The Origin Of Sunday Observance

The apostle Paul made a prediction in 2 Thessalonians that a gigantic apostasy would take place within the Christian church before the Second Coming of Christ. He said, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3. The words “falling away” come from the Greek word “apostasia,” from which we get the English word “apostasy.” It means a falling away or a departure from the truth.

The apostle Paul warned that there will be a great apostasy before the second coming of Christ. As you read on, you will notice in verse five that he said, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” He had taught these things to the Christian churches, and he was not alone in giving this warning call. Peter, too, had predicted the same gigantic apostasy which would sweep through the church. (See 2 Peter 2.)

The apostle Paul also referred to this apostasy in his last interview with the elders at Ephesus. In Acts 20:29–31, where the discussion is recorded, notice several interesting details about what Paul predicted was going to take place. “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”

We see in this passage of Scripture that the greatest danger for the Christian church was not the opposition from the pagan world outside, but from the apostasy which would take place inside. It would come from disciples speaking perverse things to draw disciples away after them. We know that the person who speaks the truth as it is in Jesus will draw disciples to Jesus and not to himself. To draw disciples to oneself, one must pervert the truth and apostatize. No true Christian pastor will ever attempt to draw away disciples to himself.

There is another consideration that made this danger even more perilous. Do you know who these words were spoken to? They were spoken to the bishops, the Christian ministers or elders of the church. Paul said, “Of your own selves,” that is from among the men who had been chosen to guide and care for the church of Christ, there would be those who would pervert their calling in order to build up themselves and gather disciples around themselves.

As we read the letters of the apostles in the New Testament, we see them constantly watching this spirit, checking its influence and guarding against its workings. As stated in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, the mystery of iniquity was already working. There were at that very time elements abroad which the apostle Paul could see would develop into all that the Scriptures had predicted, and scarcely were the apostles dead when this evil actually appeared in the church.

The historian said about this: “No sooner were the apostles removed from the stage of action, no sooner was their watchful attentions gone and their apostolic authority removed, than this very thing appeared of which the apostle had spoken. Certain bishops, in order to make easier the conversion of the heathen, to multiply disciples, and by this increase their own influence and authority, began to adopt heathen customs and forms.” The Great Empires of Prophecy, 377, by Alonzo T. Jones.

How did this great apostasy begin? It started as a gigantic evangelistic campaign. It was in the interest of evangelism that apostasy began. “In order to make easier the conversion of the heathen, to multiply disciples,” they lowered the standard for church fellowship. Within twenty years of the apostles’ death, the perversion of the truth of Christ had become widespread.

Mosheim writes concerning the developments in Christendom in the second century: “It is certain that to religious worship, both public and private, many rites were added, without necessity, and to the offence of sober and good men.”

The reason for this is stated. “The Christians were pronounced atheists, because they were destitute of temples, altars, victims, priests, and all that pomp in which the vulgar suppose the essence of religion to consist. For unenlightened persons are prone to estimate religion by what meets their eyes. To silence this accusation, the Christian doctors thought it necessary to introduce some external rights, which would strike the senses of the people, so that they could maintain themselves really to possess those things of which Christians were charged with being destitute—though under different forms.” Ecclesiastical History, century 2, part 2, chap. 4, par. 1, 3.

To do this, “was at once to accommodate the Christian worship and its forms to that of the heathen, and was almost at one step to heathenize Christianity. No heathen element or form can be connected with Christianity or its worship, and Christianity remain pure.” The Great Empires of Prophecy, 378. In Old Testament times whenever God’s people attempted to combine any of the forms of idolatry or heathenism with the worship of the true God they were charged by the prophet with committing spiritual adultery. (See Ezekiel 16, 23; Hosea.)

The heathen religions, in the early part of the second century, were almost all centered around sun worship. They worshipped at the dawning of the day facing towards the east. And this was one of the first pagan customs that entered the Christian church. Christians began to meet at the rising of the sun, on what was later called Easter Sunday, and they would say, “This is the time when Christ was resurrected, and we will teach the people that we meet at the rising of the sun, not to worship the sun, but to worship the One who was raised at sunrise.”

