The Day of Christian Worship
Although the vast majority of those claiming Christianity regard Sunday, the first day of the week, as the day authorized in the New Testament for the church to assemble in worship, there are voices of opposition claiming the Sabbath day (Saturday) remains binding on Christians. It is not the intent of this article to refute the claims made by sabbatarians concerning why they believe the Sabbath law should continue to be honored. Herein we aspire to recognize the authority of the apostles of Jesus Christ, determining what the New Testament teaches concerning the established practice of the church under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit through the apostles.
The apostles of Christ were called, commissioned, and provided with the necessary credentials to authenticate their revelation of the gospel to the world. The gospel they preached and confirmed through the demonstration of miraculous power by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4) is the truth which guides the church of Jesus Christ in all ages. One of the great contrasts between Moses and Christ was made apparent by the apostle John who candidly stated, “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The Old Testament law (from Sinai) came through Moses and was effective in achieving the purpose for which it was given (see Galatians 3:15–4:31), but only Christ could provide the necessary salvation of grace and the full revelation of truth required for human redemption. No one has ever seen the unapproachable spirit essence of God (cf. 1 Timothy 6:16), but “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained” (John 1:1 ). Christ, who is the Word who was with God, and was God (John 1:1), became flesh that men might know the glory of God (John 1:14).
On the mountain of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36), Peter, James,and John were privileged with a view of the glory of God. While Jesus was praying, He was suddenly transfigured into glowing brilliance like the sun. His clothing gleamed white as light, even glistening – whiter than any launderer could have made them (Mark 9:3) – and two men appeared,Moses and Elijah, talking with Christ about His departure (i.e. death – His spirit departing His body) that He would accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). In great excitement and indubitable wonderment, Peter proposed building three tabernacles in honor of the three distinguished individuals present.
However, an earth shaking lesson was impending for the three disciples of Christ and obedient observers of the Law of Moses. Before Peter could finish speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed the three disciples and God spoke definitively as to whom these Jewish brethren were to follow, saying, “This is My beloved Son [“My Chosen One” Luke 9:35],in whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5). The divine nature of Christ’s deity was on full display, and the glory which belonged to Him was to be shared by none – not by Moses or Elijah, nor even by Mary or any other “saint.” The transfiguration of Christ and the announcement by God provided indisputable evidence that Christ was more than any mere man.
The disciples fell on their faces in awe, and when Christ drew near to encourage them, they lifted their eyes to discover Jesus alone. The incomparable incident on the mountain deeply impacted these men. Peter and John both referenced the majestic event in their writings (2 Peter 1:16ff; John 1:14). The sacred experience emphasized (a) the deity of Christ; (b) His divine authority, far exceeding that of Moses and the prophets; (c) the essentiality of listening to the authority of Christ alone. The removal of Moses and Elijah from the mountain was symbolic of the removal of the Old Covenant authority.
This explains why Christ ordered His disciples, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:9). The Old Covenant that was given to Moses and exhorted by Elijah remained in effect until Christ died on the cross (cf. Colossians 2:14). It would have been premature for the disciples to begin reporting the termination of the Old Covenant while men were still living under its precepts. The death and resurrection of Christ would become the basis of the New Covenant. Without His death, it was not possible to inaugurate the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:16f), but devoid of the resurrection, Christ would be viewed as every other dead man placed into the grave (cf. Romans 1:1-4). A vital link exists between the death of Christ and His resurrection.
The Resurrection Appoints the Day of Christian Assembly
The tomb of Christ was found empty on the first day of the week (Mark 16:2-9). Beginning with the first visitors that Sunday morning, Christ made personal appearances to His disciples over the course of forty days (Acts 1:1-3). Ten of His chosen apostles were together that particular Sunday evening (Judas excluded and Thomas absent). Despite the fact that the doors were locked, Christ presented Himself to the disciples who were gathered together (John 20:19). The presence of Christ within the assembly of these men on resurrection Sunday left an indelible impression upon them.
