I am trying to understand how the early Christians viewed the Sabbath, how the non-Sabbath keepers justified a neglect of the fourth commandment and particularly if we can really be clear that God doesn’t intend for us to continue upholding the seventh day as a day of rest (doing no work, also taking into consideration that Sabbath keeping is not one in the same as corporate meetings of Christians. ) Justin Martyr (and others including the writers of Acts of course) spoke about all the Christians assembling on Sundays but other early writers and church fathers such as Socrates Scholasticus, the writer of the ‘Gospel of Thomas’, Athanasius, Archelaus and possibly Polycarp and Origen speak of remaining groups keeping the Sabbath and even make arguments against the abrogation of the Sabbath, including the argument that the Ten Commandments were not just for the Jews but moral laws instituted from the very beginning. I have read many of the arguments for and against Sabbath keeping and I’m still left without a clear conviction in the matter. Any insights would be greatly appreciated. Apologies for the lengthy question.
You are right to consider both church history and biblical statements on this particular question because on this issue what the primitive church did is certainly relevant, not just the New Testament statements on the Sabbath. First of all, the New Testament makes it crystal clear that Christians are not obligated to observe Sabbath, whether it is on the seventh or a Christian eighth day Sabbath as some teach. This is very clear. For example, in Colossians 2:13-23 we learn that when Jesus was crucified, our obligation to law was nailed to the cross with him. We are no longer obligated to the law of Moses or to any human-made laws of this sort as well. Paul is quite specific about this in Coll 2:16 when he tells us that we should not judge one another on a list of things from the Law of Moses. One of the thing he mentions is Sabbaths. We should not judge one another on Sabbath practice. Presumably, during Paul’s ministry many if not most Jewish Christians still observed the Sabbath. Paul reserves their right to recognize the Sabbath but he commands them who do to not judge those who do not, because we are no longer under obligation to the Law (either the Law of Moses or any other for that matter). Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law (of Moses), but he did come to fulfill the Law. Specifically, he declared the food laws obsolete. The Hebrew writer declared the entire Jewish system old and obsolete and about to disappear in Heb 8:13. No, we do NOT have to observe Sabbath. This is an unambiguous biblical truth.
Church history can inform this question as well. Paul observed Sabbath according to what we see in Acts. Whether he observed it strictly every week is perhaps subject to doubt, but we know that he normally did. But, church history tells us that Gentile Christians never (or I suppose more accurately rarely if ever) observed Sabbath. The decision in Acts 15 of the Jerusalem council was NOT to impose Sabbaths on Gentile Christians, and the evidence of church history agrees with this conclusion. From the earliest time (including as recorded in Acts 20 and Revelation 1) the dedicated day of Christian worship and taking the Lord’s supper was the eight day, Sunday. Paul did go to Synagogue on Sabbath as a rule, but he was still Jewish. However he did not impose this on Gentiles. In fact, when Jewish Christian tried to impose the Law of Moses, specifically on circumcision, he says to those who want to force Law on Christians “Let them be eternally condemned.” (Gal 1:9) These are strong words!!!
People try to enforce Sabbath keeping on Christians, but such people are not consistent. They never are. Some try to impose bits and pieces of the Law of Moses, but none of them do it consistently. All try to impose a thing here and a thing there, but none impose ALL of the Law of Moses on Christians, and it is literally impossible to come up with a list of those things we are still obligated to and those we are not obligated to based on the reading of Scripture. Some separate moral from ceremonial law, saying we are obligated to the moral law but not the ceremonial law, but this separation is arbitrary and it is not biblical. Bible teaching is against Sabbitarians (the fancy technical term for those who try to enforce Sabbath on Christians) and history is against them as well. I believe that this is an open and shut case.
By the way, you say that some early Christians did report Christian observing Sabbath. I have read most of the written material you refer to (Justin, Origen, Polycarp, etc.) I believe that those who told you they report Sabbath keeping are not being entirely faithful to the accounts. What these early Christians report is that many Christians met on Saturday as well as on Sunday. This, by the way, is true. It was the tradition of many of the primitive churches to meet on both Saturday and Sunday, and some even celebrated their love feast on Saturday. IN Greek culture, Saturday was a day off, but Sunday was not, so many or most churches did have meetings on Saturdays. What cannot be proved from reading these writers is that whole groups of early Gentile Christians were observing the Sabbath laws. I know of no exception to this, but will concede that there may be an exception, as I have not read everything that all of these men wrote. I do believe that some early Christians did use the Ten Commandments in a way implying that we are still under them, but most or all notably did not use this to impose Sabbath-keeping. If you have found an exception (I do not know of one), I would appreciate you sending it to me, as I do not want to make inaccurate statements.
In any case, even if there are rare examples of Gentile Christians observing a seventh-day Sabbath, I am sure that this would be an exception to the rule and, besides, the need to do so cannot be well supported from the Bible.