Recently, I have come in contact with many who argue that Sunday worship was a Pagan practice adopted by the church after the conversion of Constantine, but that is absurdly false. Not only do I believe there is Scriptural support that shows the importance of Sunday in New Testament Worship (Acts 2:14, 41; 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev 1:16), but there is also clear evidence in the early church, that indeed Sunday had become the primary day of worship for Christians.
First and Second century evidence for Sunday worship
Let us look at what several second century writers said about Sunday worship well before the Edict of Milan.
In the first and second century, Sunday worship was the norm, and fewer conflicts over the seventh-day sabbath are evident. The second century references of Ignatius, Magn. 9:1; Gosp. Peter 35, 50; Barn. 15:9; and Justin, 1 Apol. 67 associate Sunday worship with the resurrection. In Barnabas and Justin, other reasons for the significance of Sunday are given first: Sunday representing the eschatological eighth day in Barnabas, and the day on which God began the creation in Justin.
The second century church was not a monolithic structure but a variegated group of churches with conflicting beliefs. Legalist Jewish Christians, zealous for the law, believed that the whole law had to be obeyed for a person to be saved. Some Jewish Christians kept the sabbath as a matter of national standards, but did not require Gentiles to do so. Others felt they were free from the law, either citing Paul’s writings that the sabbath was a shadow of things to come (Col. 2:16-17).
The Epistle of Barnabas
The author of the Epistle of Barnabas considers sanctifying the sabbath as an activity of such moral holiness that no one in this present evil age can attain. The following references are in chapter 15 of the Epistle of Barnabas. Barnabas writes that the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and said, “Sanctify ye the Sabbath of the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart.” The author then writes about the sabbath in the creation account and says that “this implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years.” When the Son returns again he will “destroy the time of the wicked man” and “then shall he truly rest on the seventh day.”
He interprets Jesus’ eschatological rest not as inactivity, but bringing an end to this world (at the end of six millenia) and bringing into existence the new world at the Parousia. In the eschatological sabbath, Christians will have been fully sanctified, and so will be able to keep holy the sabbath age and share in the eschatological rest of God. According to the author of the Epistle of Barnabas, obedience to the sabbath command has nothing to do with a day of the week or physical rest, but is a matter of holy living in the future sabbath age that God will have made holy. Jewish sabbaths are therefore unacceptable to God.
In contrasting the Jewish sabbath with the Christian Sunday, Barnabas writes, “Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me…. We keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.”
Barnabas writes: “Your new moons and your Sabbaths I cannot endure.” Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when he had manifested Himself, He ascended into the heavens.
Barnabas 15 is an attempt to reinterpret the sabbath command so to disallow its observance, not only by Christians but even by Jews before Christ. He opts for the explanation that the author, probably an Alexandrian Jewish Christian, writes against the observance of Jewish practices to discourage his fellow Christians from adopting them or persisting in them.
The epistle must have been written between A.D. 70 (because the author knows of the destruction of the Temple) and 200 (because Clement, who vanishes from the scene shortly after 200, knows Barnabas). He seems concerned to show that the Old Testament Scriptures are Christian Scriptures and that the spiritual meaning is their real meaning.
Justin (c. 114-165) was a Gentile born in Flavia Neapolis, a city of Samaria, the modern Nablus. His writings, according to Jewett, are the first detailed description of Christian worship written by a Christian. He is the first Christian writer to use the name Sunday. Justin, one of the main Christian apologists of the second century, responded to criticisms from cultured pagans that Christianity was a religion of barbarians who derived their teachings from the Jews, a primitive people whose best teachers never rose to the level of Greek philosophers.
Justin writes in his First Apology 67:
On the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen….But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior in the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
In Dialogue With Trypho 12, Justin comments on the Jewish sabbath:
The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose you are pious, not discerning why this has been commanded you: and if you eat unleavened bread, you say the will of God has been fulfilled. The Lord our God does not take pleasure in such observances: if there is any perjured person or a thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent; then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God. If any one has impure hands, let him wash and be pure.
