The Apostolic Record: Which Day Did They Keep?

Ted Noel

The New Testament, after the Gospels, is largely the record of the apostolic church. If the Apostles taught that Sunday was the proper day to observe, then we certainly should see evidence of it. Many theologians think that they see such evidence. Let’s look at it.

The first event to consider is the resurrection itself. The record in the Gospels is clear. The entire apostolic group was suffering a crisis of faith, because they still did not fully understand the mission of Christ. He was crucified on Friday (“the preparation day”), lay in the tomb on Saturday (“Sabbath”), and arose about dawn on Sunday (“the first day of the week”). The activities of his followers simply reflect the anxious trip to the tomb, the confusion of finding the tomb empty, and the disbelief of the news that he was risen. Nowhere is there any indication of a worship service, or a sanctity applied to the day.

The next reference is found in Acts 2.

1 And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.

The first thing to note is that Luke, in writing Acts, does not mention the day of the week. He certainly could have, if he thought it was important, since he did use it in his account of the resurrection (Luke 24:1). He obviously thought the day of Pentecost was important, since he did mention it. Failure to note the day of the week would indicate that the assembly noted in verse 1 was not a customary weekly assembly. Also, we should note that Luke does not indicate that the apostles were gathered to worship. He simply says that they were physically “together in one place”.

Yet some scholars insist that this was the first Sunday worship service! Certainly, AFTER the anointing, they began to praise God, but the scriptures give no support to the idea that this was the reason for the assembly. Why would Luke wait this long in his narrative to talk about Sunday observance if the apostles observed Sunday in honor of the resurrection? There is a significant lapse of time between the resurrection and the Day of Pentecost. Christ died on Passover, the first holy day of the Jewish year. The next holy day was the Firstfruits, or “Wavesheaf” offering. Pentecost was 50 days after the Firstfruits. There were a number of Sundays on which the apostles could have met before Pentecost, if they were in fact so meeting. Luke’s total silence on this indicates, as does the historical record we will later examine, that they did not observe Sunday.

The mere fact that the assembly was on Pentecost should raise eyebrows among Sunday observers. Let’s look at how the time of Pentecost was calculated. Leviticus 23:15-16

15 ‘You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete sabbaths.
‘You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD.

The Day of Pentecost could not exist without the Sabbath! Rather than supporting Sunday observance, this assembly indicates a continuing respect for the Jewish holy days, including the Sabbath. It should be carefully noted that the calculation of Pentecost allows it to occur on any day of the week. We must find other support for Sunday observance.

In Acts 20:7-11 Luke records the story of Eutychus.

7 And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.
And there were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together.
And there was a certain young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor, and was picked up dead.
But Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, “Do not be troubled, for his life is in him.”
And when he had gone back up, and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed.

Many theologians point to this event as a clear evidence of Sunday worship by the apostles. This bears examination, since it clearly occurred on the “first day of the week”. Unfortunately for the Sunday advocates, it is not what they present it to be. The meeting, while it took place on “the first day of the week”, didn’t happen on Sunday! It happened on Saturday night by modern reckoning. (Notice the lamps in verse 8.) The Jews measured their days from sundown to sundown, in the manner of the reporting of creation in Genesis 1.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (KJV)

It is also the way that Sabbath observance is commanded in Leviticus 23:32

32 …from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.”

It would be a most curious twist of logic to make a Saturday night meeting justify Sunday (by modern reckoning) observance. The second item is that there is no mention of a worship service. The group assembled “to break bread”. While modern usage would make this a worship service, specifically the Lord’s Supper, that is not what the term means. In ancient times, bread was the staple of a meal. It was never sliced, but was “broken” into pieces and used to scoop up the other parts of the meal. So when the group is assembled “to break bread,” they were getting together for supper with their honored guest! Is it any surprise that Paul talked about their favorite topic: salvation?

Finally, we have to note that in verse 7, Paul’s intention to travel on the next day (Sunday) is clearly stated. If Sunday was to become the new Sabbath, one would hardly expect Paul to be traveling on Sunday. He would be staying for worship services. There simply is no way that this story can be twisted to support Sunday observance. The next candidate is 1 Corinthians 16:2.

2 Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. (KJV)

Sunday keepers insist that this supports Sunday worship. It clearly mentions an activity on Sunday, but examination of the original Greek (which is better represented by the KJV “lay by him” than the NASB “put aside”) shows that the activity was not one of assembly. In fact, Paul was directing the believers to set money aside individually, so that when Paul came and the believers assembled, they would not need to figure out their finances and gather the funds together. Each believer would have his offering prepared in advance. No part of this text indicates any sanctity for or assembly on Sunday. Therefore it cannot be used to support Sunday observance.

An additional point must be made about this text. While it is properly translated “first day of the week”, that isn’t what Paul wrote! The Greek here is “kata mian sabbatou“, which properly translates “every first of the Sabbath.” Paul was writing this to converts in southern Greece who lived under the Roman calendar. Their natural way of referring to the first and last days of the week would have been “day of the Sun” and “day of Saturn”. The Sabbath was foreign to them. There is no possible way for them to understand what Paul is saying unless they had been taught the Sabbath. So, instead of supporting Sunday observance, this text actually requires Sabbath observance!

The final text is Revelation 1:10.

10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,…

Sunday keepers point to this to say that it shows that John was keeping Sunday as a day of worship. To say that this is a stretch is putting it mildly. Once again, let’s look at the evidence. This is the only place in the Bible that the phrase “the Lord’s day” appears, so we cannot find any other texts to help support or deny the claim directly. In fact, the adjective “Lord’s” (Greek kuriakee’) appears only one other place in the NT, 1 Corinthians 11:20.

20 Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper,

This use of the adjective is by Paul, not John. Even so, it may be reasonably assumed that John was familiar with this usage. This leads some commentators to say that, in concert with some second century writers, (Revelation was written about 92-95AD) John was referring to Sunday. This specifically refers to the first usage of the term in patristic writings in the mid-second century. To say the least, this is stretching things a bit thin. A detailed review of these works (which we will summarize later) shows that this usage almost certainly began after the persecution of Hadrian in about 135-138AD. To get a better idea of the biblical usage, we should look at the Bible.

One theory on the “Lord’s Day” is that it refers to Sabbath. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus is referred to as the “Lord of the Sabbath”. (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, Luke 6:5) In each case, the Greek word “kurios” is used, signifying ownership and authority. Since Jesus “owns” the Sabbath, and Jesus is Lord, then the Sabbath is “the Lord’s Day”. While this is linguistically satisfying, it is probably incorrect.

The entire book of Revelation is devoted to prophecy regarding the time of the end, or as Malachi puts it in Malachi 4:5

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:

“The great and dreadful day of the LORD” can easily be synonymous with “the Lord’s Day”. If that is the case, then the reference is not to a day of the week but to a prophetic “location” in the future. That this is the best understanding of the term can be seen from a comparison of the setting of Revelation 1:10 when compared to the setting of Revelation 4. In both cases John was in vision. In both cases a voice like a trumpet calls for his attention. It appears reasonable that Revelation 1:10 should be paraphrased:

10“I was taken in vision into the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

I refer the reader to Dr. Bacchiocchi’s excellent discussion of this issue for more detail. In any case, the evidence for “the Lord’s day” being Sunday is extremely weak (frankly, it does not exist), and two alternate explanations for the reference, Sabbath and the time of the end, can both be supported biblically.