A Sabbath Days Journey
The Greek sabbatou hodos (Acts 1:12) designates the distance from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem. In New Testament times, Jewish rabbis used this term as the limit in distance a Jew could go from his or her home on the Sabbath. The rabbis set this distance by their tradition as 2,000 cubits or about 1,000 yards (a cubit was slightly less than 18 inches).
First, the rabbis based their tradition on the last part of Exodus 16:29,30, which forbade the Israelites to go out on the Sabbath to gather manna. "Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out. So the people rested on the seventh day."* Then, since the distance separating the people from the ark as they marched across the Jordan was 1,000 yards (Joshua 3:4), the rabbis believed this was the distance between the peoples tents and the tabernacle during their wilderness journeys. They concluded it was reasonable for the people to travel that far to approach the tabernacle and worship. Rabbis supported this contention further by the fact 1,000 yards around the towns were given to the Levites (Numbers 35:5).
What was the purpose of this limit of a Sabbath days journey? Leviticus 23:3 identifies the Sabbath as a day of "rest, a day of sacred assembly a Sabbath to the Lord." The word rest (Hebrew, menuchah) has the basic meaning of "ceasing." God ceased from His work of creating on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2,3). For the Sabbath to be a day of rest, the Israelites were to plan their work so they could put it aside by sundown on the sixth day. This would enable them to come together on the seventh day for a sacred assembly of worship and teaching. The Sabbath was to be a day devoted to the Lord. By putting a travel limit of 1,000 yards on the people, the rabbis made sure everyone would be present for this sacred assembly every Sabbath.
Some later rabbis invented a tradition that enabled them to get around this limitation. For example, since they were allowed to go 1,000 yards from their home, they defined their home as anywhere their personal possessions were. They would take a bag of worthless possessions, go 1,000 yards, put down a personal possession, and say, "This is my Sabbath home; I can go another 1,000 yards." By this means, they could go anywhere they wanted. No wonder Jesus said, "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men" (Mark 7:8).
Since the walled cities were rather small, ranging from 6 to about 23 acres (Jerusalem being larger from Solomons time on) and the many unwalled villages were even smaller, each city would form a small congregation. Everyone would know each other and would unite in worship and in presenting their needs to the Lord. These small groups were important.
The Law, however, did not limit the Israelites to this weekly sacred assembly. According to Exodus 23:1417, it called for three pilgrimage feasts: Unleavened Bread (included with Passover in MarchApril), Harvest (Pentecost in May, which continued as a family feast with the father as the priest for the family), Ingathering (Tabernacles in SeptemberOctober). This was specifically commanded for the men; however, it was customary for men to bring their families. Thus, the sense of the unity of Gods people was experienced as the crowds gathered in the temple courts.
After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and took most of the Jews into Babylonian exile, the Jews realized that their sins and unbelief had brought Gods judgment, and they turned to the Lord. Again, the importance of the sacred assembly and the togetherness of a small group was recognized, and people gathered around those who could teach them Gods Word and lead them in worship. From these meetings, synagogues were established.
The Greek sunagoge ("gathering place") was first of all a place for teaching the Law. Philo, a first-century B.C. to first-century A.D. philosopher, called synagogues "houses of instruction, where the philosophy of the fathers and all manner of virtues were taught." In addition to the Law, selections from the Psalms and Prophets were read. Prayers and preaching were included in the service. The ruler of the synagogue (Hebrew, rosh hakkeneseth, "head of the assembly") directed the services and decided who would read from the Law and the Prophets and preach. He would encourage discussion afterward and was responsible in keeping order. Some suppose women were seated in a special gallery, but there is no evidence for this in the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the oldest Jewish writings. During the week, the synagogue buildings were used as community centers and schools for the boys.
Early Christian writings used the word synagogue or its Palestinian Aramaic equivalent, kenishta, for Christian churches. From the New Testament, from other early Christian writings, and from archaeology, it is evident that the early Christian assemblies, their services, and their government followed the example of the synagogues.
The Greek word translated "church" (ekklesia, "assembly of citizens") always applies to people in the New Testament. Archaeologists have found church buildings in Asia Minor dating from the middle of the second century (including baptistries for baptism by immersion). But in the first century there were no church buildings; the people met in homes. Since most of the people lived in one-room homes, wealthier converts would offer theirs, as in the case of John Marks mother (Acts 12:12) and Lydia, the wealthy dealer in purple cloth (Acts 16:15). As the gospel spread and more people were being saved, the house churches multiplied, each with its own elder (Greek, presbuteros, also called episkopos, "overseer," a term, which through the Latin eventually developed into the term bishop).
In his last journey to Jerusalem, the apostle Paul stopped at Miletus and sent for the elders of the city of Ephesus (Acts 20:17). He also referred to them as overseers and shepherds of "the assembly of God [literal translation] which he bought with his own blood" (verse 28). Note that the singular is used for "assembly," although each elder was the overseer of an individual house church. All the Blood-bought believers were part of the one universal assembly of God.
Since the Christian believers were not under law, there is no evidence that they had any concern about the limitations of a Sabbath Days journey. At first, as seen in the Book of Acts, believers gathered "in one accord" (one of Lukes favorite expressions). However, by the time of what must have been largely second-generation Christians, some must have needed the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one anotherand all the more as you see the Day approaching." The "Day" refers to the coming Day of the Lord, a day we are fast approaching. Believers today need the same exhortation. They need to be encouraged to be faithful to their local churches.