“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” (Acts 20:7)
Most of the Christian world believes that the above verse, and others like it, teach us that the disciples began to steer away from Sabbath observance and began to observe Sunday (the first day of the week). But is this a true assumption?
The meaning of the phrase “first day of the week”
The first thing we must consider here is the fact that, if you were to look at the King James Version (KJV) of these texts, you will notice that the word “day” in the phrase “first day of the week” is in italics in EVERY instance. This was done by the translators to show that the word “day” is not in the original Greek. Likewise, the word translated as “week” is the Greek word σάββατον (sabbaton) which ultimately means “Sabbath”, but can also refer to the word “week” or “weeks”, but always in the context of Hebraic thought!
The Greek phrase “first day of the week” as we know it is: πρώτη ημέρα της εβδομάδας (próti iméra tis evdomádas). However, the Greek phrase found in Scripture is: μία των σάββατον (mia ton sabbaton) which literally means: “one [or, first] of the Sabbaths” or “the first of the Weeks.” This latter usage is clearly from an Hebraic (Hebrew) mindset and MUST be treated as such as we study this topic.
But what does the phrase “the first of the weeks” refer to? In Leviticus chapter 23 God tells His people that, after the first weekly Sabbath during the 7-day Festival of Unleavened Bread, they were to:
“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the Firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest: ... And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD.” (Leviticus 23:10, 15, 16)
Here it is again in the International Standard Version (ISV):
“Tell the Israelis that when you enter the land that I’m about to give you and gather its produce, you are to bring a sheaf from the first portion of your harvest to the priest … Starting the day after the Sabbath, count for yourselves seven weeks from the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. They are to be complete. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath, then bring a new meal offering to the LORD."
Notice how the words Sabbath and Weeks are used.
In Deuteronomy 16:9-10 this instruction is repeated, but with the word shabu’a, which means “weeks”, is used instead of the word “Sabbaths.” This counting of 50 days or, “seven weeks/Sabbaths” was known as the “Feast of Weeks.” It was the time when they would count “seven Sabbaths” or “seven weeks” from the Feast of Firstfruits (when they would wave the sheaf in the presence of the LORD) until the Feast of Pentecost. This counting of the “seven Sabbaths/Weeks” is also called “the counting of the Omer”:
“The Festival of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Shortly afterwards, there is a Festival of the Firstfruits of the Barley Harvest, more commonly known as the “First Day of the Omer.” An omer is a measure of grain, and on the First Day of the Omer the priest would wave a sheaf of barley, equivalent to an omer, before the Lord. This Festival is known as “First of Weeks” in the New Testament, although it is commonly translated as “first day of the week.” It is important to understand the significance of this festival, because it is the day when Jesus rose from the dead.” (http://www.annomundi.com/bible/firstfruits).
The English word, Pentecost, comes from the Greek word Πεντηκοστή (pentékosté) meaning, “fifty”, but in Hebrew the Festival is called, שבועות (Shavuot) which means, “weeks.”
The meaning of the phrase “first [day] of the week” could be worded a couple of ways:
- “[Day] one of the Sabbaths” would mean, “[Day] one of [counting] the Sabbaths [until Shavuot/Pentecost].” This would be the day after the first weekly Sabbath after Passover—the Day of Firstfruits.
- “The first [day] of the Sabbaths/Weeks” would mean, “The first [day] of [counting] the Sabbaths/Weeks [until Shavuot/Pentecost].” Again, this would be the day after the first weekly Sabbath after Passover (the Day of Firstfruits). This is always a “Sunday”, but it is NOT a weekly Holy day, but an annual one.
In fact, you will notice that EVERY TIME the phrase “First [day] of the week" is used it is always surrounded by the Feast of Passover/Unleavened and Pentecost. In Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1, 2, 9; Luke 24:1; and John 20:1 all refer to the “first [day] of the week” because it refers to the Feast of Firtsfruits – the day Jesus rose from the grave, which was the first day after the first Sabbath had passed during the Feast of Passover/Unleavened Bread.
"Two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the chief priests and the experts in the law were trying to find a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him ... When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, at sunrise, they went to the tomb." Mark 14:1; 16:1, 2, NET)
In John 20:26 we read:
“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.”
