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Who Changed the Sabbath to Sunday?

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Your Bible shows plainly that Jesus Christ and the early church observed the seventh-day Sabbath. So did His first followers. Yet today, the vast majority of those calling themselves “Christian” worship on Sundays and do nothing to keep the seventh-day Sabbath holy. How did this change occur? And what should you do about it?

The religions of the world set aside a variety of holidays or holy days. Muslims worship on Friday. Jews around the world have worshipped for millennia on the Sabbath, the day beginning at sunset every Friday evening and continuing until sunset on Saturday.

Jesus Christ observed the seventh-day Sabbath. Most professing Christians meet for Sunday church services, proclaiming theirs as the true day for worship. So, which day should Christians keep holy—the first of the week, or the seventh? Is Saturday or Sunday the true Sabbath?

Throughout history, various civilizations have recorded their days in weeks of different lengths, such as four days or ten. Even history demonstrates that, among these varieties, the seven-day week is very ancient. Records going back to ancient Babylon describe the observance of the seven-day cycle. The Jewish people have preserved a calendar with a seven-day week and have not lost track of the cycle over millennia. Even when Pope Gregory XIII revised the calendar in 1582, he did not change this cycle. The seventh-day Sabbath today is the same seventh day observed by Jesus and the first-century Christian Church.

Perhaps as a child, you learned the Ten Commandments. The Fourth Commandment gives us this very plain instruction: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8). Yet most professing Christians observe Sunday, even though first-century Christians observed the same seventh-day Sabbath that Jesus observed!

So, why do most people who call themselves “Christians” ignore the seventh-day Sabbath and instead hallow Sunday, the first day of the week? What happened to the example of Jesus and of the first-century Christians? The Apostle Paul urged Christians to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1)—and he observed the seventh-day Sabbath throughout his life, keeping it from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, in imitation of his Savior, who preached in the synagogues on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16).

The Apostle Paul preached on the Sabbath to both Jews and Gentiles in the Antioch synagogue. Remember that this occurred years after Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Surely, if Christians were supposed to keep Sunday, these Gentiles would have met with Paul the very next day, Sunday. But notice: “So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath” (Acts 13:42). Not Sunday!

Indeed, what happened? “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (v. 44). Paul met with Gentiles not on Sunday, but on the day first-century Christians observed: the seventh-day Sabbath.

So, who changed the Sabbath to Sunday? What happened to the Fourth Commandment, which states that God’s people should keep the seventh day holy? This is a vital question for all professing Christians!

Eight “First Days”

“But isn’t ‘Sunday’ in the New Testament?,” some will wonder. You may be surprised to learn that if you look for it in your New Testament, you will not find “Sunday” mentioned even once! What you will find are eight references to “the first day of the week.”

Six of those references describe the day after Jesus’ resurrection, as we will discuss later. But what about the other two? Surely these must depict or command Sunday worship, right? Let’s look at both.

“On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Was this some kind of “passing the plate” at a church service? No! Much as in Romans 15, Paul here is asking the Corinthians to gather supplies for needy brethren. He is not asking them to worship, but to do the physical work of gathering goods for those in need in Jerusalem. This was not activity fit for a day of rest; it was active, physical service on the part of the Galatian brethren.

Next, let us consider this verse: “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). First, we notice that Paul’s message ended around midnight on the first day of the week. This means that it began on what we would call Saturday. And how did Paul and his companions continue after their meeting? Some did the hard labor of rowing (vv. 13–14), while Paul walked for hours—not what one would call a “Sabbath rest.” Clearly, this is not an example of the first day of the week being treated as a Sabbath.

What about John 20? “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (v. 19). Notice the context; Jesus had been crucified just days before, and the disciples did not yet understand that He was risen (cf. Mark 16:14; Luke 24:37–41). They were hiding together, fearing the Jews who had crucified their Savior. When Jesus appeared to these disciples on the first day of the week, He was not barging into a worship service! Indeed, as we shall see, He had risen from the dead on the day before—the seventh day!

What About the Resurrection?

When did Sunday replace the seventh-day Sabbath—the so-called “Jewish Sabbath”—as the day of rest for professing Christians? The Catholic Encyclopedia, on the topic of “Sunday,” explains: “Tertullian… is the first writer who expressly mentions the Sunday rest: ‘We, however (just as tradition has taught us), on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude; deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil’” (vol. XIV, p. 335). Tertullian did not write this until 202 AD, more than 170 years after the beginning of the New Testament Church!

