Did the early church really observe the sabbath?

One of the arguments used by those that assert we are still under the law today, is the assertion that New Testament Church kept the Sabbath. It is claimed that it can be biblically proven that the church, including Paul, kept the Sabbath in the New Testament. 

The New Testament referring to the Sabbath is not evidence that the sabbath was kept by the disciples. If I refer to Ramadan as a point of reference to a time while I preach to Muslims it does not in any way mean that I am observing Ramadan. 

If I refer to Muslims keeping Ramadan it in no way means that I am keeping it. 

In the same way as the bible recording the Jews keeping Sabbath in no way indicates that the disciples kept it.

Now I disagree that simply showing the church and Paul keeping the Sabbath would by itself prove that we remain under the law. We have to take all arguments together to form a complete biblical understanding.  I will however agree that it most certainly would go a long way in supporting the claim.

There are a number of passages that are often cited as scriptural evidence for this assertion. Most of them come from the book of acts. 

The first being from Acts chapter 13. Here it is claimed that Paul and his company kept the sabbath after they had come to Antioch.



Acts 13-13 Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. 14 But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.  



Another is found in Acts chapter 14 

Acts 14-1 And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.




Then we have a third passage in chapter 17 of Acts. It is asserted that Paul kept the Sabbath 3 times in Thessalonica. It is also claimed that it clearly states that Paul kept the Sabbath as was his custom. This demonstrates that it was still Paul’s custom, as he was an Israelite after all,  to keep the Sabbath. 

Acts 17-1 1Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: 2And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

The next passage used as evidence is found in Acts 18. Paul went to Corinth where he kept the sabbath 

Acts 18 1After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; 2And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them. 3And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers. 4And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.

We are told in verse 4 that Paul was in the synagogue every sabbath. It is then further asserted that the Bible states that Paul was in Corinth for 18 months.  If Paul kept every sabbath for 18 months this then would prove that Paul kept the Sabbath in Corinth 78 times. 

As always we are going to examine the claims and see what the text itself states. 

It has to be pointed out that this examination of the texts in no way is trying to defend a Sunday or first day of the week Sabbath. This is not my position. I am not an advocate of the change of the sabbath. I do not believe the New Testament church is required to keep this day. The argument against the New Testament Church keeping the Sabbath is not dependant on the argument regarding the first day of the week. It does not need to be shown that the New Testament church observed the first day of the week to argue against them observing the Sabbath. 

The first thing to notice is that nowhere, in any of these texts used as evidence that Paul and the early New Testament church were keeping the Sabbath does it actually say that the Sabbath was being observed. This is reading into the texts the understanding that Paul was still observing the sabbath, so when it states he was in the synagogue on the Sabbath he was there observing it. This is an argument based on circular reasoning. 

It is simply asserted that because Paul was in the Synagogue on the Sabbath that he was there observing it. This is not at all what the texts actually state. The texts simply state that he was there.  Now furthermore when we continue on and look at the context we will see that we get a rather different picture as to what Paul was doing in the synagogues on the sabbath. 

Let’s start with Acts 13. 

Acts 13-13 Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. 14 But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and sat down.  

Now as we can clearly see from these verses Paul and his company did indeed go into the Synagogue in Antioch on the sabbath. But it does not state that Paul was there observing the sabbath. It merely states that he sat down. 

If we continue we see that after the prophets and the rulers had finished reading from the law they asked if Paul or his men had anything they wished to say. 

 Acts 13- 15And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. 




Paul stood up and immediately and set about telling them about Jesus. Paul preached the gospel to them.  

Acts 13- 23Of this man’s seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus:

Acts 13- .26Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent. 27For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. 28And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. 29And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. 30But God raised him from the dead: 31And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people. 32And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, 33God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. 34And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, he said on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David. 35Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. 36For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption: 37But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption. 38Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: 39And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. 40Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets;

41Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you

The whole point of this passage, used to assert Paul was observing the Sabbath in the synagogue, was in fact that he was there to preach Christ, the promised Messiah. This is exactly what Paul did. 

When we analyse the passage in Acts 14 all that we are actually told is that Paul and Barnabas went into the Synagogue and spoke. Clearly they had preached Jesus, the Christ in the synagogue as they spoke in such a manner that a great multitude both Jews and Greeks believed. Nothing about observing the sabbath at all. This is not something that simple Sabbath observance is going to do. 



Acts 14-1 And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.



Now let’s look at the passage in Acts 17.



Acts 17-1 1Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: 2And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

Again it does not say that Paul was in the synagogue observing the sabbath three times. In actual fact it very clearly states that Paul reasoned with them out of the scriptures. 

