The Lord's Day

LORD’s DAY, THE (ἡ κυριακὴ ἡμέρα, the Lord’s day, the day belonging to the Lord). The expression is found in the Bible only in Revelation 1:10, where John states that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” when he received a divine commission to write the Book of Revelation. The adjective kyriakos, however, also occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:20 in the expression, “the Lord’s supper.” As will be shown, “the Lord’s day” is used frequently in other early Christian writings to designate Sunday, the first day of the week, observed from the time of the apostles as a day of Christian worship.

Outline

The origin of the Christian Sunday

Many people believe that the origin of the Christian Sunday is identical with the origin of the Heb. sabbath, and that the sabbath was changed either by Jesus Himself or by His apostles from the seventh to the first day of the week (Wilbur F. Crafts, The Sabbath for Man, p. 376; R. L. Dabney, The Christian Sabbath, pp. 6-8; J. P. Hutchison, Our Obligations to the Day of Rest and Worship, p. 100). This belief has persisted even though no passage of Scripture can be found that teaches that the Heb. sabbath has been transferred from one day of the week to another.

The origin of the Christian Sunday is not as simple as those who hold this view would have us believe. The change from sabbath to Sunday was gradual. Millgram describes it as follows:

The change from the Sabbath to Sunday was the result of a long historic process which is tied up with the formative years of Christianity. This process coincided with the drift of early Christianity from a messianic movement among the Jews to a religion of the Gentiles. When Christianity was predominantly Jewish, the Sabbath was the official Christian day of rest and worship. When Christianity finally became predominantly Gentile, the Sabbath was abandoned and Sunday became the official day of rest and worship. This change was not sudden. It was a slow process of more than three centuries’ duration (A. E. Millgram, Sabbath: The Day of Delight, p. 364).

In this process, which took place when Christianity was emerging from the confinement of Judaism, it was inevitable that Judaism should contribute a great deal to a Christian institution such as Sunday. At this time also Christianity was entering into conflict with paganism, which, esp. in later ages, made its influence felt on the institutions of Christianity. At the same time, as the distinction between Christianity and Judaism, and between Christianity and paganism came to be realized, it was certain that the observance of Sunday would contain some elements of a distinctively Christian character.

The contribution of Judaism.

Christianity stands in debt to Judaism in at least three regards: (1) Judaism gave to Christianity its sacred Scriptures; (2) Judaism provided in the synagogue service a pattern for Christian worship; and (3) Judaism presented in the Heb. sabbath an example of a weekly day of rest and worship.

The Jewish Scriptures.


The Jewish synagogue.


The general arrangement of the synagogue was followed in the Christian meeting places. The sexes were separated and the leader took his place on a raised platform in the center at one end of the building (A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. II, pp. 434-439; Paul Cotton, From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 91, 95). The order of worship, including the reading of the Scriptures, the singing of psalms, the preaching of a sermon, and the offering of prayers, was much the same in the Jewish synagogue and the Christian assembly. The Christian practice of reading the Scriptures consecutively week by week was borrowed from Judaism. Even the Christian postures in prayer were borrowed from the Jews. The close parallels between the features of worship in the Jewish synagogue and the Christian assembly become all the more significant when it is remembered that Sunday was the weekly day for Christian worship just as the sabbath was the weekly day for Jewish worship.

The Jewish sabbath.

The sabbath held a distinctive place in the life of the Jewish nation. The religious rites of the Jews centered about this one day. The early Christians had been reared in the traditions of Judaism. It was natural that many of these traditions should be retained and incorporated in the life of Christianity. Jews who had been accustomed to observe the sabbath by resting from their ordinary labors and by worshiping in the synagogue would find it very difficult not to maintain the custom of observing a weekly day of rest and worship.

At first, Jewish Christians apparently observed both the seventh and the first day of the week. Later, however, when the Christian Church became more Gentile in character, and when it was realized that Christianity was distinct from Judaism, the great majority of Christians observed only the first day of the week, but they transferred to it many of the features of the earlier institution which had held such an important place in the heritage they had received from Judaism.

The character of the Jewish sabbath was imitated in the Christian Sunday. Like the sabbath, Sunday was regarded as a day of joy and festivity, and fasting was forbidden (P. Cotton, From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 92, 93). The sabbath began and closed with appropriate celebrations. Similarly, the early Christians met on Sunday early in the morning, and again in the evening to worship and to take food together (cf. esp. the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan, H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, pp. 4, 5).

The sabbath was, to the Jew, a memorial of the creation of the world, a weekly reminder of God’s rest after the six days of creation and of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egyp. slavery (Gen 2:3; Exod 20:11; Deut 5:15). To the Christian, Sunday was a memorial of Christ’s resurrection, a weekly reminder of the work of Christ and of His redemption from the bondage of sin. The most prominent feature of the Heb. sabbath was rest from all kinds of work. Although this feature of the Jewish sacred day was the last to be carried over into the Christian Sunday, as early as the beginning of the 3rd cent. there are indications that Christians abstained from work on the Lord’s day (Tertullian, On Prayer, ch. 23, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 689).

The fact that Sunday became a weekly day of rest and worship for the Christians (as opposed to a monthly or yearly observance) can be explained only by the weekly recurrence of the Jewish sabbath. The Christian Sunday, both in its initial and more developed form, owed much to the Jewish sabbath.