But is Sunday the day of the Lord’s resurrection, as Tertullian said? No! When Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning, she found it already empty. We read, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him’” (John 20:1–2).

Notice that Mary arrived at the tomb while it was still dark outside! The sun had not yet risen on Sunday morning, and Jesus was not there! Jesus was not resurrected at sunrise—rather, by the time the sun had risen Sunday morning, He was already gone and the tomb was already empty. Remember, He had promised that He would rise exactly three days and three nights after His burial, fulfilling the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:40). Jesus was buried shortly before sunset on a Preparation Day preceding an annual Holy Day (John 19:31), so we know that He rose shortly before sunset three days later. Mary found the tomb empty on Sunday morning because Jesus rose from the dead shortly before sunset on the day before, on Saturday.

As we can see, the idea of basing Sunday worship on Christ’s resurrection comes not from the Bible, but from faulty human traditions. Rather, Jesus emphasized the sign of Jonah as the sign of His being the Messiah: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39–40).

If Jesus rose from the dead on Saturday afternoon, He was put in the grave on Wednesday afternoon. The “Good Friday” tradition is nowhere found in your Bible. Jesus did as He promised, spending three days and three nights—not two nights and a day as the Good Friday tradition would require—in the grave. You can read more about the three days and three nights, and the timing and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, in our inspiring, free booklets Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? and Easter: The Untold Story.

The first-century Christian Church worshipped on the seventh day of the week, which we now call Saturday. But when Roman Emperor Constantine, a pagan sun-worshipper, enforced his own version of Christianity in his empire, he mandated Sunday worship. He gave the following edict in 321 AD: “Let all magistrates and people of the city… rest on the venerable day of the Sun” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, “Roman Legislation for Sunday,” vol. XI, p. 147).

Just a few years later, the Roman church also passed a startling decree in the Council of Laodicea, declaring, “Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s day they shall especially honour, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing [keeping the seventh-day Sabbath], they shall be shut out from Christ” (A History of the Councils of the Church, vol. 2, p. 316). In other words, Christian Sabbath-keepers were declared heretics.

But on what authority did the Roman church make this change? The noted Catholic theologian, James Cardinal Gibbons, wrote this bold statement: “But you may read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and you will not find a single line authorizing the sanctification of Sunday. The Scriptures enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify.” That’s a quote from Gibbons’ The Faith of Our Fathers, first published in 1876 (p. 97, 1917).

In other words, Cardinal Gibbons is saying that if the Bible is your authority, you have no basis for observing Sunday. The Scriptures, as he states, “enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify.”

What Gibbons and other Catholic authorities state is that the authority of the Catholic church, not the New Testament Scriptures, changed observance in the Christian world from Saturday to Sunday—an event that did not occur until the Council of Laodicea, in the middle of the fourth century.

What an amazing admission! And yet Gibbons is not alone. Our free booklet Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath? documents similar admissions from Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and other religious leaders, all agreeing that the Bible nowhere authorizes Sunday as a “new” Sabbath day.

But does this even matter? Can’t we just worship on any day?

Christ made His answer to this question very clear. Scripture records that He gave a very strong warning about observing traditions that conflict with the commandments of God. Many churches have followed that wrong pathway, as did the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Concerning such practices, Jesus warned, “‘In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men…. All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:7–9).

That’s a warning I hope all of us will heed. Jesus said He is Lord of the Sabbath. He observed the Sabbath regularly, and He did not break God’s law, as some theologians claim. As He said, “I have kept My Father’s commandments” (John 15:10). So, should you follow the example of Jesus Christ and the instructions of your Bible? Or should you oppose them and follow the traditions of men?

When Was the Seventh-Day Sabbath Established?

We’ve seen that the early New Testament Church observed the seventh-day Sabbath. But when was the seventh-day Sabbath established? At the time of Moses on Mt. Sinai? No! It was established much earlier, at the foundation of this world.

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made (Genesis 2:1–3).

Yes, God established the seventh-day Sabbath at the foundation of this world, long before the time of Moses.

Notice what Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Founder of Christianity did not say, “The Sabbath was made for the Jewish people.” The Sabbath was made for man, for all humanity, for every human being on earth.

Jesus made an amazing claim. Did He say He was Lord over Sunday—that Sunday was the Lord’s day? No, He did not. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28). If Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, what day is the Lord’s day? Sunday? Think about it! The Sabbath is the Lord’s Day—Jesus Himself said so. We read that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He is still, right now, Lord of the Sabbath.