Mosheim again says, “Before the coming of Christ, all the Eastern nations performed divine worship with their faces turned to that part of the heavens where the sun displays his rising beams . . . Nor is this custom abolished even in our times, but still prevails in a great number of Christian churches.” Ecclesiastical History, century 2, part 2, chap. 4, par. 7.

The path of compromise, once you start down it, seems like it never ends. In addition to this, the day of the sun was adopted as a festival day, and the people were taught to fast on the Sabbath. Consider the effect this would have on little children growing up, if every Sabbath there was nothing to eat, but on Sunday, a child could have all he pleased. Which day would he learn to love and look forward to?

The forms of sun worship were practiced to such a degree in the “Christian” churches, that before the end of the second century the heathen themselves accused these apostate Christians with worshipping the sun. We know this because one of the Christian fathers, who wrote about A.D. 200, considered it necessary to make a defense of this practice. Here is what he said: “Others again, certainly with more information and greater or veri-similitude believe that the sun is our god . . . The idea no doubt has originated from our being known to turn toward the east in prayer. But you, many of you, also under pretense sometimes of worshipping the heavenly bodies, move your lips in the direction of the sunrise. In the same way if we devote Sunday to rejoicing, from a far different reason than sun worship, we have some resemblance to those of you who devote the day of Saturn to ease and luxury.” Apology, chap. 16, by Tertullian. His argument is, in effect, you do the same thing, and you originated it too, so why are you blaming us?

As these customs spread and such half-pagan disciples were multiplied, so did the number of pagan practices introduced in the church. It was the custom of the Jewish Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Christ during the Passover season. Passover, which was on the fourteenth day of the first month of the Jewish year, would fall on different days of the week each year. Rome, however, and from her all the Western Empire, adopted the day of the sun as the day of this celebration. Rome ruled that the celebration must always be on a Sunday. It was on this point that the bishop of Rome made one of the first claims at absolute power in his attempt to compel obedience.

We do not know precisely when this practice began, but it was practiced in Rome as early as the time of Sixtus the First, who was the bishop of Rome from A.D. 119 to 128. It was promoted by his successor, Antecedus, who was bishop of Rome A.D. 157–158. Here is what the historian has to say about him: He “would neither conform to that [Eastern] custom himself, nor suffer any under his jurisdiction to conform to it, obliging them to celebrate that solemnity on the Sunday next following the fourteenth of the month.” History of the Popes Under Pius and Anicetus, by Bower.

By the close of the second century, Victor, the bishop of Rome from 192 to 202 A.D., wrote a letter to the Asiatic Christian clergy “commanding them to imitate the example of the Western Christians with respect to the time of celebrating the festival of Easter. The Asiatics answered this lordly request through Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, who declared in their name, with great spirit and resolution, that they would by no means depart, in this manner from the custom handed down to them by their ancestors.” Ecclesiastical History, century 2, part 2, chapter 4, par. 11, by Mosheim.

As a result, Victor began to use the weapon of excommunication, broke communion with them, pronounced them unworthy of the name of brethren and excluded them from all fellowship with the Church of Rome.

By the end of the second century, and even more in the third century, it was difficult to distinguish between paganism and this kind of Christianity. During this time, pagan philosophy came in with full force. A school of pagan philosophy, called the Eclectics, sprang up in Egypt. They were called Platonists, and they regarded Plato as the one person above all others who had attained the nearest to truth. It was from these philosophers that a system of allegorizing and mystification of Scripture evolved.

One of the earliest professed Christians to espouse this philosophy, was Clement of Alexandria. He became the head of such a school in Alexandria, Egypt, and later further developed the same philosophical theology. The city of Alexandria, with Rome, are the two cities, in the ancient world, which come up over and over again when you study the history of Sunday observance.

