To say that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” is to ignore and undermine the rationale for the early acceptance and use of the term “The Lord’s Day.”[i] The reason the term “Lord’s Day” arose within the Christian community was quite logically because the first day of the week became as significant as the seventh day of the week, if not more so. What were the first Christians to call the first day of the week since the last day of the week was already called the Sabbath (Matt 28:1)? At this time in history, the days of the week did not have distinct names, with two notable exceptions.[ii] The Graeco-Romans called the first day of the week Sunday or the Sun’s day. The Jews called the seventh day of the week Shabbos or Shabbat. Not until the third century is there any evidence of the naming of the days of the week that we are currently familiar with. In the Greek NT, the phrase “first day of the week” is translated from μια των σαββάτων, or “first of the Sabbath,” but it is properly understood as “first [day] of the week.”[iii] Not content to simply call the first day of the week by its Roman title “Day of the Sun”[iv] or by Jewish custom “first [day] of the week,” Christians came to ascribe their preferred day to assemble by the regal title: the Lord’s Day.[v] The name alone speaks of its superiority over the Sabbath. The Sabbath was about resting, but the Lord’s Day was, well, about the Lord! It was a day to render due praise to God and His Son whom the Father has made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32-36). Faithful Jewish Christians could not help but recall Psalm 118 as they gathered together on the first day of the week to remember the Lord’s sacrifice in their stead (Acts 4:11; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-9). Entering through the “gates” of a home or gathering place they’d sing: “This is the day that the Lord has made.”
Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, And I will praise the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord, Through which the righteous shall enter.
I will praise You, For You have answered me, And have become my salvation.
The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the Lord’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.
Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.
God is the Lord, And He has given us light; Bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise You; You are my God, I will exalt You.
Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.
(Ps 118:19-29, NKJV)
The only justification Jewish Christians had to forgo the Sabbath and go for the Lord’s Day, was the annulment of the Sabbath and the institution of the Lord’s Day by the authority and superiority of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus.
Imagine what it would be like if Christians started calling January 2 “New Year’s Day.” Not only would it be confusing, it would make Christians out to be fools! And what if they waited a thousand years before calling it “the Christian New Year’s Day” in order to distinguish it from the historical New Year’s Day? In the same way, it would have been utterly confusing to refer to both Saturday and Sunday as the “Sabbath,” if indeed the Sabbath was shifted to Sunday. Perhaps one could counter: It was because the Sabbath was shifted, that the confusion ensued and that the term “Lord’s Day” was derived. But this admits that the early Christians didn’t have the wherewithal to simply call it “the Christian Sabbath” until 1500 years later.[vi] After all, this is the preferred term among some church denominations. The early Christians did not call the first day of the week “the new Sabbath” or the “the Christian Sabbath.” This is because they understood that the symbolism of Sabbath-keeping looked toward the redemptive rest that Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, provided by His life, and death, and resurrection.
The old covenant celebrated the Sabbath with regulations affecting work, animals, travel, fire, and temple worship. The Sabbath looked back to the divine rest that was lost due to sin (Ex 20:11).[vii] At the same time, the ritual enactment of the Sabbath symbolized a day when believing mankind could be restored to an abiding relationship with God; but the Sabbath itself could never be the means to realize this. The Sabbath was “a foretaste of the blessedness into which the people of God are at last to enter, the blessedness of the eternal κατεπαυσεν απο των εργων αυτον [rest from our own works].”[viii] The Sabbath—like Canaan, the priesthood, the Mosaic covenant, the temple, and its sacrifices—could not provide what it symbolized (Heb 4:8; 7:11; 8:7; 9:8, 9, 13-14 ). In time, the day that the Sabbath anticipated found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ who embodied and provided redemptive rest. “Come unto me…and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). “For we who have believed have entered into rest” (Heb 4:3). Paul asserted that the Mosaic laws regarding food and drink, festivals, New Moons, and Sabbaths were predictive shadows of Christ (Col 2:16). Christ is the living Head and we live in Him (Col 2:19). Jesus, our Lord, no longer observes dietary laws or keeps Sabbath, therefore we should no longer subject ourselves to regulations that no longer matter (Col 2:20; Heb 9:9-10). With the Sabbath fulfilled in Christ, the seven-day week took on new meaning. The Sabbath represented the terminus of the old creation, but the Lord’s Day represents the first day light of a new creation (Jn 1:4-5; Rom 6:3-5; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 2:5-6; Col 2:9-13).
