There is a long-standing debate over Sunday and Saturday among Christ-followers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The institution of Sunday in historical Christianity is a well-known fact and for many Christians, their very identity is tied to Sunday and what it means. It carries deep meaning and substance. On the other hand, there is an entire denomination of Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists who reject the idea of doing away with the biblical Sabbath in favor of Sunday. And thus the argument… And then there are Messianic Jews who are often caught in the middle of this battle.
To Jews the Sinai covenant applies via their heredity, thus they uphold the Sabbath because it is a familial, national covenant into which one is born. Jews do not wish to deny non-Jewish Christ-followers the freedom of emphasizing Sunday and minimizing the importance of Saturday in their worship. After all, non-Jews tie themselves to the God of Israel not through the Sinai but through Jesus and his resurrection on the first day.
But for Jews (Messianic or not) Shabbat is the perpetual sign of the Sinai covenant (ex 31:13). This covenant establishes the very identity of Israel as a people and without Sinai covenant, there is no Israel as a people. As much as the rainbow is the sign of the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:12), as much as circumcision is the sign of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:11) Shabbat is a permanent sign of that moment in history. Of course, the believers from the nations relate differently to the Sinai covenant than Israelites. That is understandable. And so the contentions among Christ-followers over the Sabbath live on and Messianic Jews are caught in the middle of this debate. Sometimes it is necessary to explain in greater detail why we stand where we do.
For Messianic Jews who also embrace the resurrection of their Messiah, it is not about the weekday. Resurrection is not a day, but rather a historical event. And while rest was modeled by God himself after creation (Gen 2:2) and mandated to Israel in Torah before and after Sinai (Ex 16:23-29, Ex 20:8) the resurrection of Yeshua or the first day of the week have no standards of behavior associated with them.
In common Christian thinking, passages such as Acts 20:7,1 Cor 16:2, and Rev 1:10 demonstrate that early believers in Jesus assembled for joint worship on Sundays. These are the text on which the Christian observance of Sunday as a special day rests. The commentary to these verses typically lead to the conclusion that Sunday is the proper day on which those who follow Messiah should meet and worship. However, if we examine these texts closely, we will see that claims about the New Testament origins of Sunday worship are actually exaggerated.
Revelation 1:10 mentions that the writer was “caught up” and experienced his astonishing visions on the “Lord’s Day” (τῇ κυριακῇ ἡμέρᾳ). It is not clear that this phrase meant Sunday, and even if it did, this verse describes John’s unique experience, rather than Christian worship. There are just bare facts. It takes a significant stretch of the imagination to say that this reference teaches us that Sunday is the proper day of worship. The texts does not even come close to implying anything like that, at least read without the commentary that is supplied to foster such a conclusion.
It is true that 1 Cor 16:1-2 describes the collection of money for Jerusalem on Sundays:
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week, each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”
Here Paul directed his disciples to collect funds on Sundays. Yet note that there is no indication this was done during regular worship as a Sunday offering would be taken up today. That is our modern imagination conditioned by the modern worship structure we know. As most traditional Jews, Paul would be reluctant to handle money on the Sabbath. So his instruction about Sunday (first day of the week) may be merely practical from his perspective. It’s not about Sunday as a day, per se, but about taking up money. Again hardly a closed and shut case that instructs to worship on Sundays.
While the above verses do not describe communal Sunday gatherings, Acts 20:7-8 does depict a meeting of Christ-followers on a Sunday. Would this text direct us to worship on Sundays?
“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together.”
In order to interpret these verses, one must know that the inhabitants of the Roman Empire did not follow the seven-day week cycle. They had no weekends or even regularly-scheduled days off (besides the cultic holidays). The notion of a “day of rest” and the seven-day cycle was called σάββατον (sabbaton) or שׁבת (shabbat) was introduced to Romans by Jews and early Christians.
For Romans, a day began at sunrise; but for Jews, a new day already started at the sunset (Gen 1:5). Since the “week” and the “first day” are Jewish temporal references, the “first day” mentioned in Acts 20:7-8 was actually Saturday evening, just after sunset, which explains the need for lamps (v.8). So once again, not exactly a Sunday morning meeting.
Beyond that, the “breaking of bread” (κλάσαι ἄρτον) does not actually describe the Eucharist as one can imagine thins done in modern Sunday worship contexts. Once again the modern experience leads us away from the historical context. The “breaking of bread” was a normal, communal meal that we encounter frequently in the Gospels (cf. Matt 14:19; 15:36; 26:26; Mk 6:41; Lk 22:19; 24:30, 35). Could that meal include a remembrance of the Messiah? It could, but it didn’t have to.
So what does this all mean? We looked key texts used to promote Sunday as the “proper day of worship” (that in itself implies that there an improper day too). It makes sense that the early Christ-followers met on various days of the week (including Sunday). However, the New Testament never asserts that the followers of Yeshua abandoned the traditional observance of the Sabbath or treated Sunday as their preferred alternative. Abandonment of Sabbath has more to do with much later decisions and historical circumstances as faith in Messiah became dominated by non-Jews and eventually with a Roman way of life. History of Sunday vs. Saturday among Christ-followers gets complicated the more we move away from the Jewish New Testament texts. But in the apostolic era, no one suggested that Shabbat is out and Sunday is in. There is no clear proof for that in the New Testament texts and teaching of the apostles.
If one wants to stick to the apostolic teaching, Shabbat is Shabbat, but the first day of the week is a separate matter. The fact that these unrelated things got intermingled is an unfortunate error. For apostles Sunday was a day like all other days with no special sanctity attached to it, despite the fact of the resurrection. The resurrection was seen as an event that spanned the entire reality of life, not a day of the week. The implications of Yeshua being raised affect all days of the week, not just Sunday. The fact that some people tried to make Sunday a “Christian Sabbath” by applying the biblical commands previously attached to Saturday is a tragedy. It led Christians further away from their roots.
In the end, it is important to make one clear distinction. Shabbat was not commanded to Israel as a day of worship. This is where some Sabbatarians get confused. That is how many Christians see Sunday today – a holy time for worship and assembly. Shabbat is a holy day for Jews, yet not for the purpose of worship per se, but for resting in God. Corporate worship on Saturdays in the Synagogue is a matter of convenience, not law. In Judaism worship is every day, not just on Saturday. In the Temple worship was every day and the only difference is that on Shabbat and feasts special offerings were added to the daily ones. This is where the idea of “a day of worship” in Jewish minds and Christians minds part ways significantly.
Most Christians see Sunday as a day on which they remember the resurrection. They do not see Sunday as a God-mandated day of rest as Sabbatarians tend to view Sabbath. Unless of course, they wish to insist that Sunday replaced Saturday, which is sort of nonsensical because all Christian calendars clearly still have Saturdays on them. For the historical Christian church, which is largely non-Jewish in composition, the worship was focused around Jesus, and thus Sunday, the day on which he rose is a sensible and natural development. It is not a biblical commandment, not a requirement, but a sensible tradition that seeks to tie corporate worship with Jesus’ victory over death. The reason why Shabbat plays a significant and eternal role for Jews is because Jewish worship of God did not begin with Jesus’ resurrection. Yeshua is not the starting point. He is the culmination.
When one begins to appreciate these different perspectives and reasons behind them it is not hard to dismiss the notion that Saturday is a “true biblical day of worship” for everyone and that Sunday worship somehow undermines that idea. It does not. And conversely, the reverse is true as well. If Messianic Jews continue to worship corporately on Saturdays, as their ancestors did, it does not negate the fact that Yeshua rose on the first day of the week. Being caught in the middle is not always comfortable. But hopefully, now it makes sense why we are in the middle.