The Sabbath in Acts: Luke's Record of Paul's Understanding

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The Sabbath in Acts

Luke's Record of Paul's Understanding

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One day while cleaning out old boxes in a closet, I came across a tan-brown book with pictures of seashells on it. Immediately I thought: What is this? It looks familiar. Probably something else I can throw away.

While thumbing through pages and pages of empty horizontal lines, I remembered that this was my one-time attempt to maintain a weekly journal. This noble effort had lasted only a few days.

Perhaps you don’t realize it, but you may have in your possession a copy of someone else’s journal written some 2,000 years ago. The author sustained this journal project for many years in a book that spans some three decades. Later his work came to be known as the Acts of the Apostles, an official Church history included in the Bible.

This particular book of journal entries begins shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and ends with the apostle Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome. This biblical journal is called Acts because it is a record of the acts of the apostles as they carried out Jesus’ command to preach the gospel to all nations.

The record-keeper was a physician named Luke who accompanied the apostle Paul on his journeys. Line by line, Luke compiled much of Acts while Paul was experiencing the triumphs and trials of preaching the gospel, the good news, of the Kingdom of God.

Sprinkled throughout Luke’s journal are examples of Jewish and gentile Christians participating in a form of worship that many no longer associate with traditional Christianity. This often-overlooked Christian practice is called Sabbath-keeping. Keep in mind as we review Luke’s writing that he was a gentile (Colossians 4:10-11 Colossians 4:10-11 [10] Aristarchus my fellow prisoner salutes you, and Marcus, sister’s son to Barnabas, (touching whom you received commandments: if he come to you, receive him;) [11] And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow workers to the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort to me.
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, 14), and Paul, though a Jew, was the apostle to the gentiles (Romans 11:13 Romans 11:13For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify my office:
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).

Ironically, many think that Paul’s writings reject Sabbath observance as a Christian practice. Did Paul uphold the Sabbath throughout the book of Acts but reject it in the books he wrote? Reading the epistles of Paul through the lens of the historical record of Acts can open new horizons of understanding. Let’s consider certain passages in Galatians, Romans and Colossians in the light of Luke’s perspective.

Days, months, seasons and years

Let’s begin our examination of this aspect of the history of the early Church in the book of Galatians, usually recognized as Paul’s first epistle. Here many people assume that Paul is chastising the Galatians for Sabbath-keeping: “… How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 [9] But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? [10] You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
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, emphasis added throughout).

But is Paul criticizing Sabbath observance here?

Actually, Paul visited several cities within the region of Galatia (in what is today central Turkey) during his first journey. He wrote this epistle as a follow-up to that journey. Notice what Luke records in Acts 13 concerning this visit:

  • Paul participates in Sabbath services at the local synagogue (verse 14).
  • He notes the practice of reading the Scriptures “every Sabbath” (verse 27).
  • Many gentiles beg Paul to preach to them “the next Sabbath” (verse 42).
  • “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” from Paul and Barnabas (verse 44).

If one assumes that Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 [9] But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? [10] You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
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condemns Sabbath-keeping, we must ask why Paul would respect Sabbath-keeping while visiting the Galatian churches, yet, after departing, write a letter reprimanding them for observing these same days? Was Paul hypocritical? Did he change his mind? Was he confused?

The situation in Galatia

A closer look at the context, especially the verses preceding Galatians 4:9-10 Galatians 4:9-10 [9] But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? [10] You observe days, and months, and times, and years.
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, will show that Paul was not addressing Sabbath- keeping at all. Many members of these churches had previously been engaged in religions that involved the worship of many false gods. Paul reminded them, “… When you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods” (verse 8). They were instructed not to “turn again” to their idolatrous practices of the past (verse 9).

Therefore, since Sabbath observance was not part of these idolatrous practices, Paul could not have been referring to Sabbath observance here. After all, one cannot turn again to that which he has never observed.

Galatia was part of the Roman Empire, in which observances and practices honoring pagan gods were attached to virtually every day, season, month and year. For instance, the first day of the week was devoted to the sun god. The first month of the year was devoted to Janus, the god of beginnings, from which January is named.

The spring season was devoted to the goddess Cybele and her male partner, Attis, in honor of whom a joyous spring resurrection festival was celebrated. The “days and seasons and months and years” pinpoint idolatrous practices the Galatians had observed when they “did not know God.” Paul is not criticizing them for Sabbath-keeping or observing biblical festivals.

