Sabbaths and Sundays
We live in times when the distinctive character of the Lord’s Day as we know it is being rapidly eroded. Inexorable inroads are now being made by commerce, sport and entertainment on what was once a day of quietness and rest from secular activity. What would have been shocking fifty years ago on a Sunday is now accepted as normal. It is quite obvious to any perceptive mind that the Lord’s Day, at least as observed by the British nation, is sliding rapidly into oblivion. It will soon be indistinguishable from the other days of the week.
Some Christians have gone with this trend on the grounds of wishing to demonstrate their liberty, citing Gal. 4: 9–11: “how do ye turn again to the weak and beggarly principles to which ye desire to be again anew in bondage? Ye observe days and months and times and years. I am afraid of you, lest indeed I have laboured in vain as to you”. It is their view that the believer in Christ should not observe any day, and thus they make a point of treating Sunday no differently from the rest of the week. In this respect they are like the man of Rom. 14: 5 who “esteems every day [alike]”, (and who, incidentally, Paul does not condemn). Other Christians hold to the opposite extreme, namely that the Christian Lord’s Day is invested with all that belonged to the Jewish Sabbath. Indeed they refer to it as the ‘Christian Sabbath’ or even as just ‘The Sabbath’. Modern developments in Sunday practice they find deeply alarming, and they earnestly strive to resist what they see as attacks on the sanctity of the Lord’s Day. To all this, the question must be asked ‘What says the Scripture?’ It is no good appealing to tradition and history, or to the views of religious leaders and self–styled ‘men of God’. Our textbook throughout must be the Word of God.
The first fact that ought to be admitted by honest hearts is that Scripture nowhere says that the Lord’s Day is synonymous with the first day of the week, or indeed even that it was observed on a weekly basis! In saying this I am not trying to undermine what is widely held, but only to point out the necessary distinction that must be made between that which is unquestionably Scriptural, and that which, while it may be right, does not have direct Scriptural support. This will save us taking dogmatic stands on positions that are indefensible. The phrase “the Lord’s Day” occurs just once in Scripture––the day on which the apostle John became in the Spirit and saw the vision recorded in the book of Revelation (Rev: 1: 10). Some have tried to equate the Lord’s Day with the ‘day of the Lord’, that is to say that John entered in spirit into that future day. This is not sound reasoning, for whilst he was “in [the] Spirit on the Lord’s day” his attention is drawn to “the things that are” (v19)––the current state of the seven churches. It is nonsensical to say that John was transported into the day of the Lord only to look back at the scene he had just left! Even “the things that are about to be after these” (v19), which take up the bulk of Revelation, largely refers to events preceding the day of the Lord. Why John should be taken into a future day to look at events before that day does not make any kind of sense.
What is clear is that the Lord’s Day is not the Sabbath. When the Word of God refers to the Sabbath, it calls it ”the Sabbath”. I can think of no good reason why the name of the seventh day should be changed to the Lord’s Day in Revelation, particularly when the Revelation is largely based on the Scriptures that came before it. Is the first day of the week the Lord’s Day then? The most truthful answer, speaking Scripturally, is that we cannot be sure. Having said that, there remains no other candidate. The Lord’s Day is not a known Jewish holy day, (like Pentecost for example), and we can hardly imagine that John was referring to any special pagan day, particularly one called the Lord’s Day! It would seem likely that he would be referring to a day particularly marked out by Christians. For the remainder of this article then we shall use the terms ‘Lord’s Day’ and the ‘first day of the week’ interchangeably.
Now it is very clear that we will not be able to conduct ourselves properly on the Lord’s Day if we do not understand the character of the day in the first place. Many Christians, as already indicated, regard Sunday as the Sabbath and behave accordingly, despite the fact that Scripture never attributes such a title to the first day of the week. Nonetheless it is a popular view and must be considered. As an idea it depends on two things without which it surely falls to the ground. Firstly, it must be proven that the Sabbath is not simply a Jewish ordinance, but was given to the whole of mankind, since the Church is formed of both Jews and Gentiles. Secondly, it must be shown that the day of the Sabbath has been changed from the last day to the first day of the week.
