Why do most Christians worship on Sunday when the Old Testament set Saturday as the worship day?

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Mankind’s day of rest, the Sabbath Day

“Since the Old Testament commanded people to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, why have most Christian churches switched their day of worship to Sunday, the first day of the week?”

Not all churches answer this question the same way. Some groups, most notably the Seventh-day Adventists, still worship on the seventh day. They argue that the sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), and is therefore part of God’s permanent will for His people. They often claim that the shift to Sunday was part of a great apostasy that allowed pagan ideas to infiltrate the church during the early centuries (see Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 58-59).

Other Christian groups say that Sunday is the Christian version of the sabbath. They suggest that the main point of God’s command to observe the sabbath was not the seventh day, but the idea of one day out of the seven. Jesus claimed that he was “lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:28), and therefore had the authority to change it to a different day. This position argues that Jesus changed the day to Sunday as a way of extending its blessing from the Jews to the whole world.

Still others Christians would say that we no longer observe the Jewish sabbath, but worship instead on Sunday, a distinctively Christian holy day. They argue that the early church very soon began meeting on Sunday in honor of the resurrection of Jesus, which took place on the first day of the week.

At the very beginning, the church in Jerusalem met every day in the temple and in private homes (Acts 2:46). Since the first believers were all Jewish, it seems safe to assume that they continued to participate in Jewish synagogue and temple worship for some time.

However, the New Testament makes it clear that the observance of a particular day was not imposed as a binding obligation. Romans 14:5-6 makes it clear that there was some freedom in the matter of special days. Colossians 2:16-17 commanded the church not to allow anyone to act as their judge in regard to sabbath days. And Galatians 4:9-10 warns against going back under the Law by insisting on the legal requirement of special days.

The records that remain in the New Testament show that the first day of the week soon became a day of worship. When Paul wanted to collect an offering from the church at Corinth, he asked them to gather the money on the “first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2). And when he wanted to meet with the believers at Troas, the gathering took place "on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread" (Acts 20:7).

In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John described himself as being "in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day." Most writers have thought he was referring to Sunday, so that our use of "the Lord’s Day" as a term for Sunday comes from this verse.

There is no Scripture passage that specifically teaches that the sabbath has been transferred from one day to another. It seems most likely that the shift from Saturday to Sunday was gradual, and took place along with the change from a mostly Jewish church to a mostly Gentile one. The early church fathers generally viewed sabbath as a Jewish observance, and the Lord’s Day as the proper Christian observance.

For example, Ignatius wrote in the early 100’s A.D., describing Christians with a Jewish background as those who “have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death” (Magnesians 9 ) [Editor’s note: Magnesians is a letter written to the church at Magnesia by Ignatius, a church father, also called Theophorus.]

A person’s decision concerning sabbath observance probably hinges on the question of how we view the entire Old Testament. If all of it is still binding on us, then so is the sabbath. If there are parts that are no longer binding because they were directed specifically to the Jewish nation, or because they were for ritual purposes, then the sabbath is open for discussion.

No matter what position a person takes, it is important to recognize that God has a claim to all of my time. When I give Him one day of the week, it reminds me that He owns all seven!

For a much more detailed discussion of this question, consult the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia articles on “Sabbath” and "Lord’s Day."

More information

Author: Dr. John Bechtle.

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