The earliest Christians, who were Jews by heritage, knew the Sabbath was on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Yet they began to assemble together on Sunday, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:1-2). They already had a religious name for Saturday, and it became imperative to advance a new term for the favored gathering day of Christians. Colson stated the rationale so well.
I see no reason to go outside Christian thought to account for the name Lord’s-day. As we find the Eucharist called by St. Paul the Lord’s Supper (κυριακον δειπνον), and as one of the chief purposes, indeed the chief purpose of the Christian meeting was to celebrate this, nothing seems to me more natural than that the day should also be called κυριακον.[ix]
By the time of the writing of Revelation (90-100 CE), Christians already understood that the first day of the week, or Sunday, was the “Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10). John did not invent the neologism; he was writing to those who were already acclimated to the term. The Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, that God gave to Him, was transmitted to John, the last living apostle (Rev 1:1) on the Lords’ Day (v. 1:10). The day chosen by the Lord for His final disclosure to John is consistent with His other post-resurrection appearances on the first day of the week (Matt 28:9; Lk 24:13-33; Jn 20:11-18; 19-23; 26-29) and the giving of the Holy Spirit on the first day of the week (Acts 2:1-4).[x] “Christians by apostolic tradition worship on Sunday in memory of the risen Lord, and are commanded never to forsake assembling together.”[xi]
An honest examination of Hebrews 10:24-25, taking into account the theme of the whole letter, will lead to the deduction that the faltering Hebrew-Christians were tempted to return to the “safety” of their traditional observation of the Sabbath and other familiar Jewish customs and laws. We cannot suppose that those absenting themselves from Christian assembly preferred nothing over the Lord’s Day or the Sabbath. That is, Jews were not forsaking both Christianity and Judaism—they were choosing either Christianity or Judaism. One could almost argue, from the perspective of a Christian Sabbatarian, that returning to the Sabbath on Saturday couldn’t be that bad. After all, those insecure Jews who professed Christ initially were still getting their 24-hour rest every seven days, not to mention avoiding commerce and recreation. But the apostle of Christ urges them to choose the higher and better road of gathering together instead on the Lord’s Day in respect for the blood of Christ, His bodily resurrection, and His ascension to the right hand of God (Heb 10:26-29). The abstention from work on the Sabbath (i.e., rest) is a shadow cast from the Lord Jesus Himself (Col 2:16; Heb 4:3), who proclaimed to be the true and abiding rest that mankind yearns for (Matt 11:28-10). Look to the substance of Christ who provides true rest—not to the mere shadow of rest.
“Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8), and after the completion of His work, He also rested on the Sabbath. But He rose again on the Sunday; and through His resurrection, which is the pledge to the world of the fruits of His redeeming work, He has made this day the κυριακὴ ἡμέρα (Lord’s Day) for His Church, to be observed by it till the Captain of its salvation shall return.”[xii]
Therefore, the Lord’s Day is not a replacement, repositioned, or remodeled Sabbath, but a new experience of a different order, which is all the more reason to continue steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine, the fellowship of the saints, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). Jesus accomplished much to bring Jews and Gentiles together as one body (Eph 2:11-18) on the first day of the week to remember Him. This could not have happened had He not abolished the law with its commandments and regulations (Eph 2:14-16; Col 2:20). He finished His great work of redemption on the cross and then rested in the grave over the Sabbath, thus fulfilling both the creation type and the Sabbath type. The Sabbath of His death is in the past; we now exult in the fact of His resurrected life on the Lord’s Day. This is why the first day of the week took on such a laudatory title. What name for our weekly day of worship could be better? The term “Christian Sabbath” boasts of the church’s ownership of the day and magnifies a shadow-command of the former covenant. Who in their right mind would prefer this instead of “the Lord’s Day?”[xiii]
[i] A search through the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers finds few references to meetings of the church. The earliest document reference is in the Didache (c. 100 CE) which urges the faithful to gather together on “the Lord’s own day.” The Epistle of Barnabas (c.100 CE) mentions “keeping the eighth day” in honor of the resurrection. Ignatius is more explicit, stating the non-observance of the Sabbath, but instead keeping the Lord’s Day “on which also our life has sprung up again.” Justin Martyr (c. 150 CE) describes the practice of Christians gathering weekly on Sunday to read Scriptures, for on the first day God created light and Jesus rose from the dead. Of course, there is no mention of a Christian Sabbath. The Post-Nicene Fathers mention the Lord’s Day about 480 times and Sunday about 150 times. Again, there is no mention of a Christian Sabbath.
