The History of First Day in Christianity

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1. The Importance of the First Day Starts in Scripture.

Scripture reports that the New Testament church gathered to break bread, meet, worship, give offerings on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). But Scripture doesn’t use the word Sunday ever. Instead, the early church spoke of Sunday as the first day of the week, or the first day from the Sabbath.

 

2. The Early History of Worship.

We do well to learn what the early church actually practiced. In the earliest days, Jewish Christians continued to observe Sabbath (and other laws of Moses) and Gentile Christians met on the first day. Some kept the Sabbath and celebrated the first day in view of the resurrection of Jesus. In time, the former (Jewish Christianity) decreased and the latter (Gentile Christianity) persisted, and the notion that Sunday has taken the place of the Sabbath is notably absent from early Christian literature.

 

3. Sunday Had Typological Significance.

If Sunday didn’t replace the Sabbath, what did the earliest Christians think about the day? Based on early Christian literature, there were three theological factors for worship on Sunday. First, it was the day Christ rose from the grave. This is what makes Sunday the Lord’s Day and why the New Testament church gathered on this day. Second, it was the first day of a new creation. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 identified believers as new creations in Christ, so the first day after the Sabbath would, according to Genesis, have been a day of (new) creation. Third, Sunday was also the eighth day, a day that both related to circumcision and also “the final day of eternal rest and joy”. Altogether, the early church saw Sunday as a day full of symbolism. Physical rest akin to the Mosaic law, however, was not part of that symbolism. Instead, resurrection and new creation provided the typological substance.

 

4. Sunday Became a Day of Rest under Constantine.

For the first three centuries of the church, there was no expectation that on the Lord’s Day one is to rest from one’s labors. Roman slaves had to work on that day. Not until Christendom shaped commerce did Sunday become a day of rest. Here’s the pagan edict that started to change Sunday into a Sabbath that would have ramifications later in Christianity when puritans would take this application further. The first mention of Sunday rest was issued by Constantine. In 321 AD “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all the workshops be closed”. Christendom initiated by Constantine led to the practice of Sabbath-keeping on Sunday contrary to early christian practice. Then beginning in the Middle Ages and culminating with Puritanism (movement that came after the reformation), Christians came to think of and strictly observe Sunday as the Sabbath. Thus, Christian (Sunday) Sabbath keeping gained prominence. 

 

5. The Mood and Practices of Sunday Changed over Time.

In the early church (first three centuries after Christ), the Lord’s Day, which is the first day, celebrated Christ’s resurrection and the dawn of a new creation; but in the Middle Ages, it became more like a funeral. Sunday worship lost its joyful tenor and was driven by fear of excommunication. In this same era, legislation commending cessation from work continued. When reform came to the church, great strides were taken to change practices of worship, including the calendar. However, the reformers did little to recover the Sunday practices of the early church. 

 

6. Since then, the History of Sunday Has Been Shaped by Sabbatarianism.

In Puritan England, the idea of the Mosaic Sabbath was applied to Sunday. In that period, the entire nation slowed down on Sunday, and these theological reasons arose to support this practice. There was agreement under the new covenant it was not the day of the week that mattered so much as the practice of rest. And proper rest required detailed and exacting legislation.

In both the confessions of the church, such as the Westminster Confession and also the national laws of England, there was a strict adherence to practicing rest on Sunday. Naturally this practice led to all manner of debate, but in English Christendom, Sabbatarianism won out, and “blue laws” became the norm in England. Then, because of England’s influence on the founding of America, those same practices appeared in New England, which in turn has shaped American Christianity.

 

7. Although mainline Puritanism was Sunday Sabbatarian, it is no accident that seventh-day Sabbatarian movements have developed on Puritan soil. Seventh-day Sabbatarians (such as the Seventh day Adventists) see themselves as carrying the theological premises of Puritanism to their logical end. If the Sabbath of the Decalogue must be applied with exactness and rigor as the rule of life for Christians, why not keep the Sabbath on the seventh day which Jesus, and the primitive Jerusalem church also kept? Orthodox Puritans (Sunday Sabbatarians) and their descendants have tried to argue that Jesus or the apostles changed the day of worship and commanded the church to observe a new day. But they are without biblical support and consequently fall into the hands of their more consistent seventh-day Sabbatarian opponents such as the SDA’s. 