The influence of paganism.

Paganism exerted little influence on early Christianity. Christianity took root not in the soil of paganism, but of Judaism. Judaism and Christianity alike stood in marked contrast to the ethics and ideals of the pagan world. In three respects, however, paganism influenced the origin and development of the Christian Sunday: (1) it gave to the Christian institution the name by which it is most commonly called; (2) it promoted the observance of Sunday by its adoption of the seven-day week; and (3) it prepared for the adoption of Sunday as the official weekly religious day by the prominence accorded to Sunday in the pagan religions.

The name “Sunday.”

This name for the first day of the week originated from the naming of the days of the week by the ancient Babylonians after the sun, moon, and five planets that were then known (R. J. Floody, Scientific Basis of Sabbath and Sunday, p. 3; W. Rordorf, Sunday, pp. 24, 25). Sunday was named in honor of the sun or the god of the sun. Although both Jews and Christians avoided the use of this pagan name in the 1st cent. of the Christian era, Christians began to use the name as early as the 2nd cent. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 67, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 186).

The adoption of the seven-day week.

Although the Jews had observed a seven-day week for many centuries and there is some evidence that a seven-day planetary week was observed by the Babylonians, there is no conclusive evidence that such a week existed among the Romans until the 1st Christian cent. The Rom. historian, Dio Cassius, writing at the beginning of the 3rd cent., states that (1) the planetary week originated in Egypt; (2) it was of relatively recent date; and (3) it had by his time spread everywhere (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 37:18, 19; Willy Rordorf, Sunday, p. 27; Rordorf also cites evidence from Pompeii). It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Christians to have observed a weekly day of rest and worship, if the Rom. empire had not adopted the seven-day week.

The prominence of Sunday in pagan religions.

One of the numerous Oriental religions which became popular in the Rom. empire at the beginning of the Christian era, esp. among the Rom. soldiers, was Mithraism, a religion that was imported from Persia. Mithra was the god of the sun. Consequently, Mithraism regarded Sunday as a sacred day. The veneration of this day by the adherents of this pagan religion no doubt contributed to the selection of Sunday by the Emperor Constantine as the imperial rest day. His edict, issued in the year 321, ordered all judges, city people and craftsmen to rest on “the venerable day of the sun” (H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 26). Although the prominence given to Sunday in Mithraism and in other pagan cults did contribute to the acceptance of that day by the pagans as a national rest day, it did not account for the observance of the first day of the week as a day of worship by the early Christians.

The use of the name “Sunday,” the adoption of the seven-day week, and the association of Sunday with pagan religions all helped to make the observance of the Lord’s day more acceptable to the pagans, but in no way did paganism produce or modify the essential character of the Christian institution.

The distinctive Christian elements

Consciousness of a distinction from Judaism.

The Christian Sunday, although manifesting a number of features borrowed from the sabbath of Judaism, nevertheless was from the beginning a distinctive Christian institution. The first day of the week was observed because it was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus, denied by Judaism, was foundational to the Christian movement. It was inevitable that Christians, even those who were Jews by race, would come to sense an essential difference between Christianity and Judaism. This consciousness of a distinction from Judaism demanded a separate day for worship.


The supernatural designation of Sunday.


If the crucifixion of Christ took place on Friday, as is traditionally held, then Pentecost also occurred on Sunday that year. This Jewish festival received its name from the fact that it took place fifty days after the Passover. The latter was observed annually on the fifteenth of Nisan (A. E. Millgram, Sabbath: The Day of Delight, p. 339). Since the Jews were commanded to count the fifty days “from the morrow after the sabbath...to the morrow after the seventh sabbath” (Lev 23:15, 16), and since the fifteenth day of Nisan, which was the first day of the feast of unleavened bread (23:6), was considered a sabbath, the feast of Pentecost would occur on Sunday only when this special sabbath coincided with the regular weekly sabbath. (The use of the plural form of “sabbaths” in Matt 28:1 seems to support this view.) If Pentecost did occur on Sunday that year, then the outpouring of the Holy Spirit also occurred on the Lord’s day (Acts 2:1-4).

These supernatural events, the resurrection of Christ, His appearances to His disciples, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, would serve to mark the first day of the week as a special day for the Christian. Jesus, when questioned about His authority, quoted an OT passage: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps 118:22, 23; Matt 21:42). Peter, in his address before the Jewish Sanhedrin, quoted part of the same passage and applied it to the resurrection of Christ (Acts 4:11). Athanasius, in the 4th cent., added the succeeding v. and applied it to the resurrection day: “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24; Athanasius, Commentary on Psalm 118, cited in J. A. Hessey, Sunday: Its Origin, History, and Present Obligation, p. 69).

The history of the Christian Sunday in the Early Church

The Apostolic Period, A.D. 29-100.

The NT is the only source of information concerning the observance of Sunday in the apostolic period, and it has little to say about it. This may be because its observance only gradually displaced that of the Jewish sabbath and did not become prevalent until the close of the apostolic period. There are, however, three unmistakable references in the NT to the Christian observance of Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:1, 2; Rev 1:10).

Paul’s command to the Corinthian church.


Paul’s visit at Troas.

