The Christian world is remarkably united when it comes to honoring the first day of the week as the day when the Lord is to be worshiped, but when it comes to our theology of it, we are all over the road. Our practice is largely uniform (with a handful of exceptions), but our thinking about it is varied and inconsistent. In our day, most Christians worship on the first day of the week as a matter of tradition, convenience, and inertia, and if pressed on the point by a Seventh Day Adventist, reply with a sweeping appeal to Colossians 2:16.
But the challenge is greater for those in the Reformed tradition because we observe the first day as the Christian sabbath, and that means we have to give an account for the change of day from the seventh day to the first, and to do so without seeming like we are being a bit cavalier with the words of the Ten Commandments. It does seem awkward and asymmetrical to say that the timeless moral authority of the Decalogue arises out of nine and a half of the commands. Nobody likes seeing the Ten Commandments walk with a limp.
And so my intention here is to set out eleven theses on why Reformed Christians should glory in the Lord’s Day, on the first day of the week, receiving it with gladness as the Christian sabbath. There is no reason for embarrassment on the question.
At the same time, it should be noted that these eleven thesis need to be woven together. They are not offered as stand-alone proofs. Think of these statements as eleven pieces of a puzzle. You won’t see the picture until they are placed all together.
Starting at the Shallow End
Under the direction of the apostles, it is plain that the early Christians met for worship on the first day of the week. Since the Israelites had been worshiping the Lord on the seventh day for many centuries, this change of day—made among Jewish Christians without any noticeable controversy—is really remarkable. Everyone seems to take it in stride. Nothing could have accomplished something like this without a monumental cosmological shift, understood by everyone as such, and which we will get to shortly. But let us begin with the mere fact of the shift.
“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.”
Acts 20:7 (KJV)
This is very plainly a worship service. The disciples gathered together in order to break bread, and to listen to Paul preach. And the text is explicit about the fact that they did this on the first day of the week.
In another place, Paul instructs the Corinthians on how best to assemble the offering they had committed to.
“Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”
1 Corinthians 16:2 (KJV)
It was the custom of the Jews to take up their offerings on the seventh day at their synagogues, which makes good practical sense. In a similar way, Paul here tells the Corinthians to set aside their offerings on the first day of the week. This is obviously the day on which they all came together. It makes good sense to take up the offering when everybody was there. If Sunday was just an ordinary work day, with everybody going in all directions, it wouldn’t make any sense to tell them to set aside their offerings on that day.
And in addition, Paul tells the Corinthians that these instructions to them were identical to what he had told the church throughout Galatia.
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.”
1 Corinthians 16:1 (KJV)
And so we see the Christians in the New Testament gathering together on the first day of the week to break bread, listen to a sermon, and to gather up an offering.
How Christ Appeared
The reason we call the first day of the week the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) is the fact that the Lord rose from the dead on that day. Not only so, but the entire created order was reborn on that day.
In addition to rising on the first day of the week, the Lord made a decided point of appearing to His disciples on the first day of the week, and the gospel writers made a clear point of placing that fact right in front of us repeatedly.
“Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.”
Mark 16:9 (KJV)
So not only do we have the fact of His resurrection, we see how He makes a point of appearing to His disciples on that day, with the gospel writer making a point to record what day it was.
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.”
John 20:19 (KJV)
Jesus appears to His disciples in the upper room on the first day. And he does the same thing again a week later.
“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.”
John 20:26 (KJV)
Not only so, but after the Lord’s ascension He determined to pour out His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, on the first day of the week.
“And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord.”
Leviticus 23:15–16 (KJV)
So not only did Christ rise on the first day of the week, He appeared to His disciples repeatedly on the first day of the week, and He poured out His Holy Spirit on the first day of the week—making Sunday the Church’s birthday.
What the Fourth Commandment Expressly Requires
It may come as a surprise to many, but the fourth commandment does not require seventh day observance, but rather one-day-out-of-seven observance. The command does not tell us when to start counting the days, or when to end them. Of course in the older covenant the Jews obeyed this commandment by observing the seventh day, but the command itself (work for six and rest for one) is simply this: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work” (Exodus 20:9). The day that is not numbered among the six is the one to be remembered (v. 8), and it is to be treated as the sabbath of the Lord your God (v. 10). The fourth commandment presupposes a particular day, but does not appoint or assign a particular day. That day was already in observance among the Israelites, as can be seen a few chapters earlier (Ex. 16:23-26), prior to Sinai, and which is the first mention of the seventh day sabbath after the account of creation in Genesis.