The argument that the Sabbath was given to all men is based on Gen. 2: 1–3: “And the heavens and the earth and all their host were finished. And God had finished on the seventh day his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it, because that on it he rested from all his work which God had created in making it”. It is said, as a result, that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance (like marriage), and hence binding on mankind in general. This is to read into Scripture what is not there. In the passage before us we read that God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, but we do not read that man was commanded to observe the Sabbath. Indeed there is no intimation in the Word of God that men ever did observe a Sabbath until Israel came out of Egypt. We read of prayer, of sacrifice, of marriage, and of circumcision, but the Scriptures are absolutely silent as to the Sabbath until the time of Moses. (Indeed, Genesis 2 itself was written by Moses, and it may be that the fact that God rested on the seventh day was first revealed to Moses). Those who allege that the Sabbath was kept before the Mosaic Law laid down that it should be kept, ought to explain why Moses the man of God led the children of Israel on a Sabbath–breaking journey (see Ex. 16: 29; Acts 1: 12) seven days previous to the first ‘Mosaic’ Sabbath––the distance from Elim to the wilderness of sin (Ex. 16: 1) being over twenty miles.
The Sabbath is distinctly said to be given to the children of Israel as a sign (Ex. 31: 17; Ez. 20: 12). It is never said to be given to Gentiles. Much has been made of the Lord’s statement that the Sabbath was made on account of man (Mark 2: 27), but the word for ‘man’ there can be equally applied in the sense of being limited to Israel, as it can for the whole of mankind (‘man’ is used in that limited way over 300 times in the OT, for example Jer. 7: 20). That man was ignorant of the Sabbath prior to Moses is demonstrated conclusively by Neh. 9: 14 where the following statement is made about Israel: “And thou madest known unto them thy holy sabbath”. The sensible conclusion is that the Sabbath is a Jewish ordinance, given to Israel by Moses (Ex. 16: 29). It was not given to all mankind, and until it is, we have no business in imposing it on ourselves and others.
What then of the claim that the Sabbath has been moved from the last day of the week to the first? Is there any evidence for this? We hear a lot of talk from some about why the day had to be changed, but are not given a shred of evidence showing that it has changed. Surely if there is Scriptural authority, then nothing could be easier than to produce it. Ex. 31: 14–15 fixes the Sabbath as being on the seventh day. We read of nothing subsequent to show that it has changed days, in fact quite the contrary. Take one remarkable passage as proof: “And the sabbath being [now] past, Mary of Magdala, and Mary the [mother] of James, and Salome, bought aromatic spices that they might come and embalm him. And very early on the first [day] of the week they come to the sepulchre, the sun having risen” (Mark 16: 1, 2). Evidently two distinct days! Some have pointed out that there were Sabbaths on days other than Saturday (for example Ex. 12: 16). This proves nothing. Apart from the fact that these variations from the normal depended entirely on there being a specific authorisation from Scripture, the fact is that the regular weekly Sabbath (which is the only posssible parallel with the Christian Sunday) was always the last day of a week of seven. There is nothing to suggest it ever varied from this. Furthermore, if the professing church quotes the fourth commandment in defence of keeping the Sabbath then it is evident that in almost every case the law is entirely set aside. The word is “Remember the sabbath day to hallow it. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the sabbath of Jehovah thy God: thou shalt not do any work”. (Ex. 20: 8–10). On other feast days, servile work was permitted (see Lev. 23: 6–8 for example), but on the Sabbath day the ban was complete and absolute. Never in the Scriptures are we given any indication that the law of the Sabbath has been amended to suit the present day. We may think it necessary to wash the dishes and drive our cars, but the law is stern and absolute. It will not lower its standard to suit our convenience. Law is law, and if we are under law we are bound to keep it or else be cursed (Deut. 27: 26). Indeed, as regards the Sabbath the Law goes further: “whoever doeth work on the sabbath day shall certainly be put to death” (Ex. 31: 15). Those who hold Sunday as the Sabbath ought at least to walk in accordance with the divine law of the Sabbath!
Having looked at the character of the Sabbath, and found it inapplicable to the Christian, it only remains to examine the character of the first day of the week. That there is something distinctive about the first day is evident from the undue prominence it has in the record of the NT (the weekdays, by contrast, are not mentioned).