Paul’s visit at Troas, recorded in Acts 20:5-12, took place about two years after the writing of 1 Corinthians, as the apostle was on his way to Jerusalem, bearing the contributions of the Gentile churches to the poverty-stricken Christians in the Jewish capital. Paul and his companions arrived at Troas after the close of the feast of unleavened bread and remained there for seven days (Acts 20:6). On Sunday evening the church gathered “to break bread” and Paul gave a farewell address to them which lasted until midnight (20:7). After the miraculous resuscitation of Eutychus, Paul broke bread with them and continued to converse with the believers until daybreak (20:8-11).


Some have held that the service described in Acts 20:7-12 was on Saturday, rather than Sunday, evening (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. III, pp. 338, 339). However, since Troas was a Gentile community, it is quite prob. that Sunday evening is meant. This becomes almost certain when the expression used here is compared with its use in John 20:19, where “the first day of the week” cannot possibly refer to Saturday evening, but must refer to Sunday evening. Thus this passage provides a connecting link between the first meeting of Jesus with His disciples on the evening of the resurrection day (John 20:19-23; Luke 24:36-43) and the established custom of the church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries of assembling together for worship on the first day of the week. It is significant that the meeting of Jesus with the disciples on the first Lord’s day, the meeting of Paul with the disciples at Troas, and the meeting of the disciples in succeeding generations, each took place on Sunday evening; each was observed by the breaking of bread; and each was characterized by a discourse on the holy Scriptures.

John’s vision on Patmos.

The first vision of the Book of Revelation, written during the latter part of the reign of Nero (c. 66) or of the reign of Domitian (c. 95), was given to John “on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10). Although some have argued that this is merely an alternative designation for “the day of the Lord,” used repeatedly in the OT and NT for the day of judgment (cf. A. Deissmann, Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol. III, p. 2815; F. J. A. Hort, The Apocalypse of St. John, p. 13), most scholars conclude that it is a reference to Sunday (H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, p. 13; R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, Vol. I, p. 23). This conclusion is established by the frequent use of “the Lord’s day” in early non-canonical Christian writings (e.g. Didaché 14:1; Ignatius, Magnesians 9:1; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:12; Tertullian, On Idolatry, ch. 14) to refer to Sunday.

It is remarkable that John received this vision of the risen Lord on the day that had become hallowed by the Resurrection of Christ and His appearances to His disciples. As John fell before the “living one,” who “died” but was “alive for evermore” (Rev 1:18), he became an example for all those who, in succeeding generations, kept the Lord’s day as the day of the week sacred to the memory of that same risen, living Christ.

The Ante-Nicene Period, A.D. 100-321

From Ignatius to Irenaeus.

Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, and the bishop of Antioch, wrote to the Magnesians in the early years of the 2nd cent., describing Christians with a Jewish background as those who “have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death” (Magnesians 9:1-3).

The Didaché, a manual of Christian worship written during the first quarter of the 2nd cent., contains the following instructions regarding worship on the Lord’s day: “But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure” (14:1).

In the pseudonymous Epistle of Barnabas, written in the early part of the 2nd cent., the author interprets certain OT passages (Gen 2:2, 3; Ps 90:4; Isa 1:13) to mean that God will bring the present world to an end at the conclusion of six days of a thousand years, each by ushering in the seventh day, or thousand years, of rest at Christ’s Second Coming, after which God will make a beginning of another world on the eighth day. The writer then concludes: “Wherefore we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day on which Jesus rose again from the dead” (Barnabas 15:9).

Pliny, the Rom. governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan around 112, in which he asked for an imperial ruling with regard to the treatment of Christians against whom accusations had been made. He says: “But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed” (H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, pp. 4, 5). Although Pliny does not state that the appointed day for the Christians’ accustomed meeting was Sunday, his description of its observance is so accurate that it is certain that it was the Lord’s day.

Justin Martyr, around the middle of the 2nd cent., describes the order of worship in the Christian assembly “on the day called Sunday.” It included the reading of the Scriptures, a sermon, prayers, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and an offering. Justin then proceeds to give two reasons why Christians assemble for worship on Sunday: (1) because it was the day on which God began His work of creation; and (2) because it was the day on which Jesus Christ rose from the dead (First Apology, ch. 67). In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin explains why Christians do not observe the Jewish sabbath by asserting that true sabbath observance under the new covenant consisting of turning from sin (ch. 19). Later he states that the command to circumcise children on the eighth day “was a type of the true circumcision, by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath, our Lord Jesus Christ” (ch. 41).

Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth, in a letter to the church of Rome, a.d. 170, writes: “Today we have passed the Lord’s holy day, in which we have read your epistle” (Eusebius, Church History, IV, 23:11).

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, a.d. 178, wrote to the bishop of Rome with regard to the controversial question whether Easter should be celebrated on Sunday. He says: “The mystery of the Lord’s resurrection may not be celebrated on any other day than the Lord’s day” (Eusebius, Church History, Bk. V, ch. 24).

These testimonies show that throughout the 2nd cent. Sunday was observed as a day of Christian worship in commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ. There is no indication that Sunday was observed during this time as a day of rest or that its observance was in any way connected with the observance of the Jewish sabbath.


