Sunday, The Day of Rest

By Leland M. Haines

The disciples should assemble together to worship, pray, to hear the Word preached and taught, to have fellowship together, etc. The writer of Hebrews wrote, "not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25). This is only a natural desire among brethren; "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another" (I John 1:7).

As to the time of the services, we should follow the example of the early church who held her worship services on the first day of the week, the Lord's Day. This day was set aside to commemorate the Lord's resurrection. As the Gospels report, the Lord arose from the dead "after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week" (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).

Worship on this day was begun by Jesus when He met with His disciples "on the evening of that day, the first day of the week" (John 20:1, 19). He met again with the disciples on the next Sunday night (John 20:26). This practice of meeting on the first day of the week was continued throughout church history. We have evidence of this in three New Testament Scriptures. Luke wrote that some early Christians "On the first day of the week . . . were gathered together to break bread" and to hear Paul preach to them (Acts 20:7). Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside" (I Corinthians 16:2). And John wrote that he "was in the Spirit on the Lord's day" (Revelation 1:10). These all suggest that Christians should meet together on the Lord's Day, i.e., the first day of the week.

Although there is no New Testament commandment that Christians must meet on the first day of the week and not on the Jewish Sabbath, the Scriptures mentioned strongly suggest this was the early church's practice. And there are ample early church writings that show this day, and not the Jewish Sabbath, was used throughout the early church.

Justin Martyr (114-165), in the First Apology of Justin, wrote, "On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the county gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. . . . But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His disciples . . . . "i

Ignatius (30-107) wrote to the Magnesians that "those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day."ii Elsewhere he wrote that "they no longer observe Jewish Sabbaths, but keep holy the Lord's Day, on which, through Him and through His death, our life arose."iii

The author of the Epistle of Barnabas (about 100) wrote as speaking for God that "your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that [Sabbath] which I made, when giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead."iv

The Didache (120-180) contains the statement that "on the Lord's Day, after you have come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist."v

These early writings show that the early church met on the Lord's Day. Philip Schaff summed this evidence up by writing, "The celebration of the Lord's Day in memory of the resurrection of Christ dates undoubtedly from the apostolic age. Nothing short of apostolic precedent can account for the universal religious observance in the churches in the second century. There is no dissenting voice." He later wrote, "The fathers did not regard the Christian Sunday as a continuation of, but as a substitute for, the Jewish Sabbath, and based it not so much on the fourth commandment, and the primitive rest of God in creation, to which the commandment expressly refers, as upon the resurrection of Christ and the apostolic tradition . . . Sunday was always regarded in the ancient church as a divine institution."vi Thus we can be see the justification for the church to keep Sunday as the day for worship and rest, and not Saturday.

Why would the early Christians change the day for worship from Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday? Some of the reasons for this change were:

1. The Mosaic Law was done away with by Christ. Paul taught that "before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith" (Galatians 3:23-26). He taught this so strongly that later he wrote in the same book, "How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!" (Galatians 4:9, 10). And he stressed that those who "are led by the Spirit . . . are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18).

Paul wrote to the Colossians that they should "see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition . . . not according to Christ." It was Christ who "canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross." Because of the Christian's standing in Christ, "no one [should] pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Colossians 2:8-17). Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and the Law was a preparation for Him, and He is now to be the center of focus by having the day of worship on the day of the week His resurrection occurred.

2. The Sabbath was a special day given to Israel and was not given to men in general, to the church, or to Christians. Moses was told, "Say to the people of Israel" (Exodus 31:12). And Moses stated, "It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel" (Exodus 31:16). The Sabbath was given that Israel would "remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out . . . therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:15).

3. All the Ten Commandments are quoted or reaffirmed in the New Testament except the fourth one, the Sabbath commandment. Therefore it is not a part of the New Covenant, but only of the Old. God does have commandments He expects men to follow today, but these are not the Mosaic Law found in the Old Testament, but those found in the New Testament.

4. Many think of the Sabbath in terms of the Ten Commandments' "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8f.; 23:12; 31:12f.). But those who insist on keeping the Sabbath do not do so. Moses wrote that "whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death" (Exodus 31:15). No Christian would ever think of carrying out this aspect of the Old Testament law. The grace and truth brought by Jesus Christ (John 1) leaves no room for such harsh attitudes and action. The Christian is to love his enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-36).

5. Although it is a good practice, and it is almost necessary to have a special day set aside for worship, under the New Covenant no special Sabbath is prescribed. There is no mention of keeping a Sabbath in the New Testament, nor is it listed in any list of sins. If God wanted Christians to keep a Sabbath, Paul, being an apostle to the Gentiles, surely would had mentioned it to them. Paul wrote that "all days are alike" (Romans 14:5). They are all holy. As for the weak brother, we are to welcome him "but not for disputes over opinions" (Romans 14:1). "One esteems one day better than another, while another esteems all days alike." They should both seek to honor the Lord. Paul asks a question, "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?" Neither should be done because one has different opinions (Romans 14:10).

6. Paul repeated this in another book. He wrote, "Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of. . . a sabbath" (Colossians 2:16). As mentioned earlier, these are "only a shadow . . . the substance belongs to Christ" (v 17).

Because some churches teach that Christians must keep the Jewish Sabbath, let us answer a couple points they make. They frequently state that because Jesus and Paul kept the Sabbath, Christians should too.

Yes, Christ kept the Sabbath; He kept the Law perfectly. Because He lived under the Law, He went frequently to the synagogue on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-12; Luke 6:1-5; Mark 2:27). But this is no reason for Christians to keep it. He lived under the Old Covenant, having not yet brought in the New.

And yes, Paul went to synagogues on his missionary journeys to teach the Jews about Christ. The reason is that they met on the Sabbath, so he went there on that day (Acts 13:14, 44; 14:1; 17:2; 18:4, 19; 19:8). But this does not show he kept the Sabbath as a Christian day. He only went there because he did everything possible to win the Jews to Christ.

In summary, there are indications from the New Testament that Christians met on the first day of the week for worship, and we know from church history and writings that this was the practice. There is no proof at all that the Sabbath law is a command of God for Christians. Thus Christians should keep the Lord's Day.

There are times when other special meetings can be held. We read of one of these in Acts, where Luke wrote about Paul prolonging "his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7). Thus worship need not be limited to the Lord's day.

i Alexander Robert and James Donaldson, Editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1956, 1:186.
ii Robert, op. cit, 1:62; cf. p. 63.
iii The Fathers of the Church, 1: 99, quoted by J. C. Wenger, Introduction to Theology, p. 254.
iv Roberts, op. cit., p. 146.
v Joseph Cullen Ayer, A Source Book for Ancient Church History, quoted by Wenger, op. cit., p. 253.
vi Philip Schaff, 2:201-2.


from The Biblical Concept of the Church, © copyright 1996 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI.

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June 22, 2000