The First Day of the Week
Last week we explored the fourth command of the Ten Commandments in a quest to see what it means to the New Testament church. In the Old Testament, the Sabbath was a day of rest on the seventh day, Saturday. Moses commanded no work on this day, and over the centuries traditions and national laws had governed that no one could do any kind of work under penalty of death. God purposely made this a simple command for the benefit of His people, but like people are inclined to do, they wanted to define “work”. They wrote volumes on what work was and what it wasn’t, what you could do and not do. Clearly, they had developed a legalistic approach to the Sabbath and not a spiritual approach. Jesus began His ministry in the early first century in a culture and nation that took the Sabbath very seriously. We discovered that in the four Gospel accounts, Jesus repeatedly interacted with the Jewish authorities about observance of the Sabbath. Jesus established some principles that help us understand what the Sabbath is, and why God commanded it. God created the Sabbath for the well being of man and not as a burdensome command. The Sabbath is a time to do good, and what is important is the spirit of the law and not the letter. The New Testament believer is free to apply the law not by the letter, but in a way which would honor the spirit of the law. That Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath” and feels free to change the way things were being done raises the possibility of a future change.
What Did Paul Say in His Letters?
In the historical narrative of Paul’s missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts, very little is said about moving the Sabbath, but in Acts 20:7-12 the Christians do gather together on “the first day of the week”, Sunday. At the very least this represents a growing awareness of the importance of the first day of the week, Sunday as the day for Christians to assemble. Don’t forget that Luke was a Gentile writer, and a planetary week with Saturday the first day of the week was in general use by Greeks and Romans at the time, so observance of a Jewish 7 day weekly cycle by a Gentile church must be a deliberate observance of the day of Jesus’ resurrection.
One of the key passages on the Sabbath in the N.T. is Colossians 2:16. Paul states that no one is to judge them with regard to the Sabbath. The context is that someone was objecting to their observance of the Sabbath. Paul rejects some type of obligation being put on the church. Paul refuses to put any legalistic restrictions on their observance of the Sabbath. An individual may keep it as he sees fit. The important factor was not which day, but one’s motives, and one’s heartfelt faithful desire to observe the Lord’s day. A similar passage is found in Romans 14:5 where Paul says that the keeping of one day over another is a matter of one’s individual conscience.
In 1 Cor. 16:2 Paul mentions the first day of the week as the day the Corinthian church assembled together. He instructed them to take up an offering from each one on the first day of every week. Thus it appears the Christian practice of assembling together to worship God on Sunday had an early beginning at least as early as 55 A.D., and was approved by Paul.
The Lord’s Day
This term was only used in the New Testament in Rev. 1:10 by the apostle John, but all Christian tradition and Church history confirms that John meant the first day of the week-the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The term was widely used for Sunday in all the second century church writings. Therefore, the term Sabbath, which had a connotation of legalism to the church, had been replaced in the first century churches with the term “the Lord’s Day” used for Sundays. Was there any command in the N.T. to observe the Lord’s Day? The closest we can come to this is really an exhortation in Hebrews 10:24-25, “let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together…encouraging one another”.
Second Century History
In the second century writings of the church fathers there is plenty of evidence that the next generation had switched to Sunday as their day of assembly and worship. The term “the Lord’s Day” was frequently used as well. Keep in mind that Christianity was not a legal religion and there was a very limited amount of cohesion between geographically diverse churches. There was no governing authority or church councils making decisions for diverse churches from east to west. Nevertheless, there is significant evidence from every area that in the second century most churches whether in northern Africa, Asia Minor, Greece, or Rome were assembling on Sunday for worship and fellowship.
Christian writings such as the Didache, and authors such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, Irenaeus, Clement, Papias, and others used the term “the Lord’s Day” and gave evidence of Christians assembling on Sunday. A good example is Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians written only about 20 years after John wrote Revelation and to the churches in the same area. Because of the N.T. references to the first day of the week and a wealth of evidence from the next generation of churches, we can assume that generally Sunday was the Christian day of regular corporate worship in Asia Minor at the end of the first century.
What about the churches in Palestine in the area of Jerusalem? Remember Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. by Rome. In Acts 15 the Palestine Church had considerable debate about their religious practices that differed from the many new Gentile churches. The debate was over circumcision and eating practices. There was never any controversy over the Sabbath or Sunday worship. This lack of controversy is most easily explained if assembly on Sunday was already the Christian custom. Our earliest evidence of Sunday assembly and worship comes from Egypt. Since the converts there were led to Christ by Palestinian Christians, it is safe to say the church in Jerusalem exported this practice. The clearest evidence came later from the great church historian from Palestine—Eusebius, who wrote that one group kept “the Lord’s Day as a memorial of the resurrection of the Savior” while a second group did not keep the Lord’s Day. It appears from his writings that Palestinian Christians observed the Sabbath of Saturday by resting from their labor, but assembled on Sundays for worship, fellowship, and to break bread together. Some believe that the early Christians in Jerusalem continued to go to the synagogue on Saturday. This can hardly be true since Christians were excluded from the synagogues, and persecuted throughout Jerusalem by their fellow Jews.
Why Sunday ?
We can’t be certain as to the exact time of the transition from Saturday to Sunday, but we believe it began in the early Palestinian church. The church needed a time for distinctly Christian worship. Celebrating and commemorating the resurrection of Jesus would have been a good reason for choosing Sunday. The fact that it was called the Lord’s Day reinforces this. The prominence of N.T. references to the first day of the week also backs it up. The writings of the church fathers in the 2nd century tell us the churches regularly met the first day of every week in commemoration of the resurrection. To Ignatius, observing the Sabbath was heretical, while worship on the Lord’s Day defined Christianity as belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Justin Martyr, writing circa 150 AD gave us a description of a Christian service, “On Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles are read, then the leader instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things, then we all rise together and pray.”
Settling the Question
Remember that Christianity was illegal and persecuted up until the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and legalized it. Therefore, prior to his rule, there could be no national rulings or open church councils to rule on matters like the Sabbath. In 321 A.D., he made a law requiring total public rest from work on Sunday. The historian Eusebius wrote that Constantine’s intention was to influence his subjects toward Christianity. Eusebius went on to list the theological reasons for observance of Sunday. He was not concerned with resting for its own sake, but for freeing the Christian to give the day in service to God and devotion to worship.
Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament. The 4th command to observe the Sabbath on Saturday is not repeated in the N.T. It appears that this law and tradition was unique to Israel and served to set them apart from other nations. Exodus 31:12-17 says only “the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath”. Jesus never contradicted the fourth command, but Jesus established His lordship over it and taught it was to be used spiritually-not legalistically. The law may apply to the New Testament church according to the spirit of the law that we should assemble to worship, fellowship, give, teach, and have a time to rest and focus on the Lord. Christians are free to apply the law not by the letter, but by the spirit, so they can meet at different times and interpret “work” according to what works for them. If your job necessitates that you work on Sunday you are free to meet, worship, and rest on Saturday or Wednesday. In Paul’s letters, he included the Sabbath in the issues that Christians are free to observe according to their own conscience, and says we should not “judge” each other by how we regard a Sabbath day. The issue of faithfulness and inner spiritual observance is more important.
The early Gentile church assembled together on Sundays, and this was approved by the Apostle Paul. Sunday eventually became known as the Lord’s Day to the church commemorating the resurrection of Christ.