Clement of Alexandria, at the close of the 2nd cent. and the beginning of the 3rd, was the first of the patristic writers to apply the spiritualizing method of Alexandria in support of the observance of Sunday. A passing reference in Plato’s Republic to an eighth day is interpreted to mean that Plato spoke prophetically of the Lord’s day (The Stromata, V, 14). Later on in the same work, he speaks of a Christian as a true Gnostic: “He, in fulfillment of the precept, according to the Gospel, keeps the Lord’s day, when he abandons an evil disposition, and assumes that of a Gnostic, glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in himself” (VII, 12). In thus spiritualizing both Sunday and the Sabbath, he implies that the Lord’s day bears some analogy to the Heb. sabbath.

Tertullian, the great apologist of the first quarter of the 3rd cent., in writing to Christians, insisted that “We have nothing to do with sabbaths or the other Jewish festivals, much less with those of the heathen. We have our own solemnities, the Lord’s day, for instance, and Pentecost” (On Idolatry, ch. 14). In writing to pagans, however, Tertullian contrasts the Christian observance of Sunday with the pagan rites connected with the worship of the sun, and suggests that there is a resemblance between the Christian observance of Sunday and the Jewish observance of Saturday as a day of rest (Ad Nationes, Bk. I, ch. 13). His most famous statement is found in another work addressed to Christians, where he says: “We, on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every office of solicitude, deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil” (De Oratione, ch. 23). Tertullian, then, was the first Christian writer to urge the cessation of labor on Sunday. He did not, however, base it on the sabbath command, but on the need to preserve the Lord’s day as a day of worship.

Origen, Clement’s successor in the school of Alexandria, lived during the first half of the 3rd cent. Like his predecessor, he gave a spiritual interpretation to the observance of Sunday. In his famous defense of Christianity, he writes: “If it be objected to us on this subject that we ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days, as for example the Lord’s day...I have to answer that to the perfect Christian, who is ever in his thoughts, words, and deeds serving his natural Lord, God the Word, all his days are the Lord’s, and he is always keeping the Lord’s day” (Against Celsus, ch. 22). In spite of Origen’s idealistic interpretation, he does bear witness to the Christian observance of the Lord’s day.

The Syr. document of the Didascalia Apostolorum, or The Teaching of the Apostles, prob. written in the second half of the 3rd cent., affirms that the Lord’s day was appointed by the apostles as a day of Christian worship. The statement reads: “The Apostles further appointed: On the first day of the week let there be service, and the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and the oblation: because on the first day of the week our Lord rose from the dead, and on the first day of the week He ascended up to heaven, and on the first day of the week He will appear at last with the angels of heaven” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VIII, p. 668).

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, in a synodical epistle from the third council of Carthage, a.d. 253, speaks of the Jewish practice of circumcision on the eighth day as prefiguring the Christian observance of the Lord’s day. He says: “Because the eighth day...was to be that on which the Lord should rise again...and give us circumcision of the spirit, the eighth day...the Lord’s day, went before in the figure” (Epistle 64:4).

Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, bears witness to the observance of Sunday at the beginning of the 4th cent. He writes: “We keep the Lord’s Day as a day of joy, because of Him who rose thereon” (The Canonical Epistle, Canon XV). He concludes the testimony of the 3rd-cent. Christian writers to the continued observance of Sunday as a day of Christian worship based on the resurrection of Christ and the apostolic tradition.

The history of the Christian Sunday in the Medieval Church

The Early Medieval Period, A.D. 321-590.

In 321 the Rom. Emperor Constantine issued an edict that introduced a new era in the history of the Christian Sunday. Before this time Sunday had been observed by Christians as a day of worship, and, to some extent, also as a day of rest. It now became an officially recognized and prescribed day of rest. The edict permitted people living in the country to “attend to agriculture,” but commanded that “all judges, city-people and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun” (H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 26).

Christian writings.

Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, argued in his Church History that the decision to celebrate Easter on Sunday was based on apostolic tradition (Bk. V, ch. 23). He extolled Constantine for his pious observance of the Lord’s day and states that the emperor’s appointment of Sunday as a day of rest for all his subjects was “to lead all mankind to the worship of God” (Life of Constantine, Bk. IV, ch. 18). Although Eusebius does not base the observance of Sunday on the sabbath commandment, he does draw an analogy between the Lord’s day and the Heb. sabbath (Commentary on the 91st [92nd] Psalm).

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria at the same time as Eusebius, applies the words of Psalm 118:24, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” to the Lord’s day (J. A. Hessey, Sunday, p. 69). In another work he declares that the sabbath, the end of the old creation, has deceased, and the Lord’s day, the commencement of the new creation, has set in (The Sabbath and Circumcision, quoted in Hessey, Sunday, pp. 68, 69).

Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, Cyprus, in the latter half of the 4th cent. contrasts the sabbath of the law with “the Great Sabbath,” which is Christ Himself (Against Heresies, Bk. XXX, ch. 32). He asserts that the Lord’s day, and the observance of Wednesday and Friday as fast days, were established by the apostles (Expos. Fid. Cathol., ch. 22).

Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, speak of both the Heb. sabbath and the Christian Sunday as allegorical of rest from sin. Gregory calls them “sister days” (De Castig. quoted in Hessey, Sunday, p. 72). Ambrose prohibited fasting on the Lord’s day (Epistles, XXIII quoted in William B. Trevelyan, Sunday, p. 26).