The Scriptures admonish us to follow His example and that of the apostles. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The Apostle Peter exhorted us to follow Christ’s example: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Yes, Jesus and the apostles kept the seventh-day Sabbath holy, and God expects us to follow their example.

The “Rest” of the Story

There is much more New Testament evidence regarding Sabbath observance. For instance, the Sabbath pictures the Millennial rest and is a memorial of God’s rest at creation. We read, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). The original Greek word for “rest” here is sabbatismos, which means “a Sabbath-keeping.” Both the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version translate verse 9 as “a Sabbath rest.” Yes, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, even to this day!

Notice this important statement: “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:10). The context here is both of symbolic and literal rest. The Greek word katapausis is the second of the two basic words translated “rest” in this section. But notice what God says of those who have now entered into His rest—that is, those who are converted, those who are willing to follow Christ now.

If we, as converted Christians, are to cease from our works just as God did from His, we simply need to ask one question: How did God cease from His works? Scripture gives us the answer: “For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’” (Hebrews 4:4).

The scholarly Anchor Bible Dictionary affirms the responsibility of New Testament Christians to observe the Sabbath. It states, “Physical sabbath-keeping on the part of the New Covenant believer as affirmed by ‘sabbath rest’ epitomizes cessation from ‘works’ (4:10) in commemoration of God’s rest at creation ([Hebrews] 4:4 = Gen 2:2) and manifests faith in the salvation provided by Christ” (vol. 5, p. 856, emphasis added). That’s quite a plain statement! Yes, the Scriptures affirm that new-covenant Christians are to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” as the fourth commandment states (Exodus 20:8).

The bottom-line question is: Who or what is your authority? Is it the Bible? Or some church and religion apart from the Bible?

As we’ve seen, some religious leaders, including both Roman Catholic and Protestant, claim tradition or church administration apart from the Bible as their reason for keeping Sunday rather than the Sabbath. For example, consider this statement from prominent Anglican minister Isaac Williams in 1847:

[A]nd where are we told in Scripture that we are to keep the first day at all? We are commanded to keep the seventh; but we are no where commanded to keep the first day…. The reason why we keep the first day of the week holy instead of the seventh is for the same reason that we observe many other things, not because the Bible, but because the Church, has enjoined it (Plain Sermons, by Contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. IX, Sermon CCCIV, pp. 267, 269, emphasis added).

These are surprising admissions. Again, you can read even more in our free, informative booklet Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?

We’ve seen that the original Christian Church observed the seventh-day Sabbath, following the example of Jesus Christ and the apostles. It was Emperor Constantine in 321 AD who proclaimed the day of the sun as the day of worship for the Roman Empire. The fourth-century AD Catholic Council of Laodicea affirmed Sunday worship and declared Christian Sabbath-keepers heretics. Even to this day, Christian Sabbath-keepers are persecuted in many countries around the world.

Who Changed the Day of Worship?

So, who changed the Sabbath to Sunday? The answer is “No one!” Man cannot change what God has decreed!

Through the One who became Jesus Christ, God Almighty established the Sabbath at the foundation of the world for all human beings. God “created all things through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:9), and Christ, to this day, is Lord of the Sabbath, as it tells us in Mark 2:28. Remember, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Yes, even today, true Christians follow the example of Christ, His apostles, and the Church of the New Testament in observing the seventh-day Sabbath.

If you are a longtime student of Tomorrow’s World and would like to worship with other Christian Sabbath-keepers, we invite you to counsel with one of our representatives. Just contact the Regional Office nearest you, listed on page 4 of this magazine, or contact us at TomorrowsWorld.org.

Dear readers, we are living in the time of the end prophesied in your Bible. We look forward to the coming Kingdom of God, ruled by the Prince of Peace—the Messiah, Jesus Christ. As King of kings and Lord of lords, He will teach, govern, guide, and serve all nations. So, one last question: When Christ establishes His world-ruling Kingdom on Earth, on what day will all nations worship?

Notice God’s proclamation: “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 66:22–23).

If you are alive at that time, will you obey your Lord and Savior and worship Him on the seventh day, keeping the Sabbath holy along with all other people on earth? Do you even now worship the Savior as Lord of the Sabbath? Give these questions some thought, and prayerfully decide to worship God in spirit and in truth, as it tells us in John 4:24. We look forward to the day when all peoples and nations around the world will worship Christ the King. The Messiah will establish world peace, world government, true education, and the biblical way of truth, love, and life. All nations will observe the true weekly Sabbath and the biblical Holy Days! What a wonderful, peaceful, and prosperous world it will be!