Christians and non-Christians alike wonder why most Christian churches worship on Sunday. After all, Christianity has its roots in Judaism, which observes a Saturday Sabbath.
So how, when, and why did Christians move their worship day to Sunday? Theories abound, from the practical, to the theological, to the political. And we will find below that a mix of different factors influenced the tradition of Sunday worship.
Christian worship diverged from the Sabbath in the earliest days of the church. By examining Jesus’ resurrection and the habits of the New Testament church, we find the origins of Christian Sunday worship.
To understand how Christian worship became distinct from the Jewish Sabbath, we must first understand the origins and purpose of the Sabbath.
Sabbath rest was first introduced with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11). The Sabbath provided a day of rest to the Israelites, who at the time were living as nomads, after having been freed from slavery in Egypt.
Though the Sabbath command was given with the law, it looks back to the creation week. After six days of creation, God ceased His work on the seventh day. And in doing so, He blessed the seventh day and declared it holy (Genesis 2:2-3).
History of the Sabbath
Even before issuing the Ten Commandments, God foreshadowed the Sabbath. When God provided manna to the Israelites, He instructed them to gather and prepare double portions on the sixth day. There would be no manna to gather on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:21-26)
As the nation of Israel became more established, regulations were further added to the law. Violating the Sabbath was punishable by death. One such instance is recorded in Numbers 15, where a man violated the Sabbath by gathering sticks.
The Sabbath in the New Testament
By the time of Jesus, it was customary for Jews to gather in the synagogues or the temple on the Sabbath to listen to the teachers. Jesus himself was accustomed to attending these synagogue meetings.
By this time, the Sabbath regulations had become so granular that the religious leaders criticized Jesus for healing people and exorcising demons on the Sabbath.
And on one occasion, they challenged Jesus when they observed his disciples picking and eating heads of wheat on the Sabbath. Jesus answered his objectors by reminding them that the Sabbath was made for man.
The Lord’s Day
Just as the Sabbath observance is rooted in prominent Biblical events in Genesis and Exodus, Christian Sunday worship developed from key New Testament events. Even as the New Testament was being written, the first day of the week came to be known as the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10).
The most significant event to take place on the first day was Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus was crucified and buried on the eve of the Sabbath, and laid in the tomb undisturbed during the Sabbath.
But on the morning following the Sabbath, the women that went to the tomb discovered it to be empty and encountered the risen Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10). Jesus also appeared to all his disciples that evening, and again the following Sabbath (John 20:19-26).
Acts 2 records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival day that followed 50 days after Passover. Counting seven weeks plus one day from the Passover places Pentecost on the first day of the week. Christians celebrate the day of Pentecost as the birth of the church.
Later instances of Sunday gatherings are also recorded in the New Testament. In Acts 20, Luke writes that the church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread. Paul also instructs the Corinthian church to take an offering on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2), which implies that this was an established time of meeting.
Because Jesus fulfilled the law, Christians are not under the authority of the ceremonial law, including Sabbath observance. However, since most of the earliest Christians were Jews, many continued to observe the Sabbath.
As he traveled, Paul continued to attend Sabbath gatherings wherever he went. Though the context of the Acts narrative suggests that Paul’s purpose for doing so was to evangelize. Paul used Sabbath gatherings to reason with the people from the scriptures and teach them about Jesus.
In Paul’s letters, Christian observance of the Sabbath is neither commanded nor condemned. In fact, Paul emphasizes that doing so is a matter of conscience. In Romans, he emphasizes that it is the heart and intention of the observer, and not the tradition itself, that gives a Sabbath observance its meaning (Romans 14:5-6).
We find no mandate for the church to gather on Sunday, or on any particular day, in the Bible. But the tradition of Sunday gathering is present from the very beginning of the church.
This tradition appears to emerge in part to remember significant events, such as the resurrection. Practicality also is shown to play a role in the emergence of Sunday gatherings. The Sabbath already had an established purpose, and meeting prior to beginning the workweek would have been sensible.
Gathering as a group of believers is central to the Christian life. Jesus calls us to love and serve one another. Paul reminds us that the church is one body made of many parts. And the writer to the Hebrews encourages us to not give up meeting together.
And so, we continue to gather, on Sundays, in the tradition and spirit of the founders of the church.