Faith and Life
Saturday or Sunday? Is the Sabbath set forth by the Lord on Saturday or Sunday or, for that matter, any other day of the week?
"Sabbath" is by definition the 7th day. It is from the Hebrew word for 7, which has a similar form in many other Semitic languages. Even African languages like Swahili that have borrowed Arabic numerals also have saba as their word for "seven." The word for Saturday in modern Greek, savvato, is also from the same root, the Hebrew shabbat.
The First Day
By definition, Sunday cannot be the Sabbath, because it is the first day of the week, not the seventh. Sunday is named after the Sun, one of the gods of the ancient Greek-Romans and many other pagan peoples.
The Greeks, however, call the first day of the week KiriakÝ, "The Lord's Day."
Christians traditionally consider Sunday the high day of the week to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Jesus taught that the time or place are not critical in worship, but your attitude and spirit. Neither Paul nor the other apostles who wrote the New Testament prescribe either the specific day for worship or a name for the day. Thus Christians are free to meet and worship at any time.
In the book of Acts, the primary source of early church custom, we see the Jewish followers of Jesus continuing to worship on Saturday (the Sabbath), while also meeting on Sunday. Paul and the other early missionaries would go first to the synagogue to preach and discuss on Saturdays, as well as following the ritual worship of the Jews. But no prescriptions are put on any one day. Worship is free in its purpose and form, as well as its time.
The old Roman week had 8 days, the eastern day had 7. Some cultures had 10-day weeks. The Jewish 7-day week, prominent in the eastern Roman Empire, was further spread by the Christians, and finally dominated Western culture. The calendar was finally standardized to follow a seven-day week. The two days of worship continued on Saturday and Sunday (called later by Puritan's Lord's Day, but this name did not prevail).
Saturday was kept as the 7th (last) day of new Roman week, and the day following it, called by whatever name, has continued to be the high day of the week for Christians. This has continued throughout the Christian era, and gradually spread to most of the world, at least as an alternative calendar.
The early church, according to the Book of Acts, worshipped on both Saturday and Sunday (the seventh and first days of their week). As Christians gradually were rejected by the Jews, the Sabbath became of less importance. This was heightened by the fact that more non-Jews were believing in Jesus and coming into the church.
The two days of worship of the Jews and the Christians, once they developed into two separate groups, continued on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
In the late Protestant Reformation, The Puritans tried to change the English name for Sunday to the Lord's Day, but this name did not prevail in English custom. Associated with this attempt at cultural purification is the use of the term "Sabbath" for the first day of the week.
In the Reformed movement in several parts of the world, Old Testament patterns and covenant concepts were used to pattern the Christian life and culture. Some use this word "sabbath" to designate, not the seventh day, but the first day of the week, in analogy to the holy worship day of the Old Testament. This has never become a dominant pattern.
In other cultures the name of the day of worship usually follows local custom. In the Swahili language, for instance, and most East African languages, the name of the first day of the week in the Western calendar is actually Jumapili, Second Day, from the Arab pattern of starting the week on Saturday, after the holy day of Friday.
Thus Christians in Eastern Africa worship on the Second Day of the week in the local calendar. But the western calendar has become the standard, so in English it is called Sunday and is the first day of the official business and government week.
The Real Questions
Thus when the question is asked is the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday, there is a logical fallacy hiding other questions. One question might be, "On which day of the week should Christians worship?"
Another is, "Does sabbath mean seven or one?" Or we might ask, as in the Puritan and Reformed traditions, "What other name can we call the Christian worship day instead of 'Sunday'?"
Thus my answers are:
1. It does not matter which day you worship. We are given no directives. You can meet for worship every day if you and the church want to.
2. We should plan a regular time of community gathering of faith. Believers are admonished to meet as a group.
3. It does not matter what you call the day you choose to worship. There is some academic ethical merit in trying to call the day by a name honoring the Living Creator, rather than an idol like the Sun or a mythical figure. But that is not the critical focus. There are more important issues to use your time and prayer energies for.
4. "Sabbath" means the seventh day of the week, or what we call Saturday. This syncronizes with the continuing Jewish calendar and the popular Christian custom of meeting on the day after the Sabbath to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus.
5. Christians may worship on Saturday without violating any commands, requirements or doctrines. It is not appropriate, however, to prescribe Saturday, any more than Sunday, as the required day of worship for ourselves or others. It is clear from both Jesus and Paul that it does not matter what day we gather as a church.
Sabbath, Sunday and Covenant Relationships – The Sabbath for the Christian: Thoughts on Commandment Four
Originally written on an internet discussion group in 1998.
This version posted 20 April 2002
Last edited 21 October 2011
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2002 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.