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, writing at the close of the 4th cent., condemns the practice of the Manicheans of fasting on the Lord’s day (Ep. 36, To Casulanus, ch. 11). In another epistle he distinguishes between the Jewish sabbath and the Christian Sunday, but sees them both as typical days, the sabbath of the repose of the dead, and Sunday of the resurrection of the dead (Ep. 55, chs. 12, 13). Similarly, Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, warns Christians against sabbatizing with the Jews (Commentary on I Cor., Homily 43), but maintains that Christian as well as Jewish ordinances have a spiritual interpretation (Commentary on Matt, Homily 39).

Jerome, at the beginning of the 5th cent. describes the activities of certain Egyp. Christians on Sunday: “Every Lord’s day they spend their whole time in prayer and reading” (Letter 22). Paula and her companions, however, are described as follows: “On the Lord’s day only they proceeded to the church beside which they lived, each company following its own mother-superior. Returning home in the same order, they then devoted themselves to their allotted tasks, and made garments either for themselves or else for others” (Letter 108).

The Apostolic Constitutions, a manual of church order written about this time, provides valuable information concerning the status of Sunday observance at the beginning of the 5th cent. After giving directions concerning daily worship, it enjoins Christians: “And on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent him to us, and condescended to let him suffer, and raised him from the dead” (Bk. II, sec. 7, par. 59). Fasting and labor were forbidden on both the sabbath and Sunday (Bk. V, sec. 3, par. 20; Bk. VIII, sec. 4, par. 33). Sunday has begun to be associated with other Christian festivals and with the Jewish sabbath, which is observed in a similar way; and Sunday observance is now being enforced by ecclesiastical rules.

Church councils and legislation.

During the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries a number of church councils and imperial laws sought to enforce the proper observance of Sunday. The Council of Nicea, a.d. 325, passed a canon to make uniform the custom of standing for prayer on the Lord’s day (20th Canon). The Council of Gangra, around 350, condemned fasting on the Lord’s day and those who despised the House of God and frequented schismatic assemblies. The Council of Laodicea, a.d. 363, commands Christians not to observe Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, but Sunday as the day of rest. In 368, Theodosius the Great made an edict, repeating Constantine’s permission of the manumission of slaves on Sunday and prohibiting trials before arbitrators, so that the sacred rites of religion should not be violated “on the day of the Sun, which our fathers rightly named the Lord’s day” (quoted by Hessey, Sunday, p. 84).

The Fourth Council of Carthage, a.d. 436, threatened excommunication for anyone who left church during the preaching, forbade fasting on the Lord’s day, and discouraged attendance at the Games or the Public Circus on Sunday (Hessey, Sunday, p. 82). In 425, Theodosius the Younger had passed a law forbidding all games on Sunday and on other church festivals; in 469, another law was passed, forbidding the celebration of the games on Sunday even if that was the emperor’s birthday (Hessey, Sunday, pp. 83, 84). In 538, the Third Council of Orleans forbade all agricultural work on Sunday, but condemned the practice of abstinence from journeys or of preparing meals as Judaistic (Trevelyan, Sunday, p. 46). The Second Council of Macon in 585, however, prohibited work and commanded worship on Sunday on the authority of the OT sabbath regulations (Hessey, Sunday, pp. 87, 88).

During the period between Constantine and Gregory the Great, Sunday became a legalized day of rest, enforced by ecclesiastical and secular law; worship on the Lord’s day was enjoined by church councils and imperial edicts; a number of other festivals came to be observed; and Sunday came to be less sharply distinguished from the Heb. sabbath.

The Later Medieval Period, A.D. 590-1517

Christian writings.

Among Christian writers during this period, the observance of Sunday gradually came to be based on the OT sabbath commandments. As Christianity became more and more legalistic, it became quite natural for Christians to justify their legalism from the OT laws. So it was that, as Paul Cotton observes, “the Christian Sunday became a fixed and established institution with all the authority of the Roman government and the Hebrew Scriptures behind it” (From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 155).

Gregory the Great, who became Bishop of Rome in 590, wrote in most emphatic language against sabbatarianism, which he called a doctrine of Antichrist (Epistles, Bk. XI, Ep. 3). Similarly, Theodulphus, Bishop of Orleans in the 8th cent., pled for the observance of Sunday in accordance with its character as a day of Christian worship, not on the grounds of the Heb. sabbath law (Hessey, Sunday, p. 93).

The pleas of such men went unheeded. Alcuin, at the close of the 8th cent., based the observance of Sunday on the same foundation as the observance of the Heb. sabbath. He asserts: “Christian custom has transferred the observance of the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day” (Homily 18, post Pentec.). Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th cent., grounded both the Lord’s day and other holy days on the fourth commandment (Hessey, Sunday, pp. 89, 90). Peter Alphonsus, in the same cent., was the first to use the term, “Christian Sabbath” of the Lord’s day (Hessey, Sunday, p. 90).

Thomas Aquinas in the 13th cent. was the first to apply the distinctions of moral and ceremonial law to the observance of Sunday. He distinguished in the fourth commandment the moral element of an obligatory stated worship of God from the ceremonial element of the seventh day, and said: “The observance of Sunday under the new law follows the keeping of the Sabbath, not in consequence of a legal precept, but from the decision of the Church and the custom of Christians” (S. E. Warren, The Sunday Question, p. 109), Tostatus, Bishop of Avila, in the 14th cent. laid down a whole series of ordinances based on the regulations concerning the manna in Exodus 16:31-35, including prohibitions against hiring a musician, cooking a feast, washing dishes, traveling to places other than a shrine, or working for profit on the Lord’s day (Hessey, Sunday, 91, 92).

