From Sabbath to Lord's Day
As a child growing up in a Christian home, I assumed that Sunday was the Sabbath day. As far as I was concerned, the Old Testament command to `remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy' (Exodus 20:8) referred to Sunday and instructed that we should not work on that day. It was only when I became exposed to Judaism that I discovered an alternative day for the Sabbath and this was the original Saturday. Like many Christians who have followed this path, it led to some confusion and the inevitable question, which day really is the Sabbath? To begin to answer this question we need to examine the development of Sunday as a special day in Christianity.
The first Christians, like Jesus, were accustomed to go to synagogue on Saturday and to treat this as their day of rest. Jesus rose on the first day of the week and the belief in the resurrection became central to the faith of these new believers. There is very little New Testament evidence for them particularly meeting on that day, though it is commonly believed that they may have met on Saturday evening (the Jewish start of the first day of the week). The only New Testament description of a Christian meeting on the first day is found in Acts 20:7-12. It is the story of a Christian gathering to celebrate communion together and hear a sermon from Paul who was leaving the next day. The scene is an evening one: lamps have been lit and Paul spoke until late into the night. A young man dropped off to sleep, fell out of the window and was killed. Paul went downstairs, put his arms around the boy, declared him alive and then returned upstairs to `break bread', eat and preach until daybreak! The traditional Christian view has set this on Sunday evening but a literal Jewish understanding of the evening of the first day would place it on Saturday evening. If this were the case then Paul would have `broken bread' in the early hours of Sunday morning and left for his journey on that day. The very early morning communion corroborates early Christian practice for Sunday worship though it later became detached from a meal. It does not indicate that Sunday had been designated as the Sabbath day, however - had this been the case Paul would not have started out on a journey. There are many references to Paul attending synagogue on the Sabbath (Saturday) in Acts and it seems likely that this remained his day of rest. In 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul encourages the church to set aside a sum of money for alms on the first day of each week. Again this becomes the pattern in the early church, who took a collection for the poor each Sunday, but it does not tally with the hypothesis that Sunday had become the Sabbath since handling money is an act of work.
The apostle John described himself as being in the Spirit on the `Lord's Day' (Revelation 1:10). Though there is no indication that he meant Sunday, this title had become fixed to the first day of the week by early in the second century AD. The term retained the strong end times connotations of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 13:6) and it was seen not so much as the first day but as the eighth day. This was thought to be symbolic of the ultimate paradise beyond the tribulations of this age and each Sunday would be a foretaste of heaven as Communion was a foretaste of the messianic banquet to come. This is not unlike a Jewish concept that Sabbath was a glimpse of the Eden we have lost, and was probably a development of the teaching on a final Sabbath rest in Hebrews 4.
Sunday became the regular day of worship for Christians in the very early years of the church, but it did not become established as a day of rest - a Christian Sabbath - until much later. Constantine in 321 AD declared Sunday to be a day free from work. This may have been from a Christian motivation, though there are strong indications that Constantine retained much of his previous sun worship and Sunday was the Sun's day. After the Roman Empire, other rulers in Europe periodically sought to maintain Sunday as a `holiday' and ensure that Christians attended Church. Strict keeping of Sunday as a Sabbath only finally arose out of the Scottish and English Reformation.
In the Jewish community the change from Saturday to Sunday as a day for corporate worship was seen as an anti-Jewish statement. Indeed the Council of Laodicea in 364 AD ordained that Sunday should be the day for Christian worship and Christians should work on Saturday rather than `Judaise'. Though the reasons for changing the day were considerably more complex than simply an anti-Jewish reaction by Gentile Christians, it continues to provide a divide between the two religions. Until recent years, a Jewish person who became a follower of Jesus would have to worship on Sunday rather than Saturday to be part of their new faith community. Today the considerable growth of Messianic Jewish congregations in Israel and elsewhere enables Jewish followers of Jesus to have their regular worship on Saturdays and retain a Jewish approach to the rhythm of the week.