The question of whether Emperor Constantine changed the biblical Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday has been debated for centuries. To understand this issue, we need to examine what the Bible says about the Sabbath, look at the historical evidence surrounding Constantine’s reign, and evaluate whether any changes were made to the traditional day of worship.
The Biblical Basis for the Sabbath
The Sabbath originates at creation, as God rested on the seventh day after working for six days (Genesis 2:2-3). The fourth commandment given to Moses also establishes the seventh day as a day of rest and remembrance of God’s creative work (Exodus 20:8-11). Throughout the Old Testament, the seventh day was honored as a sacred day, a sign between God and His people (Ezekiel 20:12, 20). There are over 60 references to the Sabbath in the New Testament, indicating it was still kept by Christ’s followers after His death and resurrection.
Jesus himself affirmed that the Sabbath was made for man and that He is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). The example of Christ and the early church shows Sabbath observance on the seventh day (Luke 4:16, Acts 13:13-14, Acts 16:12-13). Nowhere in Scripture do we see evidence that the day of worship was changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week.
Constantine’s Reign and the Day of Worship
Emperor Constantine ruled the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD during a time of great transition for the Christian church. Christianity was legalized and promoted under Constantine’s reign, but many pagan influences and practices still existed.
There are no records to indicate Constantine ever issued a decree changing the official day of worship. The earliest reference to Sunday as a day of rest comes in 321 AD when Constantine declared “the venerable day of the Sun” should be a day free from work and legal disputes. However, he did not forbid work on Saturday and his decree only applied to cities – not to the official imperial calendar.
Many historians believe Constantine’s Sunday law was his attempt to unify pagans and Christians in the empire under a common day of worship. Most pagans already worshiped the sun on Sundays – now Christians could take part while still worshiping Christ. Seventh-day Sabbath keeping continued for centuries after this decree.
Earliest Traces of Sunday Worship Among Christians
The earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament shed light on when Sunday worship first emerged in the church. Writing around 110 AD, Ignatius of Antioch mentions Christians no longer observing the Sabbath but “living in the observance of the Lord’s Day.” Justin Martyr around 150 AD also describes Sunday worship services. However, these same early church fathers affirmed that Sabbath observance was God’s command and should be kept.
Several early church councils such as the Council of Laodicea in 363 AD decreed that Christians should rest from work on Sunday. However, they did not forbid work on Saturday. While Sunday worship increased in popularity, evidence shows seventh-day Sabbath keeping continued for centuries, even until around the 7th century AD.
When did Sunday replace Saturday as the day of worship?
The change from Saturday to Sunday was a gradual process over several centuries. As Christianity spread, many pagan cultures already had traditions of Sun day worship. Over time, as the church assimilated pagan practices, Sunday gradually became a day of gathering and rest.
Church leaders and councils slowly added to prohibitions against Saturday work while promoting Sunday as the Lord’s Day. However, Saturday was still upheld by many Jewish and Gentile believers as the biblical day of worship. By the 4th century AD Sunday worship became the norm, although seventh-day Sabbath was still observed.
The final shift occurred after the fall of the Roman empire as the church took on more political power. Around 538 AD the church officially denounced Saturday worship. By the 12th century, Sabbath observance was condemned as an act of heresy.
Did Constantine Change the Sabbath?
Based on the biblical and historical evidence, it does not appear Emperor Constantine instituted an official change from Saturday to Sunday as the day of Christian worship. However, his Sunday law likely contributed to the growing practice of Sunday worship. The earliest writings indicate Sunday worship was already happening before Constantine’s reign.
The change to Sunday was a gradual process promoted by church leaders in the early centuries of Christianity. While practices varied across regions, by the 6th century AD Sunday had officially replaced Saturday as the weekly day of worship in most of Christianity.
So Constantine himself does not appear responsible for altering the traditional day of Sabbath rest and worship. However, his political influence and contributions cannot be discounted as Christianity transitioned toward making Sunday the new holy day.
Possible Motivations for the Change to Sunday
Why did the day of rest and worship move from the biblically mandated Saturday to Sunday in the early church? Here are some of the likely influences and motivations:
- Alignment with pagan sun worship – Many pagan cultures like Rome already treated Sunday as a holy day for sun worship. Christianity may have adapted this popular tradition to appeal to pagans and aid conversion.
- Commemoration of Christ’s resurrection – Jesus rose on the first day, so worshiping on Sunday highlighted the new covenant of grace brought through His death and resurrection.
- Differentiation from Judaism – The early church wanted to distinguish itself from Jewish practices. Keeping Saturday Sabbath was seen as being too closely tied to Jewish law.
- Persecution and meeting in secret – Sunday worship may have started due to the inability for Christians to meet safely on the Sabbath during intense Roman persecution.
- Antisemitism in the early church – Distancing from anything perceived as too Jewish, including the seventh day Sabbath, sadly contributed to the change.
These influences collectively impacted the church’s abandonment of the seventh day Sabbath instituted at creation and affirmed by Jesus. Although Constantine did not directly institute this change, his policies gave strength to Sunday observance already happening in Christianity.
Was the Change from Saturday to Sunday Supported Biblically?
There is no clear biblical support for moving the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day of the week. Here are some key points highlighting the lack of biblical basis for this change:
- No verse in the Bible explicitly changes the day of worship or rest from Saturday to Sunday.
- The fourth commandment never states God blessed and made holy any day other than the seventh day (Exodus 20:11).
- No biblical events like Christ’s resurrection or the Pentecost occurred on a Sunday.
- Paul and the early churches still observed seventh-day Sabbath after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 13:14, Acts 16:13, Acts 18:4-11).
- Jesus and the disciples did not violate the Sabbath or ever instruct its change (Mark 1:21, Luke 4:16, Mark 2:27-28).
The Scriptures uphold the seventh day as the Sabbath from Genesis through Revelation. Nowhere do they authorize altering the designated holy day of rest and worship. The change to Sunday as the Christian Sabbath lacks biblical support and derives from social and political influences on the early church.
Does It Matter Which Day We Keep Holy?
For those seeking to faithfully follow the Bible, it does matter which day is upheld as the Sabbath. God’s Word should guide beliefs and practices over church traditions or social conventions. However, there are some things to keep in mind regarding this issue:
- The main focus should be on resting and worshiping God, not legalistic observance of a single day.
- There are sincere believers in Christ on both sides – unity in the Gospel is what matters most.
- Personal convictions should be followed but not forced on others (Romans 14:5).
- Observing a biblical seventh day Sabbath is still meaningful for connecting with God’s creation intent.
- Corporate Sunday worship also has great value for communing with other believers.
As long as Christ is preeminent, the specific day may be a secondary issue. However, all disciples should thoughtfully and prayerfully consider their motivations in either upholding Sunday or returning to a Saturday Sabbath rest.
In summary, the evidence does not support Emperor Constantine instituting an official change from Saturday to Sunday as the Christian day of worship. This shift away from the biblical seventh-day Sabbath was a gradual process fueled by social, political, and pagan influences on the early church over several centuries.
Although lacking biblical support, the change to Sunday worship became widely accepted practice. As we wrestle with this issue now, believers should focus on church unity in the Gospel while still pursuing a conscience-guided, Scripture-based faith.