jesus said, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” Matthew 12:8) or the Second Coming of Christ (“So also the Son of Man will be in His day” Luke 17:24).

There is only one instance recorded in which the early church met on the first day. “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). Since days were considered to be “from evening to evening”[6] the portion of the first day that would include midnight would be what we consider to be Saturday night. The most likely scenario is a Saturday night sermon which continued after the regular Sabbath worship, with Paul setting out on his journey Sunday morning. At any rate, this night-time meeting could not be considered the regular pattern of worship, because it took place under unusual circumstances, since Paul was leaving them the next day and would never see them again. Even the “breaking of bread” did not take place until after midnight,[7] which is not a pattern that any church follows today.

It is sometimes asserted that Paul referred to Sunday worship service collections of offerings for the poor in 1 Corinthians 16: 1,2. “Now concerning the collection for the saints…On the first day of the week let each of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper.” However, the Greek word “par’ eavto” (by yourself) shows that this was an individual work, not a “passing the plate” as today’s Christians might imagine from modern worship services. On the first day of the week, before they spent all their money on other things, the Christians were to lay aside “by themselves” something for the poor “that there be no collections when I come” (v. 2).

Some, in their attempt to tear down the Biblical Sabbath, go so far as to say that Jesus broke the Sabbath in His healing of the sick, his command to the healed paralytic to “take up your bed and walk” (John 5:8) and by allowing his disciples to ‘thresh” grain by rubbing it in their hands as they walked through the wheat fields (Matthew 12:1-8). This argument flies in the face of one of the most basic premises of the gospel: if Jesus had broken any part of the law, including the Sabbath, He could not have been our substitute and Savior.[8] It is true that Jesus violated the Sabbath of the Pharisees, but this Sabbath was a perversion of the Sabbath of the Lord, which Jesus clarified, magnified and obeyed, giving an example of true Sabbath keeping. When the Pharisees accused Him of breaking the Sabbath He did not say, “It is lawful to do whatever you want on the Sabbath.” He said, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).

Jesus consistently upheld the law of God and condemned those who would try to minimize its claims. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17,18). It is sometimes argued that “all [was] fulfilled” on the Cross, therefore the law could pass away. But all has not been fulfilled because sin is still very much with us, and therefore the law is still needed to condemn sin. Moreover, “heaven and earth” have not “passed away” as the verse specifies.

“Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19). The Sabbath itself would certainly not be considered “one of the least of these commandments.” One third of the words of the Ten Commandments are taken up by the Sabbath command. And although none of the Ten Commandments were just “for the Jews,” the Sabbath commandment shows within itself that it predated the Jewish people. It begins with the words, “Remember the Sabbath day” and mentions “the seventh day” of creation when “God rested,” showing that it has been in effect since the beginning of time.[9] It is ironic that the one commandment that God charged His people to remember is the one most Christians have forgotten.

It has been claimed that the law of the Old Testament was fulfilled by Jesus (true), so that New Testament believers do not have to obey the law (no scriptural support). According to this teaching, all except the Sabbath commandment were re-instituted by being mentioned by Jesus or the Apostles, but because there is no direct mention of the Sabbath in the New Testament, this shows that it was changed. However, there are actually several New Testament verses that make it clear that the Sabbath is very much a part of the new covenant “law of liberty” (James 1:25). In three passages Jesus said that He is Lord of the Sabbath.[10] The book of Hebrews clearly states, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). And the direct quotation of the Sabbath commandment is used repeatedly to identify the God of the New Testament believers. For example, when the people of Lystra tried to worship Paul because of the miracles he performed, he rebuked them, saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them” (Acts 14:15). This is a direct quotation of Exodus 20:11, the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” See also Acts 4:24 and Revelation 14:7.

It is obvious that the Sabbath was not changed by Jesus or the Apostles because there is no Biblical record of a Sabbath controversy. The abolishment of circumcision, which was not even as central to Jewish faith as the Sabbath, provoked a firestorm of controversy which resounds in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul.[11] There is no way that the Sabbath could have been quietly abandoned; any attempt to replace it with Sunday would have been met with extreme hostility by the Jews, and the complete absence of any New Testament controversy about the Sabbath is compelling proof that it was not even an issue. It is true that the “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15) did not specify that “Gentiles who are turning to God” would have to keep the Sabbath, only requiring that they “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (v. 20). But the fact is that the council did not deal with any of the Ten Commandments, only those aspects of the ceremonial law that would prevent Jewish Christians from having social interactions with Gentile Christians.[12] The Sabbath does not appear as an issue until the third decade of the second century,[13] by which time Christians were trying to disassociate themselves from the Jews in order to avoid persecution (See 2:1-5 First Love).