The Jews as slaves in Egypt would not have been permitted to observe a peculiar day of rest, and so probably lost track of it, which is why the Old Testament later says that God gave them the sabbath right after the Exodus (Neh. 9:14). He brought them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and He gave them sabbaths (Ezek. 20:10, 12). But as far as the words of the fourth commandment are concerned, the Christian sabbath fits them equally well. We also work for six and rest for one.
The Rationale Is Modifiable
One of the things that bothers some is the idea of altering the words of the Ten Commandments in any way. But the Old Testament itself does this, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The reason given for sabbath observance changes in the forty years between Sinai (Ex. 20: 11) and the second giving of the law (Dt. 5: 15). In the first giving of the Ten Commandments, the reason for sabbath observance is the pattern God set in the creation of the world. In the second giving of the Ten Commandments, the reason for sabbath observance was the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The command did not change, but additional reasons for observance did change, and it changed within the body of the Decalogue. And this is precisely what the Christian sabbath does. It does not change the observance of one day in seven, but it does amplify (not erase) the reasons for the commemoration.
The first reason given for sabbath observance is that God said “let there be light,” and there was light (Gen. 1:3). This was a type of the work of regeneration in sinful man (2 Cor. 4:6). The second reason given was the Exodus from Egypt, which was also a type of the work of regeneration of sinful mankind. On the Mount of Transfiguration, when Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah, they were talking about His departure (lit. Exodus) that He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). If the second giving of the Decalogue is based on Exodus the type, then the Christian sabbath is based on the antitype—the ultimate Exodus of the resurrection.
History Is Made Up of More Than One Creation
The Scriptures teach that the inauguration of the Christian aeon is the new creation, the new heavens and new earth. We have had more than one aeon that was supplanted by another. The first was the antediluvian world, and it was a world that perished (2 Pet. 3-5). And the Judaic aeon perished in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. (Is. 13:10). We are now in the Christian aeon.
How does this work? In the Old Testament, the sin of mankind gradually reduced the old creation to a state of spiritual chaos, the way it was when the earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.
“For my people is foolish, they have not known me; They are sottish children, and they have none understanding: They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge. I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; And the heavens, and they had no light.”
Jeremiah 4:22–23 (KJV)
So the entry of the gospel into a world like that is in effect the creation of a new heavens and new earth.
“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: And the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: For, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.”
Isaiah 65:17–18 (KJV)
The New Testament makes it plain that these prophecies are speaking of the gospel era, as I will show in a minute.
“And I have put my words in thy mouth, And I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.”
Isaiah 51:16 (KJV)
Scriptures make plain that every creation needs a sabbath. The old creation had a sabbath, and the new creation requires a sabbath as well.
“For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain.”
Isaiah 66:22 (KJV)
The Christian aeon is a renewed order, a new creation. As such, it requires a sabbath. The dissolution of the old Judaic order was the dissolution of the world—but we belong to a new world, in which righteousness dwells.
The new heavens and new earth that Isaiah prophesied are described by both Peter and Jude as being established in their day.
“But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts.”
Jude 17-18 (KJV)
Jude was dealing with mockers in his day, and he is also applying Peter’s prophecy concerning them. Peter taught us that the Flood destroyed one world—although it plainly did not wipe out the space/time continuum. This is decreation language, the kind of prophetic language that is talking about a cosmic revolution, a change in governance, a radical restructuring. As Peter looked forward to the destruction of the Jerusalem, he endured the taunts of the mockers, those who wondered “where is the promise of His coming?” That destruction was going to usher in a new creation . . . one that would require a new sabbath to go with it.
“Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
2 Peter 3:13 (KJV)
Christ Entered His Rest
God rested from His work of creation. After six days of creative activity, He then rested (Heb. 4:4) In a parallel way, Jesus Christ entered into His rest after finishing His work of re-creation. God created the heavens and earth in six days, and Christ recreated the heavens and earth in three days and three nights. For this reason, the people of God still have a sabbath-rest (Heb. 4:9). The word there is sabbatismos. Why do we Christians still have a sabbath rest? The reason is given in the next verse.
“For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.”
Hebrews 4:10 (KJV)
Let me give you my amplified interpretation of these two verses. No, no, no trouble at all.
“Therefore Christian people still have a sabbath rest in the new creation. For Christ entered into His rest in the resurrection, ceasing from His work of redemption, just as God ceased from His work in the creation.”
Hebrews 4:9–10 (DJW Interpretive Paraphrase, and it is a fine job if I do say so myself.)
