When Christians think of Sundays they often think of it as day of rest. Some even think of the day as a Sabbath day. But where does this idea come from? When and why did Christians begin meeting on Sundays and did they think of Sunday as a replacement for the Saturday Sabbath that Jews were accustomed to observing?
My hope is to lay out a historical summary of when and why Christians began to meet on Sundays and how some began to think of Sunday as the new Sabbath day. Most of the information below is a summary of the “Lord’s Day” article found in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids and published by InterVarsity Press.
To begin, we need to start with what we can learn from the Bible itself. Is there evidence that even in the time of Scripture that believers were meeting on Sundays? The answer is “yes”.
Several passages lead us to this conclusion. In 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Acts 20:7 we find that believers gathered on “the first day of the week.” This phrase, “the first day of the week”, is only used in the New Testament outside of these references to speak of the resurrection of Jesus. Compare Mark 16:2, Matthew 28:1, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1, 19.
We see especially in Acts 20:7 the connection of three major themes: a gathering, on the first day of the week, for the purpose of breaking bread. The phrase “to break bread” is not a typical Jewish expression for sharing a meal (versus “to eat bread”), but is a pointed way of referring to the Lord’s Supper, which was likely combined with an actual meal. What we see here then is a formal gathering of the church on the first day of the week with the purpose of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
We also see a reference to this in Revelation 1:9-10 where John refers to “the Lord’s day.” Some have argued that this refers to the day of the Lord, but given the surrounding context of the letter, this seems unlikely. It also seems more likely to refer to Sunday, the first day of the week, when other writings outside of the New Testament are examined.
Other Early Sources
Didache 14.1-3, written at the turn of the second century refers to ordinary meetings taking place on the Lord’s Day centered on the breaking of bread.
Ignatius in Magnesians 9.1 makes the statement that Christians were “no longer sabbatizing but living according to the Lord’s day.” This was written c. 100-110.
Barnabas 15.9 (c. 130-135) refers to Christians gathering on the eighth day (as opposed to the seventh) and grounds the significance of that day in the resurrection. He also insinuates the day is a long-standing custom. He seems, like Ignatius, to exclude Sabbath day observance entirely.
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) makes definite mention of Sunday and provides details of the days activities in Apology 1.67.
So, it seems from an early point on that at least some Christians recognized the “first day of the week” as a special day for gathering and partaking in communion.
Sunday gatherings do not rule out meetings on other days and likely existed peaceably alongside Sabbath observance for many believers. There is no evidence from the New Testament that the day replaced or rivaled Sabbath observance or that it had any connection to the Fourth Commandment at all. It seems completely tied to the resurrection. We see the two existing side by side as Paul addresses a church made up of Jewish and Gentile Christians in Romans 14:5.
In Ignatius and Barnabas we see more division between the two days as a result of a more distinct line being drawn between Christianity and Judaism in the second century. Rather than being viewed as a sect of Judaism, Christianity was being thought of as something altogether different; a “parting of the ways.”
Tertullian (c.160-225) is the first to suggest that work be deferred so as to enhance worship. Otherwise, Sunday was a work day and cessation from other activities on that day was not widespread until about the third century. Even then there was no connection with the Fourth Commandment, but the point was to make more time for worship.
It was Constantine’s edict in 321 that made Sunday an official day of rest. But again, it had no connection to the Sabbath. It was Ambrose and Chrysostom that later tied the day to the Fourth Commandment and following the fourth century there is a steady move towards identifying the Sabbath with Sunday.
This article is not meant to say much about what we ought to do in relation to the Sabbath. It is only meant to trace the history of the Christian practice of meeting on Sundays and our tendency to think of Sunday as the Sabbath. I’ll talk more about our relationship with the Sabbath in a future post.
Feel free to leave comments or questions.