Saturday Night or Sunday Morning?

Does Acts 20:7 indicate that early Christians met for worship on the first day of the week?

This passage has been used by Sundaykeepers to argue that the first day of the week was already replacing the seventh-day Sabbath in the first century. They also argue that according to this passage the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper on Sunday. We face here in Acts 20 three main issues: (1) the day of the meeting; (2) the purpose of the meeting; and (3) the reference to the first day of the week.

1. Day of the Meeting: The meeting was held “on the first day of the week.” The mention of lights in the room (verse 8) and the reference to midnight (verse 7) indicate that this was a Sunday evening meeting. Identifying the specific moment to which Luke is referring is a little more difficult. If he was using a Jewish calendar, according to which days were reckoned from sunset to sunset, Sunday  evening would be what we call Saturday night (the evening after the Sabbath). If he was using the Roman calendar, according to which days were reckoned from dawn to dawn, Sunday evening would be our Sunday evening, and the next day would have been Monday. Sunday supporters tend to argue that Luke used the Roman calendar. The problem is that the first day of the week in that calendar was “Saturn-day,” not Sunday. They are forced to argue that Luke combined the Roman time reckoning (dawn to dawn) with the Jewish calendar, in which the first day was Sunday. This is highly unlikely. The best option is that Luke was using the Jewish calendar (see Luke 23:53-56), and that in this case the meeting took place during what we call Saturday evening (the first day of the week after sunset). As we will see, this is important.

2. Purpose of the Meeting: This was not a regular day of worship. First, the text says that Paul met with them “because he intended to leave the next day” (Acts 20:7, NIV). On their way to Jerusalem, Paul and his companions had decided to spend a few days in Troas; now they were ready to leave. This was a farewell meeting.

Second, the meeting was not, strictly speaking, a worship service—there is no reference to prayers and singing—but a long seminar during which Paul interacted with the audience. Two verbs describe what Paul was doing: “talking, talked” (verses 7, 9; dialegomai) and “talking” (verse 11; homileo). The verb dialegomai (“to argue,” “to instruct”) expresses the idea of reasoning and engaging others in dialogue. Paul did this in the synagogue (e.g., Acts 17:2; 18:4; 19:8) and in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). Homileo (“to speak,” “to converse”) implies dialogue and interaction (e.g., Luke 24:14, 15; Acts 24:26). In postapostolic times it meant “to preach.” Both verbs indicate that Paul was engaged in dialogue with believers, instructing them and answering their questions.

Third, the phrase “to break bread” does not necessarily designate the Lord’s Supper. It was a common Jewish designation for having a meal (e.g., Luke 9:16; 22:19; Acts 2:42 [cf. verse 47]; 27:35). In the second century the phrase became a technical expression for the Lord’s Supper, but this particular meeting was a farewell meal taken at midnight before Paul left.

3. First Day of the Week: The reference to this specific day is almost casual, used to date the event. Luke liked to date events (e.g., Acts 20:6, 15, 16; 21:1, 4, 15). More important is the implication that the previous day was a Sabbath day, during which Paul would not have traveled. So he waited until Sunday to travel.

We can summarize the sequence of events as follows: During the Sabbath Paul worshipped with believers; during the evening, after sundown (the first day of the week), he met with them to instruct them and answer questions. The death and restoration to life of a young man lengthened the meeting. Paul returned to the meeting hall and continued to teach. Early in the morning they had a meal, and Paul finally departed.

Perhaps Luke’s main interest was to report the impact on the church of the miracle performed by Paul. In doing so, Luke placed it within its historical context: it happened in Troas before Paul left on the first day of the week. He was clearly not promoting Sunday observance.