The Complete Testimony of the Fathers of the First Three Centuries Concerning the Sabbath and First Day


Testimony of Origen

Origen was born about A. D. 185, probably at Alexandria in Egypt. He was a man of immense learning, but unfortunately adopted a spiritualizing system in the interpretation of the Scriptures that was the means of flooding the church with many errors. He wrote during the first half of the third century. I have carefully examined all the writings of every Christian writer preceding the council of Nice with the single exception of Origen. Some of his works, as yet, I have not been able to obtain. While, therefore, I give the entire testimony of every other father on the subject of inquiry, in his case I am unable to say this. But I can give it with sufficient fullness to present him in a just light. His first reference to the Sabbath is a denial that it should be literally understood. Thus he says:- TFTC 83.1

“There are countless multitudes of believers who, although unable to unfold methodically and clearly the results of their spiritual understanding, are nevertheless most firmly persuaded that neither ought circumcision to be understood literally, nor the rest of the Sabbath, not the pouring out of the blood of an animal, nor that answers were given by God to Moses on these points. And this method of apprehension is undoubtedly suggested to the minds of all by the power of the Holy Spirit.” - De Principiis, b. ii. chap 7. TFTC 83.2

Origen asserts that the spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures whereby their literal meaning is set aside is something divinely inspired! But when this is accepted as the truth who can tell what they mean by what they say? TFTC 84.1

In the next chapter he quotes Isaiah 1:13, 14, but with reference to the subject of the soul and not to that of the Sabbath. In chapter 11., alluding again to the hidden meaning of the things commanded in the Scriptures, he asserts that when the Christian has “returned to Christ” he will, amongst other things enumerated, “see also the reasons for the festival days, and holy days, and for all the sacrifices and purifications.” So it seems that Origen thought the spiritual meaning of the Sabbath, which he asserted in the place of the literal, was to be known only in the future state! TFTC 84.2

In book iv., chapter 1., he quotes Colossians 2:16, but gives no exposition of its meaning. But having asserted that the things commanded in the law were not to be understood literally, and, having intimated that their hidden meaning cannot be known until the saints are with Christ, he proceeds in section 17 of this chapter to prove that the literal sense of the law is impossible. One of the arguments by which he proves the point is, that men were commanded not to go out of their houses on the Sabbath. He thus quotes and comments on Exodus 16:29:- TFTC 84.3

” ‘Ye shall sit, every one in your dwellings; no one shall move from his place on the Sabbath day,’ which precept it is impossible to observe literally; for no man can sit a whole day so as not to move from the place where he sat down.” Origen quotes a certain Samaritan who declares that one must not change his posture on the Sabbath, and he adds, “Moreover the injunction which runs, ‘Bear no burden on the Sabbath day,’ seems to me an impossibility.” TFTC 84.4

This argument is framed for the purpose of proving that the Scriptures cannot be taken in their literal sense. But had he quoted the text correctly there would be no force at all to his argument. They must not go out to gather manna, but were expressly commanded to use the Sabbath for holy convocations, that is, for religious assemblies. Leviticus 23:3. And as to the burdens mentioned in Jeremiah 17:21-27, they are sufficiently explained by Nehemiah 13:15-22. Such reasons as these for denying the obvious, simple signification of what God has commanded are worthy of no confidence. In his letter to Africanus, Origen thus alludes to the Sabbath, but without further remarking upon it:- TFTC 85.1

“You will find the law about not bearing a burden on the Sabbath day in Jeremiah as well as in Moses.” TFTC 85.2

Though these allusions of Origen to the Sabbath are not in themselves of much importance, we give them all, that his testimony ma be presented as fully as possible. His next mention of the Sabbath seems from the connection to relate to Paul:- TFTC 85.3

“Was it impious to abstain from corporeal circumcision, and from a literal Sabbath, and literal festivals, and literal new moons, and from clean and unclean meats, and to turn the mind to the good and true and spiritual law of God,” etc. - Origen against Celsus, b. ii. chap 7. TFTC 85.4

We shall soon get his idea of the true Sabbath as distinguished from the “literal” one. He gives the following reason for the “literal Sabbath” among the Hebrews:- TFTC 85.5

“In order that there might be leisure to listen to their sacred laws, the days termed ‘Sabbath,’ and the other festivals which existed among them, were instituted.” Book iv. chap 32. TFTC 85.6

