Why do Christian churches meet and worship on Sunday? After all, doesn’t the fourth commandment clearly say “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God?” So is Sunday worship just a Christian tradition? Did we not want to get mistaken for Jews? Or perhaps there was a church council that met to decide the day should be moved?
Well no, none of those is the reason that Sunday became the day upon which Christians worship. Sunday worship was not fixed by a church council and as William Perkins points out, “The church, has no power to ordain a Sabbath.” The only authority who can tell us when to worship is the true head of the church, Jesus Christ, and He has done that in His word.
So together let’s take a look at the example of worship in the Apostolic church that we read about in Acts 20:
“But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days. Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, “Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.” Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted.” (NKJV Acts 20:6-12)
Here Paul sails with Luke, the author of Acts, to Troas, a church which he had planted, and stays for 7 days. Now Paul was there on Saturday, but that is not when Luke tells us the church worshiped. Saturday was not their customary day for worship. When was the day when the disciples came together to worship? We read the answer in verse 7, it was first day of the week, and the first day of the week is NOT Monday, the first day of the week is Sunday. That is when they had their corporate worship including the Lord’s Supper (hence the reference to the breaking of bread) and preaching, and a very long sermon. But why had they made that change?
They had made the change because it was on the first day of the week that Jesus Christ forever set that day apart from all the others by rising from the dead. From that point onwards Sunday became a memorial to the turning point in the history of redemption. The Sabbath day from the beginning was the Seventh Day, and hearkened back to the Creation. The original Sabbath pointed to God’s creating work, but the Christian Sabbath points us to God’s redeeming work. It marks the great transition in the bible from redemption promised to redemption accomplished.
As RC Sproul put it – “In Christian history the sacred time of the Sabbath has three distinct orientations. The first is the commemoration of God’s work of creation. The second is the celebration of God’s work of redemption. The third is the celebration of the future promise of the consummation of redemption when we enter our Sabbath rest in heaven. Thus the whole scope of redemptive history, from start to finish, is made sacred in the observance of the Sabbath.”
Jesus also marked that day by appearing to his disciples after his resurrection on successive Sundays in John 20:19 and John 20:26 and it was why they called that day the Lord’s Day as John did in Revelation 1:10 – “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet”
All the references in early Christian writings also make reference to Christian worship being held on the Lord’s Day, for instance the Didache – which dates back to either the late 1st or early 2nd century states, “Chapter 14. Christian Assembly on the Lord’s Day. But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
Ignatius, the celebrated martyred bishop of Antioch, says, in his epistle to the Magnesians, written somewhere between 107-116 AD, that this is “the Lord’s day, the day consecrated to the resurrection the queen and chief of all the days.”
Justin Martyr, who died about A. D. 160 says that the Christians “neither celebrated the Jewish festivals, nor observed their Sabbaths, nor practiced circumcision.” And in another place, wrote that “they, both those who lived in the city and those who lived in the country, were all accustomed to meet on the day which is denominated Sunday, for the reading of the Scriptures, prayer, exhortation and communion. The assembly met on Sunday, because this is the first day on which God, having changed the darkness and the elements, created the world; and because Jesus our Lord on this day rose from the dead.”