These allegorizers threw great obscurity over the sacred writing and developed a system so that one could find whatever he pleased in any passage of Scripture. By their allegorical rules, the scripture could be made to support any doctrine that was ever invented by the wildest fancy of an ultra fanatic. This philosophy did immense harm to Christianity. “For it led the teachers of it to involve in philosophic obscurity many parts of our religion, which were in themselves plain and easy to be understood; and to add to the precepts of the Saviour, not a few things, of which not a word can be found in the Holy Scriptures . . . It recommended to Christians various foolish and useless rites that suited only to nourish superstition, no small part of which we see religiously observed by many even to the present day.” Ecclesiastical History, century 2, part 2, chap. 1, par. 12, by Mosheim. This allegorizing alienated many in the following centuries from Christianity itself and it produced a mixed variety of religion consisting of a combination of Christian and Platonic principles.

We will here include one example of allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. These so called Christians, who had drunk deeply of Pagan philosophy, invented the eight-day theory when they studied about Noah and the flood. They said that because eight people were saved in the ark, then Sunday is the eighth day, and therefore we should keep Sunday. They saw in this account of the flood, in Genesis, an argument for keeping Sunday. If you interpret by allegory everything in the Scripture, and you do not just take it for what it says, there is no telling where you may end up.

During the time of Constantine, the new developments in Paganism and the apostate, paganized, sun worshiping form of Christianity merged. In Constantine the aspirations of the former emperors for a universal religion and the philosophy of Origin and the ambition of the self-exalted bishops were all realized and accomplished and a new, imperial, “universal” religion was created.

Milman wrote about it in this way: “The reign of Constantine the Great forms one of the epochs in the history of the world. It is the era of the dissolution of the Roman empire; the commencement, or rather consolidation, of a kind of Eastern despotism, with a new capital, a new patriciate, a new constitution, a new financial system, a new, though as yet imperfect, jurisprudence and, finally, a new religion.” History of Christianity, book 3, chap. 1, par. 1, by Milman. “The epoch thus formed was the epoch of the papacy; and the new religion thus created was the papal religion.” The Great Empires of Prophecy, 395, by Alonzo T. Jones. This was the beginning of that dark and dismal age which oppressed Europe for well over one thousand years.

Another historian says this about the reign of Constantine: “It is the true close of the Roman empire, the beginning of the Greek. The transition from one to the other is emphatically and abruptly marked by a new metropolis, a new religion, a new code, and, above all, a new policy. An ambitious man had attained to imperial power by personating the interests of a rapidly growing party. The unavoidable consequences were a union between the Church and the state, diverting of the dangerous classes from civil to ecclesiastical paths, and the decay in materialization of religion.” Intellectual Development of Europe, chap. 10, par. 24, by Draper.

Before the council of Nicea, in A.D. 325, the bishops in the Donatist controversy had given special dignity to the bishop of Rome declaring that Easter should be kept on the same day and on a Sunday by all the churches in the world. This union of Church and state, the exaltation of the bishop of Rome, the veneration of Sunday, and other pagan customs was not accompanied by a revival or reformation of Christianity, but by the very opposite effect.

It was at this time, in A.D. 321, that the first Sunday law was proclaimed by Constantine. Notice that there is nothing Christian about this law. There is no mention of the resurrection of Christ or the fourth commandment. Here is what it said: “Constantine, Emperor Augustus, to Helpidius: On the venerable day of the sun, let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain sowing or for vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls, each of them for the second time.)” God Predicts Your Future, 268, by John Grosboll.(Originally from History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, par. 5, note 1.)

Did you note that there is no reference to any Scriptural reasons for keeping Sunday, and what was it called? The venerable day of the sun.

At every step taken in adopting the forms of sun worship and the adoption of the observance of Sunday, those who remain faithful to Christ and to the truth of the pure Word of God protested the popular disloyalty. These Bible believing Christians observed the Sabbath of the Lord according to the commandment, as a sign by which the Lord, the Creator of the heavens and the earth is distinguished from all other gods. (See Hebrews 4 and Exodus 31.) Therefore, these Christians protested every phase and form of sun worship.