[ii] Colson notes that Justin Martyr (c. 150 CE) mentions the “day of Saturn” and “day of the Sun.” As the pagan names for the days of the week became popularized from the third century on, the influence of Christianity made its impact on the calendar as well. In Southern and Eastern Europe Saturday is called Sabbata, and Sunday is called Domingo (or words to that effect) indicating the core belief that the Sunday was the Lord’s Day and Sabbath remained on Saturday.
[iii] Other possible translations are “at the dawning on the first (day) of the seven” or “day one of the Sabbaths.”
[iv] Christians were accused of Sun worship by their pagan peers, simply because they gathered together on Sunday.
[v] There were several Jewish calendar laws that referred to the day after the Sabbath (Lev 23:11, 15, 16, 36, 39; 25:22) or the day following a seven-period (Ex 22:30; Lev 12:3; 14:10, 23; 15:14, 29; 22:27; Num 6:10). So if the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, then the first day of the new week could also be understood as the eighth day. In the Epistle of Barnabas (Ch 15) the day of Christian assembly is described as taking place on the “eighth day” because the Lord was weary of Israel’s Sabbaths (Isa 1:13).
[vi] We have our own modern day example with the holiday season Kwanza. The holiday was devised in 1966 for the African-American community as an “oppositional alternative” to Christmas, but nowadays it stands side-by-side with Christmas and Hanukkah. It has already been called, rather inappropriately, a “Black Christmas” or “Black Hanukkah.” Two points come from this: 1) a new holiday deserves its own name, and 2) if a novel cultural expression of a holiday arises, it is immediately distinguished from the former holiday with a preceding adjective (i.e., “Black”). Christians gathering together on Sunday in view of their belief that Jesus was the Messiah and that He rose from the dead on the first day of the week was a new thing and it deserved a new name. It was not based on the Sabbath, otherwise it would have been called the “Christian Sabbath” early in its development.
[vii] In the same way that God blessed the solitary seventh day of creation, God is now blessing the recurring seventh day of Jewish sabbatism. Their observance of the Sabbath does not make the day holy; God chooses to declare the day holy because of what it symbolizes. Even if the Jews observed it perfectly, it would not recapture what Adam and Eve lost. Sadly, the Jews believe that if they did observe it perfectly even once, then the Lord would return. Like the sacrificial system, this is a repetitive ceremony that cannot effect what it symbolizes. Furthermore, the Sabbath is ordained in remembrance of their physical deliverance from Egypt (Deut 5:15). Both their deliverance and the Sabbath are types. The reality is objectified in the Lord who gives both spiritual rest and spiritual redemption. In summary: 1) God declared every seventh day to be holy because He so blessed His seventh day of rest, and 2) God commanded the Israelites to keep the Sabbath according to His prescription because He rescued them from Egypt.
[viii] Keil and Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol 1, p. 399.
[ix] Colson, F. H. The Week, p. 125. (Italics in the original)
[x] A variety of post-resurrection appearances appear in the gospel narratives and Paul provides a summary of such, including even himself while on the road to Damascus (1 Cor 15:3-8).
[xi] O’Hare, T. The Sabbath Complete, p. 243. Apostolic tradition is jure divino.
[xii] Keil and Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol 1, p. 400.
[xiii] To the Christian Sabbatarian: The early Jewish Christians gave up their comfortable Sabbath observance and the acceptance of their Jewish community to assemble with Gentiles on the Lord’s Day in the belief that Jesus was the Messiah who was raised from the dead. That’s quite a paradigm shift! As Kaplan said, “Jewish law treats one who does not keep the Sabbath as one who abandons Judaism for another religion” (Sabbath Day of Eternity, p. 7). But you can’t stop calling the Lord’s Day by the misnomer “Christian Sabbath?”