After informing Thomas of the event (John 20:24-25), the apostles (including Thomas) assembled together on the following Sunday and again the Lord presented Himself to them (John 20:26). Robertson says this passage “seems to mean that from the very start the disciples began to meet on the first (or eighth) day” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, 5.336). That a pattern of assembly every Sunday had developed with the apostles is attested by Acts 2:1 which states “And when the day of Pentecost was being fulfilled, they were all together in one place.”
The day of Pentecost always occurred on Sunday (Leviticus 23:15-16), thus the apostles were assembled again on the first day of the week almost two months after the resurrection of Christ. The church had its beginning on this particular first day of the week as Christ began reigning over His kingdom, gathering men from all nations, tribes, and peoples who would become His servants (cf. Daniel 7:13-14; Isaiah 2:2-3). Three thousand obeyed the gospel preached by the apostles on that first day of the week, ushering in the age of the New Covenant that was specifically prophesied by Jeremiah (31:31-34; cf. Hebrews 8:7-13). It is impossible to deny that Sunday, the first day of the week, was observed by the apostles of Christ as a day of assembly, initiating on the actual day of the resurrection and continuing every Sunday thereafter.
The Church Assembled for Worship on Sunday
Those becoming Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The active imperfect tense of the verb in the original indicates a sustained practice of these activities. The pertinent question of interest is: “When did the original church assemble for worship in accordance with the apostles’ teaching?” Although not revealed in the form of a “command text,” the New Testament does provide the answer to this significant question.
Near the conclusion of his third missionary tour, Paul departed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread. He was hurriedly making his way to Jerusalem, intending to arrive by the day of Pentecost less than two months away. In spite of the fact that time was fleeting and a journey of several hundred miles of land travel remained, Paul and Luke (notice the “we” in Acts 20:6), along with seven other men, “stayed seven days” in the city of Troas.
Why this delay in view of his urgent goal to reach Jerusalem? The most plausible answer lies in the continuation of the narrative. Of the seven days spent waiting in Troas, the activity of only one day appears in the divine record: “And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day” (Acts 20:7). The delay of seven days indicates Paul arrived in Troas on the preceding Monday, and desiring to meet with the church in that city before continuing his journey, he and his companions “stayed seven days” until the church assembled again on “the first day of the week.”
The primary design of the meeting on the first day of the week was “to break bread,” and all but sabbatarians understand this as a reference to eating the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17ff). The phrase “to break bread” in the Greek reflects an infinitive of purpose, meaning the primary reason for the assembly on the first day of the week was to observe the supper. From this inspired account, the conclusion is irresistible that the church in Troas was accustomed to assembling for worship every Sunday.
A few late Greek manuscripts – reflected by the reading in the King James Version – simply state that “when the disciples came together,” but the earliest extant Greek texts consistently read “when we were gathered together”– revealing Luke’s inclusion of himself in this assembly. But the difference in terminology is even more profound, for the phrase “were gathered together” is in passive voice form, signifying “to bring or call together, gather a number of persons” (Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 790).
The passive voice indicates the assembly was not conducted under the call of any of those attending, but was convened by an extraneous directive! The most plausible explanation for the passive voice form is that the assembly on the first day of the week to break bread came from divine authority. Sunday worship was not an arbitrary practice or decision of the apostles or the first-century church. Their actions were based upon the revelation of gospel truth delivered and confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
Another notable aspect of this passage is the spiritual connection shown to exist between the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day, i.e., the day of resurrection. The church assembled on the first day of the week – recalling the resurrection – for the primary purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper – recalling the death of Christ. Participating in the Supper on a day other than the first day of the week severs the vital link that exists between the death and resurrection of Christ. Historian Everett Ferguson noted, “The Lord’s supper was a constant feature of the Sunday service. There is no second-century evidence for the celebration of a daily eucharist” (1971, Early Christians Speak, 96).
