Breaking Bread and the Sabbath

Does Acts 20:7 contain the seeds for changing the day of worship from Sabbath to Sunday?

George E. Rice, Ph.D., is the pastor of Triadelphia Seventhday Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland.

As a young pastor I had numerous discussions with non-Adventist clergy about the seventh-day Sabbath. In the course of defending Sunday, these pastors would inevitably appeal to Acts 20: 7 for support. "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until mid night."* This passage, they said, supports Sunday as the Lord's day on two accounts: (1) Paul and the Christians in Troas had gathered on the first day of the week to celebrate the Eucharist, as is apparent in the words "to break bread"; and (2) Paul was preaching to the assembled believers.

Remembering the discussions of earlier years, I tried to take another look at this text. More recently, however, New Testament scholars have used Acts 20:7 to show that the seeds of changing the day of worship from Sabbath to Sunday can be found in the teaching and practice of Paul, while the actual change occurred in the second century.

Syntax of the passage

The two key points of syntax that help our understanding of this verse are a purpose infinitive (klasai) and a causal participle (mellon). First, the causal participle. The text says that Paul talked with the people "intending to depart on the morrow." The word "intending" (mellon) is a causal participle that gives reason for Paul's preaching because he was about to depart. No other reason is given for this sermon, and to impose the change of the Sabbath as the reason Paul preached is to violate the text.

The purpose infinitive klasai (to break) gives insight into the reason that the church in Troas convened on that particular first day of the week. They gathered for the purpose of breaking bread. In the New Testament 15 texts speak of the act of breaking bread. Five of them deal directly with the Eucharist (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:24). As for the remaining 10 references, commentators generally agree that nine of them have at least a symbolic connection to the Eucharist meal (Matt. 14:19; 15:36; Mark 8:6, 19; Luke 24:30; Acts 2:42,46; 20:7,11). Because of its context, Acts 27:35 is spared from a Eucharistic interpretation.

Breaking bread in the early church

Those who relate the above passages from Acts (except for Acts 27:35) with the Eucharist point to the first appearance of "breaking of bread" (Acts 2:42) as a precedent for understanding the remaining pas sages. Let us examine the verse: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." The presence of one comma in the RSV that divides the four activities of these early Christians into two groups leads the reader to think that teaching and fellowship belong together and that the breaking of bread and prayer belong together. Thus it would be easy to think of the two latter activities as involving the worship experience of the community the Eucharist and prayers and the teaching and fellowship as the evangelistic outreach. The KJV, however, divides these four activities into three groups by the use of commas: "the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

The usage of punctuation marks by editors or translators changes the understanding of a text. To Adventists the most striking example of this is Luke 23:43: "And he said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'" We recognize that the multitude of scriptural passages that present death as a sleep argue against placing a comma after "you." Similarly, placement of commas in Acts 2:42 can also confuse its meaning. If the commas are re moved from that verse, a chiasm immediately appears to clarify the meaning of the breaking of bread in the early church: (a) teaching; (b) fellowship; (b') breaking bread; and (a') prayer.

The apostles' teaching and prayer (a and a') were the spiritual activities of the early church, while fellowship and breaking bread were the social activities. Thus Acts 2:42 introduces the support system adopted within the early church after the Day of Pentecost to care for both the spiritual and social needs of new converts.

At the end of Acts 2 we find additional evidence that the breaking of bread relates to social activities, not the Eucharist: "And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they par took of food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). Obviously breaking bread together was simply sharing a common meal.

Conclusion

Although non-Sabbatarian scholars use Acts 20:7 to defend Sunday as the Lord's day, the internal evidence of the text does not support such usage. The breaking of bread in Acts 2:42 is a common meal, part of the social support system for converts of the early church. Acts 2:46 and 27:35 also deal with common meals. Based on the weight of evidence found throughout Acts, the breaking of bread in Acts 20:7,11 must like wise represent a social event actually on a Saturday night with no connection to the Eucharist. There is no support for Sunday observance.

 

* All Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.


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George E. Rice, Ph.D., is the pastor of Triadelphia Seventhday Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland.

October 1997

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