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PFRS Home > Doctrinal Studies > Hebrew Roots & Sabbath Issues

Sunday & the Early Church

Copyright © Tim Warner

It is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church that she alone switched Sabbath worship to Sunday worship by her own authority. Seventh Day Adventists often quote Roman Catholic documents, and echo her claims, in order to justify their rejection of Sunday worship as a genuine Christian custom, established by the Apostles themselves. Many Christians today claim that Sunday was a pagan holiday, and brought into Christianity by Constantine in the 4th century. Furthermore, it is claimed by Seventh Day Adventists that the Roman Church is the "Beast" of Revelation, and Sunday worship is the "mark of the beast."

The purpose of this article is to show that both the Roman Catholic claims, and the Seventh Day Adventist claims are false, and not based on the historical record. The intent of the Roman Catholic claim, is to rub the noses of Protestants in the [alleged] fact that Protestants are unknowingly bowing to the Roman Catholic Church's [alleged] authority to change what the Bible teaches. This is a lie, propagated by a distorted and false history. And, unfortunately, Seventh Day Adventists have swallowed the lie, hook line, and sinker.

The earliest documents from Church history record that Christians were worshipping on Sunday in the first century, more than 200 years before Constantine or the Roman Catholic Church made any decrees of any kind. Before Constantine, all of the Christian Churches were local independent autonomous churches.

Below are quotes from the Ante Nicene Fathers. These are documents written by the early Christians. I have included only those from the earliest period, that is, authors who personally were acquainted with the Apostles, or lived contiguous to the time of the Apostles. Since our intent is to discover the earliest recorded tradition, later quotes are simply redundant, and of little value to our study. These earliest quotes establish the fact that it was the Christian custom, even while John was still alive, to worship on Sunday, not Saturday.

Ignatius was one of the "Apostolic Fathers." This term is applied by Church historians to those men who were personally acquainted with the Apostles, and/or lived during the lifetime of the Apostles. Hence they were well acquainted with Apostolic tradition. Ignatius' seven epistles are probably the most valuable source of early Christian thinking because he lived during the earliest years of the Christian Church. He was born around AD30, the year Christ began to preach. And he became a martyr of Jesus - thrown to the wild beasts - on December 20, AD107. Ignatius' acquaintance with Apostolic tradition was without question having been under the personal instruction of John, along with Polycarp and Papius. He was Bishop of the church in Antioch (Paul's home-church) during John's imprisonment on Patmos, and therefore was well versed in the history of this local church, where the disciples were first called "Christians."

It is also clear that the church of Antioch carried more influence than the Roman church, since Ignatius' epistles carry a tone of authority, not unlike Paul's. After all, the Antioch church was the mother church to all of the churches of Asia Minor, having originally sent Paul and Barnabas out to evangelize the Gentiles. But, the only Roman epistle from the first century, that of Clement to the Corinthians, carries a much milder tone of brotherly encouragement, without direct commands or exercise of authority. It seems that the "Presbyters" (a term Irenaeus used for the "disciples of the Apostles") carried a kind of authority as faithful witnesses to the Apostolic teachings (2 Tim. 2:2). Hence, these men wrote several epistles to other smaller churches. Ignatius wrote seven which have survived; Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, wrote one (to the Philippians); and the epistles of Papius are lost - the only real documentation coming from later writers who quoted him.

It was also believed in the early Church that Ignatius was the little child that Jesus placed in the midst of the disciples (Matt. 18:2). But there is no way to confirm this.

One point of great importance is Ignatius' use of the term "the Lord's day." This was a common term in his epistles (as well as other first century writers), always in reference to Sunday. And being a disciple of John, we can conclude that John's use of the term "the Lord's day" in Rev. 1:10 is the same. This fact weighs heavily in favor of Apostolic connections to Sunday observance.

The following quotations are from Ignatius' epistle to the Magnesians, regarding Christians and the Law, and in particular, the Sabbath.

"Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. For the divinest prophets lived according to Christ Jesus. On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by His grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence, and who in all things pleased Him that sent Him. Be not deceived with strange doctrines, "nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies," and things in which the Jews make their boast. "Old things are passed away: behold, all things have become new." For if we still live according to the Jewish law, and the circumcision of the flesh, we deny that we have received grace. For the divinest prophets lived according to Jesus Christ. On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, not spoken, but essential. For He is not the voice of an articulate utterance, but a substance begotten by divine power, who has in all things pleased Him that sent Him.

"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 — whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master — how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead. If, then, those who were conversant with the ancient Scriptures came to newness of hope, expecting the coming of Christ, as the Lord teaches us when He says, "If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me;" and again, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it, and was glad; for before Abraham was, I am; " how shall we be able to live without Him? The prophets were His servants, and foresaw Him by the Spirit, and waited for Him as their Teacher, and expected Him as their Lord and Savior, saying, "He will come and save us." Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for "he that does not work, let him not eat." For say the [holy] oracles, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread." But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, "To the end, for the eighth day," on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ, whom the children of perdition, the enemies of the Savior, deny, "whose God is their belly, who mind earthly things," who are "lovers of pleasure, and not lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." These make merchandise of Christ, corrupting His word, and giving up Jesus to sale: they are corrupters of women, and covetous of other men's possessions, swallowing up wealth insatiably; from whom may ye be delivered by the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ!

"Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be. Therefore, having become His disciples, let us learn to live according to the principles of Christianity. For whosoever is called by any other name besides this, is not of God. Lay aside, therefore, the evil, the old, the sour leaven, and be ye changed into the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be ye salted in Him, lest any one among you should be corrupted, since by your savour ye shall be convicted. It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God. Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be. For "if Thou, Lord, shalt mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" Let us therefore prove ourselves worthy of that name which we have received. For whosoever is called by any other name besides this, he is not of God; for he has not received the prophecy which speaks thus concerning us: "The people shall be called by a new name, which the Lord shall name them, and shall be a holy people." This was first fulfilled in Syria; for "the disciples were called Christians at Antioch," when Paul and Peter were laying the foundations of the Church. Lay aside, therefore, the evil, the old, the corrupt leaven, and be ye changed into the new leaven of grace. Abide in Christ, that the stranger may not have dominion over you. It is absurd to speak of Jesus Christ with the tongue, and to cherish in the mind a Judaism which has now come to an end. For where there is Christianity there cannot be Judaism. For Christ is one, in whom every nation that believes, and every tongue that confesses, is gathered unto God. And those that were of a stony heart have become the children of Abraham, the friend of God; and in his seed all those have been blessed who were ordained to eternal life in Christ."
[Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, VIII-X]

The ninth chapter opens with these words: "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..." Ignatius was referring to the Apostles as the ones "brought up in the ancient order of things" (meaning under the Old Covenant). He was arguing that since the Apostles, who were brought up in Judaism no longer kept the Sabbath but rather "the Lord's day," there is no reason for his readers to do differently. This indicates personal knowledge by Ignatius that the Apostles did NOT continue to observe the Sabbath, but rather Sunday. No doubt this comes from John, as does the term "the Lord's day."

Some have interpreted Ignatius' words to imply that Christians were keeping the Sabbath, and Ignatius was encouraging them to stop. Therefore, they gain support for their claim that Gentile Christians originally kept the Sabbath. Note however, that Ignatius was NOT arguing for a change in Christian practice, but that Christians should not succumb to the Judaizers. In other words, the very same problem that Paul continuously encountered from the Judaizers, who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Law, was still an ongoing concern. Ignatius was arguing that the Churches CONTINUE the tradition of the Apostles and RESIST the efforts of the Judiazers. He indicated that this Apostolic tradition was Sunday observance, in honor of the resurrection.