If you take it as I used to, as meaning that the pronoun refers to a repentant legalist who had given up on the task of trying to earn his salvation, there are two difficulties with this. One is that it is an odd comparison to set up a recovering legalist as a comparison to God’s creation of all things. And the second thing is that a recovering legalist does not provide us with sufficient grounds for still having a Christian sabbath (v. 9).
So first, we should see Christ’s rest after His work of redemption as running in parallel with God’s initial creation of all things. Second, they are placed in parallel in order to provide justification for the people of God still being able to keep sabbath—Israel in the Old Covenant and Christians in the New. And third, this passage helps us to see this new sabbatismos to be in a superior position to the old.
Nor Come to Mind
When God creates a new heavens and new earth, one of the features of this creative act is that the old creation “shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Is. 65:17-18). If that is so, and if the sabbath was expressly anchored to the old creation, why would we still keep the seventh day as a means of remembering it, or calling it to mind?
Now of course this does not mean that we get to forget that God created the world. But it does mean that the new creation far surpasses the old in glory. The Church should rather commemorate the establishment of the new creation, which began at the resurrection of Christ, and we should do so in such a way that the sabbath of the old creation, while still acknowledged, is nevertheless placed in the shade by the rising sun of righteousness.
They Shall No More Say . . .
Speaking of the gospel era, Jeremiah says the deliverance from Egypt (which the seventh day commemorated) was going to fade into the background, and that the new deliverance was going to be celebrated instead.
“Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, the Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.”
Jeremiah 16:14–15 (KJV)
The greatness of the new covenant can be seen in precisely this. The saints of the old covenant were told that a time would come when they no longer celebrated the deliverance from Egypt—which the seventh day sabbath did. Rather, they would celebrate the antitype of which the Exodus was the type.
“Thus saith the Lord, which maketh a way in the sea, And a path in the mighty waters; Which bringeth forth the chariot and horse, the army and the power; They shall lie down together, they shall not rise: They are extinct, they are quenched as tow. Remember ye not the former things, Neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; Now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls: Because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen.”
Isaiah 43:16–20 (KJV)
This is fully appropriate because the Exodus was a type of our coming redemption, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment, the antitype. Why would we be still celebrating the shadow and not celebrating the reality?
This Is the Day
The reason this issue remains controversial in some quarters is that we have not fully grasped the ultimate nature of the transformation that was wrought by the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. The world really was overhauled
“The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; It is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Psalm 118:22–24 (KJV)
Because the rejected stone has been made the cornerstone, the result is a particular day for the people of God to rejoice and be glad in. This is the day the Lord has made. How has the Lord made this day? He did it by coming back from the grave, and ever since then we have called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). He made this Day by coming back from the dead, and He pointed to what He had done in numerous ways.
“Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.”
Acts 4:10–11 (KJV)
This prophecy belonged to Christ, as the apostles plainly taught, and the day belonged to Him as well.
The Lord’s Day
As mentioned a few times already, the apostle John received his vision of the Apocalypse on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Some might object and say that this text does not specify which day of the week it was. But I mention this for several reasons. First, given everything else that has been cited above, what other day could it be? If it was the seventh day, they already had a word for it. If it could have been any day of the week because “every day is the Lord’s Day,” then what was John trying to communicate? He was seeking to inform us about when he had the vision. If we apply it to every day, then what was the point of saying it?
My point in bringing it up is to provide a brief answer for those who believe that Paul’s reference to those who consider “every day alike” (Rom. 14:5) and his rejection of those who would continue to impose the old Judaic calendar (Col. 2:16). The answer is that if Christians can refer to one day, any day, as the Lord’s Day, then it is a false inference to flatten the calendar entirely.
The Church in All Ages
It is customary in long lists to say things like “last but not least.” But here my point is last because it really is least. The tradition of the Church does not have the same authority as Scripture, and I trust you see my argument above has been a scriptural one. We do not ever want to set aside the Word of God for the sake of our traditions.
To argue that Sunday observance was an imposition by Constantine is simply historical ignorance. Christians have been worshiping on the Lord’s Day in the pages of the New Testament, and ever since that time, for the last two thousand years. The overwhelming practice of Christians has been to keep the first day of the week. There are, true enough, occasional outliers—Seventh Dad Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists. But they are true outliers. And when you consider how difficult it can be to get Christians to agree on things, this really is a remarkable tradition. This really is a virtually universal custom among every sort of Christian, of every stripe, on every continent, and in every age.
Without a scriptural basis for it, the tradition of the Church would not be sufficient to set aside the usage of ancient Israel. Of course not.
But if we look straight at the fact that Jesus of Nazareth came back from the dead on the first day of the week . . . well, that changes everything.
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