We have been exploring the Bible’s teaching on the Sabbath as the special day of rest God has given his people. We have seen how the church has largely forgotten it, in our day, but also why it needs to be rediscovered.
One of the reasons many Christians have abandoned the idea of such a day continuing for the church is, they say, because the idea of a Sabbath day belongs to the Old Testament and is not replicated in the New. Those who disagree would say that it is replicated in the New Testament — and offer significant arguments by way of support.
Clearly, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the early church to keep the Sabbath in the way the Jews kept it in Old Testament times. But that did not prevent those early Christians having good reason to shift from meeting on the seventh day of the week (the Jewish Sabbath), to the first.
The references to ‘the first day of the week’ in the New Testament are too frequent and sound too much like a standard turn of phrase to be dismissed lightly. Two reasons in particular stand out.
The first has to do with the fact Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The rationale for the early church claiming this day as the new holy day for God’s people is often said to be merely as a celebration of the resurrection. There is, however, more to it.
Why did those first Christians not choose the sixth day of the week, since that was when Jesus was crucified and redemption was secured? The answer lies in what the resurrection contributed to salvation.
It comes out in Paul’s teaching on this event and what it achieved. Most importantly, he highlights its significance for believers as those who are united to Christ in salvation. He tells the Ephesians they have been ‘raised up with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:6).
What is interesting about this particular expression is that it is one of two he uses to describe the event that John calls the ‘new birth’. The other term Paul uses for that same event is ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In other words, the resurrection marked that moment in God’s redemptive purpose when his promised new creation was inaugurated.
So, just as God instituted the Old Testament Sabbath in relation to his original creation and the day it was complete, this new day of rest relates to his new creation and the day it was inaugurated.
That thought leads into another component of salvation history that ties in with the first day of the week as the natural replacement for the seventh as the day of rest. It comes to light in the context in which the expression ‘Lord’s Day’ appears in the book of Revelation.
‘Day of the Lord’
John uses the expression without any comment or explanation, strongly suggesting his readers already knew what it meant. But, given the focus of the message of Revelation, with its heavy dependence on Old Testament prophecy and its climax in the new heavens and the new earth, it is hard not to notice its connection with what the prophets described as ‘the day of the Lord’.
Throughout the prophetic literature in the Old Testament there are frequent allusions to ‘the day of the Lord’. It was a familiar turn of phrase in the ancient Near East, linked to the idea of a god triumphing over his enemies and securing the safety of their devotees. So the prophets reached for this language to speak of the God of Israel’s final triumph — a day marked by the salvation of his people and judgement on all those who rejected him.
Revelation speaks unmistakably about God’s final judgement of the impenitent. But equally it provides the clearest glimpse of heaven as the place of absolute security. And out of all the things that are true of that new cosmic order — ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ (Revelation 21:1) — it will be the place of perfect rest. The essence of that rest consists in two parts: one negative, the other positive.
The negative aspect is what will be absent from that new order: no more tears, death, mourning, crying or pain — the old order in its entirety will have passed away. But interestingly, their positive counterpart is not described in terms of what will take their place, but rather of who will be its focus: the Lamb of God. He is the source of everything his people need, and in him they will find their everlasting rest.
Putting all this together, we see the extraordinary connection between the day of Christ’s resurrection and the day of his return. The former ushered in God’s new creation, the latter brings it to its consummation.
Resurrection guaranteed what is to come; Christ’s return will mark its arrival. But between those two days, there is Jesus himself. The Jesus who rose is the same Jesus who will return: the very same Jesus to whom we are united in salvation.
In him we already have a foretaste of what is coming on the day of the Lord. But through the day of rest that he has given — the day of new creation — we taste its pleasures more intensely. As we commune with God through Christ and by his Spirit, we are lifted up into that heavenly realm.
The author has ministered in Ireland, Camberwell and Philadelphia, USA, and is currently Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. He is also a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust.