Why did the Christian Church change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday? As you well know, the Jewish people still recognize Saturday as their Sabbath.
The Sabbath, which means “cessation” or “rest” in Hebrew, was the seventh day of the week, which the Hebrews later known as the Jews were commanded by God to keep holy. All work was forbidden and violations of the Sabbath could be punishable by death. It was a day that was to be totally dedicated to God and was a sign of the Covenant that He had made with His people, Israel. “Take care to keep my Sabbath, for that is to be the token between you and me throughout the generations, to show that it is I, the Lord, who make you holy” (Exodus 31: 13).
The strict observance of the Sabbath was very much a part of the early Christian Church. Jesus, of course, was Himself a Jew as were all His first followers and, like them, practiced all the Jewish customs. We learn, however, that during His short public ministry, the Jewish leaders, who did not recognize Him for who He was, publicly criticized him for violation of the Sabbath. As the Savior whom they had had long awaited, He was ushering in a New Covenant, but they did not know it. Thus, when accused of non-observance of the Saturday Sabbath, He could say to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). In other words, He could change the Sabbath because He was Lord over it; He was God.
After Jesus died, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, His believers, who loved Him so much, wanted to be devotedly faithful to Him and do as He had commanded. Although He had established a Church and a leader to rule and guide in His name (Matthew 16:19), he had not given to them a ready set of instructions, other than to go out and preach the Good News and to follow the Holy Spirit who would lead them into all truth. There were no church buildings, no New Testament, no liturgical rites. These were left for the Church to develop, with His authority.
At the beginning, because they were still Jewish or Judaized Gentiles, the followers of “the Way,” as the early believers were called (Acts 18:25, 19:9), continued to go on the seventh day of the week for the Temple worship and observe the Sabbath. A significant change had taken place in their lives, however, and this would lead to a period of searching and wondering how they were to live as Jews and at the same time follow Jesus. They now saw Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, although still considering themselves Jewish.
These believers in Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26). They would meet in their homes “on the first day of the week” (Sunday) for the “breaking of the bread” (Acts 20:7). This is what they had been commanded to do by the Lord Jesus on the night of His Last Supper (Luke 22:19). With time, their new ways of worship, which were moving them further and further away from Judaism, came to the attention of the non-Christian Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire, who saw them as a threat. This lead to the widespread persecution of the “Jesus Movement,” a group they thought to be a temporary cult that would soon be wiped out. To their great surprise, the complete opposite happened. Against all odds, this small band of believers grew to eventually become the religion of the existing entire Western world.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the authority given to them by Christ, the Apostles eventually replaced the Saturday Sabbath as the day that was to be dedicated to God and changed it to Sunday, the Lord’s Day. There is strong evidence in Scripture and numerous early Christian writings that Sunday was chosen because it was on that day that Jesus had risen from the dead. For example, St. Ignatius (Ep. ad Magnes. 9) speaks of Christians as “no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also Our Life rose again.” In the Epistle of Barnabas (15) we read: “Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day (i.e. the first of the week) with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.” Without the Easter Resurrection there would have been no faith, for it was on that day of the week that Jesus had proven He was God.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.