Every morning (well, most mornings) I get my older children up to do a short bible reading together before I have to go to work. Lately we have been going through the book of Acts. The other morning we started chapter 20, and made it through to vs.12. One of the issues we discussed is found in vs.'s 7-8, where we read that the disciples came together "...on the first [day] of the week...to break bread...." We read that Paul spoke to the group "until midnight", and that there were "many lamps" in the room where they were meeting. I think that vs.8 is actually there in order to give the possible reason for the subsequent accident of Eutychus, who fell from the window ledge that he was sitting in. The fumes from all of the lamps would have vented out of the window where he was sitting, and probably added greatly to his drowsiness. But I digress - this is not really the point I want to make!
This passage has been (and still is) used by Pastors and bible teachers to demonstrate what they believe to be the beginnings of the practice of the Church to meet on Sundays, as opposed to the Sabbath ("Saturday") that had previously been kept by the disciples, and of having "communion" together at the Sunday gathering. And, from the reading of the verses (at first glance), that seems to be a reasonable assumption. But I do not think that this interpretation is correct. I believe that this understanding is flawed, mostly due to a misunderstanding of common practices, both then, and now that the passage alludes to. Furthermore, I believe it is an important issue to look at, because one of the major debates that has revolved within Christianity for two millenia is the Sabbath/Sunday issue. So, let's take a look at it, shall we?
First, I would like to note that Luke (who wrote the book of Acts), all throughout the book, uses a chronology based upon a Hebrew time schedule. He frames events around the biblical feast days throughout the entire book (cf. vs.'s 6 and 16, just for two examples of many that could be shown). This is a very important point, because apologists such as Matt Slick of CARM (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) seeks to argue that Luke was using Roman time keeping in his chronology of events. Here is a quote from an article that can be found here on CARM's website: "The first day of the week is Sunday and this is the day the people gathered. This passage can easily be seen as the church meeting on Sunday. It has two important church functions within it: breaking bread (communion) and a message (preaching). Additionally, Luke did not use the Jewish system of counting days: sundown to sundown. He used the Roman system: midnight to midnight. This is a subtle point that shows the Jewish Sabbath system was not the one utilized by Luke." This point is easily refuted, however, with a simple look in the O.T. (Tenakh). See, for example, Ex. 11:4; Jdg. 16:3; Ps. 119:62 for a sampling of verses in the O.T. that use the time frame of "midnight." So, the fact that Paul preached until "midnight" does not in any way demonstrate that Luke was using a Roman "clock", as opposed to a Hebrew one. And, as I've already pointed out, the book of Acts uses the Hebrew (biblical) calendar as a frame of reference for the happenings that he records therein.
So, having established that, let's now look at the next issue - that it was the "first [day] of the week" that the disciples gathered. What is missing here in our text? Well, nowhere do we read of any sort of establishing of a change in the day that the disciples gathered together. In Acts chapter 2, we read that they gathered together daily, going from house to house. This does not mean, however, that they no longer congregated together on the Sabbath - to wit - we see that Paul continually entered the synagogues on the Sabbath. Furthermore, if the disciples had truly broken away at this point in order to gather together on another day of the week, in lieu of gathering on the Sabbath, I would think that it would have been mentioned explicitly - after all, Luke just mentioned a seemingly insignificant detail in the chapter and verses under scrutiny (Acts 20:7,8 if you forgot) such as the fact that there were "many lamps" (cf. vs. 8) where they were gathered together. Why would Luke feel it important to include such a mundane fact, but never record any clear cut change in which the disciples no longer gathered on the Sabbath, and instead, did so on Sunday? Seems odd to me. At any rate, Luke does mention that it was the "first [day] of the week" when this gathering occurred. So, what is he telling us with this bit of information? Well, first, notice that I keep putting the word "day" in [brackets] - this is because in the KJV, the word "day" is in italics, which is there to let the reader know that the word "day" is not actually there in the Greek manuscripts. Now, that does not mean that it is not implied in the Greek, and that may very well be. It really is not a major point in my case, because I can still utilize it if it indeed is implied. However, the "Sunday gathering" interpretation definitely needs it in order to make it's case. But there are a couple of important pieces of information that need to be brought into our study here, in order to gain a better understanding of what is going on.