Church councils and legislation.

Both church councils and secular rulers imposed restrictions on the observance of Sunday similar to those imposed on the observance of the Jewish sabbath. The Council of Clovishoff, held in England in 747, forbade traveling on the Lord’s day (Hessey, Sunday, p. 89). The Constitutions of Egbert in 749 forbade all work on Sunday under severe penalties (Hessey, Sunday, p. 89). In France, Charlemagne promulgated a decree in 789 which prohibited all ordinary labor on Sunday as a breach of the fourth commandment (Charles Huestis, Sunday in the Making, p. 115). The exemption granted by Constantine to agricultural labor was repealed by the Emperor Leo Philosophus in 910, but he based his prohibition, not on the fourth commandment, but on apostolic appointment of Sunday (Hessey, Sunday, p. 94). The Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 14th cent., ordered “abstinence from secular works...on the sacred day of the Lord,” but warned the people not to meet before Saturday evening for fear that they “partake in the Jewish profession” (Hessey, Sunday, p. 94).

There developed in the later medieval period an ecclesiastical sabbatarianism. Sunday became known as the Christian sabbath; its observance was grounded on the fourth commandment or on the canons of the church; and its observance was enforced by severe ecclesiastical and secular restrictions. Other holy days with similar restrictions were imposed on the people, with the result that neither they nor the Lord’s day were observed as days of worship, but rather deteriorated into mere holidays devoted to idleness and dissipation (S. E. Warren, The Sunday Question, p. 121).

The history of the Christian Sunday in the Modern Church

The Reformation Period, A.D. 1517-1648

The teachings of the Reformers.

Luther maintained that the believer in Christ was not subject to laws or ceremonies; for the believer all time was holy, so there was no need of festivals such as Sunday or the sabbath. He realized, however, the benefits to be derived from a weekly day of rest and worship. In the Larger Catechism, he taught that the working classes needed a weekly day of rest so that there might be time for worship, but he insists that “no day is better or more excellent than another.” In his Table Talk, he speaks out against making Sunday observance rest on a Jewish foundation: “If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day’s sake—if anywhere anyone sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty.”

Zwingli shared Luther’s view that the worship of God should not be tied down to any one day. He wrote: “If we would have the Lord’s day so confined to a certain time, that it shall be thought wicked to transfer it to another time...this day, so scrupulously limited to a certain day, would impose on us a ceremony. For we are in no way bound to time, but time ought so to serve us, as to make it lawful, and permitted to each church, when necessity urges...to transfer the solemnity and rest of the Lord’s day or sabbath to some other day” (S. E. Warren, The Sunday Question, pp. 124, 125).

Calvin regarded the Heb. sabbath as typical of the entire rest and peace granted to Christians under the Gospel. It was a part of the “shadow of things to come” (Col 2:17 KJV) fulfilled in Christ, who is the body, the whole essence of the truth. He concludes: “This is not contented with one day, but requires the whole course of our lives, until being completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. II, ch. 8). Calvin, however, saw the advisability of setting apart one day in seven as a day for Christian worship, but treats the observance of Sunday as a matter of expediency, and not an adherence to a shadowy ceremony.

John Knox agreed substantially with the opinions of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin regarding the observance of Sunday. He did, however, advocate a greater strictness in keeping Sunday as a day of worship (Book of Discipline). All of the Reformers insisted that Sunday observance should not be based on the OT sabbath commandment or in any way connected with the Heb. sabbath. The observance of Sunday was to be maintained as a matter of expediency, for it afforded rest for the body and an opportunity for united worship of God, esp. in view of the fact that the day had been previously chosen for these purposes.

Creedal statements.

The creedal statements produced in the post-reformation period are significant, for they represent not simply the opinions of individual men, but the views of various groups with respect to the nature and obligation of Sunday observance.

The Confession of Augsburg, produced by Luther and Melancthon in 1530, says in part: “For they that think that the observation [sic] of the Lord’s Day was appointed by the authority of the Church, instead of the Sabbath, as necessary, are greatly deceived. The Scripture...has abrogated the Sabbath. And yet, because it was requisite to appoint a certain day that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears that the Church did for that purpose appoint the Lord’s day” (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III, p. 69).

The second Helvetic Confession, prepared by Henry Bullinger and edited by Theodore Beza in 1566, was a formulation of the faith of the Reformed churches in Switzerland. In an article relating to the observance of Sunday, it reads: “Although religion be not tied unto time, yet can it not be planted and exercised without a due dividing and allotting out of time. Every church, therefore, does choose unto itself a certain time for public prayers, and for the preaching of the Gospel, and for the celebration of the sacraments. In regard hereof, we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was consecrated to religious exercises and to a holy rest; which also is now very well observed by our churches” (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III, p. 899).

In an entirely different vein, the Westminster Confession of 1643 states: “As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, He hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto Him; which, from the beginning of the world to the Resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and from the Resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath” (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III, pp. 658, 659).

Puritanism.