In Dialogue With Trypho 19, Justin claims that many righteous men in the Old Testament did not keep the sabbath. After discussing Adam, Abel, Enoch, Lot, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, he writes:
Moreover, all those righteous men already mentioned, though they kept no Sabbaths, were pleasing to God; and after them Abraham with all his descendants until Moses, under whom your nation appeared unrighteous and ungrateful to God.… And you were commanded to keep Sabbaths, that you might retain the memorial to God.
In Dialogue With Trypho 21, Justin discusses how the Jewish sabbath originated:
Moreover, that God enjoined you to keep the Sabbath, and impose on you other precepts for a sign, as I have already said, on account of your unrighteousness, and that of your fathers.
In Dialogue With Trypho 47, Justin talks about the futility of keeping the Jewish sabbath:
But if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses, from which they expect some virtue, but which we believe were appointed by reason of the hardness of the people’s hearts, along with their hope in this Christ, and [wish to perform] the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety, yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren. But if, Trypho, I continued, some of your race, who say they believe in this Christ, compel those Gentiles who believe in this Christ to live in all respects according to the law given by Moses, or choose not to associate so intimately with them, I in like manner do not approve of them. But I believe that even those, who have been persuaded by them to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved.
From Justin’s time, most Christians gathered on Sunday morning (though various sabbatarian groups met on Saturday), and from then until now is an unbroken historical sequence in the custom of Sunday observance. When Pliny the Younger, who was governor of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote to the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 110, he tells the emperor that Christians ceased to meet at the time of the evening meal at his command following through with the emperor’s edict against all seditious assemblies (Pliny, Epistolae, 10:97). Jewett argues that it is possible that the edict was applied widely in the eastern part of the empire. After that time we hear of agape feasts in the evening having a charitable purpose, but with few exceptions losing their eucharistic character.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria (d. A.D. 215) was the main instructor in Alexandria at the end of the second century. He sought to assure pagans that Christianity was not the absurd superstition some claimed it to be. He wrote that the sabbath rest of the seventh day is merely a preparation for the true sabbath rest of the eighth day, because the eighth day is the first day and the first day is the Christ, the archē (beginning) of creation and the light of men.
Use of the term Lord’s Day in second century writings
The term Lord’s Day (kuriakē hēmera) occurs only once in the New Testament, in Revelation 1:10, but its use there is significant in studying the origins of the weekly day of worship in Christianity.
Bauckham notes thirteen times in first and second century writings where kuriakē hēmera or kuriakē (belonging to the Lord) by itself means the Lord’s Day. Only two phrases with kuriak- seem to have become stereotyped or technical phrases by the time of Irenaeus (ca. 130-ca. 200) and Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215): kuriakē hēmera “Lord’s day,” and kuriakai graphai the “Lord’s Scriptures.”
A Sabbatarian argument is that the phrase kuriakē hēmera is interchangeable with hēmera (tou) kuriou. However, the terms are not interchangeable, since by long-established usage the latter referred to the eschatological Day of the Lord.
For early Christians to use a new term for the eschatological day would cause confusion, and not long after Revelation was written, we see that kuriakē hēmera was an already established name for Sunday. The phrase kuriakē hēmera came into use because hēmera (tou) kuriou already meant something else, and a new term was needed. Kuriake hēmera (the Lord’s Day) was so commonly used that kuriakē alone sufficed as the name of the day.
References and Bibliography
Carson, D.A., ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper, 1984
Hagner, D.A. “Jewish Christianity,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: InterVarsity: 1997, 579-587.
Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Joseph Smith, trans. Ancient Christian Writers vol. 16. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1952.
Whiston, W. trans. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson: 1987, 317-318.
Williamson, G.A. trans., Eusebius: the History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. New York: Dorset, 1965, 99-103.