If we continue on we see exactly in regards to what that Paul was reasoning with the Jews about.

Acts 17-  3Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. 4And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

Paul was yet again preaching Christ. He preached from the scriptures that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He affirmed to them that Jesus was the Christ. We even see that some believed. Paul was in the synagogue preaching Jesus just as the text states. 

More often than not law advocates will say the verse states that Paul kept the sabbath as was his custom. It was the custom of Paul, as a Jew, to observe the sabbath. 

This is simply incorrect. This is not what this verse is saying at all and is again reading into the verse something that is just not there. 

Here is the verse in Greek. 

Acts 17-2 κατὰ δὲ τὸ εἰωθὸς τῷ Παύλῳ εἰσῆλθεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς καὶ ἐπὶ σάββατα τρία διελέγετο αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τῶν γραφῶν

In this verse there is the Greek word δὲ de (highlighted in Bold) , it means now. 

The literal Greek translation would be  According to NOW the custom of Paul. 

This is not the same as we see when this is stated of Jesus regarding his custom to go to the synagogue on the sabbath. This is often used to support Paul’s custom 

Luke 4-16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.

And in the Greek. 

Luke 4-16 Καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς τὴν Ναζαρέτ οὗ ἦν τεθραμμένος καὶ εἰσῆλθεν κατὰ τὸ εἰωθὸς αὐτῷ ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῶν σαββάτων εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν καὶ ἀνέστη ἀναγνῶναι

There is no Greek  δὲ de here. Jesus going to the synagogue on the sabbath was not a new custom, the custom he was NOW following. This was his custom.  The ‘now’ however is clearly stated of Paul.

Paul’s custom NOW was not to observe the sabbath but to preach to the Jews on the sabbath. Just as he had done so in Acts 13, 14, here in acts 17 and when we look closer at Acts 18 we will see the exact same thing.

Paul clearly did stay in Corinth for 18 months (78 weeks) but rather than saying Paul observed the Sabbath in the synagogue every Sabbath, it states that he reasoned in the synagogue and persuaded  the Jews and Greeks. There is no mention of sabbath observance but clearly yet again they were preaching Jesus the Christ. This is about evangelising not sabbath observance.



Acts 18-  4And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.



In every single supporting passage Paul is not shown observing the sabbath but preaching Jesus.

What’s more, Paul, immediately after he was baptised, went and preached Christ in the synagogues, that he was the son of God. 

Acts 9-  18And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. 19And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.

We are even told that Paul taught in the Synagogues BECAUSE it was right that the gospel was taught to them first. 

Acts 13-46 Paul taught in the Synagogues because it was right that the Gospel first be taught to the Jews and then the Gentiles after the Jews rejected it. 

Again the Bible affirms evangelism was the purpose of Paul being in the synagogue where the law advocate asserts sabbath observance.

Paul himself attests to preaching to the Jews, Christ, which the Prophets and Moses said should come. He does this in Acts 26 when speaking to King Agrippa. 

Acts 26- 20But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. 21For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. 22Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: 23That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.




The texts unanimously give a rather different account of Paul’s actions upon the sabbath. If we honestly look at the texts without any preconceived ideas about those actions the texts proclaim an evangelical Paul rather than a sabbath observing one.  

The Disciples preaching on Sabbath to the Jews is not proof that the disciples were themselves keeping Sabbath. 

We see the Bible also states that the disciples came together on the first day of the week. Paul preached to them.

Acts 20-7 7And 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 does not demonstrate that Paul and the disciples kept the first day of the week as a New Testament Sabbath. Again all this shows is that they had come together and Paul preached. Yet again preaching is the focal point. 

What we are told is that the disciples met daily in the temple not only on the sabbath or the first day. 

Acts 2-46  And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 

Paul also was not fellowshipping with the Jews, they were unbelieving Jews, they had not accepted Christ. 

Had Paul been keeping the sabbath with the unbelieving Jews he would have been going against his own teaching regarding being unequally yoked.  

2 Corinthians 6-14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

We know that many of the Jews were then believing but this is after Paul had preached Christ. They were not believers when Paul was supposedly keeping the sabbath with them. Paul was a believer. Paul did not observe the sabbath with the non believing Jews, he preached Jesus to them. 

When carefully examined the verses do not support sabbath observance. Paul was a preacher who went around preaching the Christ who he believed was Jesus. He is recorded in scripture doing so to the Jews in the synagogues on the Sabbath. A perfect day to do just a thing.