Around the year 105AD, somewhere in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) Ignatius of Antioch (a student of the apostle John) was traveling to Rome where he would be martyred for his Christian faith. He wrote letters to the churches as he passed through. These letters depict a devout and impassioned man who was ready to die for Christ.
In Part 1 we left off by saying that Ignatius was careful to preserve the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles. He also wrote something that revealed the early Christian position on the Sabbath. Did the early Christians keep the Saturday Sabbath, the fourth of the 10 Commandments written on stone tablets by the finger of God?
To the Magnesians, Ignatius wrote:
“We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s Day instead…” (Ch. 9)
I was genuinely surprised to learn that the early Christians were not instructed to keep the Sabbath. I was fascinated and I wanted to know more.
This marked the beginning of my shift away from more of a Hebrew Roots orientation towards Apostolic Christianity.
So, how exactly did the early Christians view the Sabbath and the Law?
- The Lord’s Day / The Eighth Day
The early Christians saw that a shift from the Saturday Sabbath to a Sunday celebration was appropriate because of the resurrection of the Lord. They associated His resurrection with Sunday and called this the “Eighth Day.”
This view is presented in The Epistle of Barnabas, a late 1st/early 2nd century Christian document. He says:
“…we too rejoice in celebrating the eighth day; because that was when Jesus rose from the dead, and showed Himself again, and ascended into heaven.” (Ch. 15)
The resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the new creation and so the “Eighth Day” is the completion of the previous work week and the beginning of a new “week” – a promise of the things to come. Jesus was “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18, Rev 1:5) and so with Jesus, God has gone back to work!
Barnabas even has an eschatological view in mind, namely, that Christ’s millennial reign on Earth will begin after 6,000 years since creation have passed and will be a thousand year Sabbath rest for the Earth and God’s people. Remember that a day is like a thousand years to God (2 Peter 3:8). After that there will be the new heavens and new earth – the “Eighth Day”.
- Perpetual Sabbath
While the early Christians did not keep a weekly Sabbath, they still saw themselves as keeping the Sabbath. Instead of keeping Sabbath once a week, they kept Sabbath every day! They did this by resting from all wickedness and practicing righteousness.
Justin Martyr and Irenaeus – both second century Christians – explain this. In his dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, Justin Martyr says:
“If there is any perjured person or a thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent; then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God.” (Ch. 12)
Irenaeus echoes this thought in his writing The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:
“And there will be no command to remain idle for one day of rest, to him who perpetually keeps sabbath…does service to God, and in every hour works righteousness.” (Ch. 96)
For the early Christians this was what God really desired – the weekly physical rest under the law of Moses being merely a foreshadowing.
- The Law
So, did the early Christians see themselves as under the law or not? What was their view of the law?
As Paul says, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). The early Christians all understood themselves to be under Christ and His teaching. Paul expresses the same thing when he says, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
Now, John says “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 4:3) and Paul says that sin shall not have dominion over us. This means that grace is not lawless. Grace is law abiding but grace goes beyond the law. The law shows us right and wrong but grace teaches us and empowers us to live right (Titus 2:11-14)!
Irenaeus says this:
“Now all these teachings [of Jesus]…were not those of someone doing away with the Law, but of someone fulfilling, extending, and widening it among us.” (Against Heresies 4.13.1)
So the early Christians saw themselves under Christ and under grace and this meant that they were to obey what Paul calls the “Law of Christ” or the “Law of the Spirit”. Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, updated and reworked the law of Moses into the Law of Christ – the King’s law for those in His kingdom.
So the early Christians saw themselves as honoring and obeying Christ by celebrating the Lord’s Day and keeping perpetual Sabbath – a rest from all evil in constant service to God.
Christ extended the law to include even our thoughts and our innermost desires. He wants us to live right on the inside and out, day in and day out. The early Christians understood this and by His grace lived their lives to do the Father’s will.
We have much to learn from our ancient brethren. And more still to learn from our Teacher, the Christ. Let us revisit His words and by His grace put them into practice one day at a time. Let us rest from all wickedness and practice righteousness, serving God wholeheartedly.
May we ever keep the “sweet and true sabbaths of God.”