One of the more remarkable aspects of the journeys of Paul are the consistent record of Sabbath observance that is found within them. Even though Paul is predominantly remembered as the Apostle to the Gentiles, it is clear that his preaching took place within a context of respect for and regard of and remembrance of the Sabbath day, contrary to the example of the antinomians who have followed him and falsely claimed him as their forebear in rejecting the biblical Sabbath as it is discussed and defined in scripture. Contrary to the expectations of those who believe Paul deprecated the Sabbath, viewing it as a hindrance in preaching to the Gentiles, a fair reading of Acts will demonstrate the obviousness of the fact that Paul regularly preached on the Sabbath and viewed the Holy Days as being of particular importance. This particular discussion does not aim at being exhaustive, but rather at indicating clearly and obviously the pattern of Paul’s observance of the Sabbath and Holy Days within the Book of Acts.
The first aspect of Paul’s observance of the Sabbath is to note that even where there were no populations of Jews in a given town large enough for a synagogue to exist that Paul still worshipped in and preached on the Sabbath day to those potential believers. One example of this is to be found in Acts 16:11-15, which reads: “Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day we 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 prayers were 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 Thyatria, 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.”
There are at least a few noteworthy aspects of this passage that require comment, as the account is fairly understated and relies on a great deal of context. The author has taken a trip to the wailing wall in Old Jerusalem, and while the length of the wailing wall allotted for men is twice that of the length allotted for women, about twice as many women show up to pray as men on a given day. By Jewish custom, a formal religious service could not convene in the absence of ten Jewish men. Women were considered of no account. What we see in Philippi is that there were not enough circumcised Jewish men for a synagogue to be established but that there were God-fearing Gentiles as well as believing women. The relative scarcity of Jewish men was of no importance to Paul, who was welcome to start a congregation, with baptism and even ordination, in the sense that he accepted Lydia as the hostess and patroness of the congregation, a position of honor, despite the fact that women were the prominent early members of the church of God in Philippi. Even where there were not enough Jewish men for a synagogue, Paul still preached on the Sabbath. Moreover, he showed a respect for women that was far greater than that which is present even in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, in that he viewed women as the spiritual equals of men, and just as able to serve as the patron or host of a congregation as men, a remarkable fact that deserves recognition in light of the way that Paul is viewed as being hostile to women as a result of the reading of a few passages in his letters.
More usually, though, Paul first went to the synagogues, an example of which may be found in Acts 13:13-15: “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 into 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.” After giving a sermon to the Jews of Perga, he was met by Gentiles who wanted Paul to preach to them just as he had preached first to the Jews. An account of this follows in Acts 13:42-48: “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 by Paul and Barnabas, who speaking to them, persuaded them to continue 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 multitude, 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. For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’ Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”
This is a noteworthy section of scripture for several reasons. For one, Paul preached the message of salvation on the Sabbath to Gentiles. There was no belief that the Sabbath was merely for Jews, or that in order to appeal to anti-Semitic elements that one must reject anything as Jewish as the Sabbath. Rather, Paul went first to the Jews and preached the Gospel of the kingdom of God and then, upon the invitation of the Gentiles, preached to them the next Sabbath. Even the rejection of Paul’s message by the majority of the Jews did not lead Paul to cease preaching to the young church in that congregation and other areas on the Sabbath. Rather, the Sabbath was seen as the day set aside by God for worship and reflection and assembly, and so whether it was Jews or Gentiles or a mixture of both that Paul was forming into young congregations along his missionary journeys, the worship and assembly took place on the Sabbath day.
One might say that this was an isolated occurrence, but it was not. Acts 17:1-4 tells us, for example: “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.” Nor is this all. Acts 18:1-4 reads, for example: “After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.”
Nor did Paul neglect the Holy Days. Witness, for example, his fevered travel to get back to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost. Several months before Pentecost he is already looking forward to it, as it is written in Acts 18:19-21: “And he came to Ephesus, and left them [Priscilla and Aquila] 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 them, saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.” A few months later, we read in Acts 20:6: “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.” Shortly after this, we read in Acts 20:16: “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.”
We can see from these references a particular pattern, one that is worthy of making plain. For one, Paul himself did not neglect the Sabbath or Holy Days at all, viewing the Sabbath as important enough to worship even if there was not a synagogue in a given city, and viewing Holy Days as important enough to risk death and imprisonment to travel, from time to time, to Jerusalem to worship them in the temple. Those who do not view the Sabbath as worth remembering or observing do not go to such length or risk such harm to obey the Sabbath commandment as Paul did, nor do they persist in observing the Sabbath even when it brings them into conflict with the Jews. Rather, the observance of the Sabbath and Holy Days must be viewed as having meaning outside of the mere Jewish context, and being applicable for all mankind to be taught to Gentiles. Far from seeking to change the festivals of God to appeal to Gentiles, Paul explains their meanings through Christ as a way of bringing the Gentiles to proper godly worship, an example that would be appropriate to follow today.
We see other patterns as well. For one, in the absence of days of worship being the chief contrast between Paul’s message and the message of the Jews in the synagogue, we see that Paul’s respect for women and Gentiles as being full partners with Israelite men in the Church of God and in the plan of salvation a strong appeal that many women and Gentiles responded to. This was not done for merely political purposes, for in making his appeal to the equality of men and women, of slave and free, and of Jew and Gentile (see, for example, Galatians 3:26-29), he was following the example of Jesus Christ, who spoke in a friendly and kind fashion to a Samaritan woman, who praised the faith of Roman centurions and Gentile lepers and demoniacs, and who feasted with tax collectors and sinners. Rather than showing themselves to be filled with arrogant pride in gender or ethnicity or class, they showed themselves friendly and gracious to people of all backgrounds, while demonstrating the true universal meaning of the grace and mercy extended to all as a result of the Sabbath day, which is not only for Israelite men but for women and children, for servants and foreigners and even animals and the land. May our Sabbath worship as well reflect this broadminded appreciation of the importance of God’s grace for all creation, and let us show ourselves to be like Paul and Jesus Christ in allowing our practices of Sabbath worship to show love and respect, especially for those who are not respected or regarded often enough.