Why We Worship on Sunday

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With a handful of exceptions, Christians are overwhelmingly united in their willingness to worship God on the first day of the week. After all, we have been doing this for two thousand years, and we are rarely questioned about it. Why not just go with the flow? The answer to that question is that we should want to be deliberate Christians in everything we offer up to God. We never want to be guilty of the “will worship” that Paul condemns in Col. 2:23. We are constrained to offer to God what He requires of us, and not anything else. So why do we worship on the first day of the week? Why didn’t the Church retain the seventh-day Sabbath of the Jews?

The Text

“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:1–2).

Summary of the Text

Paul is reminding the Corinthians about his directives for how they are to gather up the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. He is doing with them just as he did with the saints in churches throughout Galatia (v. 1). The Corinthians were to take up their collection in same fashion as did the Galatians. But how was that? The first thing to note is that Paul was authoritatively requiring them to do it in a particular way. On the first day of the week, everyone was to set aside a particular amount, as God had blessed him. This had to have been a collection at church because otherwise the problem that Paul was trying to avoid (“no gatherings when I come”) would not have been avoided at all. But the thing about this passage that should interest us is how Paul describes Sunday. Many modern translations simply say “first day of the week,” but this is misleading. The phrase literally is mian sabbatou—“first [day] Sabbath.”

What Is the Word for Week?

In Greek, the usual word for week is hebdomas. The common rendering of mian sabbatou as “first day of the week” appears to be taking “sabbath” as a synecdoche, taking the part for the whole—as in, “many hands make light work.” But this seems strained to me, especially considering the fact that the gospel writers appear to be using the phrase to point to something really significant about the importance of the resurrection.

Here are some literal renderings [Kayser]: “Now after the Sabbath, as the first [day] Sabbath began to dawn” (Matt. 28:1). “Now when the Sabbath was past . . .  very early in the morning, on the first [day] Sabbath, they came to the tomb” (Mark 16:1-2, 9). “Now on the first [day] Sabbath, at early dawn, they came to the tomb” (Luke 24:1). “Now on the first [day] Sabbath Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early” (John 20:1).

We worship God the Father in the authority of the resurrected Son in the power of His Spirit, and we do this on the first day of the week. And yet, a very common greeting that we use is happy Sabbath, and we call our preparatory meals Sabbath meals. This is no extension from our systematic theology. The New Testament repeatedly calls the first day of the week a Sabbath. It is God’s way of marking how He made all things new in the resurrection of Christ (Rev. 1:10; 21:5). Sunday really is a Sabbath.

And So Christ Rested

Read through Hebrews 4 very carefully. We should take care not to fail to enter God’s rest in the way the Israelites in the wilderness failed to enter it. Faith is the way to enter (Heb. 4:1-3). God’s works were finished at the foundation of the world, and then He rested. But then, centuries after that, He said that faithless ones would never enter His rest, in just the same way that faithless Israelites had not entered His rest (vv. 3-5). This means that coming into His rest is still an open invitation—“it remains for some to enter.” So God in His mercy has again appointed a certain day, calling it Today. Do not harden your hearts as His voice comes to you Today (vv. 6-7). If Joshua had accomplished this through the invasion of Canaan, God would never have spoken of another day after that in the Psalms (v. 8). And this is why . . .

“There remaineth therefore a rest (sabbatismos) to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.”

Hebrews 4:9–10 (KJV)

Who is being referred to here with the pronouns of v. 10? It cannot be referring to some discouraged Pharisee, finally giving up on his vain works, and then entering into a holy rest. That is nothing at all like God creating the world and then resting—and that is the explicit comparison that is made. So what is like that? Just as God created the world in six days and then rested, so also Christ recreated heaven and earth in three days and nights, and then He entered His rest. And that is why Christians still have a sabbath-rest, which is on our first-day Sabbath.

Let us therefore labor to enter into that resurrection-rest (v. 11). Let us not fail to enter into resurrection-Sunday rest the way the Jews fell short in the wilderness. Why is that? The eighth day, the first day of the week, the first day Sabbath, is the glorious Today. Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.  

From the Beginning

The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100 AD) says this: “You see how he says, ‘The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the Sabbath which I have made in which, when I have rested from all things, I will make the beginning of the eighth day which is the beginning of another world.’ Wherefore we Christians keep the eighth day for joy, on which also Jesus arose from the dead.”

In the first giving of the Ten Commandments, the reason for sabbath observance was the creation of the world in six days and rest on the seventh (Ex. 20:11). In the second giving of the Ten Commandments, the reason given has been changed. It was now because of the Exodus from Egypt (Dt. 5:15). In the third giving of the Ten Commandments, we are reminded that the resurrection of Christ changed absolutely everything (Rom. 13:9-10; 14:9). This is because Christ is all. Christ is our creation-rest. Christ is our Exodus-rest. Christ is our resurrection-rest. And this means that Christ is the foundation stone for every successive first-day Sabbath.

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