In Ignatius' "Epistle to the Trallians" he also repeatedly referred to Sunday as the "Lord's Day." Since Ignatius was trained by John, there is little question that He got this from John's use of the term "Lord's Day," as recorded in Rev. 1:10.

"On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried. During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathaea had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord's day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoken by Himself, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord's Day contains the resurrection."
[Ignatius, "Epistle to the Trallians," IX]

Not much is know of the authorship of the Epistle of Barnabas. Some have supposed that he was Paul's companion, but there is no way of knowing for sure. This epistle is usually dated by scholars around the latter part of the first century, around the time John wrote Revelation.

"For He hath revealed to us by all the prophets that He needs neither sacrifices, nor burnt-offerings, nor oblations, saying thus, “What is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me, saith the Lord? I am full of burnt-offerings, and desire not the fat of lambs, and the blood of bulls and goats, not when ye come to appear before Me: for who hath required these things at your hands? Tread no more My courts, not though ye bring with you fine flour. Incense is a vain abomination unto Me, and your new moons and sabbaths I cannot endure.” He has therefore abolished these things, that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have a human oblation."
[Epistle of Barnabas, II]

"The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.” Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years.” Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. And He rested on the seventh day.” This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the-sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day.... Further, He says to them, Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure.” Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when He had manifested Himself, He ascended into the heavens."
[Epistle of Barnabas, XV]

Justin Martyr was born at the end of the first century and wrote a considerable amount of Christian apologetic literature during the first half of the second century. He was first a philosopher, but after failing to find true peace in philosophy, he became a Christian. Justin was the first "apologist" for Christianity, explaining and defending the Christian Faith to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Jews. His works are very valuable to the Sunday/Sabbath question, because they were intended to characterize Christian beliefs and practice of the Church at large, rather than being indicative of one locality. Justin was later beheaded for his testimony to the Lord. Here is one quote from his "First Apology."

"And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. 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 Savior 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, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration."
[Justin Martyr, "First Apology," LXVII]

Here are several quotes from Justin's "Dialogue with Trypho." This is a record of a debate between Justin, a Gentile Christian, and an orthodox Jew named, Trypho.

"For we too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you, — namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. For if we patiently endure all things contrived against us by wicked men and demons, so that even amid cruelties unutterable, death and torments, we pray for mercy to those who inflict such things upon us, and do not wish to give the least retort to any one, even as the new Lawgiver commanded us: how is it, Trypho, that we would not observe those rites which do not harm us, — I speak of fleshly circumcision, and Sabbaths, and feasts?"
[Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, XVIII]

"And I replied, "I do not say so; but those who have persecuted and do persecute Christ, if they do not repent, shall not inherit anything on the holy mountain. But the Gentiles, who have believed on Him, and have repented of the sins which they have committed, they shall receive the inheritance along with the patriarchs and the prophets, and the just men who are descended from Jacob, even although they neither keep the Sabbath, nor are circumcised, nor observe the feasts Assuredly they shall receive the holy inheritance of God."
[Justin Martyr, "Dialogue with Trypho," XXVI]

"But if we do not admit this, we shall be liable to fall into foolish opinion, as if it were not the same God who existed in the times of Enoch and all the rest, who neither were circumcised after the flesh, nor observed Sabbaths, nor any other rites, seeing that Moses enjoined such observances... For if there was no need of circumcision before Abraham, or of the observance of Sabbaths, of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses; no more need is there of them now, after that, according to the will of God, Jesus Christ the Son of God has been born without sin, of a virgin sprung from the stock of Abraham".
[Dialogue With Trypho, XXXIII]

“As, then, circumcision began with Abraham, and the Sabbath and sacrifices and offerings and feasts with Moses, and it has been proved they were enjoined on account of the hardness of your people’s heart, so it was necessary, in accordance with the Father’s will, that they should have an end in Him who was born of a virgin, of the family of Abraham and tribe of Judah, and of David; in Christ the Son of God, who was proclaimed as about to come to all the world, to be the everlasting law and the everlasting covenant, even as the forementioned prophecies show."
[Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, XLIII]

