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The Sabbath

When did the first church meet?

Now we have looked at Church organisation, what about timetables? When did this early Church meet? A major clue is here:

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. (Acts 20:7)

The first day of the week is a Sunday, by our reckoning, but not by theirs - unless you are prepared to believe that Paul spoke continuously for over 14 hours! They were just being Biblical. The Bible tells that a "religious" day starts at sunset, at the first glimmer of the evening.

God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening and there was morning -- the first day. (Genesis 1:5)

It is a sabbath of rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath. (Leviticus 23:32)

So the early Church may have met on the first day of the week, but it was actually a Saturday evening. Why would they have met then? An interesting and believable reason has been put forwards, which takes me quite nicely into the next point I wish to make about the early Church - where else did they meet? The Jewish Sabbath, then as now, starts at sundown on a Friday until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday night. At the time of the early Church there was one communal activity, where Jews met for worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship during the Sabbath. This was the synagogue. The first apostles and disciples were synagogue-goers, even since they became followers of Jesus Christ. They were still Jews and still identified with their people and worshipped the same God. And, after all, it was in the synagogue where the word of God was read out from scrolls - the home churches would probably not have any scrolls of their own. Finally, it was in the synagogues where evangelism could happen. Let's see if Scripture bears these things out:

At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. (Acts 14:1)

After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, "Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak." (Acts 13:15)

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. (Acts 13:42)

Yes, it really seems that synagogues were great mission grounds for the early Church, with some surprising results.

Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised. (Acts 18:8)

So, if it was normal for those early Jewish believers to continue visiting synagogues on the Sabbath then perhaps it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that, at the end of the Sabbath, on Saturday evening, they would meet up with their brethren in their house church, where they would share, among other things, what they have learned and experienced that day. Remember, the first day of the week started on Saturday evening. So, with that in mind, read on:

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "He's alive!" Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. (Acts 20:7-12)

Now for Paul to talk continuously until midnight, the chances were that he started talking sometimes in the evening i.e. this was an evening service, not a morning one. So, to meet in the evening on the first day of the week, was to meet on a Saturday evening. This could very well have been the norm for the early Church. Incidentally Paul definitely was a good talker as, after speaking for, say, 3 - 4 hours, then raising the young man from the dead, then eating, he returned to his sermon and carried on for a few more hours! He must have been a very very engaging speaker! But now I'm going to be radical and suggest that things weren't quite what was indicated. Here are the first three verses of that passage, but with a slightly better translation:

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul dialogued with the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul continued to dialogue with them.Acts 20:7-9)

Slightly better translation? What's that all about? Aren't all translations true to the original Greek? Well, sometimes the translators, when given a choice between two or three different possible meanings for a Greek word, would tend to arrive at the position most comfortable for them. It's not that they have mistranslated, it's that they may have flavoured the meaning. Look again at the passage. The Greek word in question is dialegomai, that could mean "preach", but more correctly could mean "dialogue" or "discuss". The translators preferred the acceptable Church model of Paul giving a sermon, but a better fit would be him leading a group discussion. Hold onto that thought for now, it will make more sense in a later article..

This has just been a snapshot of what life was probably like for the 1st Century Church, when the original apostles were still alive, guiding and teaching, training and preaching, through miracles, personal examples, exposition and letters. But Peter, Paul and the others were bound by the three score and ten years allocated to us all and one by one, their numbers dwindled, usually at the hands of those who feared their message. Then they were all gone.

What was to happen to the Church now ... ?

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book To Life!)

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