When the church tried to enforce Sunday by a law of the state, this protest became stronger than ever. And in order to accomplish her original purpose, it became necessary for the apostate Christian church to secure legislation ending all exemption and prohibiting the observance of the Sabbath so as to quench that powerful protest. This was done by the council of Laodicea in Canon 29, around the year 364 A.D. (The exact year cannot be established.) Here is what this Canon said: “Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Sabbath.” Notice the word Judaize. A thousand years later, even to the present day, if you read a document written by a Jesuit and it talks about Judaizing, it is almost every time referring to the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. This term came to be used against anyone who kept the seventh-day Sabbath.

“Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day, but the Lord’s day they shall especially honor, and, as being Christians shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ.” Council of Laodicea, Canon 29.

During the time of Theodosius, by a law in A.D. 386, those older changes effected by the emperor of Constantine were more rigorously enforced and in general, civil transactions of every kind were strictly forbidden on Sunday. Whoever transgressed was considered guilty of sacrilege.

This Sunday law banned work, but as the people of that apostate Christian church did not have enough religion to devote the day to pious and moral exercises, the effect of the law was only to enforce idleness. Enforced idleness multiplied opportunities for dissipation and the consequence was that the circuses and the theaters were crowded every Sunday. This was not what the bishops wanted, so they complained that with such competition the theater was vastly more frequented than the church. So the next step taken was to force the circuses and the theaters to close on Sunday and other special church days so that there would be no competition.

In the circuses and the theaters there were large numbers of church members employed, and rather than giving up their jobs they worked on Sundays. The bishops complained that these men were compelled to work and prohibited to worship. They pronounced it persecution and demanded more Sunday laws for “protection,” and so in A.D. 401, another law was enacted which prohibited plays to be performed on Sunday or feast days.

However, there was still a problem. They found out that just closing the circus did not get people to church. The next logical step then was to compel them to be religious and devoted. The theocratical bishops had supplied a theory that exactly met the demand of the case. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo said this: “Many must often be brought back to their Lord, like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain the highest grade of religious development.” The Correction of Donatists, chap. 6, by Augustine. Of this theory, the historian justly observes: “It was by Augustine, then, that a theory was proposed and founded, which . . . contained the germ of that whole system of spiritual despotism of intolerance and persecution, which ended in the tribunals of Inquisition.” History of the Christian Religion and Church, vol. 2, sec. 2, part 3, division 1, by Neander.

You see friends, Sunday legislation contains within it the philosophical basis for religious persecution. Do not ever forget that. Whenever Sunday legislation is enacted, persecution is sure to follow.

The Lord predicted this very thing hundreds of years before it happened in Daniel 11: “For the ships from Cypress [or Kittum] shall come against him; therefore he shall be grieved, and return in rage against the holy covenant, and do damage. He shall return and show regard for those who forsake the holy covenant.” Daniel 11:30. What is God’s covenant that he will be enraged against? “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.” As you read in Hebrews 8:10, in the new covenant, God’s law is written in the heart.

We have just seen who this power is which would rise up against God’s law. The time came when the Roman church became so furious against God’s holy covenant that it eventually considered any person who kept the fourth commandment, enjoining the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, or the second commandment, which prohibited the worship of idols, worthy of death—death by the most cruel means that could be devised.

In Daniel 11:33 we read that during this great tribulation, God’s people would, “fall by the sword and flame, by captivity and plundering.” In spite of all the horrible tortures inflicted on these faithful ones, it was impossible to force them to keep Sunday and work on Sabbath. It was impossible to totally quench the desire of truehearted Christians to obey God, to follow His Word and do His will. There were many groups, throughout the world during this time, that kept God’s law and taught it to others.

Let us look at the stories of some of these people:

One of the most famous of all the theologians, during this time, was a man by the name of Lucian, who lived from 250–312 A.D. One of the great biblical scholars, he was a Gentile and has been belittled in recent times by Cardinal Newman as a Judaizer. Why was he called a Judaizer? Because he kept the Sabbath. And why did he keep the Sabbath? “Why should Lucian observe Saturday as sacred? It was the general custom.” Truth Triumphant, 57, by Benjamin Wilkinson. This was written in the fourth century. Notice what Socrates said was happening at that time: “For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this.” Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chap 22, by Socrates.