It was most likely common then, and it certainly is now, for Jewish people to have a celebratory meal/gathering at the close of the Sabbath, after sundown (which technically, according to the Hebrew reckoning of time, would be “Sunday”, or the first day of the week), today called “havdalah” (which means “separation”). It is the common way that Jewish families end their Sabbath – by having a special meal – often with friends or other family – and closing out the Sabbath together. Notice that in our passage, the disciples come together to “break bread” on the (literally) “first of the week” (which does not necessarily have any connotation to it other than “having a meal” - in fact - “breaking bread” is an idiom found within many extra-biblical Jewish texts, and it simply means to “share a meal”. The phrase”break bread” did not take on a ceremonial, religious connotation in Christianity until post biblical times. During the times of the Apostles and disciples of Jesus, it had nothing to do with a “communion” service. Perhaps I will cover this issue in a future post). Notice also that this gathering is at night, as we are told that there were many “lamps” burning.
Furthermore, Paul teaches the disciples until midnight. It seems to me that it is more likely that Paul gave a 2-4 hour teaching, as opposed to, say, a 12 hour teaching (if we were to start the count from 12 noon, for example)! The possibility that this was similar to (if not actually) a “havdalah” service is more than likely, I believe, than a Sunday Church service, a service which does not seem to find any direct reference in the N.T. writings. But, I think there is another possibility that finds itself a likely candidate in light of many surrounding and supporting scriptures within the book of Acts, and this we shall examine now...
The word that is translated "week" in Acts 20:7 is the Greek word "sabbaton" which can mean: a "week"; a "sabbath", or, "sabbaths". Could it be that when Luke recorded that the disciples came together, he was letting us know that they came together on the "first" of the "Sabbaths" (or, "weeks"), referring to the first sabbath of seven in what is called "the counting of the omer."
In verse 6 of Acts chapter 20, we read that Paul and Luke (and perhaps a few other companions) sailed away from Philipi “...after the days of unleavened bread...” and came to Troas. This little pinpoint of time is very important. According to Lev. 23, there is a 7 day “feast” called the “feast of unleavened bread” that immediately follows Passover (Passover is actually an evening meal, occurring on the eve of the 14th of the Month of Aviv – modern day Nissan). Additionally, after the Passover, there comes a 50 day count - the "counting of the omer" - which culminates in the feast of Shavuot (Pentecost). For that 50 day count, Lev. 23 instructs us to count "seven sabbaths" (which comes 49 days), wherein on the 5oth day, the feast of Shavuot/Pentecost is celebrated.
If we go back and look at verse 6, we see that after "the days of unleavened bread", they sailed to Troas, which took them 5 days - just under a week. The very next verse says that they came together on the "first" of the "sabbaton." The time frame fits very well with the idea that after they arrived in Troas they had a day or two before the first Sabbath of the seven that lead up to Shavuot/Pentecost, and therefore, they gathered together for the first Sabbath of the counting of the omer! Verse 16 tells us that Paul was hastening on his journey because he wanted to try to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost. So, taking verses 6 and 16 into account, we see that Luke is framing these events in a Hebrew/Jewish, not Roman, time frame - the biblical calendar.
So, in summary, we covered the following facts: 1) There is no clear cut, definitive verse in the NT that shows a switch from observing the Sabbath to a Sunday Church service. 2) The gathering of the disciples on the "first of the week" to "break bread" in Acts 20:7,8 fits better into a framework of either a Saturday evening "havdalah" gathering, or, even likelier, a gathering to celebrate the first of the seven Sabbaths leading up to Shavuot/Pentecost. This scenario is likely because of the framing events of this meeting - that being the end of the feast of unleavened bread just about a week before this gathering, and the desire of Paul to try to get to Jerusalem in time for Shavuot/Pentecost, arriving approx. 6 weeks after the gathering of Acts 20:7.
For the sake of length (since this is supposed to be a blog post, not a theological treatise!), perhaps I will seek to examine this further in a future post, examining the issue of the breaking of bread in more detail. But for now, I hope that I gave sufficient evidence to demonstrate that, perhaps, the Church has been off a bit in it's interpretation of this text, and the purpose of the gathering of the disciples here. May your own study be blessed and fruitful as you seek to gain in wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and the grace of Yeshua our great and beloved Savior!