Day of worship patterns in the book of Acts

Explore the book of Acts to learn about what day the early Christians held Sabbath worship.

Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

Did early Christians have a set day of worship?1 Or did they worship on any day that was convenient? If they did have a set day, was it the biblical Sabbath, the seventh day of the week? Or was it Sunday? 

Even a casual reading of Acts shows that Sabbath appears prominent. There are ten occurrences of the word sabbaton, “Sabbath,” as compared to one for the first day of the week, with multiple meetings recorded as taking place on the Sabbath. But, could it be that Paul (and other apostles) met on Sabbath only because this was the time when Jews and God-fearing Gentiles would be gathered and, as such, afforded an excellent opportunity for ministry? Or could it be that Sabbath meetings were just a leftover from inherited practice, soon to disappear?

Such questions might appear distant or even irrelevant but are, in fact, relevant for contemporary Christians. The vast majority of Christians worships on Sunday and has been doing so for centuries. A vocal minority has opted to have the Saturday Sabbath as their day of worship. Still others maintain that any day is fine. The practice and outlook of the first Christians could shed light on what is biblically most appropriate. 

This study will explore patterns of worship in the book of Acts. These fall under three categories as far as the day of the week is concerned. First, there are daily meetings (Acts 2:44–47). Second, one meeting takes place on the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:6–12). Third, meetings are mentioned on the seventh-day Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 14:1; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4; cf. 1:12; 15:21). Daily meetings were probably unstructured, informal, ad hoc opportunities for instruction (Acts 2:44–47; 19:9; 20:31), as opposed to formal worship services and will not receive our attention here.

This short study will instead focus on the two other categories. We will first explore the texts that speak of Sabbath worship and endeavor to see whether they indicate habitual or opportunistic (for the purpose of missionary work) practice. Then we will review the one text that mentions a Sunday meeting.

Sabbath texts

The Sabbath is mentioned ten times in Acts, of which eight relate to worship. The noun “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew verb sabbat, “to cease, rest,”2 designating a holy day of rest and worship, a memorial of God’s creative acts in the story of Creation (Exod. 20:8–11), as well as His redemptive work on behalf of His people (Deut. 5:12–15). The first three Sabbath worship references appear in Paul’s ministry in Pisidian Antioch. Luke,

The first three Sabbath worship references appear in Paul’s ministry in Pisidian Antioch. Luke, author of Acts, introduces the pericope as follows: “From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down” (Acts 13:14).3 The translation “Sabbath” misses the force of the Greek original. Luke uses the phrase tēēmēratōnSabbatōn, which literally means, “the day which is the Sabbath.”4 He uses the same expression again in Acts 16:13.

That this phrase appears here is no coincidence. 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 does not simply meet on a day when he will find people gathered so that he can minister to them. He does not meet on the day the Jews consider “Sabbath.” Rather, he meets on “the day which is the Sabbath.” As such, this phrase provides the reason for Paul’s Sabbath 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 13,5 as well as most other references in the book of Acts,6 he refers to the day simply by the titular noun “Sabbath.”

While in the synagogue, Paul and Barnabas are invited to speak. At the conclusion of the meeting Paul urge the synagogue crowd, Jews and devout Gentiles, “to continue [Gr. in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). The verb prosmenein has the meaning to “remain, stay with, continue in.”7 For Paul, evidently, knowledge of the saving work of Jesus did not necessitate a break from the worship practice of the synagogue.8

Before departing, the apostles are invited to speak again on the following Sabbath (Acts 13:42). Paul acquiesces to their request and waits a whole week. Had Sunday become the new day of worship for Christians, he could have invited them to meet him the next day. But he waits a whole week. “On the next almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44).

The next mention of the Sabbath is in Acts 16:13: “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate [of Philippi] to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.” Apparently, there was no synagogue in Philippi because a synagogue required a quorum of ten adult males. In the absence of a synagogue, people met by the river for prayer. Paul attended the worship service and had the opportunity to speak and convert Lydia and her family.

From Philippi, Paul traveled to Thessalonica, and there he mentions Sabbath worship again: “When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:1, 2). This text is particularly 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, as is sometimes assumed?

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.9 This is well conveyed in the New International Version (NIV) by the insertion of a period 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.10 Again the synagogue attendance is separated from the synagogue ministry by the coordinating conjunction kai in Greek and a period in the NIV, indicating two independent statements.

We conclude, on the basis of the syntax of Luke 4:16 and Acts 14:1 and 17:2, as well as from the context of Luke 4:16; that both Jesus’ and Paul’s custom was to attend the synagogue regularly on the Sabbath for worship irrespective of any preaching or teaching activity they might be involved in while there. Sabbath worship was part of their upbringing and enduring spiritual experience.

Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was not long, and he moved onwards to Berea, Athens, and then Corinth, where he stayed 18 months (Acts 18:11). While there, “[e]very Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4), a potential 78 Sabbaths.11 Had Paul habitually disregarded the Sabbath, he would unlikely have been able to continue synagogue attendance. When the breach did come, it was not because of Paul’s Sabbath behavior, but because the Jews opposed Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ (18:5, 6). David Seccombe observes that the severance of church and synagogue was “neither theologically motivated, nor final, but forced on Paul by the attitudes of that group of Jews.”12

When Paul was forced to leave the synagogue, he established meetings in the house of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). Luke adds that Justus’s house was sunomorousa, “next door” (NIV, ESV), or “joined hard” (KJV) to the synagogue. The inclusion of this detail is surprising and not a casual piece of Corinth’s civic geography. Rather, Paul is establishing an alternative but parallel arrangement for worship and fellowship. H. L. 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.”13

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 Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. The visit was brief, and when asked to stay longer, he declined, promising instead to return (Acts 18:20, 21). In Ephesus he left Aquila and Priscilla, two fellow workers,14 and moved on to Caesarea and Antioch, concluding his second missionary journey. He returned to Ephesus during his third missionary journey but only after he had first visited the churches in Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18:23)15 Exactly how much time elapsed between the two visits to Ephesus is unclear, but at least a year, probably more 16

What is clear, however, is that Aquila, Priscilla, and the group of believers in Ephesus continued to meet on the Sabbath in the synagogue. When a Jewish believer named Apollos17 came and preached in the synagogue, Aquila and Priscilla took him home and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). Apollos then received letters of recommendation from the “brothers”—a term that could refer either to Jews18 or Christians19 in the synagogue, or both—and departed for Corinth. 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). Again, his departure was not a personal or theological choice but was forced by opposition from the Jews.

Two last texts are relevant. In Acts 15:21, James the apostle declares: ‘ “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’ ” The context is the Jerusalem Council, which eased the way for the acceptance of Gentiles into the church. The words quoted stand at the conclusion of the decision of the council and were intended to highlight the fact that the council decision was in harmony with “Moses” (i.e., the Pentateuch). The fact that synagogue worship services “every Sabbath” is mentioned indicates that Christians attended these services, or else the statement would have no relevance.

Finally, Luke gives the distance between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives as “a Sabbath day’s walk” (i.e., about 900 meters). Both Luke, the author of Acts, and Theophilus, the recipient of Acts, were most likely of Gentile background. The fact that they used such a Sabbatarian outlook prob­ably means that they kept the Sabbath. Why refer to a “Sabbath day’s walk” if such a concept was irrelevant?

In this brief survey of Sabbath texts in Acts, a number of points stand out. First, Luke introduces Paul’s Sabbath attendance with tēēmeratōnSabbatōn, “the day which is the Sabbath” (13:14), a phrase that, as was noted earlier, highlights the seventh day as the biblical Sabbath. As such, it offers justification for Paul’s Sabbath prac-tices—Paul’s day of worship is the biblical Sabbath. Second, Paul did not attend the synagogue for mission purposes but because, like Jesus, that was his custom. Missionary activity was an added bonus. Third, Sabbath attendance was not limited to a few initial meetings to win converts but, wherever possible, Sabbath attendance was an ongoing practice. Fourth, when Paul did depart from the synagogue, it was not because of personal choice or alternative worship practices but because of opposition from Jews who refused to accept Jesus as the Christ.20Fifth, Sabbath synagogue attendance (Acts 15:21) and Sabbath practice (Acts 1:12) were taken for granted.

The first day of the week in the book of Acts

In contrast to the plethora of references to Sabbath worship, there is only one reference to a first-day meeting, Acts 20:7. Not surprisingly, this text has become the focus of intense attention for advocates of a  special status for Sunday.21 Ben Witherington writes that “in v. 7 we have perhaps the first reference to the fact that it was on the first day of the week (i.e., Sunday) that Christians met to have fellowship and hear preaching.”22 Guthrie, with­out citing any supporting documentation, asserts that “by this time it seems to have been the usual practice for believers to assemble together in this way,” on a Sunday evening to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.23Are such assertions justified?

Acts 20:7 is set within the context of Paul’s ministry at Troas (Acts 20:6–12), which lasted seven days (20:6). The text reads, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” Discussions hinge on two points: (a) does the phrase “to break bread” refer to the Lord’s Supper or a common meal? (b) Did this evening meeting take place on Saturday night or Sunday night? To these ques­tions we now turn.

