This week’s study is about the ongoing permanence of God’s law despite human attempts to change it. A special focus is on the Sabbath. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a Protestant Christian friend and he mentioned casually that if the Sabbath was important for Christians, surely the New Testament would have more to say about it.
In response I did a simple concordance search and the results surprised me. The Sabbath appears sixty-nine times in the New Testament always in reference to the weekly Sabbath (with the possible exception of Colossians 2:16). In the Old Testament it appears 106 times, several of which are references to the annual Sabbaths.
Given than the Old Testament is more than three times longer than the New Testament, it becomes evident that proportionately the Sabbath appears substantially more prominently in the New than in the Old. We see this in the worship patterns of Paul and the other apostles as described in Acts.
The Sabbath School lesson covers a number of relevant texts. In this short analysis I would like to focus on three themes.
Worship on the “day which is the Sabbath”
Acts 13:14 reads: “From Perga they [Paul and Barnabas] went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down.” The translation “Sabbath” misses the force of the Greek original. Luke uses the phrase tē ēmēra tōn Sabbatōn, which literally means, “the day which is the Sabbath.” He uses the same expression again in 16:13.
It is no coincidence that this phrase appears here. Acts 13 marks the beginning of Paul’s missionary journeys. Acts 13:14 is the first mention of Paul’s worship practices and as such, sets the tone for Paul’s subsequent Sabbath gatherings. Paul is not simply meeting on a day when he will find people gathered to minister to. He is not meeting on the day the Jews call “Sabbath.” Rather, he meets on “the day which is the Sabbath.” As such, this phrase provides the reason for Paul’s worship practice—the seventh-day is still the biblical Sabbath.
Having established the fact, Luke does not feel a burden to restate his case and in the subsequent three references to the Sabbath in Acts 13, as well as most other references in the book of Acts, he refers to the day simply by the titular noun “Sabbath.”
Sabbath Worship as a Custom—Acts 17:1–9; 14:1
When, in his second missionary journey, Paul arrives in Thessalonica, we read: “They came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was [kata to eiōthos], Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:1–2). This text is interesting because it speaks of Paul’s custom, eiōthos, to go to the synagogue. Why did Paul customarily attend the synagogue? Was it because he kept the Sabbath? Or because it afforded him opportunity for mission work?
In Luke 4:16, Luke uses an identical expression in relation to Jesus: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom (kata to eiōthos). And he stood up to read.”The Sabbath in question is the first named Sabbath in Jesus’ public ministry. By this early stage, “his custom” of attendance was already well established and was as such unrelated to his preaching and teaching ministry.
Furthermore, the statements a) “he went into the synagogue, as was his custom,” and b) “he stood up to read” in Greek are separated by the coordinating conjunction kai which functions to connect two independent statements.1 This is well conveyed in the NIV by the insertion of a full stop between the two clauses. As such, Jesus’ custom of visiting the synagogue every Sabbath was independent from any preaching or teaching he conducted there—Jesus went to the synagogue because this is what He wanted to do and was in the habit of doing.
The same conclusion is valid for Paul. Just as in Luke 4:16, the first clause of Acts 17:2 “as his custom was Paul went into the synagogue,” is separated from the following clause by the same coordinating conjunction kai, again indicating two independent statements.
In Acts 14:1, Luke makes the same inference but in a more subtle way. After describing Paul’s successful ministry in Pisidian Antioch on the Sabbath, he introduces Paul’s ministry in Iconium with the words: “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual [kata to auto] into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.” Kata to auto, literally “in the same way,” points back to Pisidian Antioch and the apostles’ custom to attend the synagogue. Again the synagogue attendance is separated from the synagogue ministry by the coordinating conjunction kai in Greek and a full stop in the NIV indicating two independent statements.
A Church Next to the Synagogue, and Ephesus—Acts 18:1–17; 18–26; 19:8–9
Paul’s second missionary journey took him to Corinth, where he stayed eighteen months (Acts 18:11). While there, “every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4), a potential seventy-eight Sabbaths. Some were in the synagogue, but not all. At some point he faced opposition because of his preaching about Jesus and was kicked out of the synagogue. What did he do?
He established meetings in the house of Titius Justus which was sunomorousa,“next door” (NIV, ESV), “adjoined” (MRD) or “joined hard” (KJV) to the synagogue (Acts 18:7). Why choose that location? Was Paul trying to irritate the Jews? Be in their face? Hardly.
Rather, Paul was establishing an alternative but parallel arrangement for worship and fellowship. Ellison insightfully observes that for believers it would be easier if they were “in or near the Jewish district of the town… to avoid seeing idol-figures . . . and to be able to avoid continual insult, when they observed the Sabbath.”2
After a year and a half in Corinth, Paul went to the nearby port of Cenchrea,boarded a boat and traveled to Ephesus (Acts 18:18–19). Luke says little about his ministry in Ephesus. The visit was brief and when asked to stay longer he declined, promising instead to return (Acts 18:20–21). He left in Ephesus Aquila and Priscilla, two of his fellow workers, and moved on to Caesarea and Antioch, concluding his second missionary journey. He returned to Ephesus during his third missionary journey but after he had first visited the churches in Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18:23). Exactly how much time elapsed between the two visits to Ephesus is unclear, but at least a year, probably more.
What is clear, however, is that Aquila, Priscilla, and the group of Christian believers in Ephesus continued to meet on the Sabbath in the synagogue. When Paul returned to Ephesus, he joined the other Christians in synagogue attendance for three months (Acts 19:8) until his bold preaching aroused opposition and Paul moved to a nearby lecture hall (19:9). His departure was not a personal or theological choice but was forced by opposition from the Jews.
From this brief discussion on a limited selection of pertinent Sabbath texts it becomes fairly obvious that Sabbath worship was an enduring legacy among the early apostles. It was not opportunistic for the sake of converting the Jews but part of their upbringing and theological outlook. A clear understanding of the worship patterns of the early church should make every Sabbatarian confident that in keeping the Sabbath s/he is in line with the noble practices of the apostles and early Christians.
Notes & References:
1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 293–302.
2. H. L. Ellison, “Paul and the Law—‘All Things to All Men,’” in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 197.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
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