What Origen mentions as the reason for the institution of the Sabbath is in fact only one of its incidental benefits. The real reason for its institution, viz., that the creation of the heavens and the earth should be remembered, he seems to have overlooked because so literally expressed in the commandment. Of God’s rest-day he thus speaks:- TFTC 86.1

“With respect, however, to the creation of the world, and the ‘rest [Sabbatismou] which is reserved after it for the people of God,’ the subject is extensive, and mystical, and profound, and difficult of explanation.” Book v. chap. 1ix. TFTC 86.2

Origen’s next mention of the Sabbath, not only places the institution of the Sabbath at the creation, but gives us some idea of his “mystical” Sabbath as distinguished from “a literal” one. Speaking of the Creator’s rest from the six days’ work he thus alludes to Celsus:- TFTC 86.3

“For he [Celsus] knows nothing of the day of the Sabbath and rest of God, which follows the completion of the world’s creation, and which lasts during the duration of the world, and in which all those will keep festival with God who have done all their works in their six days, and who, because they have omitted none of their duties, will ascend to the contemplation [of celestial things], and to the assembly of righteous and blessed beings.” Book vi. chap. 1xi. TFTC 86.4

Here we get an insight into Origen’s mystical Sabbath. It began at creation, and will continue while the world endures. To those who follow the letter it is indeed only a weekly rest, but to those who know the truth it is a perpetual Sabbath, enjoyed by God during all the days of time, and entered by believers either at conversion or at death. And this last thought perhaps explains why he said before that the reasons for days observed by the Hebrews would be understood after this life. TFTC 86.5

But last of all we come to a mention of the so-called Lord’s day by Origen. As he has a mystical or perpetual Sabbath like some of the earlier fathers in which, under pretense of keeping every day as a Sabbath, they actually labor on every one, so has he also, like what we have found in some of them, a Lord’s day which is not merely one definite day of the week, but which embraces every day, and covers all time. Here are his words:- TFTC 87.1

“For ‘to keep a feast,’ as one of the wise men of Greece has well said, ‘is nothing else than to do one’s duty;’ and that man truly celebrates a feast who does his duty and prays always, offering up continually bloodless sacrifices in prayer to God. That therefore seems to me a most noble saying of Paul, ‘Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.’ TFTC 87.2

“If it be objected to us on this subject that we ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days, as, for example, the Lord’s day, the Preparation, the Passover, or Pentecost, I have to answer, that to the perfect Christian, who is ever in his thoughts, words, and deeds, serving his natural Lord, God the Word, all his days are the Lord’s, and he is always keeping the Lord’s day.” Book viii., close of chapter 21, and beginning of chapter 22. TFTC 87.3

With respect to what he calls the Lord’s day, Origen divides his brethren into two classes, as he had before divided the people of God into two classes with respect to the Sabbath. One class are the imperfect Christians who content themselves with the literal day; the other are the perfect Christians whose Lord’s day embraces all the days of life. Undoubtedly Origen reckoned himself one of the perfect Christians. His observance of the Lord’s day did not consist in the elevation of one day above another, for he counted them all alike as constituting one perpetual Lord’s day, the very doctrine which we found in Clement of Alexandria, who was Origen’s teacher in his early life. The keeping of the Lord’s day with Origen as with Clement embraced all the days of his life and consisted according to Origen in serving God in thought, word, and deed, continually; or as expressed by Clement, one “keeps the Lord’s, when he abandons an evil disposition, and assumes that of the Gnostic.” TFTC 87.4

These things prove that Origen did not count Sunday as the Lord’s day to be honored above the other days as a divine memorial of the resurrection, for he kept the Lord’s day during every day in the week. Nor did he hold Sunday as the Lord’s day to be kept as a day of abstinence from labor, while all the other days were days of business, for whatever was necessary to keeping Lord’s day he did on every day of the week. TFTC 88.1

As to the imperfect Christian who honored a literal day as the Lord’s day, Origen shows what rank it stood in by associating it with the Preparation, the Passover, and the Pentecost, all of which in this dispensation are mere church institutions, and none of them days of abstinence from labor. The change of the Sabbath on the seventh day to the first, or the existence of the so-called Christian Sabbath was in Origen’s time absolutely unknown. TFTC 88.2