THE LORD'S DAY
Its History and Significance
by Al Maxey
Revelation 1:10, which was written by the aged apostle John around the year 96 A.D., reads, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day." This is the only place in the Bible this particular phrase appears!
This raises some questions: What is the Lord's day? Is it merely another way of signifying the Sabbath day? Is it actually Sunday (the first day of the week)? Just exactly why is Sunday now such a spiritually significant day? Is the Sabbath no longer binding? If not, why not? How did the early church, the Apostolic Fathers, and the various Church Councils, perceive this day? What is the purpose of the Lord's day? What makes it special to the Lord's church? How should we view it and observe it today? Is our observance of it today in any way similar to the way in which it was observed in the early church? We will attempt to examine these questions in this study.
Some contend the Lord's day = the Sabbath. Thus, they maintain, the Lord's day should be observed on Saturday (there are some groups within Christendom which do indeed observe Saturday as their day of worship and praise to the Lord). It is not uncommon to hear Sunday referred to as the "Christian Sabbath." Both views (that Sunday is the Christian's Sabbath, or that the Lord's day is the Sabbath, and thus can only be observed on that day) are based on the assumption that the Sabbath is still in some way binding on God's people today.
Sabbath observance is clearly decreed in one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8-11). God declared that there would be a day of rest and religious observance. This was for the benefit of His people; for their edification; not some oppressive law designed solely to enslave them. However, over the centuries the Jews built up numerous traditions around the Sabbath, and they bound those traditions as law.
Jesus continually, and intentionally, violated those traditions. The Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath" (John 9:16). However, Jesus responded, "The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:8). He further observed, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).
The Judaizers attempted to impose the observance of the Mosaic Law upon the new Christians (the Gentile converts), and this was especially true with respect to such matters as circumcision and Sabbath day observance. In Col. 2:16-17 (vs. 14) and Rom. 14:4-6, 10 the apostle Paul points out this is wrong. We are not to judge one another with regard to these matters, but rather permit others to observe or not observe as they choose. The New Covenant writings clearly declare the Sabbath is no longer binding on God's people. One may, or may not, observe it. It is not a sin either way. However, one may not attempt to bind Sabbath observance upon another, or withhold fellowship from those who do not observe it, or insist that one cannot be justified before God unless it is observed. To do this is to risk being severed from Christ (Gal. 5:1ff).
Refer to the articles Breaking The Fourth Commandment and Right vs Rite.
NOTE: The word "Sabbath" never appears outside the four Gospels and the book of Acts except for Col. 2:16 where Paul says it is not binding. Also, notice the discussion in Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Conference) where the question of legalism was raised. Sabbath day observance is not listed as being essential (vs. 28-29).
The early Christians never confused the two days (the Sabbath day and the Lord's day), or felt that the latter was in any way a replacement of the former. For many years the two days were celebrated side by side---not because of any law that required them to observe both, but simply because they chose to do so. Those Jewish Christians who desired to continue to observe the Sabbath were free to do so; Gentiles who chose not to observe it were free to refrain. Neither group was to pass judgment upon, or withdraw fellowship from, the other. Each was to fully accept the other, for God had accepted both (Rom. 14).
Ignatius (martyred in Rome in 110 A.D.) wrote, "And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days." Again, we see the two as separate days, and the people of God observing both. In the Apostolic Constitutions (late 4th century A.D.) it is pointed out that Christians traditionally assembled on both the Sabbath and the Lord's day.
"LORD'S DAY" THEORIES
There have been many theories over the years as to what specific day is being referred to in Rev. 1:10. What is the identity of the "Lord's day?"
#1 --- The Day of the Lord (II Pet. 3:10). It is identified as Judgment Day. Some scholars contend John was transported in a vision to the day of final judgment. The two phrases ("the day of the Lord" and "the Lord's day") are entirely different in the Greek, however. This view is also unlikely because not all of the revelation given to John has to do with the final judgment.
