In the New Testament we see Jesus Christ (Luke 4:16), His closest followers (Luke 23:56) and the apostle Paul (Acts 13:42-44; 17:1-4) continuing to honor and uphold the Sabbath. We find no record of the Sabbath being abolished or changed in the New Testament (though some scriptures are alleged to do so, these arguments are thoroughly refuted in our free booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest).
So when did Sunday, the first day of the week, come to be seen as a substitute for the seventh-day Sabbath?
In brief, as waves of anti-Semitism swept the Roman Empire as a result of the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries, members of the early Church began to distance themselves from practices that were commonly viewed as Jewish. At the same time, false teachers arose within the Church introducing new teachings and beliefs. Over time the Church drifted from the teachings and practices of Christ and the apostles (the story is spelled out in more detail in our free booklet The Church Jesus Built).
In the third and fourth centuries, as the Catholic Church rose to prominence in the Roman Empire, it increasingly incorporated customs adapted from pagan worship practices. Among these was the elevation of Sunday, the day devoted to honoring the sun god, a deity extremely popular among the Roman masses.
Meanwhile, those who held to the original teachings of the apostles were increasingly persecuted. By A.D. 365 an edict by Catholic leaders at the Council of Laodicea declared: "Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather, honouring the Lord's Day [Sunday]; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be Judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ [i.e., excommunicated]" (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 19, p. 148, emphasis added).
Sunday-keeping came to be enforced and Sabbath-keeping ruthlessly suppressed. While some doctrinal reform occurred as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Protestant churches as a rule continued to follow the lead of the Catholic Church in regard to Sunday worship.
Not until the Reformation period was the idea born that Sunday worship was instituted originally as a direct replacement for the Fourth Commandment Sabbath. The Catholic Church took strong exception to this Protestant argument, saying the Catholics' reason for dropping strict Sabbath observance was to avoid appearing Jewish, not to change the Fourth Commandment. In fact, the Catholic Church continued honoring the Sabbath as a consecrated day-though reduced in importance and altered to a day of fasting-for several centuries after Sunday observance became prominent.
Most Catholic and some Protestant theologians are willing to admit that Sunday observance cannot be justified from the Scriptures. Notice what James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, wrote in The Faith of Our Fathers:
" Is not every Christian obliged to sanctify Sunday and to abstain on that day from unnecessary servile work? Is not the observance of this law among the most prominent of our sacred duties? But you may read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and you will not find a single line authorizing the sanctification of Sunday. The Scriptures enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify" (1917, p. 89, emphasis added).
He goes on to explain that this, like other practices "nowhere found in the Bible," was instituted by the Catholic Church on its own authority.
To learn more, request our free booklets Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest and The Church Jesus Built. GN