The answer to the first question depends on the interpretation of the phrase “to break bread,” klasaiarton. The two words appear together another 13 times in the New Testament. Eight times they refer to common meals,24 and five to the Lord’s Supper.25 So, lexi­cally and interbiblically, either option is possible.

To determine the nature of the “bread breaking” in Troas, we need to look at the context. Here, two things argue in favor of a common meal. First, though the believers and Paul were gathered together to “break bread,” only Paul appears to have eaten: “Then he [Paul] went upstairs again and broke bread and ate” (Acts 20:11).26

Second, we have the following sequence: Paul speaks until midnight (Acts 20:7); Eutychus dies and is resur­rected (20:9, 10); Paul breaks bread, eats, and then speaks until dawn (20:11). If this meal was the Lord’s Supper it was celebrated after mid­night, which is unlikely. The evidence indicates a common fellowship meal to bid Paul farewell, in which only Paul apparently ate, needing the strength to speak all night.27

The next issue relates to the exact time the meeting took place. This was clearly a night meeting (Acts 20:8). There are two contending theories: (1) If the biblical calendar is in view the day begins at sunset,28 so the dark part of the “first day of the week” is Saturday 29 (2) If a Roman calendar is in view then the day begins at midnight,30 in which case the evening meeting at Troas took place on Sunday night.

Which calendar did Luke use? The evidence is overwhelming in favor of the biblical calendar. Bacchiocchi, in his seminal work, From Sabbath to Sunday,  has provided ample evidence in sup­port of this. He lists Luke’s account of the crucifixion (Luke 23:54); references to the Jewish festal year and customs (Acts 12:3–4; 16:1–3; 18:18; 20:16; 21:24, 26); and repeated mentions of the Sabbath, clearly a biblical concept (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4).31 I would add Luke 23:44 and Acts 2:15, both of which give the hours of the day according to the way Jews counted them. In light of this evidence the meeting at Troas, described in Acts 20, was a Saturday night meeting.

So what happened in Troas? Paul arrived at Troas after a five-day journey from Philippi and remained at Troas for seven days (20:6). Since he left early on Sunday morning, he must have arrived at Troas the preceding Monday.32 What Paul did from Monday to Sabbath we do not know, but judging from his mode of ministry he probably spent his time encouraging believers (Acts 20:31) and planning his onward travel (Acts 20:5).

On Sabbath, according to his custom (Acts 14:1; 17:2), he would have visited a synagogue or held an alternative meeting with believers. Sabbath fel­lowship customarily extended into the afternoon or even evening.33Sometime after sunset on Saturday night the believers and Paul met again to fellow­ship in word and meal and say farewell to each other. Paul preached until midnight (Acts 20:7). He then raised Eutychus, who had had an accident (20:8–10); partook of some food—since by that time he was probably hungry; preached until dawn; and departed for Assos (20:13).

Conclusion

We have looked at a plethora of texts. On the one hand, we have mul­tiple references to Sabbath worship that is intentional, customary, ongoing, and independent of any missiological considerations. On the other hand, we have one reference to a meeting on the first day of the week, which takes place on Saturday night, because Paul is to depart early in the morning.

All of the above are congruent with the belief that the early Christians were seventh-day Sabbatarian and contin­ued to see the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. But they are incongruent with the suggestions that from the Cross and Resurrection onward Sunday replaced the Sabbath, or the Sabbath was abolished altogether.

1  By “day of worship” we mean a day set apart from the rest of the days in the week as holy to God, in which worship takes place on a regular basis, much like the seventh-day Sabbath had been a day of worship (Lev. 23:2).

2 William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), s.v. “sabbat.

3 All Scripture references quoted in this article are from the New International Version of the Bible.

4 Kim Papaioannou, “Naming the Days of the Week: Overlooked Evidence Into Early Christian Sabbatarian Practice,” Ministry, January 2015, 25–28.

5 Acts 13:27, 42, 44.

6 Acts 1:12; 15:21; 17:2; 18:4.

7 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 1519. 

8 Gerhard A. Krodel highlights such continuity and traces it in Paul’s sermon beginning with Israel’s election (Acts 13:17), through the fulfillment of the promise (13:29–37), to the offer of forgiveness through Christ (13:38, 39). Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1986), 245.

9 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 293–302.

10 F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951), 324.

11 At some point he had to leave the synagogue, but how soon this happened the text does not indicate. Clearly he stayed in the synagogue for a considerable amount of time as the Greek kata pan Sabbaton indicates. Cf. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 104–07.

12 David Seccombe, “The New People of God,” in Witness to the Gospel, eds. I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 364. Seccombe’s statement is made in relation to the activities of the Jews in Pisidian Antioch but doubtless holds true for Corinth, too.