This is “eight days” from the day Jesus rose from the grave. By counting the day Jesus appeared to His disciples (Sunday), eight days later brings us to the following Sunday. Is this proof that Jesus and His disciples began to observe Sunday as a weekly day of public worship in place of the Sabbath? No! The Jews would count the Omer every evening after nightfall, from the day after the first weekly Sabbath after Passover:
“There are different methods of counting the 50 days. According to some the commandment 'and you shall count for yourselves fifty days' means to simply observe the 50th day as Shavuot while others actually declare out loud the number on each of the fifty days. A medieval Karaite Jewish practice combines two different methods of declaring the daily count. The first method is the counting of seven weeks. Each day, the number of the week and the number of the day in the week are declared. So for example, the first day is 'first day of the first week'. The second counting method used is an overall number for each day. In this method Day one is 'the first day' and Day 25 is 'the twenty-fifth day'. These two methods are used to satisfy the commandment to count seven weeks (Deuteronomy 16:9) as well as the commandment to count fifty days (Leviticus 23:16).” (Nehemia Gordon, nehemiaswall.com/counting-omer).
This meeting in John 20:26 went into the eighth night after the weekly Sabbath from Passover. During these nightly meetings they would say a blessing and proclaim, “Today is one day of the Omer”; “Today is two days of the Omer”; “Today is three days of the Omer”; etc. all the way to Pentecost/Shavuot. In John 20:26 John is simply informing us that this was day eight after Firstfruits when they would say, “Today is eight days of the Omer.”
After His resurrection Jesus stayed with His disciples, preparing them to receive His Holy Spirit, for 40 days until He ascended to heaven (Acts 1:3-5). Then 10 days later, “When the day of Pentecost had fully come, all of them were together in one place [at the Temple]”, and they received the Holy Spirit in a mighty way “and began to speak in foreign languages as the Spirit gave them that ability” (see, Acts 2:1-4).
And don’t miss this important point: Since they were observing the Day of Pentecost (Shavuot/Weeks) in Acts chapter 2, they must have been counting (observing) the seven Sabbaths from the day Jesus rose from the grave. This would be odd if the Sabbath and Feasts were done away with at the cross! In fact, in the following two references to “the first [day] of the week”, you will see how the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” and “Pentecost” are also right in the context.
1 Corinthians 16:1, 2
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”
Some point to this verse to show that the people were to bring their “collection for the saints” to church on the first day (Sunday) of every week. But do these verses really say they came together for public worship to celebrate on Sunday in place of the Sabbath? Not at all.
Paul is writing this letter to the churches throughout Asia Miner giving orders for them to collect some goods for the poor saints in Jerusalem. In the original Greek the phrase translated, “lay by him in store”, gives the notion of laying aside by the individual “by himself” (παρ᾽ ἑαυτῷ) at home. Notice these alternate translations:
Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech: “On the first day of every week let each of you put on one side and store up at his home whatever gain has been granted to him; so that whenever I come, there may then be no collections going on.”
Darby’s Translation of the Bible: “On [the] first of [the] week let each of you put by at home, laying up [in] whatever [degree] he may have prospered, that there may be no collections when I come.”
The Peshitta Holy Bible Translated [Aramaic Into Plain English]: “On every Sunday, let each person of you lay aside in his house and keep that which he can, so that when I come there will be no collections.”
And again, this would more accurately be translated as beginning on “[day] one of [counting] the Sabbaths [weeks].” The Hebraic Roots Bible translates it like this:
“After the first of the Sabbaths, let each of you put aside and keep in his house whatever he can afford, that there not be collections then when I come.”
They would “store up” their offerings “at home” during the “seven weeks” because Paul was going to “stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” (See verses 5-8), at which time he would be at Jerusalem for the Festival.
Paul’s instructions, in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, to store up an offering for the poor people in Jerusalem, “in proportion to what God has given you”, during the “seven weeks” leading up to Pentecost, clearly shows they were celebrating the Festival of Weeks at this time according to the direct divine instruction in the Law which says:
“Every male must appear in the presence of the LORD your God three times a year at the place where He will choose: for the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Seven Weeks, and the Festival of Booths [Tabernacles]. He must not appear in the LORD’S presence empty-handed, but each one must appear with his own gift, in proportion to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17)
Likewise, it shows that the Galatian believers also kept these Feasts including the weekly Sabbath. How? Paul gave these same instructions to begin storing up an offering during the 7 weeks to the Galatians as well. In 1 Corinthians 16:1 Paul begins by saying, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, you [Corinthians] should follow the directions I also gave to the assemblies IN GALATIA.” Which clearly means, in Galatians 4:9-11, Paul is NOT speaking against the God-given Feast Days and Sabbaths as is normally taught today.1
“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.”