 

8. The belief that the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday is an old error (puritans promoted this Sunday Sabbath error, and some protestants still do, and they even confessed about it, but they kept on resting on Sunday as they saw that the gospel gave them the freedom to choose the day). Here’s such confession:

 “There was and is a command to keep holy the Sabbath day: but the Sabbath day was not Sunday. It will be said, however, and with some show of triumph, that the Sabbath was transferred from the seventh to the first day of the week, with all its duties, privileges and sanctions. Earnestly desiring information on this subject, which I have studied for many years, I ask: Where can the record of such a transaction be found? Not in the New Testament, absolutely not. There is no Scriptural evidence of the change of the Sabbath institution from the seventh to the first day of the week.” (Dr Edward T Hiscox, author of the Baptist Manual).

 

Absolutely, there is no evidence that it was transferred to Sunday. However, what the New Testament teaches is that the Sabbath was part of the first covenant that is now obsolete (Hebrews 8 & 9), and no one should hold or judge anyone over a Sabbath day (Col 2:16,17), and it is in vain to observe days once you come to the knowledge of the gospel (Gal 4:10,11). Observing days (Saturday or Sunday or Wednesday) is a matter of personal conviction under the new covenant.

 

Now SDA’s misuse the above quotes from puritans and protestant authors like Edward Hiscox, and try to promote their agenda of Sabbath keeping. However, none of those quotes have a bearing on the Sabbath, as the practice of gathering on Sunday started soon after Jesus’ resurrection,  and continued with the apostles, and in the gentile churches not in just one location but throughout Asia, Africa, Europe etc in the first few centuries way before Constantine or Popes.

Justin Martyr, an early christian apologist, who was born 70 years after Christ wrote: “Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly … Jesus Christ on the same day rose from the dead” (Apology, I.67). 
Bardesanes, Edessa (AD 180 – from Asia): “On first day of the week, we assemble ourselves together.” (Book of the Laws of Countries).
Clement of Alexandria (AD 194 from Egypt) wrote: “He does the commandment according to the Gospel and keeps the Lord’s day, whenever he puts away an evil mind . . . glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in himself. (Vii.xii.76.4)

So how can Constantine or Pope, change the day of worship in the 4th century, when Jesus, apostles, and the early church already started to meet on the first day way before them?  

In fact, this is exactly what some of these protestants that SDA’s fondly quote were also saying, ‘Sunday is not another Sabbath nor a day of rest nor a holy day”! Absolutely! And neither were these protestants promoting that the Jewish seventh day Sabbath should be observed and yet Adventists misquote these statements.

Take for example the quote SDA’s quote by the following protestant:
Alexander Campbell, The Christian Baptist, Feb. 2, 1824,vol. 1. no. 7, p. 164. “‘But,’ say some, ‘it was changed from the seventh to the first day.’ Where? when? and by whom? No man can tell”
Absolutely true! The Sabbath was abolished, not changed to Sunday! Campbell taught that the Sabbath was abolished like most other protestant writers! He is asking those misguided sunday Sabbath keepers, where is that change recorded, and the answer is there is no change!
“Under the new constitution all disciples live if they knew it; and if you go back to Moses for a Sabbath, you may go back to him for a new moon, a holy day or what you please. And indeed we are, and must be confessed to be, either under the old constitution or the new. We cannot be under bothWe cannot live under the English and American constitution at the same time. If I were to go to Moses for a “Seventh Day Sabbath,” I should not blush to take from him an eighth day circumcision or an annual passover. The Christian Baptist, Vol. 3 No. 1, August 1, 1825, pp. 177-178
Campbell wrote:
He that keeps the Sabbath of the Jews is a debtor, to do the whole law (torah). The Sabbath could not be changed from the seventh day to the first day, for the reasons given for its observance; nor can the first day of the week be changed into a Jewish or Patriarchal Sabbathfor the reasons which consecrated it to the Lord. (Millennial Harbinger of 1837, p. 279)
So, most of the protestant quotes that SDA’s quote means something different, but naive Sabbatarians read those quotes and think that those protestants were promoting seventh-day Sabbath observance or at least admitting that it should be observed. While some of the protestants were misguided about the Law, most of these protestants understood that the Bible teaches that Sabbath is a ritual law fulfilled at the cross, no more binding, and Sunday is not the Sabbath day, and it should not be treated as a Mosaic Sabbath, instead Sunday is a day for Christian common assembly in view of the resurrection, which is allowed,  commanded, practiced, and not prohibited or condemned by the New Covenant. See: Why the First Day?