13 H. L. Ellison, “Paul and the Law–‘All Things to All Men,’” in Apostolic History and the Gospel, eds. W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 197.

14 Acts 18:18; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19. Aquila was a Jew from Pontus who had worked with his wife Priscilla in Italy but had been forced to leave due to an edict by Emperor Claudius expelling all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). Donald Guthrie notes that this expulsion may be related to disturbances among Jews and possibly Christians mentioned by the Roman historian Suetonius. This could suggest the couple were Christian prior to their arrival in Corinth. The Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 154.

15 Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 107–111.

16 Schnabel places Paul’s first arrival in Ephesus in the late summer of A.D. 51 and second visit in the summer of A.D. 52. Paul the Missionary, 104, 107. Joseph Fitzmyer places the conclusion of the second missionary journey sometime in A.D. 52 and the beginning of the third missionary journey in the spring of A.D. 54, making the gap between Paul’s two visits to Ephesus about two years long. The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible, vol. 31 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 633.

17 There is some debate as to whether Apollos was a Christian during his visit to Ephesus, but the weight of the evidence suggests he was. Cf. Darrell Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 591–592.

18 E.g., Acts 2:29, 37; 3:17; 7:2; 13:15, 26, 38; 22:1.

19 E.g., Acts 1:16; 6:3; 9:30; 11:1, 29; 12:17; 14:2; 15:1, 3, 7, 13, 22, 23; 17:6, 10.

20 This ongoing attachment to the synagogue and the Sabbath is verified by history. The birkathaminim is a prayer introduced in synagogues at the end of the first century A.D. with an aim “to flush Christians out of the synagogues” as M. M. B. Turner puts it. “The Sabbath, Sunday, and the Law in Luke/Acts,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 125. The prayer consisted of a curse upon Christians. When a synagogue attendee was suspected of being a Christian or even a sympathizer, he would be invited to offer the prayer. Any hesitation to recite the curse would confirm the Christian leanings. Samuele Bacchiocchi notes that several Fathers confirm the continuing use of the birkathaminim and cites Justin Martyr, Dialogue 16; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 29, and Jerome, In IsaiamPL 24, 87, and 484. From Sabbath to Sunday (Vatican: Pontifical Gregorial University Press, 1977), 158.

21 See Gerhard A. Krodel, Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1986), 378; Jerome Crowe, The Acts: New Testament Message (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1979), 152; Charles John Vaughan, Studies in the Book of Acts (Minneapolis, MN: Klock&Klock Christian, 1890), 449–459.

22 Ben Witherington III, The Act of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 606. See also Paul K. Jewett, The Lord’s Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 61.

23 Guthrie, The Apostles, 259, 260.

24 Matthew 14:19; 15:36; Mark 8:6; 8:19; Luke 24:30; Acts 2:46; 20:11; 27:35.

25 Of the five times, four refer to the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the upper room (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). There the act of breaking bread was not on its own of cultic significance but rather a normal part of the Passover meal. As such, there is only one reference, 1 Corinthians 10:16, where the phrase “to break bread” clearly refers to the Lord’s Supper as a distinct Christian celebration.

26 Thomas Walker’s assertion that the phrase “broke bread and ate” (Acts 20:11) entails a Lord’s Supper (“broke bread”) and not a common meal (“and ate”) stretches credulity unnecessarily. Both verbs are in the third singular without any hint that Paul (a) shared the bread, or (b) others partook of food. Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids MI: Kregel, 1984), 469.

27 Witherington admits that it is unclear whether there was any Lord’s Supper involved in the meal but alludes to 1 Corinthians 11 where the Lord’s Supper appears to have been celebrated in the context of a meal, in the hope that the meal at Troas also included the Lord’s Supper. His approach is speculative. The fact that the Lord’s Supper could be part of a meal in no way implies that every mentioned meal included the Lord’s Supper. The Acts of the Apostles, 606. Cf. Bock, Acts, 619.

28 See Robert Leo Odom, The Lord’s Day on a Round World (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1970), 20–26.

29 R. C. H. Lenski admits a biblical calendar, but argues that this was a Sunday evening meeting on the basis that the meeting would have started before sunset and as such was a “first day” meeting by Jewish reckoning. The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1934), 824, 825. However, the text mentions no pre-sunset gathering, and we must take the “first day” reference as referring to the night meeting. He admits that “little can be proved” from Acts 20:7 in favor of Sunday.

30 See Robert L. Odom, Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1977), 28–33

31 Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, 105–106.

32 If we use the biblical inclusive reckoning of days where every part of a day is counted as one day.

33 Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 1:29–32; 2:23–28; Luke 4:38–40; 14:1; Acts 13:43; 16:14, 15.


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Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

April 2016

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