Christians generally agree that God’s Sabbath in Old Testament times was the seventh day of the week because the Bible clearly says so. Genesis 2:3 says that after He had finished His work of creating the world, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,” and the fourth commandment says unequivocally that “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:10).
Yet most Christians today believe that God changed His Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. If that is true, shouldn’t we be able to find a record of this change in the New Testament? Surely God would tell us about something as important as changing one of His Ten Commandments!
In this article, I’d like to examine with you every text in the New Testament that mentions the first day of the week. There are only eight, and the first five of them that we will examine refer to the same event—Jesus’ resurrection.
1. Matthew 28:1. “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”
2. Mark 16:1, 2. “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb.”
3. Mark 16:9. “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene.”
4. Luke 24:1. “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.”
5. John 20:1. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.”
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning, and most Christians who worship on Sunday do so in honor of Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week. Yet none of the Gospel writers say a word about Jesus’ resurrection making that day a holy day. They all wrote their Gospels many years after Jesus had gone back to heaven, affording them an ideal opportunity to tell their readers about God’s new worship day and the reason for it—if, indeed, God had authorized such a change. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are absolutely silent about Sunday being holy because of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, Matthew clearly says that the first day of the week came only “after the Sabbath”—the seventh day of the week—had passed.
6. John 20:19. “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them.”
This text also refers to resurrection Sunday, but it informs us of an event that happened later that day.
Some have suggested that this verse describes a worship service the disciples held in honor of the Resurrection, but John says that the disciples were together “with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.” They weren’t holding a worship service. They were huddled together, afraid that the Jews who had killed their Lord would come looking for them!
In fact, Mark and Luke make it clear that in spite of what the women had told the disciples earlier in the day, their words seemed like idle tales. Most of them still didn’t believe that Jesus was alive. Only when He appeared to them in the room that evening did they believe (Mark 16:9–11; Luke 24:9–12, 36–44).
These six texts all refer to the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, but none of them say anything about a change of God’s rest day from the seventh-day Sabbath to the first-day Sunday.
This leaves only two other New Testament texts that mention the first day of the week. Do they say anything that suggests a change of the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day of the week? Let’s take a look.
two other first-day texts
Let’s examine two other New Testament texts that mention the first day of the week and are commonly used to justify the observance of that day rather than the seventh day as God’s day of rest.
7. Acts 20:7, 11. “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” “After talking until daylight, he left.”
There are several points to keep in mind before we conclude that this was a Sunday worship service that provides evidence of a change of the day of worship from the seventh to the first day of the week. Let’s take a look.
- This is the only known instance where an apostle held a religious meeting on the first day of the week, and the context suggests that this was a special farewell meeting. Paul and his party had been at Troas for a week, and they held this night meeting because they “intended to leave the next day” (verse 7).
- The New Testament is clear that Paul’s normal worship custom—when meeting with either Jews or Gentiles—was to observe the seventh-day Sabbath (see Acts 13:14, 44; 17:2; 18:4).
- Nothing is said in Acts 20:7, 11 about the Sabbath being changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week or that Christians this side of the Cross are to keep Sunday holy.
- Holding a religious meeting on a particular day doesn’t make that day holy or establish a practice—especially since God has specifically designated the seventh day as His Sabbath. Many churches hold a midweek service on Wednesday evenings, but doing so doesn’t make Wednesday holy or a Sabbath. In fact, Acts 2:46, 42 says that the early Christians met together “every day,” devoting themselves to “breaking of bread and to prayer.”
- Because the Bible reckons each 24-hour period to begin at sundown (the evening—see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13; Leviticus 23:32), this meeting actually took place on what we today would call Saturday night (see, for example, the New English Bible), not Sunday, which begins at midnight. Paul spoke till dawn the next day, and then he left on a 35-mile walk to a neighboring town where he met up with several traveling companions who had gone on ahead of him by boat (see verses 7, 13).
- Even if this was a Sunday meeting, to say that this single text demonstrates the practice of the apostles or that it lays down a practice for all subsequent Christians to follow places far more weight on the text than it can carry.
8. 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2. “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”
This is the eighth and last text in the New Testament that mentions the first day of the week. It is Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian believers about an offering for needy Christians in Jerusalem.
Some have said that this text indicates a weekly religious meeting on Sunday during which offerings were collected. But Paul’s counsel makes it clear that this was not a public collection, nor is any church service mentioned. The money was to be “set aside” and saved up privately by each person until Paul arrived to pick up the funds and take them to Jerusalem. It is the reckoning of how much to give—the bookkeeping, if you will—that Paul said should be done at the beginning of each week on Sunday.
Like the other texts we’ve looked at, this one, too, says nothing about a change of worship days or that Christians in New Testament times kept Sunday instead of the seventh-day Sabbath.
We’ve now examined all the texts in the New Testament—every one of them—that speak about the first day of the week, and we’ve seen that they give no hint of a change in God’s holy day of worship. If we take the Bible as it reads, it’s clear that the seventh day is still God’s Sabbath, the day Christians this side of the Cross should keep holy.
The “Lord’s day” text
There’s one other New Testament text we should look at. Although it doesn’t mention the first day of the week, it does speak of the “Lord’s Day”—a title that’s often applied to Sunday today. John said, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the spirit” (Revelation 1:10).
John received visions from God on a day he called “the Lord’s Day.” He didn’t say which day that was. He didn’t say whether he was referring to Saturday or Sunday—the seventh day or the first. But Jesus tells us clearly which day is the Lord’s Day. He said “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). If any day can be rightfully called the “Lord’s Day,” it’s the day of which Jesus Himself claims to be Lord.
Some say, “Is the day really important?” “Isn’t the most important thing that we worship God, not on which day we do so?” And that would make sense—if God hadn’t said otherwise and if He hadn’t set apart and sanctified and blessed a particular day (see Genesis 2:1–3; Exodus 20:8–11).
Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). That makes it more than a mere matter of one day or another. That makes it an issue of loyalty and love.
Russell Holt is a former associate editor of Signs of the Times® and a former vice president for editorial at Pacific Press® in Nampa, Idaho, the magazine’s publisher. He continues to contribute occasional articles to the magazine.