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Why on Sunday

April 1999 | by Palmer Robertson

This question can be embarrassing, can’t it? Why do you worship on Sunday? Doesn’t the Bible say that the ‘seventh’ day is the time God consecrated for his people? Where does the Bible say that Christians should sanctify the first day of the week rather than the seventh day?

It is a good question, you will have to admit. It is also a question that needs an answer. So what can be said?

Creation and redemption

Begin by considering the evidence of the Old Testament. The sabbath in the Old Testament was not merely a special day that was to be recognised once a week. It had much richer significance. It pointed towards the future ‘rest’ of redemption that God would accomplish for his people. The sabbath was not only a reminder of the rest that came after the six days of creation. It also was celebrated because God had delivered his people from slavery in Egypt.

God repeated the law for Moses after Israel had wandered in the wilderness for forty years, just before they entered the land of promise. When God repeated the law that had been given at Sinai, the Ten Commandments were the same. Not one of the original Ten Commandments had been changed. But the reason for the law of the sabbath was different. At Sinai God’s people had been told to keep the sabbath because God had rested after the six days of creation (Exodus 20:11; cf. Genesis 2:3). But in Transjordan God said Israel was to keep the sabbath-rest in view of their redemption from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). Not only because of creation but also because of redemption, the people of God were to rest one day in seven.

We know that Israel’s deliverance from their slavery in Egypt by the Passover lamb was only a shadow, a prophecy of the deliverance that would come through the sacrificial death and powerful resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament saints were looking forward to the coming rest from the burdens of sin, just as each week they looked forward to their rest from work on the Sabbath day.

The promised land

So when Israel entered the land of their ‘rest’ under Joshua, they marched around Jericho for seven days. Then on the seventh day they marched around the city walls seven times. When they had completed the march around Jericho the seventh time on the seventh day, the walls came tumbling down, and the people of God began to enter their ‘rest’ in Canaan. The taking of Jericho gave a picture of God’s people entering into their ‘sabbath rest’.

In a similar way, the seventy years of Israel’s captivity pointed towards the ‘rest’ of the redemption that was to come to the promised land. For the seventy years of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, the land ‘was enjoying its sabbath rests’ (2 Chronicles 36:21).

These Old Testament experiences showed that God’s people were looking towards the ‘rest’, the redemption that would be accomplished by God’s Messiah one day in the future. They worked six days in the week, looking forward to the ‘rest’ they would experience in the future. They looked to the land of promise as the place where they would enter into their ‘rest’ from all the burdens of life.

A new perspective

But now redemption had been accomplished. Jesus has come as the fulfilment of prophecy. By his death and resurrection he has brought his people into their redemptive ‘rest’. We look back to the salvation that has been completed through Christ. ‘It is finished’ was his cry from the cross, and so we know that all has been done for our deliverance from sin, death and all other evils in this world.

So now the Christian has a new perspective on the rest of redemption. For the resurrection of Christ is an event as significant as the creation of the world. By his resurrection, a new order of the universe came into being. A new way of life for man came into existence. The stone was rolled back from the door of Jesus’ tomb to let the disciples in, not to let Jesus out! Because of his new form of existence in the body of the resurrection, he could pass in and out of locked rooms without needing to open doors.

The resurrection of Christ

So it should not be surprising to find the disciples following a new order in their worship-and-work patterns. They began their week assembling with the resurrected Christ. They started the week with a joyful celebration of the redemption that had been accomplished by Christ. Consider carefully the following evidence that the redemption accomplished through Christ’s resurrection determined the day for Christian worship.

1. Jesus Christ arose on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1). He entered into his ‘rest’ from labour, not on Saturday (the seventh day) but on Sunday (the first day of the week). As Jesus entered into his rest on the first day, so he encourages us to begin the week by ‘resting’ in the confidence that he will provide for all our needs for seven days with only six days of labour.

2. Jesus Christ appeared to his assembled disciples on the first day of the week, as well as to Mary and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (John 20: 10, 14, 19; Luke 24:13). By these appearances on the first day of the week, the resurrected Lord set a pattern for meeting with his disciples. They should expect to meet with him on the day of his resurrection, which is the first day of the week.

3. Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples one week later on the first day of the week, with doubting Thomas present this time (John 20:26). Already a new pattern of assembly for worship is emerging. God’s people in the new covenant are making it a habit to assemble together on the first day of the week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus honours these assemblies by appearing to the disciples at this time, and encourages their faith in him as the resurrected Lord.

4. The resurrected Christ pours out his Spirit on the assembled disciples exactly fifty days after the sabbath of the Jewish Passover, which apparently was the first day of the week (Acts 2:1; cf. Leviticus 23:15,16). The meaning of the word ‘Pentecost’ is ‘fifty’, referring to the fifty days after the sabbath of the Passover. Forty-nine days would span seven Jewish sabbaths or Saturdays, and the fiftieth day would then fall on a Sunday, the first day of the week. So it would appear that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit came on the first day of the week, when God’s people of the new covenant were assembled for worship. So the pattern would be established more firmly. Both the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit would occur on the first day of the week.

5. As Paul spreads the gospel of Christianity among Jews and Gentiles throughout the world, the first day of the week is used as the time for Christians to assemble for worship. In Greece, Paul and Luke assembled with the people of God to break bread and to hear the preaching of God’s Word on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). This is the day that the people of the new covenant assemble to hear God’s Word.

6. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth to establish the pattern for their presenting of offerings for the service of the Lord. He orders that the Christians in Corinth follow the pattern that already had been set with the churches in Galatia (1 Corinthians 16:1). On the first day of every week they are to consecrate their offerings to the Lord (1 Corinthians 16:2). Now the schedule for honouring the Lord has become the pattern for God’s people throughout the churches. The churches are not to present their offerings any time they wish. On the first day of the week all the Corinthian Christians must follow the pattern that already has been set among the Galatian churches. The first day of the week is the designated time for the presentation of offerings to the Lord.

Patmos, Greece
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The Lord’s day

The seventh and final point is as follows. The apostle John, now aged and perhaps the only living member of the original twelve apostles, has been banished to the island of Patmos. In this circumstance he cannot assemble for worship with the people of God. But the ageing apostle informs us that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day (Revelation 1:10). The significance of his being ‘in the Spirit’ seems quite clear. He has entered into the presence of the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, and is offering his adoration to him.

But what is the meaning of the phrase ‘on the Lord’s day’? In one sense it may be said that every day of the week belongs to the Lord, and so might be called the ‘Lord’s day’. But John is referring to something more specific. He does not speak merely of ‘a’ day that has been consecrated to the Lord. Instead he speaks of ‘the’ Lord’s day. What is that one day that may be called the ‘Lord’s day’?

It is the day in which he proves to the world that he was Lord. On one particular day Jesus made the universe understand that he was Lord of all. That day is the day of his resurrection. On that day he conquered the last of the sinner’s enemies, which is death. On the first day of the week he showed that his power could overcome all enemies, even death itself. This day is ‘the Lord’s day’.

Honouring God

So by the end of the lifetime of the first apostles, Christians knew about one day of the week that was called ‘the Lord’s day’. On that day they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That day became the time for their assembly as they rejoiced in the resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So it is the same today. The original commandment to honour God by worship one day in seven still holds, since this requirement was a part of the ten words laying down the moral standards of God for men. One day in seven must be consecrated for worship and service to him. Both creation and redemption show that God must be honoured in this way.

From the creation of the world until the coming of Christ, that day was the last day of the week. Men in the days of the Old Testament were looking forward to the rest that the Saviour would bring.

But now the Christ has come. He has risen victoriously over all his enemies. This victory he won on the first day of the week. On this day he meets with his disciples as they assemble to commune with him.

So we are to celebrate the rest he has won for us. We are to enter into his rest by offering our worship on the first day of the week. For it is the only pattern demonstrated in the Scriptures of the new covenant for the worship of God’s people today.

O. Palmer Robertson is Professor of Old Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, USA, and at African Bible College, Malawi, Africa.