The Westminster Confession was the product of English Puritanism, which arose in England in the 17th cent. as a protest against the polity and practices of the Church of England that the Puritans regarded as contrary to Scripture. Since they held that only what was specifically commanded in Scripture should be believed or practiced, and since they did not find any command in the NT to observe the Lord’s day, they boldly identified it with the sabbath of the fourth commandment and enforced its observance with all the rigor of the ancient Heb. sabbath (H. R. Gamble, Sunday and the Sabbath, pp. 121, 122). A book entitled The True Doctrine of the Sabbath, written by Nicholas Bownd in 1595, was very influential in promulgating the Puritan doctrine of sabbatarianism. He not only based the observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment which he regarded as moral and perpetual, but he set forth specific prohibitions of various kinds of labor on the Lord’s day.

The Puritan teachings affected other countries besides England. They were accepted by the Church and the Parliament of Scotland. They were introduced into Holland and became a part of the Synod of Dort held in Holland in 1618. Finally, the Puritans brought their Christian Sabbath to America, where it became the prevailing view for centuries.

The Modern Period, A.D. 1648 to the Present

Sunday on the continent of Europe.

Even though the Synod of Dort had adopted the view of the Puritans that Sunday was the Christian Sabbath, and persons such as Mosheim advocated the view that Sunday was an institution entirely distinct from the Sabbath and that it had been founded by the apostles of Christ under divine guidance, these views were never widely accepted on the continent of Europe. The view that prevailed was a purely ecclesiastical one, that is, that the observance of Sunday was based solely on the authority of the Church. E. W. Hengstenberg, for example, maintained that the Sabbath was a Jewish institution that had been abrogated by Christ. The sabbath may have suggested Sunday as a weekly day of worship. Sunday, however, was not instituted by Christ or by His apostles; it arose simply from the spontaneous feeling of the Early Church, guided by the Holy Spirit (Hessey, Sunday, pp. 181-183).

The practical result of such a subjective view of the basis of obligation to observe Sunday was a widespread desecration of the Lord’s day on the continent of Europe. The teachings of the Reformers regarding Christian liberty, in spite of their exhortations to keep the day as a day of worship, led in many cases to antinomianism in practice as well as in principle. For a brief time at the close of the 18th cent., France abolished Sunday as a weekly day of rest. In other places Sunday was treated much like any other day. For the most part this condition has prevailed to the present time.

Sunday in England and Scotland.

Due to the teachings of the Puritans in these countries, a fuller consideration of the subject of Sunday observance took place, which resulted in a more wholesome and Christian observance of the day, esp. during the 17th and the early part of the 18th centuries. After a period of spiritual and moral decline in the first half of the 18th cent., the Evangelical Revival under Wesley and Whitfield brought about a better observance of the Lord’s day. During the cent. following the Evangelical Revival, sabbatarian and ecclesiastical views of Sunday observance vied with each other. Bishop Hessey’s monumental work in the middle of the 19th cent. was an attempt to reconcile these two opposing views by basing the observance of the Lord’s day neither on the authority of the OT sabbath command nor on the authority of the Church, but on the authority of Christ and the teaching and practice of the apostles. In spite of such efforts to recover a proper observance of the day, there has been a manifest decline in church attendance and in any spiritual observance of the day during the present cent.

Nearly the same state of affairs has been characteristic of Scotland, where for more than two centuries the Christian Sabbath of the Puritans was taught and enforced with a great deal of rigor. By the beginning of the present cent. a widespread reaction set in to these Puritan teachings and practices.

Sunday in the United States.

The Puritans who came to America established their Christian sabbath as an integral part of their social and religious life. To insure the due observance of their sacred day, they enacted laws, which came to be known as “Blue Laws,” laws even stricter than those formulated by the ancient Jews to enforce the observance of their sabbath. Beginning at sundown on Saturday evening, all forms of work or recreation were strictly forbidden under pain of severe penalties. Although to many, such restrictions were altogether too strict, to those who gladly accepted them, the sabbath must have been a welcome respite. As Alice M. Earle expresses it, “Sweet to the Pilgrims and to their descendants was the hush of their calm Saturday night, and their still, tranquil Sabbath—sign and token to them, not only of the weekly rest ordained in the creation, but of the eternal rest to come. The universal quiet and peace of the community showed the primitive instinct of a pure, simple devotion, the sincere religion which knew no compromise in spiritual things, no half-way obedience to God’s Word, but rest absolutely on the Lord’s Day—as was commanded. No work, no play, no idle strolling was known; no sign of human life or motion was seen except the necessary care of the patient cattle and other dumb beasts, the orderly and quiet going to and from the meeting, and at the nooning, a visit to the churchyard to stand by the side of the silent dead. This absolute obedience to the letter, as well as to the spirit of God’s Word, was one of the most typical traits of the character of the Puritans, and appeared to them to be one of the most vital points of their religion” (Alice M. Earle, The Sabbath in Puritan New England, p. 258).

The influence of Puritanism on American religious life cannot be overemphasized. The Christian sabbath of the Puritans, so much a part of their religious life, worked itself into the hearts and minds of the American people, and became a standard of the ideal Sunday of America for many generations. Beginning in the 19th cent., however, a marked reaction set in to the strict Sunday of the Puritans, esp. to the laws that had been enacted to enforce its observance. This natural and inevitable reaction was augmented by the importation to America of the Continental Sunday. Crafts and Waffle, both writing in 1885, decry the growing desecration of the Lord’s day at that time. A report made in 1917 to the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ noted that while Sunday was being observed as a day of rest, its observance as a day of worship was declining (Christian Cooperation and World Redemption, p. 149). In 1933, D. H. Martin wrote: “America faces the peril of losing the Christian Sabbath. The holy day of our fathers is fast becoming a day for secular business and amusements, and little is being done to save it” (The Day: A Manual on the Christian Sabbath, Preface).