When God abolished circumcision,[14] animal sacrifice[15] and the Levitical priesthood,[16] He made it perfectly clear in the New Testament that He was doing so. But there is no hint in the New Testament that the Sabbath has been done away with. To the contrary, the evidence is that Jesus and the Apostles kept the Sabbath,[17] and that the Sabbath would be important until the end of time and even in eternity.[18]

The most common argument against keeping the Sabbath is that this proves that one is “under the law” rather than “under grace.” But this argument is inconsistent. Almost all Christian denominations recognize the Ten Commandments as valid for Christians, not as a means of salvation but as a witness against sin. When we honor parents, refrain from adultery or suppress our covetous desires for things that do not belong to us, our actions are empowered by grace, because we cannot of ourselves obey God’s law (Romans 8:7). So why is it that when it comes to obeying the Sabbath commandment this is somehow proof of legalism?

The real reason that most Christians accept nine of the commandments but reject the Sabbath is that the Sabbath is the one law that general society does not accept. Everyone agrees that murder, stealing and even idolatry are wrong, but keeping the Sabbath puts one radically out of step with the rest of society. The purpose of the law is to reveal our sin, but the majority of Christians do not want a law that tells them that working on the seventh day is a sin—the social and economic consequences are too great. And so most attempt to ignore the issue, convincing themselves that all the hundreds of denominations that have sanctified Sunday for all these centuries couldn’t be wrong. But anyone who has read this far needs to face the fact that there is no evidence in the Bible to support the change of the Sabbath. We would do well to heed Peter’s declaration, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Continue to next section: APPENDIX 7

[1] This was actually the second day of the week according to the Jewish method of reckoning days “from evening to evening” (Leviticus 23:32).

[2] John 20:26. The Jews used inclusive reckoning, which means that any part of any day is counted as a day.

[3] Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” worshiped Him when they met Him at the tomb (Matthew 28:9), but there is no record that His disciples worshiped Him during any of the Sunday meetings.

[4] “As I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon” (Acts 22:6).

[6] Leviticus 23:32, Mark 1:21, 29-32.

[7] Acts 20:11

[8] Jesus is able to be our substitute because He committed no sins, therefore His sinless life could be credited to our account and His sacrifice could pay the legal debt of our sin. But if He had broken any commandment, including the Sabbath, He would not have had a perfect life to credit to us, and His death would only have paid the price for His own sins.

[9] In Exodus 16, before the Ten Commandments were given, God specified that manna was not to be gathered on the Sabbath. When some of the people gathered manna on the Sabbath, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?” This proves that God’s laws in general and the Sabbath in particular were in force before the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

[10] Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, Luke 13:16.

[11] Acts 11:1-18, 15:1-29, Romans 2:25-29, 4:9,10, 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 2, 5:1-14, 6:12-15.

[12] Other aspects of the health laws, such as clean and unclean meats, were not such a problem since the Jews could recognize and refuse them, but they could not tell if a particular piece of meat they were served had been drained of blood or offered to idols. Likewise, the Jews would consider it particularly offensive to associate with those who were involved in homosexuality, incest, sex with prostitutes, or other sexual immorality which might be culturally acceptable in the Gentile societies. It was assumed that those non-ceremonial aspects of the law that still applied would be learned—“For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21).

[13] The Epistle of Barnabas, dated by the majority of the scholars between AD 130 and 138, was written by a pseudonymous Barnabas probably at Alexandria where the conflict between Jews and Christians was particularly acute. See Samuel Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (Berrien Springs, MI, Biblical Perspectives) p. 218.

[14] Galatians 5:1-12, 6:12-15.

[15] Hebrews 10:1-14.

[16] Hebrews 7:9-24.

[17] Luke 14:16, Acts 17:2, 18:4.

[18] Matthew 24:20, Isaiah 66:22,23.