What Is the Christian Sabbath?

The Lord’s Day View

According to Lord’s Day adherents, Christians are not obligated to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath. But, this view further asserts, because His resurrection occurred on the first day of the week, Jesus instituted a new day, the Lord’s Day. The evidence used to support this view contains many of the same Scriptures used to support Sunday as a Sabbath.

Central to this theory is Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Sunday. Adherents to the Lord’s Day view say that by His resurrection, Jesus instituted a new day that the church should observe. Yes, Romans 14 indicates that we are certainly free to keep a day, such as Sunday, unto the Lord. But the Bible never states that Jesus actually instituted such a day. There is no more reason to assume that Jesus instituted a new day called the Lord’s Day with His resurrection than there is to assume that He changed the Sabbath day with His resurrection. It is not stated, and it is not logically implied.

Revelation 1:10 is often cited as evidence for the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet.” Many scholars have debated the meaning of “the Lord’s day” in this verse. Does it refer to Sunday, the first day of the week? It is true that in post-apostolic Christian writings, “the Lord’s Day” is unmistakably used as the name of the first day of the week. The earliest of these writings seems to be the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (which was not really written by the apostle Peter), which dates to about A.D. 150. But does this mean that “the Lord’s day” in Revelation 1:10 also means the first day of the week, or Sunday?

An important principle of biblical exegesis reveals that it does not. This principle is that the Bible interprets itself. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that equates “the Lord’s day” with Sunday, the first day of the week, or any day of the week. The closest words in the Bible to “the Lord’s day” are “the day of the Lord.” This exact phrase is found twenty-two times in the Old Testament and four times in the New. “The day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8) and “the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6) are similar. These references concern a period of time, but not a day of the week. In fact, it is this time period that the book of Revelation is about. Thus, it makes perfect sense for John to say that he was in the spirit, in vision, on the day of the Lord (the Lord’s day) when he heard behind him a great voice that sounded like a trumpet (compare Joel 2:1–2). In other words, John was describing the period that his vision was about. He was not describing the day of the week on which he received the vision.

And what should we make of the fact that the post-apostolic church called Sunday the Lord’s Day? Is this not evidence that supports the Lord’s Day view? No, it is not, because it is not biblical evidence. The evidence dates to a time after the Bible was written. Therefore, we cannot use it as a rule for doctrine or practice. Certainly, the church may have begun keeping Sunday as the Lord’s Day in commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection. But it did so of its own choice, not by any biblical command or by any valid deduction that could be made from the Bible that it ought to keep such a day.

But what of the Scriptures in John that show Jesus appearing to the disciples on the first day of the week? Do these Scriptures mean that Jesus was establishing the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day? Suppose the President of the United States signed into law on a Wednesday a bill that abolished the federal income tax. He then gave a speech later that day, and he gave another speech the following Wednesday. Must we conclude from this that the President wanted every Wednesday to be kept as a national holiday? Of course not. We would know that, since he is the President, if he wanted Wednesday kept as a holiday, he would declare Wednesday to be a holiday. Likewise, if Jesus was instituting Sunday as a day we must keep, why didn’t He say so? Jesus’ appearance on the first day of the week in John 20:19 and 26 can in no way logically imply that He wants the first day of the week to be kept as a special day.

Acts 20:7 says that the disciples came together to break bread on the first day of the week. Some people take this as evidence that the apostolic church kept Sunday. But another Scripture in Acts says they met daily: “And they [the church] continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers…. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:42 and 46). It should be obvious that there can be no reason to single out the first day of the week in Acts 20:7 when Acts 2:46 says they were doing the same thing every day.

The events on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 are sometimes used to say that God was putting His stamp of approval on Sunday. Pentecost was an annual feast of the Jews. Because of the way it was reckoned (see Leviticus 23:15–16), Pentecost (which means “fiftieth”) always fell on the first day of the week. Pentecost was the fiftieth day from the day after the Sabbath (in other words, the Sunday) that fell during the feast of Unleavened Bread. On that Sunday during the feast of Unleavened Bread, a sheaf of barley was cut from the field, threshed, parched over a fire, ground, and then presented before the Lord in the temple as the “wave sheaf.” All of this was a type of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead on the Sunday during the feast of Unleavened Bread and presented Himself to the Father. Fifty days later, the Jews observed Pentecost by waving before the Lord two loaves that specifically had to be baked with leaven (Leviticus 23:15–17). Leviticus 23:17 says, “they are the firstfruits unto the Lord.” These two loaves represent the firstfruits of the church. (Since leaven was typical of sin, false doctrine, and corrupt practices [Matthew 16:6, 12; Mark 8:15; 1 Corinthians 5:2, 6–8; Galatians 5:4–9], we see that these two loaves did not represent Christ, who was sinless [2 Corinthians 5:21].) In Acts 2, we see that on that Pentecost, Jews from many parts of the world became the firstfruits of the church, and this cosmopolitan aspect was a type of what was yet to come when Gentiles were added to the church. God began the New Testament church on Pentecost because He had planned Pentecost from its inception as an Old Covenant picture of the day we read of in Acts 2. Nothing in Acts 2 tells us to keep Sunday as the Lord’s Day.

Some think 1 Corinthians 16:1–2 describes a collection to be taken up during a Sunday church service. But this is an assumption that is not supported by the evidence. This was not a weekly offering collected during church services, but a special collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem. Paul does not say to bring an offering to church on the first day of the week. He says that on the first day of the week, each person is to “lay by him in store.” Clearly, the setting aside of this gift of charity for the Jerusalem saints was to take place in each individual’s house. The Revised English Bible renders verse 2: “Every Sunday each of you is to put aside and keep by him whatever he can afford, so that there need be no collecting when I come.”

Why did Paul choose the first day of the week? While some say that this was because it was a day of public worship, this is only conjecture. We simply do not know. We might suggest that it was to make it a priority in their week’s duties.

So, while the resurrected Jesus appeared to His disciples on the first day of the week, He appeared to them on other days as well (John 21; 1 Corinthians 15:6–8). And, while there is an account of an occasion when the disciples met on the first day of the week, the Bible says they met daily. The bottom line is that nowhere does the Bible say the church is to observe Sunday or any other day as the particular day of worship or as the Lord’s Day. This is despite the fact that the Old Testament clearly defines the days Israel was to observe. If there are days Christians are to observe, why doesn’t the New Testament clearly define them? We must conclude that the observing of Sunday as the Lord’s Day originated not by the command of the Bible but by the will of the people in post-apostolic times.

What Revelation 1:10, Acts 20:7, and 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 show is how easily we can fall into the error of reading into the Bible something from our own culture. Today, most Christians keep Sunday as either a Lord’s Day or a Sabbath. So, when they read one of these Scriptures, they say, Aha, this is about keeping Sunday. But they have really just read their preconceived idea of Sunday-keeping into the Bible. A careful examination of these passages reveals that they have absolutely nothing to do with keeping Sunday (or any day).

Copyright © 2007-2009 Peter Ditzel