In spite of the efforts of individuals such as D. H. Martin, and of organizations such as the Lord’s Day Alliance, to promote the due observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship, the reaction to the strict observance of Sunday so characteristic of the Puritans has continued, and the observance of the day has continued to become more lax. This neglect of Sunday observance may be correlated with a general decline in spiritual matters. Although in recent years a renewed interest in spiritual things has been manifest, there does not seem to be any stricter observance of the Lord’s Day. Sunday has, rather, become a day of business and recreation, with only an hour or two in the morning set aside for worship, and that only by devout Christians.

Conclusion

Many different views have been held regarding the nature of the Lord’s day and the Christian’s obligation to observe it. These may be comprehended under three general classifications: sabbatarian, ecclesiastical, and antinomian.

The sabbatarian view holds Sunday to be a Christian sabbath and its observance to be based on the fourth commandment of the Decalogue. Its proponents maintain that it is not the seventh day that is important in the sabbath command, but the principle of one day in seven. Otherwise, the command is held to be moral and binding on all people. To be consistent, others have insisted that, if this command is binding on all people in all ages, then the seventh day should be observed. This is the view of Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh-day Baptists.

The purely ecclesiastical view holds that the Christian is to observe Sunday solely on the authority of the Church. A modified ecclesiastical view is that Sunday was established by Christ through His apostles. They point to the NT references to the practice of observing the Lord’s day as a weekly day of worship in the Early Church.

The Reformers and modern dispensation-alists have insisted that the Christian is not under obligation to observe any day, but for expediency it is good to observe the day.

The Biblical view seems to incorporate some of each of these views. Christianity did have its roots in Judaism. It was, therefore, to be expected that Sunday would borrow many of its features from the Heb. sabbath. The divine institution of the sabbath at the close of creation indicates man’s need for a weekly day of rest. The fourth commandment was given specifically to Israel and applies in the strictest sense only to her. It does, however, contain principles that are moral and eternal. It recognizes the duty of man to worship his Creator, for which stated times for worship are needed. Jesus regarded the sabbath as a provision for man’s need and not as a burdensome legal requirement. Neither He nor His apostles even enjoin the sabbath on their followers. Paul clearly indicates that the sabbath was part of the old covenant that was done away in Christ. There is not the slightest hint that Christ or the apostles changed the sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week.

The NT shows that the first day of the week was made esp. significant by the resurrection of Christ and His appearances to His disciples on that day. Other NT references to the first day of the week indicate that it was observed as a day of Christian worship in NT times. References in the writings of the Early Church Fathers show its continued observance as a day of worship in the centuries following the NT age. Only gradually did it also become a day of rest, and this not before the 4th Christian cent.

No specific command is given in the Bible to observe Sunday as a day of rest and worship. While ideally the Christian should observe every day as holy, and should need nothing except expediency and love to lead him to worship God, antinomian views have failed to motivate most people to observe regular times for worship. This writer believes that a true devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ will lead a Christian to observe the Lord’s day as a day when he turns from his ordinary weekday activities to worship the Lord in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and to engage in Christian service for His Lord.

Bibliography

W. Thorn, Eight Lectures on the Christian Sabbath (1823); F. Denison, The Sabbath Institution Traced and Defended in its History and Changes (1855); W. Milligan, The Decalogue and the Lord’s Day (1866); W. C. Wood, Sabbath Essays (1880); R. L. Dabney, The Christian Sabbath (1882); M. Fuller, The Lord’s Day or Christian Sunday (1883); G. S. Gray, Eight Studies of the Lord’s Day (1884); W. F. Crafts, The Sabbath for Man (1885); W. W. Everts, The Sabbath: Its Permanence, Promise and Defence (1885); A. E. Waffle, The Lord’s Day: Its Universal and Perpetual Obligation (1885); J. A. Hessey, Sunday: Its Origin, History, and Present Obligation (1889); S. E. Warren, The Sunday Question (1890); A. M. Earle, The Sabbath in Puritan New England (1893); W. D. Love, Sabbath and Sunday (1896); W. Fredrick, Three Prophetic Days (1900); S. W. Gamble, Sunday, the True Sabbath of God (1900); J. D. Parker, The Sabbath Transferred (1900); H. R. Gamble, Sunday and the Sabbath (1901); W. B. Trevelyan, Sunday (1902); R. J. Floody, Scientific Basis of Sabbath and Sunday (1906); W. B. Dana, A Day for Rest and Worship (1911); W. W. Mead, The Modern Outcry against the Law (1914); A. A. Hodge, The Day Changed and the Sabbath Preserved (1916); C. S. MacFarland, Christian Cooperation and World Redemption (1917); United Lutheran Church, The Sunday Problem (1923); C. H. Huestis, Sunday in the Making (1929); P. Cotton, From Sabbath to Sunday (1933); R. H. Martin, The Day (1933); V. J. Kelly, Forbidden Sunday and Feastday Occupations (1943); A. E. J. Rawlinson, The World’s Question and the Christian Answer (1944); W. Rordorf, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (1968).