The first fact of significance is contained in Mark 16: 9: “Now when he had risen very early, the first [day] of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala”. The first day of the week then is marked out as the one in which Christ was revealed as risen from the dead. After being seen by his disciples during forty days (see Acts 1: 3), the Lord ascended into heaven. The disciples then waited another ten days (making fifty in all, or seven weeks and one day) taking them to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 1). Now according to Leviticus 23 the counting of the fifty days to Pentecost began “the morning after the sabbath” (v15) and went on “even unto the morning after the seventh sabbath” (v16), thus showing that the day of Pentecost was the first day of the week. The second fact of significance then is that the Holy Spirit descended from heaven on that day. Now in John 20, like in Mark, we have the risen Lord first meeting Mary of Magdala, and it specifically tells us that it was the first day of the week (v1). If we move on to v19, the apostle seems to lay great stress on the fact that when the Lord appeared in the midst of His assembled disciples, it was again the first day of the week. If this is significant, and it surely is, then this is the third fact of consequence, namely that the first day of the week is characterised by the presence of the risen Lord in the midst of His own. The next mention of the first day of the week is in Acts 20, where the saints were “assembled to break bread” (v7). Now breaking bread does not necessarily refer to the Lord’s Supper (see Acts 27: 35), but the context here strongly suggests it. There seems no good reason why the Spirit of God should record the fact that the saints had assembled simply to eat! Thus the fourth fact of significance in regard to the first day of the week is that it was the day on which the Lord’s Supper was habitually observed. I know that in Acts 2: 46, the disciples broke bread “every day”, but this was very early on in the history of the Church. As the Church grew and spread, it may not have been possible to assemble every day, and so possibly it became the custom to come together to break bread once a week on the Sunday. In Acts 20, Paul “spent seven days” (v6) at Troas. Since he departed “on the morrow” (v7) after the first day of the week, that is Monday, it would seem he had arrived the previous Monday. Would it be stretching things to far to say that he stopped at Troas until he could take the Lord’s Supper with the saints there? The last and fifth fact of significance is contained in 1 Corinthians 16, where the first day of the week is directly connected to the collections for the saints: “On [the] first of [the] week let each of you put by at home, laying up [in] whatever [degree] he may have prospered” (v2).
This then is the character of the first day of the week as revealed by the Spirit of God in Scripture. There is nothing about a Gospel preaching at half past six, or ’Sunday lunch’, or not doing any work! Indeed, in the Roman world, it is likely that the saints worked seven days a week, and were only free in the evenings. (Christian slaves definitely so). In the passage already alluded to in Acts 20, the saints broke bread in the evening. Of course we should be thankful if we do not have to work on the Lord’s Day, and we certainly should not seek to work on that day, but having to work does not make it any less the Lord’s Day. People may retort by saying “Oh its not like a normal Lord’s Day”, but what do they mean? Only that it differs from their concept of the Lord’s Day! According to Scripture, the first day of the week should remind us that the Lord is risen, and that the Holy Spirit has come, and is the day on which we should seek to assemble together to break bread and enjoy the Lord’s presence and also to think of the needs of others.
Now while there is nothing in Scripture to forbid working on the Lord’s Day, our attitude to that day may well be the straw which shows how the wind blows. The man who deliberately flouts the Lord’s Day for material gain, flouts the Lordship of Christ. In 1 Cor. 11: 20 we get the expression “[the] Lord’s Supper”. Can anyone question the meaning of this? Is it not clearly the Lord’s Supper in contradistinction to everyone eating his own supper in verse 21? Now when the day is spoken of, precisely the same word is used––the Lord’s day. It is peculiarly His day, and His supper––a day and a supper which He claims are His. Neither the supper nor the day are common. Shall we then treat them as common? What would we think of a man who held that he could treat the Lord’s Supper as his own? Any pious heart would recoil at such a thought! What then about the Lord’s Day? Many think that as long as they go to the Lord’s Supper in the morning, then they are free to spend the remainder of the day as they please. I ask is this devoting the day to Him? Is it giving the Lord the honour which is His due? It is very sad to think that a true Christian should be found taking common ground with the ungodly, the profane and the pleasure–hunting multitude in desecrating the Lord’s Day. I do not say that it is a day of rest like the Sabbath and that we should do nothing, but instead that it is a day on which we should be active for Him. Why? Because it is His day!