The Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath (Shorter Catechism Q.59)

1710_largeHave you ever wondered why Christians now worship on Sundays (the first day of the week) rather than Saturdays (the seventh day)? Why Sunday?

No doubt there are a great many believers who gather for worship regularly on Sundays (sometimes twice!), without seeing any relation of this practice to either the 4th commandment itself or any explicit statement in the New Testament. Still others may indeed gather with the Lord’s people for worship every Sunday, but view the choice of that particular day as somewhat arbitrary, perhaps chosen at some point by an authority figure or council early on in the history of the church.

Having established in the previous question (Q.58) that the basic requirement of the 4th commandment is that we keep holy to God one day in seven “to be a holy Sabbath to himself,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism now turns our attention to the question that naturally follows – which day of the seven has God appointed? Shorter Catechism Q.59 puts it this way:

Q.59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath? A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Note the dividing line between the Old Testament and New Testament observance of the Sabbath – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead on “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1) – a Sunday. And so the reason for the change in observance of the Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to the first day is, in a sense, eschatological in nature. It is a weekly testimony to both the truth and the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You could say that every Sunday (not just Easter Sunday) is resurrection Sunday. Every time the church gathers for public worship on Sunday (whether we realize it or not), we are in some way testifying to the truth of the resurrection, which Paul says is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Now is there a verse or passage in the New Testament that explicitly settles this issue for us? No, not if what you are looking for is a simple proof text. There is no verse that says something like, “Thou shalt now remember the first day of the week, to keep it holy.” Nowhere does the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament author come right out and say, “Of course the Christian Sabbath is now the first day of the week rather than the seventh day.” That would sure make much things simpler, wouldn’t it?

So then where do we get the idea that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath? From both Scripture and church history. In his book, Call the Sabbath a Delight, Walter Chantry points out:

“It became the habit of Christians to meet for worship on the first day of the week. This was firmly established in the apostolic era” (p.83).

Notice that he states that this was “firmly established.” It became a settled issue for the church. And how early was this the case? Chantry explicitly points us to “the apostolic era.” In other words, the church gathering together for public worship on Sundays was basically a settled issue in the early church, while the apostles themselves (at least some of them) were still with us.

How do we know this to be the case? There are a number of passages in the New Testament that are helpful here. First, there is Acts 20:7, where we read the following:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” (ESV)

What day was it when the church was gathered together for worship? Sunday. Why does Luke mention that it was “on the first day of the week”? His readers would have understood the implication. The context here is public worship. The breaking of bread was almost certainly the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and Paul’s “speech” was a sermon, and a rather long sermon at that!

In addition to that passage, we also see something similar in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, where Paul writes,

“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

When did the church gather together? And when was this “collection for the saints” (a relief fund of sorts) to be put aside and stored up? Not just on the first day of the week, but “on the first day of every week” (v.2)! Every week. The church in Corinth met for worship every Sunday.

Lastly, in Revelation 1:10-11 we read the following:

“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”” (ESV)

What day was it? John identifies it as “the Lord’s day” (v.10). So as early as the first century A.D. Sunday was already being referred to as “the Lord’s Day.” Even in his exile on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John marked the time and the days Sunday by Sunday. The Lord’s day was meaningful to him, and the revelation that we now have in the book by that same name was given to John for the sake of the church on the Lord’s day!

May we learn by God’s grace to consider the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day a delight!

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