What Happened to the Sabbath Among Christians?

By Mark D. Roberts

October 23, 2023

Unwrapping God’s Gift of Rest

Scripture — Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2 (NRSV)

On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.

On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come.


Though the first Christians observed the sabbath since they were Jewish, before long Christians innovated. Some observed the sabbath on Saturday and gathered on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Others made Sunday their “special day.” Though Christians differ on the specific, throughout the centuries most have set apart one day a week as a special day, a time for worship, prayer, and reflection.

Series: Unwrapping God’s Gift of Rest


In several recent devotions, we have seen that Jesus observed the sabbath but rejected the legalism embraced by other Jews in his day, especially the Pharisees. Notably, Jesus affirmed that certain kinds of work – like healing people – were appropriate on the sabbath.

The first followers of Jesus were Jewish. Thus, they naturally continued to observe the sabbath after his death and resurrection. But, quite early in church history, Christians began innovating. Some appear to have observed the sabbath on the seventh day and to have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on the next day, the first day of the week (Sunday). Before long, most Christians set apart Sunday as a special day, mainly in remembrance of the resurrection.

We observe the specialness of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) in many writings from the early church. Two passages in the New Testament may indicate that the weekly gathering of Christians was on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), but we can’t be sure of this. Other early Christian writers were much clearer, however. For example, a document known as the Didache, which was written in the late first or early second century A.D., includes this instruction:

But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. (Didache 14:1)

In the middle of the second century, a Christian theologian known as Justin Martyr wrote:

But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. (First Apology 67)

Notice that, by this time, Sunday was special both because of the resurrection of Jesus and because God began to create on the first day.

From these and other early Christian writers we learn, not only that Sunday was their “special day” of the week, but also that the point of this day had more to do with corporate worship than ceasing from work and following Jewish sabbath traditions.

Many centuries later, Christians in the Reformed tradition (John Calvin and folks like him) integrated Sunday worship traditions with Old Testament sabbath practices. They emphasized, among other things, the importance of resting on the Lord’s Day, in addition to participating in corporate worship. Some later Calvinists became quite adamant about the requirement for Christians to rest on the sabbath, though interpreting rest in a peculiar way. I remember once reading a Calvinist argument against taking a nap on Sundays because it drew one away from focusing on God in private worship and reflection.

In recent years, many Christians, not just those in the Reformed tradition, have rediscovered the sabbath and its benefits. Though I am for sure a flawed sabbath observer, I find a home in this “rediscovery” community. I believe that the example of God in Genesis 1 and the teachings we find in Scripture show that sabbath – an intentional time of regular rest – is a gift from God to us. For reasons I’ll explain in tomorrow’s devotion, I’m not convinced, however, that we should limit our reception of this gift to only one particular day of the week.

For now, let me encourage you to reflect on your experience of sabbath and/or the Lord’s Day. Think about what you have done, what you have heard, and what you have observed. Ask the Lord to help learn to receive the gift of rest.


How have you observed the sabbath or honored the Lord’s Day in your life?

What thoughts and feelings do you have about sabbath keeping?

Do you rest from work on a regular basis? If so, when? Why? How?

Do you think of Sunday as a time to remember the resurrection of Jesus? If so, why? If not, why not?


Talk with a good friend or your small group about your experiences of the sabbath and/or the Lord’s Day.


Gracious God, it would be easy for me to get caught up in the arguments about the sabbath and, in the process, to fail to receive your gift of rest. Help me, I pray, to understand your will correctly. Help me to discover how I should rest on a regular basis. Amen.

Banner image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Paul’s Concern for Others (Acts 20-28).

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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