This is probably the number 1 verse in all of Scripture that teachers use to try and prove the 1st century disciples were keeping Sunday as a sacred day by holding weekly religious services upon it. However, once again, this is simply not the case. First, notice how the Jubilee Bible translates Acts 20:6-7:
“And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread and came unto them to Troas in five days, where we abode seven days. And the first of the sabbaths, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart the next day, and continued his word until midnight.”
As you can see, the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread (8 days when you include Passover) and the Sabbath are both used together in the context. It is also most important to note that they were celebrating Passover (the days of unleavened bread) in Philippi which was populated by Greeks and Romans.2
But how can it be “the first of the Sabbaths” if they did not sail from Philippi until “after” the “days of Unleavened Bread”?
- In the Greek it is more accurately, “We sailed away from Philippi during [μετὰ] the Days of Unleavened Bread” because the Greek preposition μετὰ is being used with a verb of motion here.
- The phrase at the end of the verse saying, “we abode [in Troas] seven days”, is still referring to the seven Days of Unleavened Bread, and may be more accurately translated as, “we consumed” or “completed” [διετρίψαμεν] the seven days.”
- The “five days” mentioned are not the length of the voyage; for it only takes two days to sail from Philippi to Troas according to Acts 16:11-12 (keeping in mind that Philippi was inland and did not require an additional day on the ship). The meaning is they arrived in Troas on the 5th day of Unleavened Bread.
So, yes, it is very probable that this meeting initially began on the first weekly Sabbath after Passover, when they would all come together for worship, and the teaching went long into the night. Believing this event happened in AD 57, Daniel Gregg writes:
“In AD 57 the 2nd and 6th days of Unleavened Bread fell from Sunday to Thursday. They sailed sometime midweek in the midst of these days and arrived on day 5 of the feast, a Wed, and were at Troas for days 6 and 7 of the feast. Then on the first of the Sabbaths after Passover Paul met and taught all Sabbath and the following night.” (torahtimes.org).
Luke writes that Paul “continued his speech until midnight.” This does not mean Sunday night as we Westerners would think. In the Bible a day begins at sunset and continues to the following sunset. In the Creation account in Genesis 1 we see this by the repeated phrase, “and the evening and the morning were the first day … second day … third day” etc. The evening always comes first. This is vital to understand.
“Our convention of starting a new day at midnight is an arbitrary, humanly devised practice. God, who created the heavenly bodies and set them in motion to mark the passage of time (Gen. 1:14), counts time differently—from evening to evening. We see this indicated in the creation account in Genesis 1. After dividing day from night, God tells us that ‘the evening and the morning were the first day’ (Gen. 1:5). ‘Evening’ is mentioned first, followed by ‘morning.’ God describes each day’s creation in similar terms (Gen. 1:8; Gen. 1:13; Gen. 1:19; Gen. 1:23; Gen. 1:31). In the Bible, evening began when the sun went down (Josh. 8:29; 2 Chron. 18:34; Neh. 13:19; Mk. 1:32), and at that time a new day began. Regarding His Sabbaths, God commands that they be observed ‘from evening to evening’ (Lev. 23:32). This was the usual way at that time of calculating the beginning and ending of days (Ex. 12:18). In New Testament times, days were calculated the same way. Mark 1:32 records that, after the sun had set, marking the end of one Sabbath, crowds brought many ailing people to Jesus to be healed, having waited until after the Sabbath to come to Him.” (ucg.org/sunset-to-sunset).
“In describing how to honor one of the feast days, God instructed the Israelites, ‘From evening to evening, you shall celebrate your Sabbath’ (Leviticus 23:32). ‘Evening’ is when the sun becomes even with the horizon, what we call sunset. ‘In the evening, at the going down of the sun …’ (Deuteronomy 16:6). ‘That evening, after sunset …’ (Mark 1:32). When the Israelites returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah had to teach them how to observe the Sabbath. To prevent the Israelites from carrying on their usual day-to-day business on Sabbath, Nehemiah commanded that the gates of Jerusalem be shut ‘when the evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath’ (Nehemiah 13:15-19).” (Emily Thomsen, sabbathtruth.com).
“The Babylonians considered a day as beginning at sunrise, while the Egyptians and Romans were the first to begin the day at midnight. Only the Hebrews observed the day as beginning at sunset and ending the next sunset: as God had declared is a day.” (Bonita M. Quesinberry, Truth Gathering, p. 227).
When Luke writes that Paul’s sermon went until midnight he is speaking of, what we would call, “Saturday night.” Notice these alternate translations:
Good News Translation: “On Saturday evening we gathered together for the fellowship meal. Paul spoke to the people and kept on speaking until midnight, since he was going to leave the next day.”
