Did the Apostles Worship on Sunday?
Updated: Nov 4, 2019
"On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7, ESV).
In Acts 20:7–12, Luke recorded what appears to be, at first glance, the first known worship service on a Sunday. That fact raises many questions for seventh-day Sabbath-keepers concerning its implications for the doctrine of the Sabbath under the new covenant. Is this an early example of Christians transferring the sacredness of the seventh-day Sabbath (i.e., Saturday) to the first day of the week, the day upon which Jesus arose from the dead (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19)? A closer examination of the passage reveals that this is not the case. If one were to conclude that Acts 20:7–12 does indeed describe Paul, Luke, and other early Christians holding a worship service on a Sunday, would this mean that they were not continuing to honor the seventh-day Sabbath as a memorial of God's works of creation (Gen 2:1–3; Exod 20:8–11) and salvation (Deut 5:12–15)? Of course, not. First, the passage itself does not mention any kind of change taking place regarding the seventh-day Sabbath nor does it leave the reader with an impression of any type of transfer of Sabbatical sacredness from the seventh day to the first day of the week. In fact, all throughout the book of Acts, the apostles are seen gathering regularly and customarily for worship on the seventh-day Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). Therefore, no matter how one interprets this midnight meeting on the first day of the week, it cannot be reasonably concluded that it changed in any way the apostles' practice of keeping sacred and worshipping on the seventh-day Sabbath. Now, studying this story more carefully provides the reader with a more telling picture about the day upon which the disciples were actually meeting. Before the narrative found in Acts 20:7–12, Luke explained that he, Paul, and their other associates traveled to Troas to meet up with some of their fellow Christian workers ("Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, ... and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus" [Acts 20:4, ESV]) who were waiting for them there (Acts 20:5). Paul, Luke, and the rest of them remained in Troas for a total of seven days (Acts 20:6). Thus, it seems that the story that Luke recorded in Acts 20:7–12 occurred on the last day of their time spent in Troas (Acts 20:7, 11). Luke recounted, "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7, ESV). It seems evident that the group of believers was gathered together in Troas on the dark part (i.e., the night) of the first day of the week. This is because of the need for "many lamps in the upper room where [they] were gathered" (Acts 20:8, ESV) and because of the sleepiness of Eutychus (Acts 20:9). The purpose of their gathering was not necessarily to hold a worship service but to eat an evening meal together—"to break bread" (cf. Acts 20:11).1 The sequence of the events surrounding this meal in Acts 20:7–12 is a bit unclear. However, it seems that Paul talked with those who were gathered before they began the meal. This is because that which is described in Acts 20:11 gives the impression that Paul's talk (Acts 20:7) and the unfortunate fall of Eutychus (Acts 2:9–10) occurred prior to Paul eating with them (Acts 20:11). Nevertheless, whether before or during the meal, Paul began to talk with the assembled believers during the dark part of the first day of the week until midnight, when a most unfortunate event happened. Eutychus, who was sitting in the window of the upper room, grew tired as the night hours continued to pass by them, and he eventually fell into a deep sleep. Imagine that! Believers even fell asleep during the preaching and teaching of the apostles! As his body fell limp from drowsiness, Eutychus tumbled from that third story window and hit the ground below (Acts 20:9). Paul rushed downstairs, grabbed up Eutychus in his arms, and declared the miracle to those present that Eutychus was alive in spite of this deadly accident. Paul returned to the upper room and ate with the assembled group of believers. He conversed some more with them for a very extended period, until daybreak (the light part of the day) came (Acts 20:11). Paul and the rest of his traveling associates, including Luke, departed Troas after the rising of the sun. Paul went by land (probably on foot) to Assos, while the rest of the group traveled by sea on a ship (Acts 20:13). In Assos, they reunited and then traveled by ship together to Mitylene (Acts 20:14). Now, it is important to remember that the Jewish way of reckoning time in biblical times, particularly their understanding of when a day begins and ends, is quite different than how time is currently reckoned—the Roman way. Luke apparently used the Jewish way of reckoning a day (e.g., Luke 23:54–24:1). Thus, this is crucial in understanding the timing of the evening meal and Eutychus's infamous fall recorded in Acts 20:7–12. In modern times, a day begins at 12:00am and ends at 12:00am after twenty-four hours have passed. For example, our Monday begins as soon as midnight strikes on Sunday night and ends when midnight comes again on Monday night. Generally speaking, we understand our days as beginning and ending with the morning or light portion of the day (when the sun rises)—though the sun does not usually rise until some hours after midnight. Perceptually, we begin our day at sunrise. If Luke had intended to use the Roman reckoning of time that we use today—a day begins and ends at midnight—then most of the events of Acts 20:7–12 occurred on Monday instead of Sunday because they took place after midnight on the first day of the week (Sunday night). In other words, the meal and the deathly fall of Eutychus happened after midnight, very early on Monday morning. In this case, Acts 20:7–12 most certainly cannot be used as evidence for early Christian worship on a Sunday. In biblical times, a day was understood to begin and end in the evening/night when the sun sets (the dark portion of the day). See, for example, the six days of creation, which are reckoned as a period of time beginning with evening (sunset)—the dark portion of the day—and ending after morning (at the time of the following sunset)—the light portion of the day (Gen 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). Another example is the biblical observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. Sabbath was understood as beginning at sundown on our Friday and ending at sundown on our Saturday (Lev 23:32).2 In those times, the Jews counted days as ending and beginning at sunset instead of at sunrise (or midnight), as they are counted today. So, for Luke, the dark portion of the first day of the week was Saturday night, not Sunday night. Taking this into account, in Acts 20:7–12, Paul had gathered with his friends to eat a Saturday night meal together after the seventh-day Sabbath had ended at sunset. Then, when the light portion of the first day of the week (daybreak on Sunday morning) came, Paul and his companions departed Troas. This means that these early Christian believers did not view the first day of the week as sacred; they used it as a traveling day, something that faithful Jews and early Christians would not have done on the seventh-day Sabbath. Therefore, rather than undermining the continued sacredness of the seventh-day Sabbath, this passage serves as implicit support for it. The early Christians of the New Testament understood that the seventh-day Sabbath, Friday evening until Saturday evening, remained the sacred rest day—unfit for work and travel—even after the inauguration of the new covenant by the death, resurrection, and enthronement of Christ.
Notes 1 Some have suggested that the phrase "to break bread" in Acts 20:7 was indicative of their observance of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. That is where the view that this meeting was a worship service derives. However, elsewhere in Acts, it seems to describe merely the act of praying over and eating a meal. See Acts 2:42, 46; 20:11; 27:35 and compare them with passages recording celebrations of the Lord's Supper (Luke 22:14–23; 24:35; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:20–34), which tended to be at the time of פֶּסַח (pesach) or Passover. However, reading the phrase as indicating a celebration of the Lord's Supper cannot be entirely ruled out as a possibility. Again, even if this was a worship service, this would provide no support that the apostles ceased worshipping on the sacred seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday). 2 For example, in Mark 1:21, Jesus is recorded as teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum on Sabbath. Then, when the sun had set (on Saturday evening), the Jewish believers brought persons who were sick and/or demon-oppressed to him to be healed (Mark 1:32). This is because of their belief that healing should not be done on the Sabbath, as demonstrated by the Pharisees' desire to kill Jesus after he had healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–6). See also Luke 23:54–24:1.