On the contrary, we learn from Acts 13 that the Sabbath was a powerful tool used by God to bring gentiles into the truth of the Bible. Verse 43 notes that Paul was followed by Jews and “God-fearing proselytes” (New American Standard Bible).

These devout “God-fearers” were gentiles who had not fully converted to Judaism. Paul preached the gospel “among those Gentiles who, sabbath by sabbath, went out to the Jewish synagogue … They did not accept circumcision and the obligation to keep the whole Jewish law … Some of them kept the Sabbath as a day of rest and observed the Jewish food laws. They were known as ‘God-fearers’”.(F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1953, pp. 93-94, emphasis added). Sabbath-keeping was common among the “God-fearers,” many of whom became the nucleus of the gentile churches.

Can you create your own Sabbath?

The book of Romans is often mentioned in discussing the role of the Sabbath in the early Church. Romans 14:5-6 Romans 14:5-6 [5] One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. [6] He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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states: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it…”

At first glance this passage appears to say that observing the Sabbath, or any day of the week, simply doesn’t matter.

Most scholars agree that Paul wrote the book of Romans while visiting the Greek city of Corinth. Does Acts shed any light on Paul’s thinking while he was in Corinth?

Luke’s journal shows us that Paul, while in Corinth, “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:1 Acts 18:1After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth;
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, 4). It is within the context of these actions that Paul wrote the book of Romans. As the book of Acts shows, regardless of what city Paul was in, Sabbath-keeping was his manner, habit or “custom” according to God’s commandments (Acts 17:2 Acts 17:2And Paul, as his manner was, went in to them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
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).

The congregation in Rome included a mix of Jews and gentiles (Romans 1:14 Romans 1:14I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.
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; 2:17). Romans 14 deals with food-related circumstances with which Christians were confronted. Personal eating and fasting practices that were not addressed in the Scriptures became a point of contention. For instance, Jews came from a religious background in which some chose to fast “twice a week” (Luke 18:12 Luke 18:12I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
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). Typically, one would not fast on the Sabbath because this was a weekly feast, not fast, day.

Romans 14 also discusses vegetarianism (verses 2-3), which had no biblical connection with Sabbath observance. Verses 5 and 6 are variously interpreted as referring to fasting, as was the Jewish custom, or avoiding meats on some days, as was the custom of some from a gentile, Roman background.

However, the Sabbath is not even mentioned in these verses, nor, for that matter, anywhere in this entire epistle. New Testament writers did not ambiguously cloak the Sabbath in phrases such as “one day.”

Paul explains that the issue involved observing “the day” in relation to one’s eating habits (verse 6). Those who fasted or abstained from meats on particular days of the week gave thanks to God on those days, and those who ate every day of the week similarly thanked God for their daily bread. Romans 14:5-6 Romans 14:5-6 [5] One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. [6] He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
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was not written to address Sabbath-keeping at all.

‘Therefore let us keep the feast’

The book of Acts also discusses other aspects of Paul’s Sabbath-keeping behavior while visiting Ephesus, a gentile city in Asia Minor. He told the Ephesian church, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing” (Acts 18:21 Acts 18:21But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that comes in Jerusalem: but I will return again to you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus.
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).

The Sabbath was a weekly feast, but God also commanded annual feasts-the “holy convocations” recorded in Leviticus 23 and mentioned throughout the Bible.

The Ephesian church was so well acquainted with these annual Sabbaths (feasts, or festivals) that Paul didn’t even need to name which one he referred to. Though feast days were also kept outside of Jerusalem, Paul stated that he needed to keep this one in Jerusalem.

Later, after returning to Ephesus, Paul wrote to the primarily gentile church at Corinth, telling the brethren there: “Therefore let us keep the feast …” (1 Corinthians 5:8 1 Corinthians 5:8Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
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). His comments make it clear that he is referring to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, described in Leviticus 23:6-8 Leviticus 23:6-8 [6] And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the LORD: seven days you must eat unleavened bread. [7] In the first day you shall have an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein. [8] But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein.
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. As with the Galatians, the Corinthians had at one time been steeped in paganism (1 Corinthians 12:2 1 Corinthians 12:2You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, even as you were led.
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). Now God’s Sabbath, feasts and law were part of their new form of worship.

Paul’s visit to Philippi, another gentile city, is recorded in Acts 20. Luke notes that Paul and his companions, including Luke, “sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread” (verse 6). If these feast days had not been observed outside of Jerusalem, there would have been no need to wait for the completion of this feast while in Philippi.