The only authoritative case that can be made for the frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper is that the Bible clearly demonstrates a pattern of Christians meeting together on the first day of every week, and according to Acts 20:7, the prime purpose was, the breaking of bread. There is, however, additional evidence to reveal that the early church did assemble every Lord’s Day. In his first address to the Corinthians, Paul commanded these Christians to contribute their monetary offerings into the treasury of the church “on the first day of every week” (16:1-2, NASB).
While the term “every” is not brought into the English by the KJV, the Greek distributive preposition kata indicates succession, e.g. “every year” (Luke 2:41), “every day” (Luke 16:19), “every city” (Acts 15:21), “every church” (Acts 14:23). Vine says kata gives “the sense of‘every’” (1996, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 210). The Christian is to contribute into the treasury of the church every Sunday with respect to how he has personally prospered.
The teaching of the apostle with respect to giving on the first day of the week certainly reflects a situation in which the church was customarily meeting on this day. The internal evidence of the Scriptures leads irresistibly to the following:
1) The early church, under the oversight of the inspired apostles, assembled regularly on the first day of the week.
2) The primary purpose of the Sunday assembly was to observe the Lord’s Supper.
3) In addition to the Supper, other acts of worship were ordered and regulated: (a) Giving (1 Corinthians 16:1-2); (b) Praying (Acts 2:42; I Corinthians 14:14-17); (c) Singing (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19); (d) Teaching/Preaching (Acts 20:7-11; 1 Timothy 4:13).
External Evidence of Christian Worship on Sunday
Although Christian authority comes from the Bible alone, dispute has arisen by some groups who claim the Sabbath day of the Mosaic Law remains binding upon Christians today. Their error lies in a failure to discern the difference between the Old and New Covenants, but in order to unmistakably discern the truth of Christian practices, we turn to early post-apostolic literature. While these writings are uninspired (in contrast to the New Testament), they nonetheless indicate the practice and worship activities of the church following the apostolic age.
If the sabbatarian argument has any merit, historical documentation should be readily available that reflects the practice of Christians keeping the Sabbath as a day of worship in post-apostolic times. This same method of evaluation is also used to prove that instrumental music was not included in the primitive church worship. Not only is instrumental music conspicuously absent in the teaching of the apostles, but history provides absolute proof that instruments were excluded from Christian worship until the seventh or eighth century.
Consider the historical evidence concerning the day of worship for Christians
The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 75-120 A.D.) represents one of the earliest non-inspired writings. Speaking on behalf of Christians, it records, “We keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested, ascended into the heavens” (15:9). Although the Jews kept the seventh day; Christians observed the eighth day (first day of the week).
Another ancient writing concerning early Christianity is called the Didache (c. 60-120 A.D.). It reads: “But on the Lord’s day after that ye have assembled together, break bread and give thanks, having in addition confessed your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure” (7:14:1). The meaning of the term “Lord’s day” is debated by those proposing the Sabbath to be the Lord’s day, but a preponderance of evidence and unity among the extant writings of the Patristic Fathers will prove that the term “Lord’s day” is a reference to the day of Christ’s resurrection.
A letter from Ignatius to the Magnesians (c. 105-115 A.D.) states: “…no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death” (9).
Plinius Secundus (a.k.a. – Pliny the Younger), Governor of Bythynia, wrote a letter to the Roman emperor, Trajan (c. 112 A.D.), addressing the arrest and capital punishment of Christians. The letter states: “In the meantime, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were in fact Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to perform any wicked deed, never to commit fraud, theft, or adulteration, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called to make it good; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but of an ordinary and innocent kind” (Epistle X, 96).
What was the certain “fixed day” on which Christians assembled for worship? The overwhelming evidence agrees with the following: “Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly…Jesus Christ on the same day arose from the dead” (Justin Martyr, Apology, 1. 67, c. 150 A.D.).
