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The opening vision of the book of Revelation matches its last. In the first, John hears a loud voice commanding him to write what he sees, and he beholds the risen and glorious Lord Jesus, standing in the midst of His churches (1:10–20). The final vision is the descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Again John hears a loud voice: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:1–3). Here, too, the presence of the Lord with His church is the focus. This is not only this book’s, but the whole Bible’s, consummation—Immanuel, “God with us.”

The opening chapter of Revelation is not just a vision of the Lord; it is also a vision of the Lord’s Day (1:10). This is the first known use of this term in reference to the first day of the week. Though this term occurs only here in the New Testament, the early church fathers leave no doubt that this is a reference to the day we call Sunday, which they observed as a memorial to the Lord’s resurrection. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the day is called by its Jewish name, literally translated “the first of the Sabbath” (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). English translations commonly use “week” in the phrase, but behind it stands the Greek word sabbaton, which simply translates the Hebrew word for “Sabbath” (shabbat). The significance of this will appear below.

Very early in the history of the church, the first day of the week became the day when Christians gathered for worship. Possibly this practice began on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, for it was then that our resurrected Lord first met with His disciples and “stood among them” (Luke 24:36ff.). John’s gospel likewise reports that “he came and stood among them,” with special emphasis placed upon the identification of the day—“on the evening of that day, the first day of the week” (20:19). The next dated meeting of the Lord with His disciples was “eight days later,” when Jesus again “came and stood among them” (v. 26). This was the following Sunday by Jewish inclusive counting (see “the third day”; Luke 24:7; 21, 46). In Acts 20:7, Luke reports that the church in Troas gathered together on “the first of the Sabbath” to break bread. His wording suggests that this was their regular practice. Paul had arrived there seven days earlier, and though he was hastening to make Jerusalem by the day of Pentecost (v. 16), he stayed at Troas seven days, apparently to be there “on the first day of the week, when [they] were gathered together to break bread” (v. 7).

The worship of the Sabbath day peels back the illusion created by this fallen world and shows us that God is on high forever.

The significance of this reference could easily be missed by English readers. We are so accustomed to the organization of time by weeks that we might assume it has always been so, and it was among the Jews. But it was not among the gentiles. The New Testament does not even have a Greek word for it, but uses the Jewish word for “Sabbath,” with the day succeeding it called “the first of the Sabbath.” The planetary week that we know only later became standard across the Roman Empire. Thus, in Acts 20:7, as also in Paul’s instructions to the churches of Galatia and Corinth mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:2, we must remember that all these churches were in gentile territory, where “week” was not a standard measure of time. Yet the Apostle to the gentiles has evidently organized these churches according to a seven-day cycle, with emphasis falling on “the first of the Sabbath” rather than the seventh day that was called the “Sabbath.” While in 1 Corinthians 16:2 there is no mention of the church’s meeting together on this day, it would be very odd for Paul to specify this day for setting apart gifts for the church of Jerusalem unless there was something in their life together as Christians that pointed to this day rather than another for such a demonstration of “the communion of saints.” It is not as if they were paid on a weekly basis on “the first of the Sabbath,” for the weekly calendar had not yet become commonplace.

Paul would certainly not be one to impose a purely Jewish ceremony upon gentile churches, so the seven-day cycle must have had more enduring authority than the other festivals instituted at Sinai (Lev. 23). Paul indeed faults the Galatians for observing “days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10), which, along with circumcision, were Jewish ceremonies imposed on them by false teachers (5:2–6; so also Acts 15:1). No doubt, a similar imposition is behind Paul’s warning to the Colossians not to let anyone be their judge “in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). Yet, along with these strong rejections of the Jewish ceremonies, Paul instructs the Galatians and Corinthians to “put something aside and store it up” on “the first day of every week” (1 Cor. 16:2). Clearly, something greater than Moses was here. The weekly Sabbath of the Jews was not a ceremony first instituted at Sinai. It was a creation ordinance given at the beginning of the world for all people (Gen. 2:1–3). Our Lord indicated as much when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27)—it was not just for the Jew.

The Sabbath day was lost to the world sometime after the fall, but it was reclaimed for Israel at the time of the exodus (Ex. 16) and incorporated in the covenant God made with them at Sinai (20:8–11). Indeed, it became the sign of that covenant, to be observed throughout their generations, as a covenant forever (31:12–17). It became a day of “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:1–3) with special sacrifices appointed for its celebration (Num. 28:1–10). Ever the memorial of God’s creation of heaven and earth (Ex. 20:8–11; 31:17; Lev. 24:8), Moses also made it a memorial to Israel’s redemption from Egypt (Deut. 5:12–15). “Rest” was the principal idea connected with its observance, but this rest was not merely ceasing from labor. It was also a holy convocation at the house of Yahweh, the symbol and focus of His living presence among them in both the tabernacle (Ex. 25:8) and its successor, the temple (2 Chron. 6:18). The Sabbath also pointed forward to the everlasting rest that would come at the consummation (Heb. 3:7–4:10).

Psalm 92 is “A Song for the Sabbath,” and it celebrates the great blessing this day offers to the people of God. Its opening verses speak of the goodness and joy of worshiping in His presence (vv. 1–4), and its concluding verses speak of the flourishing that comes to those who are thus planted in the house and courts of our God (vv. 12–15). The pinnacle of this neatly balanced song is verse 8: “But you, O Lord, are on high forever.” It is the only single line in the psalm, and it occurs at its very center. Above and below this pivotal verse, the overthrow of the wicked (vv. 5–7) and the exaltation of the righteous (vv. 9–11) are rehearsed. Sabbath rest and worship thus offer an oasis for the weary and heavy-laden people of God, who live in a world where the wicked often flourish and the righteous often suffer. The worship of the Sabbath day peels back the illusion created by this fallen world and shows us that God is on high forever, and therefore the true outcome of all things will be just as He has promised—everlasting rest will come to the people of God. The Sabbath day thus anticipates the consummated kingdom, bringing into time the blessings of eternity and bringing down to earth the joys of heaven.

The New Testament does not do away with this appointed means of grace but transfers it to a new day. While Paul authoritatively abolishes the duty of seventh-day worship (Rom. 14:1–6; Gal. 4:8–11; Col. 2:16–23), he at the same time organizes churches around “the first of the Sabbath” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), which by the time of John’s Revelation was known as the Lord’s Day. Like the Sabbath day that preceded it in the Old Testament, it is the day above all days when the New Testament people of God are joined in holy convocation, hearing God’s Word read aloud and expounded, and breaking bread with one another (Acts 20:7). It is the day above all days when the Lord is present with His people, standing in the midst of them, enthroned upon their praises (Ps. 22:3), as they sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) and offer their prayers to Him (1 Tim. 2:1).

John Eliot (1604–90) was an early American Puritan pastor and missionary to Native American people. Eliot was a diligent keeper of the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. In a sermon heard by Cotton Mather and taken down in notes, Eliot preached that those who were zealous for and zealous on the Lord’s Day would thereby spend one-seventh of their life on earth in heaven. While they lived on earth, they would be no stranger to heaven, and when they died heaven would be no strange place to them. No, indeed, for they will have been there a thousand times before.

The Apostle John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when he saw the Lord standing among His churches, again speaking words of hope and assurance. The Lord Jesus still reveals Himself to His churches when they gather to worship Him in spirit and in truth. The Lord’s Day has especially been appointed for this purpose and it is rich with blessing. As the Puritan David Clarkson observed, “So that the presence of God, which, enjoyed in private, is but a stream, in public becomes a river that makes glad the city of God.”


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From the September 2018 Issue
Sep 2018 Issue