After visiting several other cities over subsequent weeks, Paul “decided to sail past Ephesus … for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost” (verse 16). Because of frequent travel while visiting the congregations of Greece and Asia Minor, Paul, as we see in Acts, decides not whether but where to keep the feasts of God.

Let no one judge you?

Paul was under house arrest “in chains” in Rome after his third journey when he wrote to the Colossians (Colossians 4:3 Colossians 4:3 With praying also for us, that God would open to us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
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). While sailing to Rome, he warned others on the boat against sailing this late in the year, since “the Fast was already over” (Acts 27:9 Acts 27:9Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,
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). The “Fast” was a term for the Day of Atonement, another of the annual sabbaths appointed by God, which was observed by fasting, rest and worship (Leviticus 23:26-32 Leviticus 23:26-32 [26] And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, [27] Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. [28] And you shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the LORD your God. [29] For whatever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. [30] And whatever soul it be that does any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people. [31] You shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. [32] It shall be to you a sabbath of rest, and you shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even to even, shall you celebrate your sabbath.
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).

Yet some conclude that, after this voyage, Paul rejected Sabbath and festival observances in his letter to the Colossians when he stated, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come …” (Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 [16] Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: [17] Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
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).

Is it Paul’s intention here to denigrate observing God’s festivals and sabbaths? Many think so while failing to recognize that, if this statement rejects the Sabbaths, then it also rejects eating and drinking, mentioned here in the same context.

Understanding the historical background helps us grasp Paul’s intent. This book was written to the “saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse” (Colossians 1:2 Colossians 1:2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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) to combat heresy that was creeping into the church. Promoters of this heresy took an ascetic approach, criticizing and condemning anything pleasurable.

Their extremism was reflected in their criticism of the Colossian members who enjoyed the Sabbaths and festivals in the festive, joyous spirit God intended (Deuteronomy 16:11 Deuteronomy 16:11And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite that is within your gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the LORD your God has chosen to place his name there.
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, 14-15). Paul told the Colossians not to let others judge them in “food and drink” -literally “eating and drinking” on these days-which ran counter to the self-denial and asceticism advocated by these heretical teachers.

Such practices, Paul said, were “according to the tradition of men … and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
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). The phrase “tradition of men” is used only in Colossians 2:8 Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
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and Mark 7:8 Mark 7:8For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do.
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. Many years earlier Christ had told the Pharisees: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men … All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9 Mark 7:8-9 [8] For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do. [9] And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.
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). Now it was Paul’s turn to confront those who imposed their man-made traditions as though they were “commandments of God.”

The Colossian heresy also involved the “worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18 Colossians 2:18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,
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) according to the “commandments and doctrines of men,” including “self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body” (verses 22-23). The New Testament History describes this group as an “angel-cult of nonconformist Jewish foundation and pagan superstructure” (F.F. Bruce, Doubleday-Galilee, New York, 1980, pp. 415-416).

God forbids worship of angels or veneration of anything or anyone other than Him (Exodus 20:3-6 Exodus 20:3-6 [3] You shall have no other gods before me. [4] You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; [6] And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
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). Church doctrines are to be established by the commandments of God, not “the tradition of men.” The feast days are a shadow of wonderful things to come, not just earlier historical events, as some suppose.

When we come to fully understand the meaning of these days, we recognize that they portray what God has done, is doing and ultimately will do for all mankind. We see, then, that Paul’s instruction in Colossians 2:16-17 Colossians 2:16-17 [16] Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: [17] Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
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was that members of God’s Church should not allow others to judge them in these areas.

The Sabbath was made for you

Even the few completed pages of my journal contained details I had forgotten concerning what was going on in my mind and life at the time I penned those pages. Likewise, Luke’s journal contains many reminders of the actions of Christians during the first 30 years of the Church.

God established His Church when He poured out His Spirit on Christ’s followers who were observing the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Throughout the ensuing years of the Church as recorded in Luke’s journal, with its share of ups and downs, we see that one thing remained constant: observance of God’s weekly Sabbaths and annual festivals.

God has graciously shared Luke’s journal with all who are willing to read it. This journal should never be forgotten, nor should the lessons it contains be disregarded. Acts confirms the words of Jesus Christ: “The Sabbath was made for man …” (Mark 2:27 Mark 2:27And he said to them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:
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). It truly records the acts of the apostles-as they observed God’s Sabbaths and festivals. GN

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