The same writer also penned this description: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together in one place. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president teaches and urges us to imitate these good things. Then we all rise together and pray. When our prayer is ended, bread, wine and water are brought, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen” (Apology, Part II).
A brief excerpt by Clement of Alexandria (c. 194 A.D.) identifies the term “Lord’s day” as a reference to the day of resurrection, not the Jewish Sabbath. Clement described the one who “keeps the Lord’s day” as “glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in himself” (Ante-Nicene Fathers II, 545).
Near the end of the second-century, Tertullian discussed at length the variance between Christians, Jews, and Pagans, noting the days each observed for worship. Concerning the practice of Christians, he noted, “By us, to whom Sabbaths are strange…” He continues by addressing the observance of the Pagans, that they kept “Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even if they had known them, would they have shared with us…for to the heathens each festive day occurs but once annually: you [Christians] have a festive day every eighth day”(ANF III, 70).
In discussing the Jewish Sabbath, Tertullian states, “It follows,accordingly, that, insofar as the abolition of carnal circumcision and of the old law is demonstrated as having been consummated at its specific times, so also the observance of the Sabbath is demonstrated to have been temporary…But the Jews are sure to say, that ever since this precept was given through Moses,the observance has been binding; manifest accordingly it is, that the precept was not eternal nor spiritual, but temporary, which would one day end” (ANF III, 155).
These ancient writings from both Christians and the enemies of Christianity clearly relate that the early church observed Sunday (the eighth day) as the Lord’s Day on which a sacred assembly was conducted with acts of worship consisting of singing, praying, reading the Scriptures and teaching, giving an offering of sacrifice, and eating the Lord’s Supper. These five acts are identical to the acts of worship performed by the church in the New Testament under the guidance of the inspired apostles.
Church Historians Speak
Church historians have poured over the extant witnesses of the first, second and third centuries. One of the earlier church historians was Eusebius Pamphilus (c. 324 A.D.). In describing the activities of the most primitive Christians, he reports, “They did not, therefore, regard circumcision, nor observe the Sabbath, neither do we abstain from certain foods, nor regard other injunctions which Moses subsequently delivered to be observed in types and symbols, because such things do not belong to Christians” (The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, 14).
Noted church historian Phillip Schaff concluded, “The universal and uncontradicted Sunday observance in the second century can only be explained by the fact that it had its roots in the apostolic practice” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, 478-479).
John Mosheim’s studies led to the same conclusion: “All Christians were unanimous in setting apart the first day of the week, on which the Savior arose from the dead, for the solemn celebration of public worship” (Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, 35).
The New Testament provides all the evidence needed to instruct the Christian who is honest, sincere, and respectful of inspired, written authority. The additional testimony from history refutes those who are less respectful of divine revelation, proving that the doctrine of the apostles was practiced continually by the unadulterated church of the second century. If the assembly of the church were you attend does not reflect the order of worship observed by the church you read about in the New Testament, can you be absolutely certain that Christ is not calling you to repent (cf. Revelation 2:5) and to begin worshipping according to the apostles’ teaching?
The church established by Christ is the one that faithfully meets every first day of the week in order to preserve and honor the spiritual priority belonging to the Lord’s death and His subsequent resurrection. When either of these elements is dismissed as unimportant, the entire Christian faith begins to crumble into oblivion. In lieu of the great departure among those identifying themselves as “Christians” with regard to observing the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, it becomes obvious why Christ asked the question, “…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8 ).
The command issued by Paul – “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Corinthians 13:5) – still rings true today. How does your faith compare with the faith of the early Christians? Have you obeyed the apostles’ teaching concerning how one becomes a Christian? Have you faithfully worshipped in accordance with the New Testament pattern, neither adding to the apostles’ teaching nor taking away from their teaching? If not, we implore you today to return to the doctrine that established the church and that was persisted in by those seeking to worship God in spirit and in truth.