#2 --- The day of Christ's birth. This day, however, is unknown! Furthermore, there is no evidence in the history of the early church that this day (whatever it was) was ever observed as a special day, or given any spiritual significance.
#3 --- The Sabbath day. This is inconsistent with numerous statements to the effect that the people of God observed the Lord's day after the Sabbath. It is clearly a separate day.
#4 --- Easter Sunday. Some feel the "Lord's day" signifies the yearly anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb. Thus, under this theory, the Lord's day would only occur once a year. Some religious groups only partake of the Lord's Supper on this day, as they believe this is rightfully the Lord's day.
#5 --- Friday is viewed by a few as the Lord's day. The reason for this is that this was the day of Christ's crucifixion. This day, however, was never given any real significance (as a holy day) in the early church.
#6 --- Sunday/the 1st day of the week. It is this day that the vast majority accept as the Lord's day. This day also has the most testimony behind it, not only from early church writers, but also from allusions in the New Testament writings themselves.
"LORD'S DAY" EVENTS
The "Lord's day" is obviously a day connected with the Lord Jesus Christ in some special way; a day the early disciples felt the need to honor in some significant way as His day -- a day devoted to Him! On the first day of the week (Sunday) the following spiritually significant events occurred:
#1 --- The day of our Lord's resurrection. Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1-2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19.
#2 --- Most of Christ's appearances to His disciples after His resurrection occurred on this day. Matt. 28:9-10; Mark 16:9ff; Luke 24:13-49; John 20:11-29.
#3 --- Pentecost occurred on the 1st day of the week that year! (see Lev. 23:15-16; also vs. 11). Thus, this was the day the Holy Spirit descended in power; the day the church was established (Acts 2).
#4 --- The Revelation was presented to the aged apostle John on "the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10).
Thus, the first day of the week (Sunday) held a special place in the hearts of the early disciples. It was connected significantly with the Lord in so many vital ways (His resurrection, His appearances, the outpouring of His Spirit, and His revelation). Thus, the early church came to view it as His special day ---The Lord's day!
Very quickly they began to assemble together on this day to encourage one another, build one another up, partake of the Lord's Supper, pray, sing, study together, contribute of their means, etc. Several Scriptures indicate this practice of assembling together on the first day of the week: Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:2 (Heb. 10:25 also seems to imply that a regular day for assembling together was observed).
NOTE: It is also interesting to notice that the "Lord's Supper" (I Cor. 11:20) was celebrated on the Lord's day (Acts 20:7). The day was the Lord's, and the supper was the Lord's, therefore it is not surprising to find the two so closely connected.
HISTORY OF THE "LORD'S DAY"
By the beginning of the 2nd century, the early church writers made it very clear that the first day of the week (Sunday) had become widely recognized as a special day for Christians to engage in public, congregational assemblies. Justin Martyr (110 - 165 A.D.) identifies the Lord's day as being "Sunday.....the first day.....and Jesus Christ our Savior on that same day rose from the dead." He further says that on this day the saints assemble for worship.
In The Teaching of the Twelve (120 - 190 A.D.) the following statement is found: "But every Lord's day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread." Clement (153 - 217 A.D.) says that we are to "keep the Lord's day" and thus "glorify the Lord's resurrection." The Constitution of the Holy Apostles says that on this day we are to "meet more diligently.....assembling ourselves together, without fail."
Ignatius (a disciple of the apostle John) described Jewish Christians with these words: "They have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him" (Letter to the Magnesians 9:1-3).
As Christianity spread throughout the world, and as more and more non-Jews entered the church, observance of the Sabbath faded out. However, some of the distinguishing features of the Jewish Sabbath came to be incorporated into the Lord's Day observance. Like the Sabbath, Sunday was regarded as a day of joy, festivity, and praise. Fasting was forbidden. In time, Christians were even forbidden to work on the Lord's day (although this was the last feature of the Sabbath to be carried over to the Lord's day).