 

Adventists and Sabbatarians also quote certain recent century Catholic Confessions as proof that the Catholic Church changed it centuries later Christ. But in this Adventist ignore, fail to state, another claim which all these same Catholic authorities always make just as strongly, namely, that their Holy Catholic Church extends back to, and began with, the apostles, who started this practice of meeting on Sunday.

 

The very highest authority, in the Catholic Church – the Council of Trent contains the creed of the Church.  Every member has to swear to this creed when he joins the Church, hence it is authoritative.  It devotes eight pages to the Sabbath question.  It says:
“The Sabbath was kept holy from the time of the liberation of the people of Israel from the bondage of Pharaohthe obligation was to cease with the abrogation of the Jewish worship, of which it formed a part; and it therefore was no longer obligatory after the death of Christ. “The apostles therefore resolved to consecrate the first day of the week to the divine worship, and called it ‘the Lord’s Day’; St.  John, in the Apocalypse, makes mention of ‘the Lord’s Day’; and the apostle commands collection to be made ‘on the first day of the week,’ that is, according to the interpretation of St.  Chrysostom, on the Lord’s Day;” (pages 264, 265).
With regard to Catholic Church reaching back to apostolic days, Advent Review and Herald, October 23, 1913, says:
“As we read this, we should not forget that we are reading the deliberate declaration of the highest official in America of that Church which claims to reach back to Apostolic days.”

 

So, when Catholics talk about Sabbath being changed to Sunday, they are talking about a practice that started from the apostles in the first century, who they claim are the founders of their Church. Hence, Adventists are naive to claim that a change happened many centuries later.

When all evidence fail them, Adventists have also tried to promote the idea that Sunday practice started with paganism, however, Adventist scholars have refuted this non-sense as well. C. Mervyn Maxwell, Ph.D., professor of church history at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan writes:
“Another group of scholars has suggested that the second- and third-century Christians adopted Sunday in preference to the seventh-day Sabbath as a result of the influence of pagan sun worship. Without question, the sun was worshiped by people who lived in the Roman Empire during the centuries under discussion here and sun worship did play a vital role in the early fourth century when the Sunday rest was decreed by Constantine (A.D. 321), but there is little evidence that the sun occupied the unique position attributed to it by some modern authors. When the Emperor Caracalla tried to impose sun worship in the early years of the third century, the Romans laughed at him. Although sun worship has always played a role in pagan religions, it wasn’t until the end of that century (3rd century) that the sun enjoyed real prominence among the Roman gods—and by that time many Christians, at least, had been observing Sunday for 150 years. In his Apology addressed to the Roman Government, the great Christian writer Tertullian specifically refuted the charge that Christians worshiped on Sunday in honor of the sun” (Source: Ministry Magazine, 1977).

That’s a gem of a statement to come from the mouth of an Adventist scholar, “Many Christians, at least, had been observing Sunday for 150 years”, in contradiction to Ellen White, the inspired prophet of SDA’s.

Samuel Bachiochi, the SDA scholar also wrote: “I differ from Ellen White, for example, on the origin of Sunday. She teaches that in the first centuries all Christians observed the Sabbath and it was largely through the efforts of Constantine that Sunday keeping was adopted by many Christians in the fourth century. My research shows otherwise”

It is unfortunate that Adventism has made Sabbath, an obsolete ritual law, and a law that they do not properly observe, a salvational issue for the end times, and has gone great lengths to bring false hoods and fear into the hearts of people who worship not just on Sunday, but also their own members who worship on Saturday.

Adapted and referenced:

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/a-brief-history-of-sunday/

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