As I was researching material for some writing on the Sabbath, I thought it worthwhile to collect for myself a list of the references to the Sabbath or Holy Days found in the book of Acts as a way of demonstrating the continuing but often neglected importance of the Sabbath for the early Church of God. Being the sort of person who likes to share most of what I write, and given that the subject is of interest to many people besides myself, I thought it worthwhile to share this particular compendium in the aid of those who are researching questions of Sabbath observance in the early Church of God and wish to have a concentrated block of material to examine with a minimum of commentary attached to it. This compendium is organized in order of how the reference occurs in the book of Acts, along with a reference as to which aspect of the Sabbath is being discussed, and a brief commentary on the implications of the passage as to our understanding of the Sabbath and its role in the early Church of God. It should be noted that the passages included are only those with direct references to the Sabbath and the Holy Days, not to the additional implicit references to them. With that, let us begin.
“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath Day’s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.”
This is an important passage for several reasons, aside from its reference to the Sabbath day’s journey, which was the longest distance someone could travel on the Sabbath without being viewed as a Sabbath-breaker. This was not a long distance; many contemporary Christians would find it an extreme restriction on the sort of usual travel that takes place on the Sabbath for many believers. The upper room mentioned here is almost certainly the same upper room where the last Passover of Jesus Christ was observed. This passage is also one of the places where the disciples are listed in what appears to be an order of seniority, with the inner three appearing first and Judas, who had just committed suicide, being absent on this list as well, as it was just before his replacement by Matthias.
“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed, and marveled, saying, “Look, are not all those who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God. So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.” But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.””
Reference: Pentecost/The Feast Of Weeks
For the second consecutive time, a reference to part of the Sabbath refers to the fact that the believers were in one accord, showing the harmony that brethren are supposed to enjoy in the fellowship of other believers, but which can be elusive in our own experiences. On this particular Holy Day the miraculous giving of the Holy Spirit to the believers led to the baptism of 3,000 new brethren, although even this obvious and manifest miracle still prompted mocking that the apostles were drunk instead of speaking the intelligible languages of other believers present from places in the Eastern Mediterranean world from Italy to Greece to North Africa to what is now Turkey as well as the Middle East as far away as Iran and perhaps even central Asia. It should be noted that speaking in tongues refers to speaking in actual languages that were understood by others, not the sort of speaking in tongues that is most common. It is also noteworthy that God uses the occasion of one of the three missionary feasts, where large numbers of believers from the known world were gathered together, as the occasion both for a miracle as well as for the inauguration of evangelism in the early Church of God, timing that was surely not coincidental.
Now about this time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover.”
Reference: Passover/Days Of Unleavened Bread
Here the miracle that was connected to the Holy Day was one of deliverance, as Peter was delivered from prison shortly thereafter, during the Days of Unleavened Bread, and ended up walking to the same house, the house of John Mark’s family in Jerusalem, where they had met after the Sabbath day’s journey from the Mount of Olives, and where they had the first Passover, and where a group of believers was praying for Peter’s safety. Here we see this unpleasant business of Herod’s oppressive behavior towards the Church of God in order to pander towards the Jewish leadership is being tied to the Holy Days, and observance of those Holy Days brings about a rescue for Peter from death so that he could continue to serve God’s purposes.
“Now when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem. But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went down to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.”
Not only did this particular passage discuss the cause of the future dissention between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark, who was Barnabas’ nephew, but it discusses a fundamental aspect of the way that Christianity was preached by Paul, in that he would attend the normal synagogue services and, as an honored guest who was clearly learned and of a good reputation, he would be asked to speak after the Torah and Haftorah readings were finished, discussed here as the reading of the Law and the Prophets, which is discussed also in Luke 4 when Jesus commented on the prophecy He fulfilled in Isaiah 61:1-2. Upon receiving the invitation from the rulers of the synagogue to speak, Paul gave a sermon.
“So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to consider in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourself unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.”
What is most striking about this verse is the fact that Paul, when preaching a message of salvation to the people of Antioch in Pisidia, preached to them on the Sabbath, by invitation of Gentile proselytes themselves. It is frequently believed that in order to successfully evangelize to others that we must adopt their own cultures and their own ways, but here we see a clear example that this is not the case. Paul’s obvious respect for the Gentile believers, in contrast to the condescension if not active disdain in which the Jews held the Gentiles, led Paul’s message to be welcomed gratefully by the multitudes. Yet jealousy over this fact led many of the Jews to contradict the Bible and their own beliefs so that they could seek to demonstrate themselves in opposition, leading to Paul separating himself from the synagogue, while still preaching on the Sabbath, which was the day set aside by God for worship even where worship was not possible with the largest body of Sabbathkeepers present.
“Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Here, in a discussion of the refusal to force Gentile believers seeking to be baptized and enter the Church of God to be physically circumcised, but to show via baptism their circumcision of heart, there is a straightforward reference to the fact that these same new Gentile believers were expected to learn about God’s laws and God’s ways through regular Sabbath attendance where the law of God was discussed and expounded upon. What was an obvious and straightforward reference to Sabbathkeeping being an expectation of all believers is, lamentably, not so straightforward and obvious in our present day, so it is a point that has to be mentioned and explained.
“Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.”
Even in those cities, like Philippi, where there was not a large enough Jewish population for a synagogue to be built, Paul still made considerable effort to preach and reach believers where they worshipped. In this particular case the location of the river for worshipping on the Sabbath was convenient for the baptism of Lydia and her household, presumably referring to the servants and slaves who helped run her business. Additionally, Paul’s practice is evidence that his Sabbath observance was not merely an aspect of his evangelism to the Jews, but was an aspect of His own worship in accordance with God’s ways, and something that He taught to others, including those like Luke who may have been Gentile believers themselves, but who still kept the Sabbath according to the commandments of God, rather than worshipping according to the traditions of men.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.”
Here we see it stated, just like it was stated for Jesus in Luke 4, that it was Paul’s custom to attend and speak at Sabbath services regularly. Unlike some people who viewed Jesus’ obvious Jewish identity as a matter of embarrassment when it came to following His example of worship and practice, Paul did not find the observance of the Sabbath as commanded in the Law to be any barrier to preaching about the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, nor in preaching on the Sabbath with a particular focus on Gentiles, expecting them to grow in obedience to God’s ways and to follow His example of Sabbathkeeping. This passage is merely one more passage that demonstrates what should be an obvious truth but that is often not noted when the behavior of Paul is discussed.
“So Paul still remained [in Corinth] a good while. Then he took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and Priscilla and Aquilla were with him. He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow. And he came to Ephesus, and left them there; but he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them, saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.” And he sailed from Ephesus.”
Reference: implied Pentecost, stated as feast
From this context alone, we cannot determine exactly which feast was meant in this reference, although later in in Acts it becomes clear that this reference was to Pentecost. For believers in God, there are three missionary feasts: the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, at which time it was customary for believers like Paul even who dwelt far away from Jerusalem to travel on a pilgrimage on at least an occasional basis, as we see in the scriptures. Here we see good evidence that not only was the Sabbath viewed by Paul in high regard but also the Holy Days as well. Hardly anyone would travel in the conditions of the first century Roman world, in peril of thieves and countrymen, to travel to a city where a lot of people were personally hostile in order to celebrate a religious festival that was not of the highest importance. This is true even when we do not know for certain exactly which feast was being celebrated in a given reference.
“After the uproar had ceased, Paul called the disciples to himself, embraced them, and departed to go to Macedonia. Now when he had gone over that region and encouraged them with many words, he came to Greece and stayed three months. And when the Jews plotted against him as he was about to sail to Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. And Sopater of Berea accompanied him to Asia—also Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians, and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia. These men, going ahead, waited for us at Troas. But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days.”
Reference: Days of Unleavened Bread, implied Sabbath reference, especially given the following passage starting in verse seven.
Here again we see, in the matter-of-fact course of events that Luke views the Sabbath (implied here by a reference to seven days) and the Days of Unleavened Bread, among other Holy Days, as being entirely appropriate markers of time. Not only where they observances kept by Paul and other believers, contrary to the contemporary practice of many who claim to follow Paul’s example, but they were also expected to be understood by the readers of Acts, whether Jews or Gentiles. Luke does not feel it necessary to explain what was involved in keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread or why one would stay seven days in a given city, but assumes that his readers will understand what these days represent and observe them as well.
Then we went ahead to the ship and sailed to Assos, there intending to take Paul on board; for so he had given orders, intending himself to go on foot. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and came to Mitylene. We sailed from there, and the next day came opposite Chios. The following day we arrived at Samos and stayed at Trogyllium. The next day we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.”
Here we see the answer to the question of which feast was Paul in a hurry to get to earlier, when he left Corinth in the winter just before the Days of Unleavened Bread. We also see that Paul was no mean trip planner when it came to his perhaps overly ambitious schedule. It is perhaps ironic that Paul was in such a hurry to make it to Jerusalem before Pentecost when he would spend the next several years in prison and not in a particular hurry at all, but let those of us who are similarly ambitious with our schedules judge not, lest we shall be judged. At any rate, this is an example both of how seriously Paul took the Holy Days and also how obvious a reference to this festival should be to someone who is reading this book, especially in light of the Pentecost discussed in Acts 2 when the Church of God was just beginning.
“Now when much time had been spent, and sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives.” Nevertheless the centurion was more persuaded by the helmsman and the owner of the ship than by the things spoken by Paul. And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to set sail from there also, if by any means they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete opening toward the northwest and southwest, and enter there.”
Reference: Day of Atonement
This particular reference to the Day of Atonement is one of the most remarkable references in the Bible. For one, it is a reference to the festival by its most obvious and salient point to someone who practices it, and it is done in such a way that any reader who has kept the Day of Atonement knows exactly what is being referred to, given that it makes a suitable reference as a way of dividing the year into those times where sailing is dangerous and where wise captains and ship-owners seek a place to winter safely. Unfortunately, the owner and helmsman of Paul’s ship were not wise, and unfortunately Paul’s testimony, given by prophetic insight and probably a fair amount of wisdom as a frequent traveler, did not carry much weight with the centurion whose responsibility it was to guard Paul and the other prisoners. As a result, the ship was lost when it wrecked on the shores of Malta.