Tertullian (160 - 220 A.D.) was the first writer to urge the cessation of labor on Sunday. "We, on the day of the Lord's resurrection, ought to.....defer even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil." In 321 A.D. the Emperor Constantine issued an edict which made Sunday an officially recognized day of rest from labor. This tradition has been carried on even to this present time. Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea; died: 329 A.D.) praised Constantine for this edict, saying it would "lead all mankind to the worship of God."
During the centuries which followed, a great many church councils, imperial laws, and renowned religious leaders, sought to enforce the proper (as they deemed it) observance of the Lord's day.
#1 --- Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) --- It commanded that one must stand up during prayers on the Lord's day (the 20th Canon).
#2 --- Council of Gangra (c. 350 A.D.) --- Fasting on the Lord's day is condemned; also staying away from the "House of God" and attending any non-Christian assembly.
#3 --- Council of Laodicea (363 A.D.) --- Observing the Jewish Sabbath is condemned; Sunday is commanded to be a day of rest from labor: "That Christians must not act as Jews by refraining from work on the Sabbath, but must rather work on that day, and, if they can, as Christians they must cease work on the Lord's Day, so giving it the greater honor" (the 29th Canon).
#4 --- The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 375 A.D.) --- Worshippers are commanded to assemble twice on the Lord's day -- morning and evening.
#5 --- The 4th Council of Carthage (436 A.D.) --- Anyone who left church services during the preaching was to be excommunicated. Fasting was again forbidden. Attendance at public games or the circus was forbidden on the Lord's day. (NOTE: In 425 A.D., Theodosius the Younger passed a law forbidding all games on Sunday (or any other church festival day). In 469 A.D. this law was strengthened to say that even if the Emperor's birthday fell on Sunday, no games would be allowed.)
#6 --- The 3rd Council of Orleans (538 A.D.) --- All agricultural work is forbidden on Sunday. However, those who refuse to travel or prepare meals on this day are condemned as being "Judaistic."
#7 --- The 2nd Council of Macon (585 A.D.) --- Work of any kind is prohibited on this day, and it is commanded that Christians worship God on this day.
#8 --- Gregory the Great (became Bishop of Rome in 590 A.D.) --- He condemned Sabbath observance as a "doctrine of Antichrist" (also the applying of Sabbath laws & rituals to the Lord's day). In spite of this, however, Christendom increasingly during the time of the Middle Ages observed Sunday as a Christian Sabbath.
#9 --- Alcuin (735 - 804 A.D.) --- He wrote, "Christian custom has transferred the observance of the Sabbath to the Lord's Day." Peter Alphonsus (12th century A.D.) was the first writer to actually use the term "Christian Sabbath" in connection with the Lord's day.
#10 --- Council of Clovishoff (747 A.D.) --- This council, which was held in England, decreed that travel is forbidden on the Lord's day.
#11 --- The Constitutions of Egbert (749 A.D.) --- Severe penalties are levied against anyone who works on Sunday.
#12 --- Charlemagne --- In France he issued a decree (789 A.D.) prohibiting all ordinary labor on Sunday as a breach of the 4th Commandment.
13 --- The Archbishop of Canterbury --- In the 14th century he ordered "abstinence from secular works on the sacred day of the Lord." However, he warned the people not to meet on Saturdays lest they "partake in the Jewish profession."
#14 --- Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) --- By the time of the Reformation, the Lord's Day had "deteriorated into a mere holiday devoted to idleness and dissipation." It had been reduced to oppressive laws and ceremonies. Luther insisted that the believer was not to be bound by such legalism, and advocated revolt against it. In his Table Talk he says, "If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day's sake---if anywhere anyone sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty."
#15 --- Huldreych (Ulrich) Zwingli (1484 - 1531) --- He taught that worship to God should not be tied down to any one day, for by doing so it "would impose on us a ceremony." John Calvin (1509 - 1564) agreed with Zwingli, saying worship of God was a daily and life-long activity. "Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 8).
#16 --- John Knox (1505 - 1572) --- This reformer agreed with the above two men, but felt observance of Sunday should be maintained as a matter of expediency, "for it afforded rest for the body and an opportunity for united worship of God."
#17 --- The Augsburg Confession --- This was produced by Luther and Malancthon in 1530 A.D. It says in part: "For they that think that the observation of the Lord's Day was appointed by the authority of the Church, instead of the Sabbath, as necessary (unto salvation), are greatly deceived. The Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath. And yet, because it was requisite to appoint a certain day that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears that the Church did for that purpose appoint the Lord's Day."
#18 --- The 2nd Helvetic Confession (1566) --- "Although religion be not tied unto time," yet they felt it expedient to set aside a day (the Lord's day) and "consecrate it to religious exercises and to a holy rest."
#19 --- The Westminster Confession (1643) --- "As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, He hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto Him; which, from the beginning of the world to the Resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and from the Resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord's Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath."
This was the product of English Puritanism. The Puritan teachings also affected other countries. The Parliament of Scotland accepted them, for example, and in 1618 they were incorporated into the Synod of Dort in Holland. Finally, the Puritans brought their strict "Christian Sabbath" to America, where it became the prevailing view for centuries.
The Puritans enacted certain laws ("Blue Laws") to insure the strict observance of Sunday. These laws were even more strict than "those formulated by the ancient Jews to enforce the observance of their sabbath." "The influence of Puritanism on American religious life cannot be overemphasized. The 'Christian Sabbath' of the Puritans, so much a part of their religious life, worked itself into the hearts and minds of the American people, and became a standard of the ideal Sunday of America for many generations."
However, the strict legal, ceremonial, and ritualistic nature of this day has not been without cost. As a result of this harsh legalism, "there has been a manifest decline in church attendance and in any spiritual observance of the day during the present century!" In a report to the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ (in 1917), the following was stated: "While Sunday is being observed as a day of rest, its observance as a day of worship is declining." D.H. Martin wrote (in 1933), "It is fast becoming a day for secular business and amusements, and little is being done to save it."
Such organizations as "The Lord's Day Alliance" have been formed to try and "promote the due observance of Sunday." Their efforts, however, are meeting with little success. By reducing the Lord's Day to a commanded legalistic ritual, and by imposing strict penalties for those who do not comply, we are destroying its worth and effectiveness as originally given by the Lord. "The reaction against the strict observance of Sunday so characteristic of the Puritans has continued, and the observance of the day has continued to become more lax. This neglect of Sunday observance may be correlated with a general decline in spiritual matters. Sunday has become a day of business and recreation, with only an hour or two in the morning set aside for worship, and that only by devout Christians."
SOME THOUGHTS AS TO ITS OBSERVANCE
Jesus Christ regarded the Sabbath as a provision for man's need, and not as a burden to further weigh down the people of God. The Lord's Day should be viewed the same way. The following are given not as commandments, but as suggestions as to how we can derive the greatest benefit from the Lord's day:
#1 --- Let it be a day on which you take advantage of the opportunities to assemble together with other members of the family of God, not only to be personally edified, but also with the goal in mind of encouraging, uplifting, and strengthening your brothers & sisters in Christ.
#2 --- Let it be a day on which you observe the Lord's Supper; commemorating His sacrifice, and celebrating in His victory; a victory which you share "in Him."
#3 --- Let it be a day of praise and prayer. Devote yourself to drawing closer to God "in spirit." Meditate upon His person, nature, love, work, triumph, and grace!
#4 --- Let it be a day of in-depth study into and reflection upon His Word. Set aside some time to really get to know the Scriptures "which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 3:15). Attend and participate in Bible classes.
#5 --- Let it be a day of goodness, mercy, kindness, and love. Set aside the things of this world, and let your mind dwell on the things of the Spirit. Set aside your own desires, and try to meet the needs of others (both spiritually and materially). Devote your actions and attitude to the Lord (see Isaiah 58:13-14 for the principle).
#6 --- Let it become the standard/example of how best to live the other six days of the week! When one allows himself to benefit on the first day, he can't help but be benefited on the other six! "A conscientious regard for the Lord's day is ever followed with spiritual improvement and comfort!"