Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, which means that on a holiday when everything usually shuts down, churches had to decide whether or not they would still assemble. Not everyone came to the same conclusion. Some churches cancelled their services. Some held a Christmas Eve service. Some held normal services just like they do every Sunday. I also observed different reactions from different believers, as some indignantly asked, “Why would we go to church on Christmas?” while others incredulously wondered, “Why wouldn’t we?”
I’m actually grateful for this, because it’s opened the door over these past few weeks for some very important points of discussion: Is there ever an appropriate time to cancel church on Sunday in observance of another holiday? Must services always be held on Sunday? Why do we hold church on Sunday? Is it a binding practice, a preferred practice, or just an optional practice? Is there any real biblical basis for it, or is it simply a man-made date that can be subject to our changing schedules? Although most Christians acknowledge that, yes, we’re generally supposed to go to church on Sunday, I’ve observed over this holiday season that perhaps it’s seen as more of a general guideline than a rule.
I hope to challenge the church on that point. Starting with myself. I was actually in support of moving our Sunday morning service back to Saturday night so that our Christmas calendar would be free. But in hindsight, as I thought and prayed and studied the opinions of older, wiser men in the faith, I believe I was wrong. Having church on Sunday is a biblically ordained practice that deserves our attention and honor, and I’d like to take some time to examine why. And like most areas of theology, we’ve got to start with the beginning:
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)
Sometimes we wrongly assume that the “Sabbath” is only a part of the Mosaic Law. But according to Genesis, the seventh day was set apart as holy right from the start. Indeed, the Ten Commandments (also called “the moral law” or “natural law”) were not invented with the Mosaic covenant. They were instituted from the start, before the Law was even given. The apostle Paul said this natural law is written on the hearts of even the most heathen Gentiles (Rom. 2:14-15). That includes the Sabbath. Certainly there were stipulations for the Sabbath that came with the administration of the Mosaic Law, but it was already stitched into the fabric of creation long before the establishment of Israel or the giving of the Law.
Saturday, the Sabbath, marked the completion of God’s creative work. It was finished, and God rested. Of course God does not get tired, so to say He “rested” simply shows the finality of His work. As an expression of this rest, God called the physical descendants of Abraham under the Mosaic Law to cease from physical labor (Ex. 20:8-11; Mk. 2:27) and dedicate the day to worship, teaching, the reading of God’s word, and fellowship (Ps. 92:1; Ez. 46:1-4; Mk. 6:2; Lk. 4:16; Acts 13:27, 44).
But the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, the “first day of the week” (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1, 19), marked the completion of God’s redemptive work. In the words of Jesus, it is finished (Jn. 19:30), and just as God “rested” upon the completion of His work, Christ sat down at the Father’s right hand upon the completion of His (Heb. 1:3; 10:12). We can now cease trying to earn God’s favor by our works and rest in the work of Christ (Mt. 11:28-29; Heb. 4:1-11). As an expression of this rest, God now invites the spiritual descendants of Abraham to also dedicate the day to worship, teaching, the reading of God’s word, and fellowship, as we’ll see the texts below.
So the Sabbath was originally on Saturday, as a picture of God’s finished creation work. But it is now on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead, as a picture of God’s finished salvific work. The Apostolic Constitutions, written in 390 AD, describe it like this: “Keep the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day festival. The first is the memorial of the creation; the second is the memorial of the resurrection.”
And according to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689: “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 is called the Lord’s day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.” (2LBC, 22.7)
If this is correct, we would expect to see it played out in the New Testament. Do we have any examples of the early church treating “the first day of the week” with such importance? Do we see Christians treating Sunday as a special, set-apart day? The answer is a definitive “yes.”
In Acts 20:7, Luke informs us that it was “on the first day of the week” that the early church “gathered together to break bread” and to receive a sermon. The term “break bread” is a reference to taking communion, and we see earlier in Acts that it was typically accompanied by “teaching”, “fellowship”, and “prayers” (Acts 2:42). So on the first day of the week we see the early church sharing communion, being taught from Scripture, praying together, and fellowshipping with one another. That’s a church service if ever I’ve seen one.
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 16 Paul is addressing “the collection for the saints” (vs. 1), which was the charity taken up for Christians in need. It would be the equivalent of our tithes and offerings today. We should not be surprised to learn that this designated time of giving was also to be “on the first day of the week” (vs. 2), which makes sense, since believers were already assembled on that day to hear Scripture, worship, pray, and take communion.
We also find out a bit more about this day from the first chapter of Revelation, where the apostle John comments that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (vs. 10). This first day of the week came to be known as “the Lord’s day” because it was His day, even as Jesus referred to Himself as “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Lk. 6:5). Of course Jesus is the Lord of every day, but on the day that He rose there is a special prominence given to Him. It’s a highlighted day where believers set aside their affairs from the rest of the week and focus chiefly on the risen Lord. The context of Revelation 1 supports this, as John says that on this Lord’s day he “was in the Spirit.” He was communing with the Lord in a special, set apart way on a special, set apart day.
Of course, both the Sabbath and the Lord’s day are pictures of the true, eternal Sabbath rest awaiting the church (Heb. 4:9), when all Christ’s enemies are finally defeated, His people are gathered into paradise, and He declares once and for all, “It is done!” (Rev. 21:6)
Until then, let us faithfully assemble on the Lord’s day as we rest in His completed work. May we heed God’s command to His people in Old Testament times: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8); and may we honor God’s encouragement to His people in New Testament times: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
Why Sunday? Because what started as a sacred day instituted at creation, and what was observed by the Old Testament church through the Mosaic Law, is now celebrated by the New Testament church across the globe on the first day of every week. As we gather to hear Christ’s word, sing His praise, offer Him prayer, partake in His sacraments, give to His people, and fellowship with His people,we rejoice in His resurrection and the rest we have in Him.
I think, upon weighing what Scripture says, that the questions I asked at the beginning of this post are pretty self-evident. I encourage you, make church a priority. Especially on Sunday. Even when other man-made festivities seem more appealing. May we realize that it is not a burden, but a blessing, and may our hearts echo that of the Psalmist; “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps.84:10).