According to Hebraic timing (which Luke, the author of Acts, is clearly using) “midnight” would be roughly six hours into the next day which, in this context, is the night portion of the Festival of Firstfruits when they would begin counting the Omer (the seven weekly Sabbaths) until Shavuot/Pentecost. Paul then departed at “the break of day” (Sunday morning) and did not stay for any so-called Sunday worship service.
But why did Paul stay so long Saturday night with these believers? Quite possibly because of a Jewish custom called, Motza’ei-Shabbat (also called, Havdalah). In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern writes:
“Motza’ei-Shabbat in Hebrew means ‘departure of the Sabbath’ and refers to Saturday night … the Greek sabbaton transliterates Hebrew Shabbat and may be translated ‘Sabbath’ or ‘week,’ depending on the context … A Saturday night meeting would fit more naturally with Jewish Shabbat observance, wherein the restful spirit of Shabbat is often preserved into Saturday evening, after the official end of Shabbat itself, which occurs after sunset when it gets dark enough to see three stars. It would be natural for Jewish believers who had rested on Shabbat with the rest of the Jewish community to assemble afterwards to celebrate their common faith in Yeshua [Jesus] the Messiah.”
This is most-likely an additional reason the disciples were assembled “after eight days” back in John 20:26. Although John doesn’t mention the time of this meeting, it very well could have been a Motza’ei-Shabbat (Saturday night) meeting at the same time they counted the 8th day of the Omer.
Still, most of the Christian teachers insist the breaking of bread in Acts 20:7 proves they were celebrating a Communion service thus showing reverence for Sunday (the first day of the week). However, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains that the breaking of bread is “in honour of the departed Sabbath”, not Sunday, which echoes what David H. Stern said above:
“It seems probable that in churches which were so largely organized on the framework of the Jewish synagogue, and contained so many Jews and proselytes who had been familiar with its usages, the Jewish mode of reckoning would still be kept, and that, as the Sabbath ended at sunset, the first day of the week would begin at sunset on what was then or soon afterwards known as Saturday [evening]. In this case, the meeting of which we read would be held on what we should call the Saturday evening, and the feast would present some analogies to the prevalent Jewish custom of eating bread and drinking wine at that time in honour of the departed Sabbath [Motza’ei-Shabbat].” (Words in brackets my own).
So again, Paul, nor the other disciples, are observing the first day of the week as a weekly sacred day. Instead they all traveled to Assos, some by boat, but Paul walked (Acts 20:13), and in Assos Paul boarded the boat with the others. Now notice what verse 16 says: “Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in Asia, as he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem for the day of Pentecost, if that was possible.” So here in the context of this meeting we see them observing the “Days of Unleavened Bread” and “Pentecost.” Since they were still observing these annual Festivals, they had to be observing, and counting, the weekly Sabbath!
“The Bible commandment says on the seventh day thou shalt rest. That is Saturday. Nowhere in the Bible is it laid down that worship should be done on Sunday.” (Philip Carrington, Episcopalian, Toronto Daily Star, Oct. 26, 1949).
“There was and is a commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day, but that Sabbath day was not Sunday ... It will be said, however, and with some show of triumph, that the Sabbath was transferred from the seventh to the first day of the week ... Where can the record of such a transaction be found? Not in the New Testament - absolutely not. There is no scriptural evidence of the change of the Sabbath institution from the seventh to the first day of the week.” (Edward Hiscox, author of The Baptist Manual, New York ministers’ conference, Nov. 13, 1893).
“Nowhere in the Bible do we find that Christ or the apostles ordered that the Sabbath be changed from Saturday to Sunday. We have the commandment of God given to Moses to keep holy the Sabbath day, that is the seventh day of the week, Saturday. Today most Christians keep Sunday because it has been revealed to us by the church outside the Bible.” (Catholic Virginian, Oct. 3, 1947).
“And where are we told in Scripture that we are to keep the first day at all? We are commanded to keep the seventh; but we are nowhere commanded to keep the first day.” (Isaac Williams, Anglican, Plain Sermons on the Catechism, pp. 334,336).
“The current notion that Christ and His apostles authoritatively substituted the first day for the seventh, is absolutely without any authority in the New Testament.” (Dr. Lyman Abbott, Congregationalist, Christian Union, June 26, 1890).
1 For more information on Galatians 4:9-11 see the article entitled: Doesn’t Paul Warn Christians Not to Observe the Old “Jewish” Holy Days?
2 For more information on whether or not Gentiles continued to keep the Festivals and Sabbaths see the article entitled: Wasn’t the Sabbath Only for the Israelites and Their Descendants Who Came Out Of Egypt?