This is very interesting! A historian in the fourth century says that the Christian churches throughout the world observe the mysteries on Sabbath, except in two places—Alexandria and Rome.

Look at what Sozomen, a historian contemporary to Socrates said: “The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assembled together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria.” Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chap. 19, by Sozomen.

There were communities of Asyrian Christians throughout India, who were faithful in their evangelical missionary life, and who assembled for worship on the Sabbath day. When priests from Rome entered India a thousand years later, papal hatred stigmatized the persecuted church as Judaizers. See Truth Triumphant, 298, 299.

Cosma, who resided near Babylon, widely read for his explorations in the first half of the sixth century, says that there was an infinite number of churches with their clergy and a vast number of Christian people among the Bacterians, Huns, Persians, Greeks, Eadlemites and the rest of the Indians who kept the Sabbath.

The historian A.C. Flick wrote about the Sabbath keeping Christians of the Celtic church (which was located in Wales, Scotland and Ireland). The Celtic church observed Saturday as their sacred day of rest and that reputable scholarship has asserted that the Welsh sanctified it as such until the twelfth century. See Truth Triumphant, 163.

“Widespread and enduring was the observance of the Seventh-day Sabbath among the believers of the Church of the East and the St. Thomas Christians of India who were never connected with Rome. It also was maintained among those bodies which broke off from Rome after the council of Chalcedon; namely, the Abysinians, the Jacobites, the Marinites, and the Armenians.” Truth

Triumphant, 298. “The Armenians in Hindustan . . . have preserved the Bible in its purity, and their doctrines are, as far as the author knows, the doctrines of the Bible. Besides they maintain the solemn observance of Christian worship, throughout our empire, on the seventh day.” Christian Researchs in Asia, by Buchanan, 266.

Here is another historical account about a group of people in Bulgaria. “Bulgaria, in the early season of its evangelization had been taught that no work should be performed on the Sabbath. Pope Nicholas I, in the ninth century, sent the ruling prince of Bulgaria a long document saying in it that one is to cease from work on Sunday, but not on the Sabbath.

“The head of the Greek church, offended at the interference of the papacy, declared the pope excommunicated. The Greek patriarch also sent a circulatory letter to some leading bishops of the East, censoring the Roman Catholic Church for several erroneous doctrines, especially emphasizing its rebellion against past church councils and compelling its members to fast on the Seventh-day Sabbath.” Truth Triumphant, 232.

Two hundred years later the Pope sent three legates to Constantinople with counter charges. Among others the following charge was made by the Pope against the Greek Church: “because you observe the Sabbath with the Jews.” Ibid. The Christian churches of the eastern part of the Roman empire, the Goths, the Waldensians and the Armenians, the Syrians and the Celtic churches, established by Patrick, all sanctified Saturday as the Sabbath.

There is evidence stacked upon evidence that Christians in the British Isles, the Waldenses in Italy, the Albigenses in France, the Christians in Bulgaria, the Armenians in Turkey, the Syrian churches in Palestine, the St. Thomas Christians in India, the Abysinian Christians in Africa, and the Christians in China, Afghanistan and southern Russia, all were Sabbath-keeping Christians, until they were forced to go underground and their most staunch leaders and defenders were killed by the inquisition in the fourteenth century.

Why then do the majority today keep Sunday? It is because most of the ancient Sabbath-keepers were tortured and killed just as predicted in Revelation 17:6, where John saw a woman “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.”

Someday, if you are saved, you are going to meet and get acquainted with millions of people who died for the Sabbath. If you have been a Sabbathkeeper, you are going to have a wonderful fellowship with these people. Would you want to say to those who were burned at the stake, or had their heads chopped off, or were hanged, or languished in dark dungeons, “Well, I was afraid to keep the Sabbath because I might have lost my job”? Could you say, “I was afraid that somebody might make fun of me,” or “I was afraid that I might be unpopular if I kept the Sabbath”? We would be ashamed to be around them with such excuses! Very soon, they are going to be raised to life. We want to be with them! In that day, we will want to be found a Sabbath-keeper, to be among that group who have kept God’s Holy Covenant.