"And Trypho again inquired, “But if some one, knowing that this is so, after he recognizes that this man is Christ, and has believed in and obeys Him, wishes, however, to observe these [institutions], will he be saved?”
I said, “In my opinion, Trypho, such an one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men, — I mean those Gentiles who have been circumcised from error by Christ, to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do so. This you did yourself at the commencement of the discourse, when you declared that I would not be saved unless I observe these institutions.”
Then he replied, “Why then have you said, ‘In my opinion, such an one will be saved,’ unless there are some who affirm that such will not be saved?”
“There are such people, Trypho,” I answered; “and these do not venture to have any intercourse with or to extend hospitality to such persons; but I do not agree with them. But if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses, from which they expect some virtue, but which we believe were appointed by reason of the hardness of the people’s hearts, along with their hope in this Christ, and [wish to perform] the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety, yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren. But if, Trypho,” I continued, “some of your race, who say they believe in this Christ, compel those Gentiles who believe in this Christ to live in all respects according to the law given by Moses, or choose not to associate so intimately with them, I in like manner do not approve of them. But I believe that even those, who have been persuaded by them to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved. And I hold, further, that such as have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back from some cause to the legal dispensation, and have denied that this man is Christ, and have repented not before death, shall by no means be saved. Further, I hold that those of the seed of Abraham who live according to the law, and do not believe in this Christ before death, shall likewise not be saved, and especially those who have anathematized and do anathematize this very Christ in the synagogues, and everything by which they might obtain salvation and escape the vengeance of fire."
[Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, XLVII]

These ancient Christian witnesses lived contemporary or contiguous to the Apostle John. And all say Christians worshiped on Sunday. Granted, this does not prove Christians worshiped on Sunday because the Apostles taught them to do so. But, it does prove that even in the first century, while the Apostle John was still alive, Christians customarily worshiped on Sunday. And this seems to be something practiced universally by the early Christians. Since it is apparent that the term "the Lord's Day" referred to Sunday in first century Christian literature, it is obvious then that John meant Sunday, when he wrote "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day..." [Rev. 1:10], and most likely meant that he was worshipping privately on Sunday while in prison.

These witnesses were more than 200 years before Constantine or the Roman Church exercised any authority outside of the local church in Rome. If Sunday worship is the "mark of the beast," as is claimed by many Seventh Day Adventists, then it seems Christians [even the martyrs of Jesus] were already taking it while the ink on John's Revelation was still wet!

Christians from the earliest times worshiped on Sunday as a memorial to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This practice originated with the resurrection of Jesus, and was continued from the disciples' meeting together on two consecutive Sundays (John 20:19,26). It seems to also have been a continuation of Pentecost Sunday (which the early Christians called "Whitsunday"). On this Sunday, Peter preached and 3,000 souls were saved, baptized, and added to the Church. And, in Acts 20:7, we have another record of a local church meeting on Sunday for their "love feast" (see: 1 Cor. 11:20 & Jude 1:12) and to hear Paul's preaching. Nowhere in Scripture is there a record of a New Testament local church meeting on the Sabbath.

Our Seventh Day Adventist friends seem to have based their main doctrine on a mirage that was constructed by the Roman Catholic Church. The RCC has revised history in order to bolster their claim to authority above the Scriptures. They claim that there is no basis for Sunday worship in Scripture (not true), and that the Roman Catholic Church changed worship from the Sabbath to Sunday by their own authority. Yet, even though the earliest witnesses prove them wrong, Seventh Day Adventists continue to quote Roman Catholic sources as though they were "inspired" and make false and misleading statements about the practice of the early Church. Likewise, the implied claims, that Christians who worship on the day of the resurrection are participating in some form of pagan rites, are equally false. If the resurrection, the Day of Pentecost, and the church in Acts 20 were not pagan, then neither is worshipping on any Sunday pagan.

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