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Evangelical Christians will often point out Jesus’ opposition to the legalism of the way the Pharisees observed the Sabbath. Less attention, however, is sometimes given to the way that Jesus actually kept the Sabbath in the Gospels. He taught in synagogues on that day (Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 6:6; 13:10). These are concrete instances of the habitual practice that we are told about in Luke 4:16: “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.”
We certainly need to be mindful of the limitations of asking the question, What would Jesus do? Jesus does many things uniquely and unrepeatably as the Messiah (including dying for the sins of His people). But the question is not completely illegitimate. We are to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). We should then ask this question. And when we ask it, one of the many answers the Bible gives to us is this: Jesus would go to church on the Sabbath.
Israel’s week was punctuated by gathering in holy convocation on the Sabbath in obedience to God’s command (Lev. 23:3). Christ structured the rhythm of the weeks of His own life according to this pattern of corporate worship. It is wholly unsurprising, then, to find that the early church followed suit.
The New Testament contains wide-ranging evidence that the first Christians assembled regularly for worship (Acts 11:26; 13:1–2; 1 Cor. 11:18–22; 14:19; Heb. 10:25; James 2:2–7). The question is, When?
It is interesting that there is no explicit example in the New Testament of Christian Jews’ and gentiles’ gathering together for worship on the Jewish Sabbath. It is certainly not impossible that they would have assembled on varying days throughout the week. Yet there is evidence in the Bible that there was a special day of corporate worship for Jewish and gentile Christians.
In Acts 20, Luke tells a story of Paul’s preaching what seems to be an interminably long sermon and a poor sleepy fellow named Eutychus dozes off and falls out a third-story window to his death. Good thing for Eutychus, Paul had the authority to raise him from the dead.
What might be easy to overlook is the timing of this spectacular episode. Luke tells us that it happened “on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). The fact that he specifies the day of the week is unusual. Furthermore, his wording implies that such a gathering was a standing practice.
Apart from when the Apostles did something on the Sabbath, this is the only other instance in Acts when we are told the specific day of the week that an event happens. There is clearly something notable about the fact that this gathering of the church for Word and sacrament in Troas happened on the first day of the week.
In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul instructs the church to gather a diaconal collection for Jerusalem on the first day of the week. In Revelation, we are told that John received his visions on a specific day of the week (Rev. 1:10). But here that day is given a very pregnant name: “the Lord’s day.” John is employing verbiage that the early church after the New Testament used specifically for the first day of the week.
“The Lord’s day” was common parlance for the first day of the week. It appears in one of the earliest non-Scriptural Christian documents, the Didache, which instructed Christians to assemble on that day and to break bread. The early second-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “Let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week].”
Early Christians worshiped on Sunday, and it is clear from Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation that this practice began during the days of the Apostles. But why this shift in the weekly holy convocation of God’s people? It does not take doctoral credentials in New Testament studies to make the connection that the first day of the week also happens to be the day on which Christ rose from the dead.
The resurrection is central to salvation. Through it we have been born again (1 Peter 1:3), justified (Rom. 4:25), and sanctified (Rom. 6:4–14), and in it we expect the completion of our adoption (Rom. 8:23). Without the resurrection we are pitiful, hopeless, and trapped in our sin (1 Cor. 15:17–18). Christ’s conquest of death is a foundation without which the whole edifice of the gospel comes crumbling down. But with it the hope of our salvation is an unassailable fortress that even death cannot breach. The day of resurrection is the day of new creation.
The Sabbath of the Old Testament explicitly commemorated two things. It commemorated the completion of God’s creation (Ex. 20:8–11) and His deliverance of Israel in the exodus (Deut. 5:12–15). Why would we not expect it to be the instinct of Christians to gather in holy convocation now on the day when God completed His new creation and the deliverance of His people in the greater and final exodus?
The early church spoke of the Lord’s Day as “the eighth day,” knowing that it was a day that looked to the future when God would bring salvation to its consummation. And that is what we do in corporate worship on the first day of the week.
When we gather week after week with God’s people on the Lord’s Day, it ingrains in our hearts the hope that one day we will join our voices with the assembly of the angels, the four living creatures, and the innumerable multitude of God’s people, shaking the heavens with the thunderous chorus, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13).
Resting in worship with the church on the Lord’s Day structures our work and our lives in recognition that one day our King will be enthroned with all things under His feet, and we will enter His rest eternally.